Category Archives: Car-oriented environment

ON COMPLETE STREETS

The road is frequented by a variety of users – drivers, public transit vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians. However, as each of these users, there are many obstacles, which typically involve the other users getting in the way. This is most common for drivers – since the typical North American road design is oriented towards easy mobility for cars, drivers have adjusted to a culture of innate entitlement for the road. This makes it more difficult for pedestrians and cyclists to get around, less likely for people to use transit, and increases the likelihood for a collision.

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It is no longer uncommon to hear about cyclist deaths in the City – and it’s not always one person’s fault. It’s the way our streets are designed. There are definitely careless drivers, cyclists and pedestrians, that cause accidents. However, if the road was designed to cater for everyone equally, in a way that prevented anyone from feeling like they ‘own the road’, then everyone would naturally look out for each other.

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A ‘ghost bike’ commemorates the death of a fallen cyclist in a roadside accident.

There is a fairly modern transportation policy and design approach called ‘Complete Streets‘ that advocates the ‘share the road‘ mentality. The goal for the Complete Streets approach is to achieve and maintain safe, convenient and comfortable travel and access for users of all ages and abilities regardless of their mode of transportation. In many cases where the Complete Streets approach has already been implemented, the designs have proven to improve safety, health, economic and environmental outcomes.

measuring-the-street Since automobile dependence has been engrained into American city designs from the start, many regions are interested in adopting Complete Streets policies into their own Official Plans, in order to move forward in a more sustainable and safe manner through design. This is part of the reason why roundabout, public transit and bike lane funding have become such hot topics, for example.

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This rendering illustrates a person’s idea of what Yonge street could look like if it was redesigned under Complete Streets standards. Notice a few things – wider sidewalks, bike lanes, interlock pavement for drivers (the more detail in the paving, the more likely people are to slow down, reducing the likelihood of a collision), and seating.

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Complete Streets means everyone shares the road. Complete Streets means everyone gets equal respect. Complete Streets means everyone gets to where they are going safely.

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CONVENIENT OR QUICK FIX?

After hearing the news about a Costco approved to be located on the former GM site in Oshawa, Ontario, I was inspired to write something in order to look at it from a professional and factual point of view. I started off writing about my disagreement with this approval, and what could be done with the site instead. The more I wrote, the more I learned, and the more I added. And I continued writing until now – many months after full build-out. I followed the story closely and I found the whole process very interesting. Since I spent a lot of time researching big box stores to understand the positive impacts of this development to reduce my innate bias as an urban planner, I will begin by summarizing my findings regarding big box development, and then use Costco as my case-study.
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What is a big box store? In a nutshell, it is pretty self-explanatory – it’s big, and usually box-shaped. But what does that mean? Why does that matter? Why is that ‘bad’?

SmartCentres, Oshawa, Ontario

SmartCentres, Oshawa, Ontario

Big box development usually attracts and surrounds itself with other big box development. A great example of big box development is Canada’s largest developer and operator of unenclosed shopping centres – Smart Centres. Why ‘smart’? They are a full service developer and operator that focuses on bringing together big names such as Walmart and Home Depot to one location in order to provide convenience serviced by ample user (driver) friendly parking.

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There is no denying the convenience of this type of shopping. Everything you could possibly need, all in one spot. All you have to do is get in your car, find a parking spot as close to the door as possible, and hope you don’t get hit by another driver diving in for the next closest spot while you cross the clearly marked pedestrian crossing towards the entrance of the store. Ok, ok I admit – I am clearly hinting at something here. 3 words: Car oriented environment. As a well known fact, big box store development does not aim to foster a pedestrian oriented environment. This means big box stores target the driving demographic. If you are a pedestrian on your way to Best Buy good for you, but you are a minority. Even if they live on the other side of the street, most people feel uncomfortable walking to these places, and that is because they are not designed for walking,  biking, and usually transit. They provide large parking lots for drivers, and they provide everything you need because they know you can put it in your car to bring home.

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I know what you’re thinking – why does multimodal mobility matter? I’m not trying to advocate walking to Walmart. If I go to Walmart, I drive. Period. But what if Walmart was brought down to a pedestrian scale? Would you walk then? At least sometimes?

Do you dare to be this guy?

Do you dare to be this guy?

I realized that big box stores are constantly characterized by remote locations, impermeable exterior design, and vast parking lots. What would it take to bring them closer? A new design perhaps? Increased multimodal connectivity would reduce the need for 3/4 parking lot space, and stores could face the sidewalk. Same product, same convenience, but more human-friendly. Right?

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This is where Oshawa comes in. Oshawa was given a golden opportunity on a silver platter. The GM plant was demolished, and a very large brownfield opened up in the Downtown Shoulder Area (DSA). If anyone knows anything about Oshawa, they would know that it is often plagued with snarky nicknames like ‘the dirty shwa’ or ‘the shwa’, which is usually said with a demeaning or embarrassed tone. The thing is, not all of Oshawa is ‘the shwa’. ‘The shwa’ is really a name for parts of it, including downtown. Downtown Oshawa doesn’t have a great reputation – many would characterize it as dirty, sketchy, and uninviting, which is unfortunate because a lot of the City’s heritage originates from those very blocks (many murals, statues, plaques and public spaces are dedicated to commemorate its history) and because the City has been making efforts such as with the GM Centre and City Hall renovations, and integrating UOIT campus extensions into the downtown fabric.

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It seemed so much easier to grow out than adapt inward, and that is exactly what Oshawa did, making it the fastest growing City in Canada for a few years in the early 2000s. This type of sprawling growth neglected its downtown, and before we knew it people were dealing drugs on the corner of Coffee Time (people called it ‘crack time’ – probably why it eventually moved out), and there was not much left to do there to attract people from all age groups.

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The GM centre was and is a big success, but that place attracts people for small periods at a time (events). Durham College and UOIT are trying to integrate their campus into the downtown, but it is very hidden and has not made a large impact. The point is, when people want to go out and do something in Oshawa, they are more than likely not going downtown. So the gigantic space that the former GM plant opened up for the City right on the DSA really gave Oshawa an amazing opportunity to create a place that would act as a catalyst for image improvement, appearance improvement, business improvement, activity improvement, and to give people a reason to come back to the core, the true heart of the City.

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This opportunity was quickly scooped up by a membership warehouse club that provides everything you could possibly need for the cheapest price and at the best value – Costco. David Tuley, Oshawa’s Downtown Development Officer explained to me that – from his perspective, the Costco site is on the fringe of downtown and will therefore have no negative impact on existing retail, and will also act as an ‘attraction’ by bringing more people into the core as opposed to pushing them out further. “In my personal opinion, box stores are a plague upon the earth, but until we have a new retail paradigm, this is our reality,” he wrote.

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I agree with Tuley for the most part, but what I disagree with is that a new retail paradigm is already underway. Many communities around the world have adopted a higher level of architectural treatment and regulations to ensure that the big box stores relate better to their surroundings. Many regulate signage, landscaping, permeability, and facade measurements/materials. Here are just a few examples of where big box developments have been implemented in more pedestrian- cyclist- and transit-oriented ways, while also adapting designs for a new environment:

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PROS & CONS LIST FOR IMPLEMENTING COSTCO ON FORMER NORTH GM SITE IN OSHAWA:

PROS:

  • WORK: Creates jobs.
  • ENVIRONMENT: Saves periphery lands from sprawling further (it’s a great thing to develop within the urban boundary instead of using up more untouched land in the suburbs).
  • Nearby communities will travel shorter distances to access the store, reducing their carbon footprint (statistics show that enough Costco, Ajax shoppers are coming from the Oshawa area).
  • BROWNFIELD REMEDIATION: This business can afford remediating the previously industrial land.
  • DOWNTOWN EXPOSURE RIPPLE: Increased customer traffic in the Downtown Shoulder Area (DSA) might bring surrounding businesses increased revenue (many people travelling to the subject site might be influenced to spend more time in the DSA or Core Area [DCA] if they are exposed to discover places they fancy).
  • CONVENIENCE: Product is all about quality AND quantity for attractive prices.
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CONS:

  • INVASIVE: The nature of this development does not suit the character of the DSA or DCA in any way, shape or form (following in the courthouse’s steps), forcing the Downtown Area (DA) to stoop further away from any chance of regaining a sense of place.
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  • UNFRIENDLY: The nature of this development will strip the DSA of its identity, forcing it to adapt into a car-oriented environment.
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  • EYE-SORE: Two-thirds of the site will comprise of parking, and one-third will comprise of the store itself, which is going to be +/- 146, 560 SF (almost the size of 3 football fields) of two-storey high light-beige stucco and cladding shaped into a big box with 1 huge entrance (to swallow and spit out the entire population of Durham and their fridge-sized carts).
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  • DETERS MULTIMODAL CONNECTIVITY: Not only is the general appeal of the building offensive to pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders, but its design is too – its entrance faces away from the street and directly into the chaos of the heart of the parking lot. Its backside ironically faces the DCA.
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  • UNFAIR: Just like Wal-Mart tends to ruin businesses and communities, Costco has a pretty good chance of doing the exact same thing, and may even do a better job at it – the store offers unbeatable prices, selection and quality.
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  • PLAYS BY ITS OWN RULES: This development completely and utterly contradicts the City’s Downtown Action Plan, and the City is therefore taking many Costco-sized steps away from potentially achieving any of it. As everyone knows, Costcos generally all look the same, and it’s because familiarity helps from a business perspective, at the expense of adapting to their surroundings.
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  • EXCLUDER: Costco only sells to members who pay a yearly fee to shop there, and it’s only worth it if the member shops there all the time. This excludes many people from wanting to shop there on occasion or who can’t afford the membership, dividing the social fabric of communities across its target zones.
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At the end of the day, most people would agree that Costco is extremely convenient, and that having easy access to one is a great idea. However, it is unfortunate that this greed outweighs the importance of place. If Costco could consider adapting different store designs for different types of environments (anything from suburban outskirts to downtown cores) that originate from a base design in order to have a more appropriate design out of respect for its surroundings and the City that houses it, then maybe the Costco in Oshawa could have more of a positive impact. As it is now, it’s simply not working.

TO ERR IS HUMAN

“To err is human – in order to forgive we must design,” said Geni Bahar, President of Navigats Inc. Traffic Safety Consultants.

This morning I was listening to the radio and I heard a familiar sentence: “Every time I approach a cyclist I swear I am going to hit them. Cyclists think they own the road!!” I wonder what he would have thought if he saw this picture:

Lately, there has been a lot of talk about sustainability, sustainable and healthy methods of travel, multimodal travel and connectivity, cyclists, bike lanes, and rapid transit. But the talk always seems to be so negative and confrontational; We can’t afford this! We don’t want that! Get out of my way!…

The recurring theme is selfishness and disrespect. When it comes to transportation, most people are biased because their opinions originate from an unbalanced point of view – typically their own.

To solve a problem, there must first and foremost be awareness. I think that the negativity, the conflict, the selfishness, the disrespect, and consequently the case-by-case collisions and unfortunate deaths are hopefully not in vain. Rather, the world, and especially North America, is beginning to undergo a culture shift – a new status quo for how people get around and they are posing the following question: who owns the road? The answer is: no one. No one traveller “owns the road.” Because everyone must share the road. And the reason there is so much negativity right now is because change is uncomfortable, especially when we are trying to change the way everyone goes about their days in order to adopt new frameworks. Our cities are already the way that they are, and habits have historically followed infrastructure. Now, our mentality and point of view have been normalized into understanding that everyone needs a car to get around – that is simply the way it is around here. But car-oriented-development is not sustainable (by sustainable I mean every kind), and we must change our ways. This change is putting more pedestrians and cyclists on roads that are not yet designed for sharing, and that are filled with uneducated users. Drivers are beginning to get frustrated and are developing negative and incorrect views against cyclists. Not many people know this, but cyclists must legally take the lane. So the next time you’re driving down Bloor St. W in downtown Toronto (why are you driving there anyway?) and a cyclist is driving in the lane in front of you, don’t tell them to get out of the way, because believe it or not you are obliged to drive behind them until you each go your own ways. And to the cyclist – respect will only come to you if you are a respectful and educated cyclist. You’ve got to pull your weight too.

Now drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians – you are probably going to argue with me and tell me that you can’t follow the rules because no one else is going to, and if you’re the only one playing the safety game then you’re going to get hurt. I agree – until the culture shift has fully developed, every road user must take precautions by leaving room for forgiveness. By this I mean, don’t just take the lane without making sure the vehicles around you are going to let you. Of course they should let you, but drivers are still stubborn and sometimes even overly-aggressive, and you probably want to at least check and signal before making them feel like you’re trying to get in their way. And drivers – cyclists need to leave room for you too, especially since it’s a lot more difficult for you to check blindspots etc. But if they don’t, you need to check for them – the last thing you want is to be the reason another cyclist was hit, wether it was your fault or theirs. Pedestrians – I know you’re angry because no one has time to wait for you to cross the street, and so you cross the street without looking to prove a point. But what kind of point does that prove when you’re dead? Even when it can’t be more obvious that it’s your right-of-way, do me a favor and check anyway.

Drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians – follow the rules, but also learn to leave room for forgiveness.

We are currently undergoing a drastic culture shift. Changing the status quo. Taking everyone out of their comfort zone. Altering infrastructure. Updating goals and objectives in all of our plans. It’s going to be hard to become aware, to understand, and to accept any of this, and we are all going to have our differing opinions on the subject. But one day, we will learn to accept a new and more sustainable lifestyle. We will need to adopt education into our curriculum to inform future generations. Until then, don’t forget to share the road.

For more information about sharing the road, please check out this inspiring initiative founded by an inspiring woman: www.sharetheroad.ca

For more information about respect for cyclists, check out this service: http://www.respect.to/wp/

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