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Vancouver needs a pedestrian advocate, says SFU prof

May 8th, 2009 · 61 Comments

Just had lunch with SFU urban-studies program director Anthony Perl, who was beyond dismayed with council’s decision to opt for a one-lane bike trial Thursday. Perl says he’s now come to believe the city needs an advocate for pedestrians, as exists on Portland’s city planning staff, since they are the group that now has to take the hit to provide space for bikes. Perl points out that it’s not cyclists but, in fact, walkers who are the fastest-growing share of transportation modes in the city. That’s thanks to the city’s overall move to create a residential-heavy downtown. But, other than that and the seawall, the city has done little to improve their lives. Perl, a transportation expert, says cities improve when its leaders make decisive moves, not when they tinker with things and hope that the results will give them evidence that they can be a little bolder.

He notes that, in New York, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg decided to make the city more pedestrian friendly, he simply shut down Park Avenue from the bridge to the park every Sunday last summer. He didn’t fool around by shutting down one lane and seeing whether that went over okay. Perl also points to Ken Livingstone in London as a key figure in, as he phrases it, “putting an an end to road socialism by launching the congestion charge.”

Perl says that many studies have shown that when road space is reduced, what happens — against all intuition — is that traffic flow improves because drivers make more of an effort to search for other options, whether it’s a different driving route, a different way of transporting themselves, or different choices about where they really need to go.

Interestingly, Perl and I were sitting next to the main advocate for no bike-lane trial (or at least not an immediate one): Charles Gauthier, of the Downtown Business Vancouver Improvement Association. This is such a tiny town. No hostilities ensued and the lunch showed that we all had one thing in common: an appreciation for Italian food.

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  • gmgw

    Darcy plaintively wails:
    “Oh Stephanie. Where would we be in this discussion without you? Thank you for…elevating it so.”

    Gee, Darce, maybe you should just, ah… brush Stephanie back, as a little warning, hm? After all, she seems to be getting in your way…

  • Kathy M

    Regarding gmgw’s comments above about GPS/position tracking for buses:

    Last year my partner and I travelled for about a month in Greece, and spent a week in and around Thessaloniki, a city of about 1/2 million pop.

    The bus system all over TH was set up with tracking for ALL the buses. At any bus stop, there was a digital sign (about the size of Vancouver’s typical bus-route signs) that listed all the routes that serviced that stop. The sign displayed, updated every minute or two, how long it would be till the next one for each route that used the stop.

    It was fantastic! It meant that if you were waiting for a relatively rare bus (say every half hour) you could use whatever time you had before the next scheduled bus to walk along the route. Or–you could duck into a shop and do an errand. Or–whatever.

    The timing was extremely reliable. Presumably, if all the Vancouver buses have live tracking of where they are in their routes, the tracking signs would be all that was needed to put together the same kind of system.

    Stilll–if Van can’t even afford enough buses, I guess electronic tracking signs everywhere are out of the question 🙁

  • Mark A

    Len, my friends would get a real laugh out of the idea that I am anti car. You should see what I drive when I do drive. I absolutely freaking love my car.

    The 19 minutes comes from Google Transit, BTW. I agree that’s the fastest possible time, which is why I quoted it as the low end of a range. Duh.

    I absolutely accept the idea that transit, or the bike, or walking is not for everybody at every possible time. If you or your partner are travelling at odd times when there is poor service etc then obviously the car makes sense.

    But in that case, it seems like you guys won’t be much affected by the changes on the bridge, right?

    By all means, go ahead and paint me as some kind of hair shirted zealot if that makes you feel better – but as far as I can tell your logic is all over the map. Sadly, not a transit map.

  • Andrea C.

    Len: “Shriners these drivers are not.”

    Ha, ha…. soooo true.

    I guess part of my shock was seeing all of those buses roll along downtown and not actually hit each other/anything else.

    The trouble is (to this reluctant full-time transit user) that the service we have now is way too infrequent and never on time. And they still hit each other occasionally.

  • Len B


    As I said, I have many reasons for the bridge to remain as is. If you’d like to think I’m all over the map, thats fine. Your comment to me was viewed as judgemental, and if that was wrong, I’ll apologize.

    This debate has ebbs and flows and can seem to get off-track. Just like people’s lives are not black and white, so is this issue with the bridge.

  • I.M.

    First off, I think people are digressing on this posting from the discussion of a pedestrian advocate. Secondly, I think people have misunderstood the term “pedestrian advocate” as used by Anthony Perl. He is not talking about another pedestrian activist like Bev Ballantyne (who does great work and I mean no disrespect to her or any other pedestrian activists out there – I am after all a pedestrian first and foremost). Dr. Perl is referring to someone who works for the City and whose job it is to ensure that the pedestrian realm is constantly being improved and that new policies and projects (like the Burrard Bridge one-lane trial) do not adversely affect pedestrians. Certainly, the Burrard Bridge trials give greater priority to bikes. With a pedestrian advocate on City staff, this reversal of official priorities would be less likely to happen.

  • LP


    Your last sentence, “…With a pedestrian advocate on City staff, this reversal of official priorities would be less likely to happen…”, is wishful thinking.

    Mayor/council have gone against city staff recommendations on the Burrard Bridge, not once, but twice. They have let all city staff know there is a new sheriff/mandate in town and are doing as they please….”if you don’t like it, find another job…”

    Employing an advocate that would disagree with their position/action would just be wasting more taxpayer money with an end net-result of zero for the pedestrian.

    We already have enough experienced staff at city hall that are currently being ignored by the blunders in VV to bother hiring anymore of them.

  • Not running for mayor

    The easiest solution is to have a volunteer committee ala the te Bicycle Advisory Committee which would meet once a month to discuss what could be done to improve the pedestrian realm. They could provide one member to sit on the urban design panel as well. Would only cost the city some sandwiches and usage of a broadroom, but would benifit the city at large.

  • MB

    Darcy brought up Chris Turner’s thought-provoking article “An Inconvenient Talk” in this month’s Walrus.

    Though he interviewed retired geoscientist David Hughes extensively on peak oil, what grabbed my attention was an unplanned interview over lunch with a senior production manager from a big oil company based in Calgary. The manager approached Turner (not the other way around) because he saw the evidence too, and feared for his job, therefore he remained anonymous. To paraphrase:

    “We have only two or three years left before oil prices escalate again. The $150 a barrel we hit in 2008 was only a preclude.”

    When I look at the big picture and read Anthony Perl’s comments about a pedestrian advocate, I wonder if his comment was prescient or based on his own extensive research on the topic.

  • Don Buchanan

    MB and Darcy,

    You both mention Chris Turner’s thought-provoking article “An Inconvenient Talk” in this month’s Walrus.

    Their website does not seem to have it available to the general public. Is there a subscriber only option that you could post? If not, which month was it in?


  • Darcy McGee

    You could buy the magazine…it needs the help. June 2009, with a cover story called “Off the Rails” (written by Monte Paulsen who noted on Frances’ blog here that this was coming.)

    What can happen when you write policies that treat bikes with respect:

    I thought of this as I came across Granville today, while a motorist proceeded straight at a “right turn except for bicycles” intersection. I slapped the side of the clueless, SUV driving Shaughnessy resident. (And yes, she was speaking on a cell phone at the time.)

    Contrast this with an incident on the same ride when a car in front of me (moving in my direction) pulled over…a truck coming the other way proceeded through the only available slot. I had slowed down, but wound up beside the driver moving in my direction…I misread the situation, and didn’t realize he was pulling back into traffic (maybe he was picking someone up…who knows…anyway, bad read on my part) He started to move, saw me, stopped, gave me a friendly wave to apologize while I proceeded. I gave him a friendly wave. He then proceeded, and when beside me rolled down his passenger window and apologized. I told him no need, not your fault, I misread the situation…it was just one of those things that happens in traffic…no big deal.

    But dude rolled down his window to apologize to me.

    I’d like to give that guy a medal. Most drivers are reasonably polite, but that guy….if I ever wind up sitting at a table with him…beer’s on me (unless you’re driving.)

    Bikes are traffic, as are pedestrians. Cars need to stop acting like everything else is in second place.