How does a neighbourhood that is intersected by a number of arterial roads tie itself together to create a livable, walkable community? Are arterials just a necessary evil that have to be tolerated, as is, or are there adaptations that can allow for real communities to flourish along them?
Those were some of the questions raised when The Places Project visited Burnside Gorge neighbourhood in Victoria, BC, Canada for a walkability exploration this spring.
By definition, arterials are blood vessels that carry blood away from the heart. Of course, in an urban planning and transportation context, arterials are roads that typically carry a large capacity of vehicles, collecting traffic from smaller neighbourhood streets and providing a route between neighbourhoods or to and from highways.
When the Burnside Gorge Community Association invited The Places Project to host a walkability exploration, the role of arterials was a primary issue. The community’s response to the draft City of Victoria Official Community Plan makes a number of references to the disruption and challenges of Greater Victoria arterials that slice through the neighbourhood. For more on Victoria’s Official Community Plan as it applies to Burnside Gorge, check Map 19 on the plan’s website.
The best starting point for questions like those posed in Burnside Gorge is in simple observation and experience. Do we really understand what is happening at the street level? Because if we are going to find solutions, we must start from a clear understanding of what is going on now.
A great way to enhance our understanding is to walk the routes that neighbourhood people walk regularly, or that they would like to walk were it not for barriers and real dangers.
So we set off on a recent Saturday with a group that included community residents, interested urbanists from Greater Victoria, a Victoria City Councillor and a couple architects. Along the way, we noted how helpful marked crossings, especially with a middle island and corner bulbs, are in crossing an arterial. An island mid-way across a street allows a person to do a two-stage crossing, which is particularly useful in traffic rush hour situations. (These islands are sometimes called a “refuge island” – a telling term.)
A person doesn’t have to wait for a gap in both directions of traffic. Islands are great for all of us but especially for anyone who is unsure about making the whole crossing in one dash – think of people with perception problems, with slow movement, or a bunch of little ones to shepherd across. Studies show that vehicles are also more likely to yield for pedestrians standing at a crossing with bulb-outs and/or islands than unimproved crossings.
A number of the residential streets have speed bumps to discourage short-cutting and have the ambience of comfortable community spaces.
Emerging from a residential street onto Gorge Road (arterial), we quickly noticed that there are simply not enough crossings, in the places where people want to cross in order to access community amenities. When a person is on foot, it is not reasonable to expect them to go two blocks out of their way to find a crossing point. And while pedestrians can legally cross at any traffic intersection, our walking group faced the realities of arterials when we walked along a few blocks of Gorge Road.
Here, the street is configured in four driving lanes with very narrow bike lanes on each curb. The bike lanes are so narrow as to be largely ineffective – perhaps a metre, maybe less. Standing alongside the lane as large trucks, buses and speeding cars whipped by, none of us were very enticed by the prospect of biking Gorge Road.
The stretch that we walked also has no parking. There is no grass or treed boulevard. Visually, everything is pushed back from the four traffic lanes – it is a wide open expanse. While traffic engineers working from mid-twentieth century design guidelines no doubt thought such designs were “safer” because they cleared all the sightlines for drivers, we now understand that clear sight lines communicate one thing to drivers: you can speed up. So the real effect is less safety.
While we had no radar gun with us, our sense was that most of the vehicles on the 4 lane thoroughfare were speeding – especially when they swept through the dip in Gorge Road where it crosses the Galloping Goose trail (a ravine that features a bike trail where once a rail line ran). There is evidence that reducing average speed does not significantly reduce the ‘carrying capacity’ or volume of vehicle traffic.
Cars on this kind of open expanse take full ownership of the road – no pedestrian is going to dare to cross.
In fact, a few members of our group stepped out into the bicycle lane to check its width and a car coming up in the closest lane came to a full stop, honking and gesturing at our intrusion into its space. Standing in the bike lane, we waved the car forward to indicate that we weren’t attempting to cross the street but the driver persisted in honking and gesturing. Clearly, pedestrians are a frightening exception to the rule for motorists on this kind of artery.
This is why many cities are now putting arterials on a “road diet” when they pass through residential neighbourhoods. Any attempt to create a walkable community is disrupted by the danger and intimidation of vehicles on the arterial. Having a few safe crossings at major signal-light controlled intersections is not the answer. The answer is a revised treatment for whole sections of artery, so that drivers are aware they are commuting through a neighbourhood where people are walking to school, to work, to the coffee shop, or to pick up groceries.
Here’s an example of the “rightsizing” of a similar arterial in Charlotte, NC. East Boulevard in Charlotte, which carries significantly higher vehicle volumes that Victoria’s Gorge Road, was converted from 4 and 5 lane configurations to 3 lanes with bicycle and pedestrian improvements. Note that the changes include not only allowance of greater space for sidewalks and bike lanes but the addition of the important visual cues that tell motorists that this is in fact a residential neighbourhood. Those include islands with planted vegetation and boulevard plantings that subtly let drivers know that this isn’t a race track or freeway.
Those are exactly some of the messages that can communicated by a street’s “treatment” – what happens in the spaces that are not concrete and asphalt.
In our next post, we will apply some of these concepts to another Burnside Gorge arterial – Jutland Road (which operates as an extension of the larger arterial Finlayson Road) and some new ways of looking at its short but very impactful route through the neighbourhood.