Friday, May 18, 2012

Exploring the Midtown, present and future

A real treat for me today (beyond the simple enjoyment of walking downtown on a sunny morning as a nice change of pace). As part of the Central Transit Corridor project, the CTC folks invited me (and many others) to spend the day studying and exploring a part of the future rapid transit corridor that they are referring to as "Midtown".

It is an area I can claim a certain familiarity with. Over the last 10 years I have lived at four addresses which bracket the area.  Its centre, and future LRT station at Grand River Hospital, has been an orbital attractor ever since iXpress started taking me to work from it in 2005. I have been up and down almost every single street on foot or bike. It is the closest thing to a home turf as I have ever had.

Today's exercise was about what it is, and what it could (or should) be. What it is at the moment, to be quite frank, is not a whole lot. The hospital is of course of major importance, and Sun Life is a big employer. A number of small medical offices are scattered around. There is fantastic (regionally speaking) transit access and new development is happening down near the future Hub and near Uptown. But there is very little supporting business.

There is an almost criminal amount of surface parking. And as loathe as I am to admit it, an ongoing need for that parking, but also opportunities to control it and provide it in built structures which may serve both hospital and Sun Life. The lot pictured in that link (edit: link has been added) is a major parcel of land buffered from residential and it could be used much more effectively. Other opportunities are the cut off, paved and otherwise wasted spaces that are inaccessible now and hidden next to Mount Hope cemetery. And the defunct Uniroyal property looms, a massive brownfield waiting to be reclaimed.

The biggest opportunity, and the mission of the CTC effort, is to see the new development done in a way that fits with what exists, maximizes the rapid transit asset, and creates vibrant neighbourhoods and quality places.

So, a bunch of planners from both cities and the region, plus a lot of motivated citizens, poured over maps all day. We tackled many issues at different levels of scale: specific visioning of the King St. corridor, examining mobility by all modes, and even coming up with ideas for Uniroyal. Throughout this effort, modelers were busy creating a scale representation of the existing buildings and possible future additions for a giant map, based on the information we provided.

The results, pictured below, are impressive. The scale models give a great sense of what the new streetscapes might look like. And, hopefully this effort will help the cities and the region identify the gaps in their plan, shape their own vision and set priorities to guide development and solve the problems we brought up.

Hopefully, I said, and hopefully I meant. The next steps are out of my hands. But there was a great amount of local knowledge connecting with the ideas and understanding of how to solve urban challenges. I hope it is not wasted.

A cautionary note about these images: while the white blocks are existing buildings, nothing about the blue ones are meant to be taken literally. Some are even facetious (like the 82-story monster that was placed below to make a point, nothing more.) This is all possibilities.

Above, the aforementioned 82-story monster. It looks ridiculous, but buildings this size exist. It hints at what can happen with unchecked development. However, the same block looks much less out of place when laid on its side next to King St. Obviously not as a contiguous unit, but the same building area can be provided in 5-6 story structures oriented towards the street, providing mixed use and more flexibility in finding parking.

The Transit Hub district takes shape. Actually, it's not a bad mock-up of the (as yet undesigned) hub! Starting digging, folks... this project is shovel-ready...

Meanwhile, planners envision the future corporate headquarters of Uhu Inc:

Below, something much closer to the final product, looking from Waterloo south... At the end of the day, the Sun Life surface parking is now a collection of uses, including a parking garage to address both Sun Life's and GRH's needs. The CKCO block has been redeveloped to the 5-6 story level at the front, and on the back townhouses front an extended Mary St.

A lot to unpack in the last image below, from Kitchener looking north. Most obvious, the hub-- becoming the point of greatest mobility in the region, and possibly anywhere in Ontario west of Toronto-- has attracted a lot of attention. Further west, the old factory building at Uniroyal stands proud with new development next to it, and Belmont Village has grown up a little. New roads and trails line the CN corridor, and on the east side, connect Green to Pine, allowing reclamation of cut-off space next to Mount Hope cemetery.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Just give bikes some space

On Saturday, the Record published Jeff Outhit's latest column, in which he turns a reasonable statement ("bicycles need their own space") into a wedge to argue how bikes don't belong on the road at all. It is a breathtaking exercise in short-sightedness and black-and-white thinking, and it deserves a rebuttal.

First, let's start with his stated assumptions:
My sense is people ride bicycles for fun and exercise. Often they choose trails or quiet streets where they do not have to contend with traffic.
Politicians want us to use bicycles differently, to ride them to work and to run errands. 
Jeff is being very selective about his facts: People ride bicycles for fun and exercise, and also to get from place to place. Politicians want us to use bikes to get to work and to run errands (something called Utility Cycling) but are they really the only ones?

If politicians wanted us to, say, wear bicycles as hats, we could chuckle and say that people will never wear bicycles as hats because they don't want to. It's a perverse and unnatural thing to do with bicycles.

This is the implication from Outhit when he creates a false dichotomy between some of the reasons people bicycle and some of the goals of government. He sets them at odds against each other to establish a position that people bicycling to work (or perish the thought, to run errands) is some sort of unnatural thing that only weirdo bicycle-hat wearers would do, as opposed to what actually happens when you build cycling infrastructure that takes people where they need to go.

I think it would be a lot more interesting to find out how many people would like to bike to work or for errands, and ask them why they don't. That may tell us something useful. But we're not actually looking for facts here, we are busy constructing pillars for Outhit's argument.

I can think of several reasons why residents are unlikely to embrace this kind of cycling. Weather and suburban form work against it. Also, some people feel unsafe cycling on busier or faster streets that are best-suited for commuting and errands.

"Weather and suburban form" are trivially rebutted in one word: Minneapolis.

No, it's the last sentence that's the meat here. Some people feel unsafe cycling on busier or faster streets that are best suited for commuting and errands. ("By car" is implicit here. A sly reinforcement of that false dichotomy we just talked about.)

Because these streets are designed to be bike-unfriendly, people don't want to use them on bikes. Since they are also the roads that actually go where we need to (as opposed to the cul-de-sac mazes and the toy trails that connect to nothing) we have some people who are unwilling to take their bike for errands or commuting when they might have otherwise.

And because of this, we shouldn't bother improving those streets to be at least somewhat bicycle friendly. Because some people might actually start to bike on them, and be in danger, and lots of other people still wouldn't, or would bike on the sidewalks. So... bicycles need separate space.

I agree with the statement but not the argument. Also, once again, Outhit has taken a very narrow viewpoint that because bicycles need separate space and roads are dangerous, bikes don't need space on the road.

And this is where he's got it all wrong. Bikes need separate space, and bikes need shared space too. In fact, bikes just need space.

Firstly: if people are going to bike commute or run errands, bicycles need to be able to reach where people need to go. It's basically impossible to build a separate trail network that's as dense as our major road network in our lifetime. And we have to contend with some major barriers, like the expressway, where arterial roads are the only crossing points.

People have different comfort zones, but there are a lot of potential trips out there that could already be made mostly by trail, but aren't taken because it requires crossing a gap through some staggeringly unfriendly and dangerous terrain. Fill those gaps with something reasonable-- even if it's a "cheap fix" like a bike lane-- and these trips gradually come into more people's reach.

For example: I don't think of Fischer-Hallmann as "fun cycling", but the presence of bike lanes on it allow me to use it for a kilometre where nothing else will do. The other 90% of my route is a lot more relaxed and makes up for it. On the other hand, the expressway crossing is still a man-eater, and on its own is often enough to turn me off.

Secondly: the best thing for bicycle safety is more bicycles on the road, not less. Shown over and over again, and clearly visible in that Minneapolis link, is how more cyclists on the road decreases accident rates per cyclist. Once people get used to the presence of bicycles, they're less likely to have an accident with one.

As the number of bicycles increases, so too does the attractiveness of bicycling infrastructure as an investment. More bikes on the road will, ironically, make it easier for us to build a rich separate cycling network! And in the meantime, we get the traffic, health and environmental benefits from shifting these trips away from cars, blah blah blah, you've heard it all before.

The number one thing in the way of most potential cyclists and their destination is our roads as they are. Bicycles need separate space before we'll see Dutch cycling rates, but a prerequisite of building this in the future is for bicycles to have a rich and dense network of trails and roads now.

Even if parts of that network are just paint.

Now, let's reflect on this article and its timing. This column was the result of a horrific weekend for cyclists (pedestrians too!) locally, with a cyclist dead and another seriously hurt in separate collisions. In both incidents, the driver's actions played the main role.

Every day, in this region, people on bicycles (including myself, sometimes) have their safety threatened inadvertently, and occasionally with intent, by vehicles being driven by people who refuse to make allowances for bicycles. Despite the fact that bicycles have a right to the road in law, there is an opinion among many that these things are toys and "you're gettin' what's coming to ya" if you're hit by a car.

This is, essentially, Outhit's thesis. And in a public forum, he reinforces an attitude that we should instead work against. He has written an article on the back of a dead cyclist, in which he licenses the ongoing disdain and carelessness that costs lives.

I just hope he sets a better standard while out in his car.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

North Waterloo Tidbits

The region has passed its staff recommendations to create proper cycling lanes for Bridge St. between Northfield and Lexington, including eliminating the southbound turn lane at Lexington.

The city appears to have passed the zoning changes requested for building a new plaza at Bridge and Northfield.

And today, while cycling up Davenport, I had a brief chat with a construction worker about the curious new pole they've installed... in the northbound lane. Traffic is, of course, being diverted around it. Turns out that this is the start of roundabout work at Davenport and Old Abbey. Which should fix the horror they made of the cycling lane there.

Edit: The Record's picked up on the pole oddity. The picture is hilarious.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Good news for Bridge Street cycling

Regional Council's Planning and Works committee meets on Tuesday and on the docket, in the link below (see page 88) is the staff recommendation about cycling lanes for Bridge St. between Northfield and Lexington.

But wait! sayeth you. Doesn't Bridge have cycling lanes already all the way from University to Northfield, except for that tricky little bit southbound near Lexington?

The answer, I learned last winter when signs went up about this study, is... no, what is currently there between Northfield and "34 metres north of Lexington" are paved shoulders. Parking is permitted. They just happen to look (and function) like bike lanes. I have biked it for years and I was fooled, even as I railed against the (extremely rare) parked car that I believed shouldn't be there.

Heh.  Whoops.

But we're close to correcting this aberration. What's more, it's clear that the region has listened to the responses they got to their request for comments. The majority of comments were supportive of cycling. A substantial minority were against it, and supportive of maintaining on-street parking. So staff went to study how this parking was being used. The answer? Not at all. Most of the houses along Bridge here have mammoth expanses of driveway, and it's clear that nobody likes to squeeze their vehicle into that shoulder if they don't have to.

So, parking that is hardly used, or cycling lane that sees frequent use? It's a no-brainer.

The other win for public feedback is the "34 metres" north of Lexington. Originally this was excluded from the region's study area. But, due to public feedback (including mine) that they had excluded the point in the road that is crying most for improvement, they revisited it, looked at the break and the dangerous right turn lane conflict, had a chat with the city of Waterloo and... holy of holies, they're replacing the right turn lane with a continuous cycling lane!

Cyclists will need to still pay close attention here to the usual danger of the right hook, but it's a simple and welcome improvement.

I continue to be in support of better separated cycling infrastructure, and obviously this ain't it. But I am a practical advocate, and projects like this and the proposed Lexington bike lanes, are important "low-hanging fruit" steps that can show benefit quickly and broadly and extremely cheaply.

There are some things I'd like to see still. Improved markings across the T intersections, sharrows and other steps to highlight the lanes and remind drivers that they have a duty to share this space.

By and large, this is a positive step. Kudos to the region and the city, and here's to P&W passing this on Tuesday.

Friday, May 4, 2012

155 Caroline: Building a place to go, not go around

My ongoing dismay about 155 Caroline is not traceable to a single fixable aspect. It is with 155 Caroline failing as a whole to give as much as it takes. On the surface, 155 Caroline is basically a scaled up version of 144 Park. So what makes 155 a problem if 144 was considered acceptable?

Expando ad absurdium

The answer is right in front of us: scale. 144 Park is, on its own, an innocuous (if uninspired) development. It provides some minimal engagement at street level by being lined with townhouses, and it tucks its generous, but not outrageous parking deep inside. It does little to add to a vibrant streetscape but it goes to pains not to be a major detractor. It is being constructed to respect the existing Iron Horse trail, a piece of community heritage and an asset which is threatened by the new plan.

In contrast, the combined 144/155 complex cannot get away with its lack of engagement with the streets it will loom over, because of that enormous scale. Consuming an entire block, near the heart of Uptown, it threatens to exert a deadening influence on the surrounding blocks because it presents nothing to the people around it... except an obstacle.

Luxury Dormitory and Parkade

It goes downhill from there. The expansion more than doubles the parking being built into the edifice, in part because Bauer insists on maintaining its existing overflow parking, but it is an oversupply of parking that is indefensible in the face of its location at the gateway to Uptown and steps from buses and LRT. And where Bauer presents an intriguing and attractive ground floor of restaurants and shops (and is now a destination because of it) 155 has to go to great pains to mask and hide not just a failure, but an abject unwillingness to be a destination as much as it is a luxury dormitory and parking garage.

Sick Building, Healthy Building

A healthy development would attempt to connect with its surroundings. That would probably have to include some street-level commercial use. It would certainly not be a fortress of parking, resident-only facilities and a windy, private terrace that will take on an air of desolation once the residents realize that it will never see the vibrance of public interactions the optimistic renders suggest.

And it wouldn't elbow aside one of our community's prized assets either, let alone turn it into a grand tour of Waterloo's parking garages.

Destruction or creation of “place”

The steps that would bring the scale down to 144's respectful level could also solve the unpleasantness of street-facing parkades, the destruction of heritage and the lack of street engagement. Those steps would involve abandoning the monolithic block construction, adding street retail, and orienting outward to the trail rather than inward forcing people around it like a boulder dropped in a river.

These steps will require going back to the drawing board, recapturing some of the respect of place of 144 and taking it to the next level: creation of place.

The benefit would not be limited to this block or the emerging district of Uptown South. It would be setting a city-wide precedent that we expect more from the developers eager to throw up another tower and cash out. We are not short of developers: we are short of good places.