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Once more, the streets

While I promised myself, for sanity’s sake, to forgo paying attention to city politics, the City of Victoria‘s endorsement last night of a transportation proposal has me back at square one. Meaning what? Meaning I’m scratching my head, wondering what’s in the water around here.

The endorsed plan – proposed by BC Transit – would do a couple of really bizarre things that strike me as undesirable. The plan involves putting either rapid transit trams or rapid transit bus lines along Douglas Street, which is the city’s main north-south street corridor. Douglas Street is actually part of the Trans Canada Highway – further north, outside the city core, it becomes the highway. But in the city itself, it’s also just another main street that runs parallel to Victoria’s two other main north-south arterial roads, Government Street on its west and Blanshard Street on its east. At Douglas Street’s southern terminus you find Beacon Hill Park’s Mile 0 and the Terry Fox Memorial, site of many tourist moments. Before reaching the park, Douglas Street traverses Victoria’s Central Business District. As it provides an artery for the city, Douglas Street has four traffic lanes (two north-bound, two south-bound). There is on-street parking along much of Douglas Street’s downtown stretch, albeit on alternating blocks and sides of the street; and there are several blocks where no parking at all is allowed because bus service is heaviest here.

In the proposed plan, all on-street parking would be eliminated. Traffic lanes would be reduced from four to two, running side-by-side along the street’s western edge. Along the east side of the street, there would be two side-by-side tram or rapid transit bus lanes, one heading north, the other south, again: side by side. In the middle of the street would be a two-lane bike path.

Here’s  a rendering, as it appeared in last night’s (and today’s) Times-Colonist online:


I’m already getting into arguments with friends over this one. Some of my friends applaud the plan and point out that this is not new, and that BC Transit has been working on this since 1995.

To which I say, “it’s still a pretty shitty plan, sorry.”

I’ve never seen a tram arrangement like this, and really can’t understand why (in the case of this illustration) the south-bound tram should be orphaned away from pedestrian access. The only pedestrian access is via the sidewalk, and in this case the south-bound tram is removed from the sidewalk by a north-bound tram lane. I suppose if the trams don’t stop very often, you can build fancy stations to accommodate riders having to cross the tram tracks, etc. But shouldn’t the point downtown be that you have really frequent stops?

Nor do I get the logic of a bike lane down a median. In this scenario the cyclists will have to fight with cars and trams if they want to reach the curb/ retail frontage. That makes no sense. Maybe it makes sense for cyclists who don’t want to stop and are going to keep going until they reach …somewhere. But what if it’s a cyclist who’s hopping from one downtown store or venue to another? I guess he or she will be infringing on the pedestrian’s sidewalk space – and that always has the potential for trouble.

What I really dislike about this plan is how it suggests that if we could only get everyone into their proper slot (into the bike lane in the median, into the tram lanes side by side, into the car lanes side by side, and into the sidewalks – separated by an ocean of other transportation options) – if we could only get everyone to stay in their place, we could “solve” urban transportation issues. I’m not averse to that approach in areas where it’s imperative to clear the path for 50 to 60-kilometer per hour travel, but in a downtown, that’s not where (or how fast) we want to go.

I can’t help but think that rapid transit and cars are doing relatively well in this plan, but that pedestrians and cyclists aren’t. They latter two groups are asked to move like the former two: in straight lines, without stopping in any sort of way that could hold things up, without meandering, without trespassing or “jaywalking” – “jay-riding”? – into the other lanes of traffic. I don’t think that’s very urban. In every real city, pedestrians are constantly taking back their streets through everyday acts of disobedience: dawdling on the sidewalk, hitching bikes to parking meters (oops, I forgot we’re not even going to have parking meters under this new plan!), jaywalking, clustering, gawking, sitting around… Anything and everything in addition to “moving along” in an orderly fashion.

I dislike the extreme tidiness of this plan. There’s no mess here – probably because everyone is in their place. (And heaven help the poor fool who steps out of line…)

It looks suburban.

Finally, a word about the sad fate of the Johnson Street Bridge: those of us who fought to save the bridge suggested that one lane of the three traffic lanes on the current bridge should be given over to “multi-modal” transportation (read: bike lanes etc.). We were told by the rabid pro-replacement councilors around the table at City Hall that it would be impossible to reduce this tiny tiny bridge’s lane capacity from three to two. And yet these same councilors yesterday gave their assent to reducing the city’s main arterial road from four lanes of traffic to two, for a stretch of more than two kilometers. The hypocrisy staggers me.

Addendum: See also my post, Congestion is our friend (on, among other things, Gordon Price‘s talk on Motordom [<–slide deck on SlideShare]). From that slide deck, here’s an image (#26) of what an urban street (Commercial Drive in Vancouver) can look like – note the parked cars and general urban “mess”:


  1. Fine article Yule.

    You pose some excellent questions.

    Your concern over the layout of the tram arrangement should be answered by BC Transit et al. I wonder what cities use an arrangement, as shown in your picture, and how well has it worked out for them? If none, what are the assumptions BC Transit is working with?

    I also really like your point about messyness. Funny how the artists rendering is pristine, while really healthy urban areas do seem to have that messyness factor. Is it a case of the pristine that sells the proposal, while recognizing the community-oriented vision is something more messy/vibrant? If so, why not articulate the vision up-front?

    Comment by Ben Ziegler — December 11, 2010 #

  2. Civic planning in Victoria is all about tidying up the way things look.

    Centennial Square, Blanshard Courts, the bridge replacement project, the Coho terminal concept… in each of these projects there was an objective to tidy things up visually, so that everything might look uncluttered and organized and orderly.

    It’s as if the planners regard the old city as the equivalent of a messy room. You make it better by throwing stuff out, lining things up, and pushing everything against the walls.

    Rooms get messy because people use them. They live in them. Same thing for cities. This is the primary difference between urban areas and suburban areas. Suburban areas tend to look too tidy and organized and over-planned. They’re not messy, so they don’t seem real.

    Is it any wonder the waterfront parking lots are such sacred ground in Victoria? They’re tidy and visually uncomplicated.

    Comment by NorthOfEdward — December 11, 2010 #

  3. Good piece of analysis, I must say.

    But my main concern is the tram lines are just next to the cycle route, and it is clearly visible that the area is a built up area and kids are around. Some of them are using bicycles. Also it seems the area is quite popular for student accommodation and regular residents.

    You said you don’t like the extreme tidiness of the plan, but all of the new town plans are becoming extreme tidy, lets not forget. At this time we are finding this “extreme tidy” but after 20/25 years this won’t be feel like this.

    Just to give you an example in 70s roads and towns were “tidy” on that time, but we don’t feel that anymore.

    Comment by Robin — December 17, 2010 #

  4. I really enjoy users who actually who blog regularly, it is very difficult to receive all forms of understanding just about every other way. Fine work.

    Comment by direct optical farmington hills mi — December 20, 2010 #

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