Sunday, December 19, 2010

Street Art is for the Birds

I came across some cute street art in the alley just off Borden south of Bloor Street of what appears to be a city of yellow birds hanging out their laundry. I could be mistaken, but it looks pretty new. The alley is filled with all kinds of graffiti, particularly on the side of the Tranzac, but this stuff stood out. It's amazing how much some well thought out painting can turn what is usually an unpleasant space into something cool that you want to explore.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Richmond Street Gets a New Sidewalk

When I first started working in the 401 Richmond building at the corner of Richmond and Spadina I was surprised to find that the stretch of Richmond between Spadina and Peter had a sidewalk only on the north side of the street. Not only was there no real sidewalk, but drivers on the one-way Richmond street would zoom down the road as if it was some sort of urban highway. So I was happy when we got the notice that the City was going to be constructing a sidewalk starting in September. That sidewalk is now pretty much finished. And it's amazing what it has done to the experience of walking that one block. The experience has been documented by a blog operated by Urban Space, the property group that owns 401 Richmond.
Not only was it annoying to have a full sidewalk only on one side of the street, but the big mostly blank wall of the 401 Richmond building coupled with the not so interesting facade on the north side of the street made for an unpleasant experience dodging hidden driveways and attempting to walk the block as quickly as possible. Basically, the road wasn't stroll-worthy. It was a way to get somewhere, but nothing else.

The introduction of not only a fairly wide sidewalk but also street trees (and lights I think to come as well as bike parking hopefully) has done amazing things to the feel of the street. What was once a stretch of barren, car dominated road now has the potential to be a pleasant experience. Not only that, but I'm willing to bet that simply the presence of pedestrians walking on a legitimate sidewalk will slow the drivers down coming around that curve. Suddenly, it's not just a place for cars, but people too.

The above pictures shows the sidewalk under construction. The drainage grate line is the previous sidewalk edge and shows how much the space was widened when the parking was removed.

A recent fire alarm at 401 Richmond demonstrated the usefulness of the new sidewalk when fire trucks pulled up against it and people used the now increased pedestrian space to gather and wait.

I can't wait to see what the street looks like in the Spring when the trees start to bud. Next up for Richmond Street? Separated bike lanes perhaps? Hopefully? Maybe?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Photo: Highway Loop-de-Loop

This image might be super old in internetland (2 years), but I just came across it in a Google search and thought it was nifty. It seems to be attributed to NL Architects in the Netherlands. If Robert Moses had been a little more creative, this is what we might have got.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Toronto Needs More Contra Flow Bike Lanes

One of the first things I had to get used to when riding my bike around Toronto after moving here from Vancouver was all the one-way streets. I now live in the Annex and am entirely surrounded by roads that switch one-way directions seemingly every block. For the first two weeks I lived in Toronto, while I was walking everywhere and waiting for my bike to arrive (I shipped it here), I thought these switched-up one-way streets were a great idea for traffic calming on what are mostly residential streets.

And then my bike arrived.

Attempting to be the law-abiding bike rider, I went out of my way to follow the one-way street system as much as possible. But here's the thing: If the City of Toronto refuses to put in decent bike lanes on heavily used and often pot-holed filled arterial roads (Spadina, Bathurst, Bloor, Bay, etc) so that novice/nervous cyclist can feel safe, then they need to rectify the one-way street problem for cyclists because that's where they are being pushed. I'm comfortable riding on busy streets, but many are not. Cyclists are told basically that the main roads are not for them, but then the infrastructure isn't there on the minor roads (and there aren't enough Harbord Streets in the city yet to provide an alternative).

There is a fix to the one-way street problem in Toronto and that's the use of contra flow bike lanes. These are bike lanes that run specifically on one-way streets that allow the bike a designated spot to travel in the opposite direction of car travel. I have used one in the city already (but I know there are others, so please point them out), which is on Strathcona Ave just east of Withrow Park. I know this has been a dialogue in the city long before I moved here in May 2010. A quick google search turned up tons of posts on sites like Biking Toronto, Urban Toronto, and Spacing that dealt with the subject.

As it stands right now, no cyclist in Toronto really takes the one-way streets seriously. Including me. And I tried. I really did. I know that probably pisses a lot of drivers off under the banner of the "lawless cyclist" diatribe, but here's the other thing: bikes and cars should not be treated as the same.

Contra flow lanes recognize the different needs and safety concerns of riding a bicycle versus driving a car. The one-way street system in Toronto's residential roads was created for traffic calming, so cars didn't use the streets as speedways to bypass the arterial roads. Bikes don't create the same problem cars did on these roads. They're not as fast, as dangerous for children playing, and they aren't loud and polluting (unless your the kind of cyclist that smokes and swears while riding).

So yes, bicycles and cars are similar in that they are both road users. But it's naive and overly simplistic to say that all laws and rules applying to cars should similarly be applied to bikes without any thought as to the very different nature of safety needs for each. The 4-way stop is another example. Places, like Idaho, have, recognizing the different needs of the cyclist, instituted "rolling stops" where cyclists treat stop signs as yield signs, slowing down and if the coast is clear continuing through the intersection.

Installing contra flow bike lanes on specific routes will legitimate a practice that is already happening in the city and allow it to continue in a safer manner. And drivers should remember that, as I've written elsewhere, bicycle infrastructure is good for cars, too. Delineating between road space for bikes and road space for cars takes a lot of the uncertainty out of the picture. Those crazy cyclists have their own space.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Make Vancouver's Robson Square a Real Square

Vancouver's best public spaces have always happened around its edges, as if some invisible centrifugal force were at play in the city, spinning all the residents to the sea wall. Don't get me wrong, the sea wall is magnificent. It's a gem of which Vancouver should be proud. But as a public space it has to be acknowledged that the sea wall is primarly a linear, moving strip. People walk the sea wall. They bike. They rollerblade. They jog. In other words, they move.

What Vancouver needs, and what was shown to be a great success during the Olympics, is a permanent central square. A place where citizens and visitors alike can sit and take in the bustle of the city. A central spot to meet, eat your lunch, read a book. The Vancouver Public Space Network recognized this need when they held their Where's the Square contest, calling on Vancouverites to rethink the city's potential.

During the Olympics, the redesigned Robson Square showcased this potential. The short block between Hornby and Howe, hemmed in on each side by the courthouse and the art gallery, was closed in order to allow thousands of people to congregate. As the Vancouver Public Space Network points out, the time is right for this area to remain closed. The section of the road in question has been closed for awhile for construction and Councillor Suzanne Anton has put forward a motion to make this closure permanent.

From the very beginning of its life Robson Square, designed by Arthur Erickson, got it backwards. Allowing a road to bisect the space and placing a pedestrian space underneath the street conveys a preference. The preference for cars over people. Literally.

Robson Square needs this portion of the street to stay closed in order to be a successful public space. Its downfall is that the majority of its space is hidden from view. The redesign for the Olympics (read my previous review of it here on Beyond Robson) did much to make this space more comfortable and inviting, but the reality of the situation is that without the closure of the street here the public space remains off the beaten path so to speak, closed off behind bushes or underground.

Much has changed in city planning and design since the original days of Robson Square. We now have car free Sundays where we pedestrianize city streets, and the Olympics saw the closure of many streets to car traffic. There is a longing for these central public spaces in Vancouver and we shouldn't miss the opportunity to make Robson Square into a real square.