May 23, 2014

Credit Where It’s Due: The Design and Rebuilding of Burrard Bridge South

Let’s look at another infrastructure project, one that cost millions, not billions* – about $6 million in this case to design and re-construct the intersection at the south end of the Burrard Bridge (map here), now almost complete:




Here is what it used to look like: configured over the years in classic Motordom-style.



And now a more classic intersection form for vehicles, bikes and pedestrians:



“Simplified” would probably not be quite the right term, given the complexity of factors that had to be taken into consideration – but the intersection and connecting streets have much greater clarity for drivers, less crossings for pedestrians, and seamless, separated paths for cyclists.



I have a hunch this one is going to attract a lot of attention in the traffic engineering profession – and win a few awards along the way.  So I asked Lon LaClaire, the city’s Strategic Transportation Planner, a few questions:

What were the major challenges?

For the engineers, there were two big challenges:

  • Designing an intersection that would work well for pedestrians, cyclist, transit, AND cars.
  • Constructing the intersection while maintaining access for pedestrians, bikes, transit, and general traffic.  This required a number of interim intersection designs to be constructed


???????????????????????????????Who designed the new intersection?

It would be wrong to credit any one person with the design.  The project involved significant collaboration of staff throughout the City including contributions from the Transportation, Streets, Sewers, Street Use, Departmental Services and Budget divisions of Engineering, Corporate Communications, and Parks.  Development Services, Financial Services, and Real Estate also supported several components of the project.

The core project team included engineering, landscape, and construction professionals, operations managers, and communications experts that worked together to build a high quality project while aiming to minimize disruption to the public and nearby businesses and residents.  I’m sure that many people have no idea how much design attention goes into a project like this!


How long did it take?

The design took about one year to create.

From my perspective in Transportation, just getting to the design of the plan (2D – the two horizontal dimensions) took hundreds of hours of design time with contributions from dozens of engineers and technicians.  This design was followed by (and, in turn, influenced by) a multitude of other related designs, including the grading (the 3D – vertical dimension) , traffic signal design, and bike path and landscape design, to name a few.

I think our landscape architects found locations for about one hundred trees!

The sign and paint plan is one of the most complex we’ve done …  So many design specialists … and we haven’t even talked about the construction planning!








How did the process go, in your opinion?

On the “easy” side, I’d say the public consultation on this intersection went quite smoothly.  There was strong support for the project throughout the design phase and people seem to be generally satisfied with the project.


As it happened, the rebuild of the intersection was timed to coordinate with the upgrading of the Burrard Bridge itself and the PGR greenway.  It was not really possible to distinguish one project from the other – nor the impact that any one of them had on congestion.  Indeed, during the times I drove through the intersection, there were few if any delays – partly, I expect, because many drivers avoided Burrard and used Granville instead.  The worst conditions seemed to be on sunny weekends when casual drivers who didn’t normally use the bridge found themselves in jams caused by others doing the same.

But those expecting a crush of traffic along Macdonald when Point Grey Road was closed were, I suppose, perversely disappointed.  Another case of “When bad things don’t happen.”


The best part of all, separate from the transportation functions, has been the additional greenspace and landscape design, vastly improved over the previous configuration.




* Given that some people think a million dollars is a substantial amount of money when it comes to spending on infrastructure (and criticize the ‘waste of hard-earned taxpayer’s dollars’ if it’s something they think is unnecessary – i.e. doesn’t benefit them directly), it helps to distinguish the difference between a million and a billion.

To take a comparison, a million seconds is the equivalent of just under 12 days.

A billion?

Just under 32 years.

Keep that in mind when you scan the list below.  Given that Burrard-Cornwall involved a major reconstruction, including the movement of stuff you don’t see like utilities, I think we probably got our money’s worth.





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  1. That intersection was a nightmare for pedestrians. The only time it ever worked well was immediately after the fireworks when thousands of pedestrians ignored the signals and took over the roadway.

    I’ve been watching the progress every day since the project began and have to say it’s really looking good. In addition to the obvious improvements in intersection geometry there are dozens of new, bright, efficient LED street lamps to cast a white glow and light up everything better than orange sodium vapour can; there are separate smooth, wide sidewalks and paths for pedestrians and cyclists; logical signal phasing; and better signage.

    Now if only the bridge rehab could be speeded up so my bus could stop sitting in traffic.

  2. Gordon, I would like to add that as part of the overall plan for closing the gap in the Seaside Greenway, the improvements to this intersection underwent extensive public consultation, as Lon LaClaire alludes to, and in addition to the engineers and designers who contributed to this project, many business owners, residents, cyclists and other stakeholders contributed much time and effort to the final design and implementation as well. The original plans by the City were adjusted and tweaked as per the needs and suggestions of many members of the public.

  3. I’m writing a second comment instead of trying to piece together two thoughts in one.

    I just bought a bike and am slowly getting my body used to pedalling up hills and sitting in the saddle again (ouch!). It’s taking a little longer than I’d hoped it would, but it’s been 23 years since I abandoned my last bike so I think I’m doing OK.

    My current goal is to ride to work 50% of the time and take the bus the other 50%. Given my current fitness level I’d say that’s aggressive, but necessary.

    I won’t save any time. The bus climbs hills way faster than I can and drops me off at the front door of my office while I’ll have to navigate into the underground parkade, lock up my bike and change clothes.
    I won’t save money. Bus passes are tax deductible, FareSavers are not. So if I ride 50% of the time I’ll save about $500/year in bus fares, but have to pay tax on the $1092 I currently get to write off. At that rate it’ll take years just to pay for my bike, lock, fenders, lights, etc. Good rain gear will eat another year of “savings”.

    But none of that matters. I currently have a sedentary lifestyle that has me on a collision course with diabetes and heart disease. I want to live long enough to retire and be healthy enough to enjoy my golden years. I watched flabby friends, neighbours and colleagues make the decision to bike to work and it has done wonders for each and every one of them.

    1. Post
    2. David: if I recall correctly, only 15% of the value of monthly transit passes is actually tax deductible, so faresavers (or whatever that ends up becoming under compass) are still a better choice, unless you’re riding transit 4+ days/week. Mentally, having to pay the marginal cost of each transit trip (as opposed to the all you can eat luxury of a monthly pass) also helps, I find, increase the determination to ride.

  4. Reading Lon’s comments, it seems like there was some real benefits that came from waiting more than 15 years from when the “normalized intersection” concept was first brought to Council’s attention c. 1998. The sheer amount of design skills, mode requirements, etc. that needed to be coordinated to make this happen is quite daunting.

    A job extremely well done, and well worth celebrating, even officially. Was there ever a ribbon cutting?

  5. One comment is that the right turn lane from westbound Cornwall to southbound Burrard is not long enough. Given the “no right turn on red”, I’ve seen that right turn lane overflow and block one of the two through lanes almost back to Cypress. That’s especially true when an event lets out at the Vancouver Academy of Music or at the Planetarium.

    1. Doesn’t look like the vehicle detectors have been installed for the signal – those will likely take care of it.

  6. It is hard to express just how much better the new intersection is than the old one. Congratulations to the design and construction teams. Well done!

  7. Congratulations to the members of the general public for their time, effort and input in the public consultation process to make sure that the City’s design and implementation suited their needs. A job well done!

  8. I notice that there are now only two east to northbound left turn lanes from Cornwall onto the bridge. Wonderful! One big argument against the reconfiguration back in the day was the City Engineer’s argument to Council was that he couldn’t believe that three left turns could work. Bending to his perceived expertise, nobody on Council (or for that matter the public) asked him why they were all necessary.

    Now we see that two lanes are indeed sufficient, further helping to narrow the intersection in addition to the major realignment and provision of bike facilities,etc. All of this is indeed incredibly refreshing when looked at from an evolving city building perspective. It gives one hope.

  9. I love this project and think the accomplishment is significant and have been showing my Auckland friends as an example of Transportation engineers as rockstars. My only criticism has nothing to do with the roading and cycling infrastructure, its the treatment of the leftover green spaces and their design and programming. Couldn’t there have been a better design for Seaforth Peace park? There appears to be no consideration for shaping of space, a random scattering of trees as an after thought, a series of pathways that fragment the space with no hierarchy. I don’t know if the brief extended to the park and there may have been budget issues or timing but would have been cool to take the space to a new level along with the new connections in and around it. Perhaps no one wants to linger here as its along a busy road, but a series of basketball courts or even a skatepark are good uses along busy traffic areas as kids like to show off for passers by, and cyclists can stop and watch the activities. Maybe I am off base here and the park is already successful, just my thoughts

  10. This new intersection really is an enormous improvement for everyone. I’m a regular user, and keep thinking that it just gets better by the day.

  11. The engineering department has done a great job with the Burrard and Cornwall intersection. I’ve also been impressed with the improvements at Main and Union. It’s amazing what the engineers can accomplish when they’re backed by political leadership.

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