January 20, 2015

SlowStreets: “A Complete Street On Commercial Drive”

From Slow Streets:


The Case For a Complete Street contends that Vancouver’s Commercial Drive would benefit greatly from becoming a Complete Street.

DriveIn its current format, Commercial Drive’s streetscape fails to acknowledge the street’s role as a regional destination for culture, shopping, dining and other activities. Rather, Commercial Drive is treated primarily as a thoroughfare for automobiles whose size and speed create an uncomfortable walking, cycling and dwelling experience. Prioritizing slower modes would strengthen existing activities and allow for new uses which are only imaginable during the annual Car Free Day festival.  Re-envisioning Commercial Drive as a Complete Street would enhance its sense of place and make the street more accessible to a greater number of people. In turn, more value – and a better overall experience – would be generated for all visitors, residents and businesses.

The Case For a Complete Street details primary research conducted by Slow Streets between September 2014 and January 2015 including pedestrian observations, business surveys and an inventory of parking. Slow Streets also conducted a literature review of Complete Streets best practices and the impacts on neighbourhoods and businesses in other cities.

The report can be downloaded below or via Dropbox.



Drive 2

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  1. Can anyone tell me where the term “complete street” comes from?

    As well as “eyes on the street”?

    A pedestrian walking north or south on commercial has right of way from first to venables and adanac, and until very recently had right of way at adanac. I’m not sure how this is a problem. Most of us can accept while on foot we might have to stop at a light sometime.

    1. I don’t know the history of the term, but it’s meant to describe more than a through-fare. Right-of-way is important, but so is its quality.

      And just like a street isn’t complete without sidewalks, neither is it complete without a safe place for people on bicycles. (Or cars and buses, but the safety of those modes is better developed in most cases.)

        1. According to the Streets for Everyone website, the sidewalks would be wider and the pedestrian crossings would be shorter and better marked.

    1. Yes, “smart” growth. The exact same plan for everywhere deigned to be a “transit village”, character and infrastructure be damned! From Wikipedia:

      Related, but somewhat different, are the overarching goals of smart growth, and they include: making the community more competitive for new businesses, providing alternative places to shop, work, and play, creating a better “Sense of Place,” providing jobs for residents, increasing property values, improving quality of life, expanding the tax base, preserving open space, controlling growth, and improving safety.[5]

      You know I really wish the city would just back off with this cookie cutter smart growth tripe. I’m starting to think they are death eaters or perhaps they just really hate low income folks. Oh, but I LOVE how sense of place has quotation marks around it!

        1. Fair enough, although most people I know in the neighborhood aren’t the ones desperate to change it. It just happens to be an idea conceived and packaged with smart growth.

          Confession: I read the post originally but did not click on the link. Your comment prompted me to learn more, and so I did. Here are some thoughts of mine:

          We don’t know that this comes from people who live in the neighborhood. My guess is they do not, as they refer to it as a destination that needs to be improved. They say they are a research group.

          I take a bit of umbrage with cycling being placed before public transit in the hierarchy. Public transit serves a lot more people than cycling, rain or shine, can be used by people in wheelchairs/disabled persons and does not require owning a bicycle. Greater good and all.

          The comparison to commercial drive with one block of union that has grass on one side of the street is beyond a stretch. If your sample pool is seven perhaps more research is in order. Counting pedestrians walking by, but cars and bikes arriving at a given place is an incomplete picture. If you saw 15 cars park at a section of street, but hundreds driving by it is irresponsible to deduce that 2% percent drive to the area and 93% walk. People that drive park and walk too. Same goes for bicycles, counting how many go by, not just chain up, is more accurate. It states that a complete street will make people want to linger on the sidewalk and talks about people hanging out in traffic bulges. Cute idea but I’d rather hang out in a park than in front of a store unless food or beverages are involved. We are told that people like hanging out on that one (complete) block half on union but the statistic graphic at the bottom states a lower percentage of people were observed hanging out on union street than commercial The demographics section shows percentage of handicapped, older adults (with canes), children and young adults. Sort of missing a large demographic between young adults and cane carrying older adults, but it’s probably not important. I could go on, but I won’t, I will just say this; complete streets is a buzzword used in the packaging called smart growth, or sustainable development, or new urbanism or what have you. Whatever you call it, the design and tactics are the same everywhere, worldwide. There are several groups who have an interest in pushing this design style on a community which is already dense, already housing low income people, already well served by transit. This pdf reads as direct smart growth propaganda to me.

          1. Slow Streets is a different group than Streets for Everyone. It looks like they’re using the proposal as an example of what they want to see.

            In my opinion, the street is already being used as if it was complete, now people want to see the infrastructure fit the reality. In my eyes, this is totally in the tradition and character of The Drive.

  2. A few thoughts.

    The 1.5 km of Commercial Drive from 1st Ave north to Powell is practically a “complete street” already, at least in the context as defined by the graphics in the presentation. It doesn’t need some kind of contrived handle; it is already a part of a viable, quite complete community.

    Redefining a street into a “Complete Street” (with caps) implies it is an incomplete component in an incomplete neighbourhood, and it succumbs to a planner’s redefinition and jargon. This neighbourhood is already one of the more complete, historically unique and naturally evolved communities in Canada. To say, “I live near Vancouver’s Commercial Drive” has an instant meaning which calls on a unique set of valued local experiences largely oriented to the street. To say “I live on a Complete Street” has absolutely no meaning.

    If they replicated the north half of Commercial Drive and added curb bulges and better quality materials, seating, lighting and street art as well as more crosswalks and bike lanes to the south half, then please get on with it. But let’s first recognize the neighbourhood’s originality and not override it with numbing, meaningless language.

    Changes south of 1st ought not affect the section to the north, especially the bus service which needs to be improved. Commercial Drive is not isolated, it is connected to the regional transportation network, and if anything we need vastly improved transit on every arterial to help meet the urban challenges ahead. Making it more pedestrianized is noble and can be done in several ways that won’t break the bank or slow transit, but it already has the advantage over other arterials in that it has been highly pedestrian-friendly in its narrowest segments naturally (i.e. in the absence of meddling by “enlightened” planners and urbanists). Making it car-free would be an experiment in futility with respect to transit and commercial loading. If that is not the goal, then they should not have published street closure images and made references to Car-free days.

    Lastly, Car-free Day is NOT car free. Those of us who live close to the arterials that are closed for this event are inundated by the cars used by thousands of visitors that plug all the side streets for the entire day. Call it a street festival or something, but please do not refer to it as “car-free.”

    1. Good thoughts MB 😉

      Notice that the Mayors’ plan is promising a B line on Commercial, so in case of plebisicite success the proposal can’t work (the B line bus needs to take over the “slow” bus).

      Do the authors are on the “NO” side or do they consider the mayors’ plan as a “bait and switch” one ?

  3. “Eyes on the street” is attributed to Jane Jacobs in her landmark book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” It refers to buildings located close to the sidewalk and street rather than away from them, with entrances and windows and people providing overlook and casual surveillance.

    1. I wonder what she would think of the current usage of the term. The 12 ft of retail below with residential above, built right up to the sidewalk that is being constructed now doesn’t quite give the impression of the residents keeping a mindful eye on their neighbours. Nor does it leave much room for vegetation.

      1. ” It refers to buildings located close to the sidewalk and street rather than away from them, with entrances and windows and people providing overlook and casual surveillance.

        It seems you described the term perfectly when you said the building was built right up to the sidewalk and had residential above.

        1. Yeah, but look at what is being built. Homogenous walls of retail with nothing but sidewalk, and I expect balconies will be overhanging/obscuring the street soon.. Then people are looking at the road, not the sidewalk. Besides, that book was written long before people spent their time inside on smartphones… Guilty as charged, but also why I don’t want to see wifi in parks.. I don’t want to go to a park to look at a screen. Anyways this is why I don’t see current building philosophies being totally in line with the original idea.. Maybe it’s the ubiquitous glass awnings, I don’t know, they just don’t seem to foster people keeping a watchful eye… Not in this bystander culture.

  4. Jane Jacobs in her book wrote that change to an area should happen slowly and not all at once. That way the area can absorb the new elements and make them part of it. I’ve seen this happen on The Drive for many years, a few new things, that some said would be the end of The Drive and it’s character, just became part of The Drive and didn’t change it.
    So, maybe this plan then should not happen all at once but be done, say one block at a time with some time in between. Maybe even just one side of one block at a time. Then it would allow the neighbourhood to not change quickly and to absorb the new thing into it’s character.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful answers, janda. It would indeed be less scary if there wasn’t so much pressure to change and rezone everything now.

      1. I now wonder what the ideal or at least preferred rate of change would be. If we say that the change is happening too fast, then what isn’t too fast?

        1. Well, rezoning large areas that currently have occupied, older and affordable housing stock is too fast. Mass displacement is too fast. The ghg savings from people giving up their cars to take transit (a shaky premise, imo, for adding density) is tiny compared to the impact of throwing structures in the dump and building new, often inefficient structures. So what exactly is the rush? A branding campaign with an arbitrary year ending in a 0 or 5 as the deadline? That doesn’t seem like a solid reason to cause mass displacement. I think when the city all starts to look like a bland architectural drawing, like it was all built last year out of nothing, you’re in big trouble. Next your socio economic mix is gone, never to return. Small family businesses close or move away and the only ones open are chain stores, amidst many empty 12 foot ground level retail. When a city’s soul is gone, can we build it again? And who has benefited?