Broadway Can be a ‘Really Good Street’ if not a ‘Great Street’
Special thanks go out to VPSN volunteer Bita Vorell for contributing this post!
On Monday, May 30, Allan Jacobs, former director of city planning for San Francisco and the author of “Great Streets”, and Elizabeth Macdonald, professor at the University of California Berkeley and urban design consultant, gave a public talk at SFU Harbour Centre concerning best practices in street design. I gathered from the talk that the City of Vancouver has brought Jacobs and Macdonald on board to advise them on rethinking Broadway.
Rethinking what? Consider this: Broadway is one of the most important east-west arterials in the city. It has a high concentration of jobs and people, it is one of the region’s largest transit corridors with 100,000 daily trips by bus, and it is Vancouver’s only continuous truck route north of 41st Ave. And all of the above are expected to grow significantly in the next 20 to 30 years.
Peter Judd, the City Engineer, characterized Broadway as “schizophrenic”, and I believe he has a point. West of Arbutus, Broadway has a good sense of place, with mature trees, a diverse mix of residential, retail, and entertainment uses, awnings and vibrant sidewalks. Between Macdonald and Alma on any day of the week you see lots of activity on the sidewalks, restaurant patios spill out, and people run errands, walk with leisure, and socialize. Every summer, this part of Broadway is the venue for street festivals. If you’ve been to any of them, you know what a great place it can be.
East of Arbutus, Broadway has a different story. It is generally wider (up to 99 feet wide), lined with tired buildings and sometimes mega-office or retail buildings, sees much heavier traffic flows, and for the most part is void of trees, awnings, and architectural details that engage the eyes. The so-called “Central Broadway”, the stretch between Arbutus and Main, has the second highest concentration of jobs in the region, which results in much street activity during business hours. In the evenings, though, you don’t experience the type of activity and vibrancy that define Broadway west of Macdonald.
This may be the turning point for Broadway. At City Hall, a planning program is underway for Central Broadway to rethink how this part of Broadway can achieve its growth objectives with the right mix of uses. Translink is also undertaking a rapid transit study along the corridor, which if (or when) realized, can increase transit ridership and reduce vehicle flows, allowing the City to rethink the functional and aesthetic aspects of the street, such as wider sidewalks, landscaping, bulges at intersections, and on-street parking.
During her talk, Elizabeth Macdonald made a several interesting points related to balancing what we need with what we want:
• She hinted that we are probably asking Broadway to do too much for us. It is already a major transportation corridor with heavy vehicle flow, transit use that is reaching capacity, and a high concentration of jobs and people expected to grow 30 per cent by 2041. And we want it to be a Great Street. Are we asking Central Broadway to do too much? Quite possibly we are.
• Macdonald also pointed out the need for “balanced street”, that is, the sweet spot where we balance out competing interests: accommodating different types of movement (walk, bike, transit, car), accommodating both movement and being in place (allowing people to sit and enjoy the public realm while the street functions as a major transportation route), and having the right amount of hardscape and greenery.
In its current state, Central Broadway hardly finds that balance: its public realm is poor and uninviting, sidewalks are sometimes too narrow, activities are drowned in traffic noise, its built form and street edge appear dilapidated, and it generally lacks visual interest.
Both speakers brought examples of great streets and interventions they have been involved with, namely Octavia Boulevard in San Francisco, where part of the freeway was turned into a boulevard that keeps cars moving while making the surrounding neighbourhood a better place. International Boulevard in Oakland, CA, for instance, which is about as wide as Central Broadway, home to a BART station, a neighbourhood shopping street and transit village with traffic calming measures to slow down vehicle speeds to a level appropriate for the neighbourhood context.
There is much to think about over the next year or two as the City completes the Central Broadway Planning Program, renews its next transportation plan (Transportation 2040), and Translink wraps up the UBC Line Rapid Transit Study. As Elizabeth Macdonald pointed out, there is much to balance out and through these processes we need to question the role we want Broadway to play in both the city and the region. If we want Central Broadway to become a great place for pedestrians, similar to the section west of Macdonald, then we must rethink how the transportation functions of the street can be balanced out with the residential, office, retail, and leisure functions which can bring much-needed vitality to this part of Broadway.