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May 20, 2015 at 12:00 PM

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How Human-Scale Streets and Public Transit Support Businesses

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by Trina Wang, with interview excerpts courtesy of Paola Qualizza and contributions by Karen Quinn Fung

What makes a city a great place to reside, work and play in? Although each city has its unique character, all cities also have similar underlying processes that sustain human activity to produce economic, social, cultural and environmental outcomes. Today, let’s take a look at one of these generalizable concepts: human-scale streets that act as destinations. How do human-scale streets add value to a city by helping to serve local businesses? And how can public transportation strengthen this value?

Human-scale streets provide environments that are designed for humans to be the end users of (instead of for automobiles, which happen to have humans inside of them, travelling at much higher speeds). For example, the physical elements of automobile oriented roads such as the size of signs, doors and buildings, end up overwhelming a person walking by, but would seem normal while driving by. It is easier and feels safer for pedestrians to cross from one side of a human-scale street to another compared to an automobile oriented road. Therefore, they are more walkable and more community oriented. These streets elevate people above cars. Automobile oriented streets on the other hand, are roads which are connections between two destinations that you can travel to and from in a high-speed manner. Roads are simply conduits for automobiles.

Automobiles are supposed to be of service for human mobility around spaces, but it is easy to become too automobile dependent.

What I mean by becoming too automobile dependent, is having the design focus switch from humans to automobiles in and of itself as the end users. Although being dependent on a car as the main method of mobility brings many benefits, it can also brings a host of negative side effects when compared to being dependent on walking or public transit. Such negative side effects include social isolation, discrimination towards younger and elderly people who need to rely on others to drive them, expenses towards purchasing and maintaining a car, a decline in public health and decreases in small businesses.


An example of a human-scale street in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas. The size of buildings, doorways and signage of the local small businesses are designed for humans as the end users. The street supports automobile usage as well as walking, but since the streets are narrow, people get the sense that it is easy to cross the street to visit stores on the other side. A sense of community is supported.

Human-scale streets are also more likely to act as places, compared to automobile oriented roads. Places are destinations that you purposely visit. Examples of places include your place of residence, where you work, or places of entertainment such as a mall. Places add value to a city. Contrast this to spaces that are not places. These spaces are basically filler spaces between places, usually taken up by transportation. Human-scale streets act as places and support local businesses because they support human activity and active interest at the street level by virtue of their design. Local businesses receive more foot traffic from community-oriented streets that feel welcoming, safe, and pleasant to walk in.

So how does public transit come into play to support human-scale streetscapes that act as places and serve businesses?

Public transit enables easier access to stores for not just people able to drive, but also for younger and older demographics who cannot. Stores can receive foot traffic, public transit traffic and automobile traffic. By simply renting a shop front along a human-scale street, small businesses can pay less in start-up costs in comparison to maintaining your own building and parking lot along automobile oriented roads. Plus, investing in public transportation helps municipalities reduce costs of services such as road paving and road building. On top of that, having public transportation embedded into human-scale streets reduces costs even further, as human-scale streets require less infrastructure such as electrical lines and sewage, and fire and ambulance services have less area to monitor. Reducing these costs may translate into lower taxes.

The Transit Plebiscite proposes to bring benefits to Surrey by adding new bus service to growing communities, more Skytrain service, light rail transit, new B-line rapid bus routes and more. Elizabeth Model, CEO of Downtown Surrey Business Improvement Association, says that not only do human-scale streets and active transportation options make nearby businesses more appealing to customers, but it is extremely important in attracting and accommodating employees. Workers make up a large portion of the people moving around the region, and are often currently – and certainly in a future with no increase in public transportation services – stuck in traffic. What Model is hearing from local businesses is their desire to offer employees the opportunity to get to work in a timely fashion without having to be stuck in a gridlocked car. This isn’t just a solution to moving larger numbers of people efficiently through the region, it’s adding to people’s quality of life: less time in heavy traffic and single occupancy vehicles means more time with family, more interaction with the community, a chance to get the blood flowing and one’s energy up with a short walk to or from the station or bus stop, and cleaner air to breathe for all.

Surrey’s population is predicted to rise at a faster rate than Vancouver’s over the next 20 years.

In conversation with the VPSN, Elizabeth Modal confirmed that the redevelopment and growth plans south of the Fraser, which incorporate this inevitable population increase, are synergistic with the location of the proposed light rail and extended bus service funded by the transportation improvement tax. Specifically, the light rail L-line from Central City to Guilford and Central City to Newtown and the increased service along #104 are necessary to accommodate the planned redevelopment and increasing commercial activity along these major transportation arteries.


In the meantime, don’t forget to vote for the transit plebiscite. Votes must be sent in and received before May 29th at 8:00pm.


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