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Circling the Square (1) – Transit on Robson, and Beyond

November 24, 2012

Something new for Price Tags: an extended essay by a guest writer - Peter Marriott.

In five parts over five days, leading up to a report that goes before Council on Wednesday, Peter will analyse the issues related to the closing of the 800-block Robson to transit.  (Staff recommends reopening the street on December 1 but continuing work towards “potentially creating a permanent public square on 800-block Robson Street.”)

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Circling the Square – Transit on Robson, and Beyond.

Having gone through a consultation exercise, the City is likely to start moving toward permanently closing the 800 block of Robson Street to traffic.

It’s a simple debate, right? Closing the street creates a vibrant public space, and those opposing the closure are the soldiers of motordom, who can’t fathom giving up any space for pedestrians. The closure certainly seems to be a popular idea, and there is a strong desire for a public square in Downtown Vancouver.

But one important question has been completely missing from the equation: Robson is an important transit street. What is to become of the Robson trolleybus?

The Vancouver Public Space Network, the loudest group calling for closing the street, tells us that a “better bus route” and an expanded Robson Square “aren’t mutually exclusive.” Elsewhere, they’ve written that “careful planning” can solve any transit issues that would arise from closing the square.

Unfortunately, though, if we’re not willing to accept a public square that frequent transit can run through, then we have a geometrical problem, and a better bus route is excluded by closing the street. “Careful planning” doesn’t change geometry. And this matters, because if we’re serious about drastically increasing transit ridership (as the City’s Transportation Plan purports to be), then we need to be serious about maintaining an efficient, legible and simple transit network.

The Robson Square saga underscores a bigger problem with transit in Vancouver. The Transportation Plan has a number of walking and cycling actions already in progress, but it largely adopts a “wait and see” approach to achieving its transit goals—in particular, waiting for Translink and the provincial government to build a Broadway Skytrain. The Plan leaves out the very significant role the City plays in determining transit’s speed, reliability and legibility by allocating and prioritizing space for transit.

Vancouver enjoys a broad consensus that transit is a public good. Everyone supports transit - but when transit’s geometry and purpose aren’t well understood, this support proves to be shallow.

The purpose of this post isn’t to argue against the closure of the street per se, but it is to illustrate why the transit question deserves a lot more attention than it has been getting. Neither the City of Vancouver nor the various groups arguing for closing Robson seem to understand what’s at stake for transit here. There’s been no consideration so far for how disrupting transit on Robson Street might affect the City’s ridership goals, no measurement of what the impacts might be, no thought given to how closing Robson Street constrains future transit possibilities, and no thought about how transit might be incorporated into a public square.

No other mode of transportation is so casually dismissed: the buses can just go somewhere else, right?

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TOMORROW: Beyond Robson: Connections and Alternatives

* My emphases in bold.

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. November 24, 2012 7:42 pm

    Maybe a cut-and-cover bus tunnel under Robson between Burrard and Granville, with an underground station directly under the plaza?

    I’m looking forward to seeing Peter’s remaining posts!

    • November 24, 2012 11:54 pm

      Ah, ah!

      No-one less than Erickson has brought this idea before you, Edward.
      (http://voony.wordpress.com/2012/10/22/vancouver-1966-the-ericksonmassey-proposal-for-block-61-and-the-downtown-core/)
      Since that time, it has been figured out it was not such a great idea and this essay has a link to better ideas.

      Since we are talking of Erickson: here is what he has to say about Transit in 1974:

      “The only traffic through the square will be inner city buses, linking the West and and False Creek. Since buses function as people movers, they are seen as a compliment or enhancement to the pedestrian activity of the civic square”

      (The report going to city council is casually rewriting the history on that matter).

      Beside Robson Sq, if we want more pedestrian space, we probably want it also on Robson Str, Denman, Davie… basically, everywhere there is a Trolleywire in Down Town, we want it more pedestrian friendly…What is the plan? get rid of the buses altogether?

      I often feel like Don Quixote of La Mancha speaking to windmill when I express ideas similar to the one expressed in this essay, and more especially that the bus is totally neglected by the current administration, so I am glad to see this opinion expressed on this blog.

  2. November 24, 2012 9:38 pm

    “No other mode of transportation is so casually dismissed: the buses can just go somewhere else, right?”

    Forgetting that this is the definition of how bicycle routes are planned is even more casually dismissive. I’m also not familiar with other bus examples to demonstrate a systemic bias.

  3. November 25, 2012 12:15 am

    How about just rebuilding the terrible Robson Square and building a real people-oriented public square there?

  4. November 25, 2012 11:24 am

    From Andrew Pask at the Vancouver Public Space Network:

    Peter/Gord,

    Thank you for a thoughtful article on the 800-block closure… and glad to see that you are giving the issue careful attention over the next few days.

    A few points, to clarify the Vancouver Public Space Network’s position.

    In its December 2010 submission to Council, the VPSN stated that:
    “ensuring a high standard of transit access to the West End and Downtown should remain a priority.” The Network’s position has not changed since this time and we absolutely agree with you that the transit question deserves more attention and study.

    However, we would go one step further and suggest that the #5 Robson and it’s connection to Robson Square needs to be looked at in a larger context – both geographically and temporally.

    Downtown transit routes were given serious planning prior to much of the present day residential development in the peninsula (including Coal Harbour, Yaletown and parts of Downtown South). So, to put it mildly, the Area Transit Plan governing the peninsula is seriously out of date.

    If we are going to plan for a more sustainable, populated city – one with strong public amenities and a vibrant public life – then we need to revisit the transit network in a comprehensive fashion.

    Focusing specifically on the #5, we note that there has been little formal study about where people in the West End actually want to go with the bus. Based on the many conversations we’ve had over the past few years, it’s quite often destinations that are located 2-3 blocks – or further – east or north east of Robson Square.

    What we react to is this: the notion that the entire fabric of the transit system in the West End or downtown is dependent on the #5 bus getting though the 800-block of Robson… or that the principles of transit legibility and geometry can only be achieved be leaving the #5 as it is. We disagree. Based on our work to date and our discussions with transit planners, we feel that it is quite likely that transit improvements can be made – ones that both support West End and downtown residents and enable a better, more vibrant gathering area to be created at Robson Square.

    We have suggested on a number of occasions that this ought to be looked at more closely, and that there needs to be a study of options.
    Moreover, we feel such study should based on a variety of transit planning principles (including, but not limited to, the geometry and legibility of the system).

    • d.p. permalink
      November 25, 2012 2:54 pm

      Suggesting that “go around, take extra lefts and rights, sit idle in detour traffic” is a legitimate option because some people *might* be headed a few blocks to the northeast is the very ignorance of transit geometry that the author describes.

      People wish to get to where they are going as fast as possible. That requires traveling in straight line to the perpendicular intersection closest to their final destinations or appropriate transfer points. Every possible “alternate path” slows, distorts and disrupts this.

      You may not wish for your detour-based concept to destroy the workability of transit through the corridor, but that is the effect that you will have if you succeed.

    • November 25, 2012 8:04 pm

      where people in the West End actually want to go with the bus?
      Based on the many conversations we’ve had over the past few years, it’s quite often destinations that are located 2-3 blocks – or further – east or north east of Robson Square. answers Andrew Pask

      That is great because it is exactly what the bus #6 (Davie) is doing in a direct and legible way!
      But then why this bus empty out at Granville#Davie? and why the C23 (which is not going anywhere close to NE of Robson) is so popular with Westerner?

      There is something fishy here, isn’it?

      vibrant public life

      Today, was a sunny sunday. Two well-known place of DownTown was looking like it at dusk 5:30pm – I was trapped on the #5, so couldn’t arrive in day time there ;)

      What the people on the right picture are doing?
      According to the VPSN “breviary”, they should be on the left one, isn’it? Why it is not happening like it?

      Could we see a denial of reality at play? It is probably not an helpful way toward the construction of a vibrant Down town…

  5. Dave permalink
    November 25, 2012 5:34 pm

    Melbourne, Australia has two pretty vibrant public spaces like this that are (mostly) closed to traffic, but have transit access (via trams, not trolleybuses).
    Swanston St, and Bourke St.
    It works well, the tram areas are marked a bit differently to the rest of the street and people can move about freely, and trams come through at low speed so there’s rarely any serious conflict.
    I’m sure if you use google street view you can get a pretty good idea of how it all works.

  6. Peter M permalink
    November 25, 2012 11:50 pm

    Thanks to all who have commented. A couple of quick replies:

    B: Fair comment–I certainly wasn’t trying to dismiss cycling or walking, and should have been a little clearer. To be sure, Robson Square itself is surrounded by examples of poor or incomplete pedestrian and bike infrastructure, such as the sidewalk obstacle courses through parking tunnels at Howe and Robson and the Haro-Smithe bike lane that ends at Burrard. But I think the point I was making stands that transit is the only mode that can have an important part of its infrastructure removed (i.e. a frequent transit corridor) without any study of the impacts on ridership, connectivity and legibility. To be sure, that’s not always the case–cycling infrastructure isn’t safe in Toronto right now, for instance–but within Vancouver’s current context only transit seems to be facing this problem.

    Andrew/VPSN: Agreed that the downtown transit network could use a rethink, and part 4 of this series will talk about that a little more. Without spoiling that post, though, cutting Robson off as a transit corridor makes serving Downtown South and Yaletown harder. If there’s a workable alternative, that’s great–but it needs to be discussed concretely (i.e. actually seeing the plans) beforehand. And if “a high standard of transit access” is actually to remain a priority, then I’d submit that an alternative route needs to be discussed, chosen, planned and built BEFORE the street is closed to transit. What I’m reacting to is doing it backwards.

  7. November 26, 2012 12:49 am

    Where does the image of the bus crossing the proposed plaza come from? It would be nice on our blog. http://transportactionbc.wordpress.com/2012/11/25/transport-action-bc-opposed-to-closure-of-robson-square-to-buses/
    Transport Action BC

Trackbacks

  1. Circling the Square (2) « Price Tags
  2. Transport Action BC opposed to closure of Robson Square to buses « Transport Action BC
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  5. Circling the Square (4) « Price Tags
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