Pedestrian (and stroller) priority in Vancouver

Tim Barton is a transport planner, photographer, and dad in Vancouver, Canada. This informative reflection on stroller-friendly sidewalks was first published on his planning and photography blog Planning Picture here.

Thanks to Jennifer Rogers on Flickr for this amazing Creative Commons photo of her mother in a stroller, in 1949.

Being forced to push your baby out into traffic… feeling like the sidewalk has taken over control of your stroller and is determined to introduce your baby to the fast moving travel lane… having the impression I’m crossing a road when in fact its a lane way.

My wife and I have experienced all this and more in the past year or so as we adapt to life with a baby. We live in downtown Vancouver and use the car only rarely. Thus the stroller gets a LOT of use. Here are my top three annoyances that I’ve observed as we ‘stroll’ around town (although the last one is not stroller specific).

1. The lack of drop curbs where they need to be. This is downtown Vancouver in the 21st century, but even here there are significant minority of intersections (especially in the older West End) that have inadequate drop curbs. The usual problem is that there may be one drop curb on a corner, but it faces the wrong way. So with a stroller, you have to push out into the lane in which vehicles are now travelling. At a four way or two way stop it is unclear which way you’re actually crossing. This can be confusing for vehicle drivers as well as dangerous for pedestrians and their (precious) cargo.
ACTION FOR THE CITY: Review and amend drop curbs where necessary.

Sloping curb letdowns like this one do not provide a flat path for pedestrians, and are quite dangerous for strollers. Photo by author.

2. Sloping curb let downs. Sometimes I wonder who truly has priority in this city when I see a curb letdown for a driveway that seems to have totally forgotten that pedestrians might actually use the sidewalk and don’t want to walk at a 45 degree angle to do so. An annoyance without a stroller – dangerous with one. Sometimes with a stroller you’re kind of struggling to keep the thing from veering into the road. The letdown should be within the boulevard zone if possible. Pedestrians are supposed to have priority but this doesn’t seem to be the case. A steeper transition for vehicles over a shorter distance would also act as a traffic calming device to slow their speed as they turn into a site, across a sidewalk. The Institute of Transportation Engineers and The Congress for The New Urbanism agree. Their book, Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares (2010) highlights this and recommends that pedestrians always be given a clear, level (apart from the 2% cross grade) path around the letdown.
ACTION FOR THE CITY: Adopt a standard similar to that suggested in Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares to ensure pedestrians always have a flat path around any letdown.

3. Who has right of way when a lane way and sidewalk meet? The answer is obviously that pedestrians have priority. But you’d be forgiven for thinking it was the other way round. These ‘intersections’ should be designed so that the sidewalk continues uninterrupted with the boulevard again used to transition to street level. This would emphasize the fact that lane ways are not roads and that they’re for access, not through traffic. In slowing drivers down as they enter/ exit a lane way, it might also reduce instances of ‘rat running’ through them.
ACTION FOR THE CITY: Alter your design standards to physically give pedestrians right of way, and reinforce the fact that laneways are not roads.

It goes without saying that wheelchair users face the same issues (perhaps even more so) than parents with strollers. However, my experience is with strollers, so I write from that perspective.

So, that’s my observations and opinion. Do you agree? Am I making a fuss out of nothing? What have I missed? I’d be glad to hear your thoughts.

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2 Responses to “Pedestrian (and stroller) priority in Vancouver”

  1. Adam O'Neill said:

    Apr 13, 11 at 9:08 am

    Hey Tim.

    I really like your idea to place curb let downs in the boulevard section, I think most vehicles wouldn’t have a problem with this and it would make the sidewalks much more consistent. It would be interesting to hear the CoV Engineering/planning Dept’s thoughts on this.
    I do wonder if you might be nitpicking a bit though as from my experiences in other cities, Vancouver is by far the most accessible I’ve found.
    Portland/Seattle/NY/Toronto/Melbourne/Sydney/Perth/Paris/Prague to name a few great cities that leave folks in wheelchairs(and to a lesser extent-strollers) out to dry(or get wet in giant puddles that seem to be attracted to curb cuts in Portland and NY)
    I’m a Community Living Councillor and have pushed my fair share of 200LBS+ clients in chairs around this city for the better part of 7 years. It is annoying when we run into a corner with no curb cut, but I quickly remember the nightmare sidewalks of the above cities and count my stars I’m in Vancouver.
    Anyways, really like your ideas and I’m all for making this place better than it is, so thanks for writing this article. Cheers.

  2. Tim Barton said:

    May 03, 11 at 2:18 pm

    Adam,
    Thanks for your kind comments. I appreciate other cities are, in general, worse than Vancouver. But I can only write about what I know, and this is where I live! Thanks again, Tim.