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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Flexible streets

A large contingent of residents from Whitehills attended the Civic Works Committee meeting on Monday. Despite repeated efforts to get a three way stop sign at Blackacres Boulevard and Yew Tree Gardens to deal with the problem of speeding drivers along the secondary collector that is Blackacres, nothing had happened. Staff asserted that the stop sign would simply lead to rear enders and besides, the traffic numbers didn’t warrant a stop sign.

It’s a classic standoff. Motorists want to get around the city fast, without interruptions, except, of course, in their own neighbourhoods. There, they view the streets as part of the public space; they worry about the safety of their children and seniors. Somebody is bound to get killed.

It’s especially problematic in the suburbs where people buy homes to raise families, have a bit of space, get away from the hustle and bustle of downtown. But living in the suburbs means depending on private vehicles, for getting to work, for shopping, for getting the kids to their various extracurricular activities. And you need to get there fast. Time is money.

It was ironic that this issue came forward just at the same time that staff brought forward a proposal to develop an implementation plan for improving Dundas Street via a report that council had requested when it learned that only a few cosmetic changes, including a shave and pave, were being undertaken in preparation for the World Figure Skating Championships. It wanted to taken action on the Downtown Master Plan sooner rather than later. It didn’t want to wait for five to seven years as had been proposed.

So now, a few weeks later than originally requested, staff was back with a request for $100,000 to do a scoping study to examine the issues impacting any projects, to determine costs and financing sources, and to recommend sequencing of projects. It will be a major undertaking involving replacement and upgrading of underground pipes and wires, disruptions to businesses, and unknown costs. You can’t just start digging without a plan.

But one proposal put forward by planning staff was the the “flexible street”, a concept originated in the Netherlands in the 1970s. There it is referred to as a “woonerf” or ”living street” designed to accommodate pedestrians, cyclists and motor vehicles. Traffic is slowed to nearly a walking pace, less than 12 kilometers per hour. Activities from the shops spill out onto the sidewalks and the streets. Areas of activity are designated by different paving materials and the street is elevated to the level of the traditional sidewalk. Woonerven have proven to be very successful at slowing traffic and reducing accidents as well as revitalizing streets.

Carfree Sunday on Dundas Street, April 11, 2010
In London, we have been getting a taste of this through  “Carfree Sunday”, first introduced on Dundas Street in April 2010. Fortunately, it was a wonderfully warm sunny day. Thousands of Londoners streamed onto Dundas Street, walking or cycling, or simply sitting in the sunshine enjoying the live entertainment. Organizations set up displays, games were played, and local restaurants put tables and chairs into the street and on the sidewalks. It was a magical day.

Flexible streets aren’t free of cars, of course. But they can be, from time to time, and cars don’t take precedence over people. Rather than widening streets to improve traffic flow, streets are narrowed to provide more space for other activities, recreational and commercial, and other modes of active transportation. Cars aren’t banned; they merely learn their place.

Getting from here to there takes time of course; it doesn’t happen overnight. But to provide a taste of the possibilities, staff has proposed a Sidewalk Cafes Pilot Project.

Actually, the cafes would not be on the sidewalk. Rather, it is proposed that public on street parking spaces in front of qualifying restaurants be used for an outdoor café. The restaurant would be required to provide a platform in the parking space that would raise the floor to the level of the sidewalk and some type of barrier or fence along the street side would be needed. The café would be a sit down one, not a stand up bar. Up to ten such cafes would be permitted as part of the pilot.

It sounded good, especially when presented on a beautiful sunny afternoon when most council members would probably prefer to be sitting at a table in such a café rather than another meeting with cantankerous colleagues.

But Councillor Steve Orser smelled trouble. Who would be controlling the patrons in these cafes, he wanted to know. Would there be “doormen” or bouncers, or would the police have to deal with unruly customers? Personally, he preferred the businesses hire extra staff; the police were plenty busy already.

These aren’t stand up bars, he was told. These are sit down restaurants. There was no reason to believe that patrons would be out of control.

Orser was not convinced. He had been exposed to Richmond Street when the bars close with people fighting for taxis. This could be creating problems on Dundas Street. And how would you control the numbers? How could you keep people from crowding in and standing up?

Janette Macdonald of Downtown London, a strong advocate of the project, pointed out that these cafes would be in front of restaurants. “We’re not doing this to increase the drinking spaces,” she noted. “We don’t have many bars on Dundas. It’s more for a dining crowd. They’re not going to misbehave, not at the prices we charge.”

Her rebuttal was lost on Orser. He wondered about the buses. Maybe it was time to have a park and ride shuttle from the Western Fairgrounds. Considering his concern about people becoming unruly and inebriated, it was a strange suggestion. Would you really ship drunks off to a parking lot to find their vehicles?

There were other problems, too, he suggested. Staff would be handing out the permits. What if a permit holder violated the terms of the agreement, let too many people in? Who would monitor that? Would staff pull the permits? And what if a neighbouring business without a permit got jealous and complained that the patio cut into his profits? What would the city do about that?

He was floundering now, trying to find something not to like about the project. He returned to an early concern. What about those businesses that currently had a sidewalk patio? Should they be grandfathered?

Staff pointed out that the pilot project was specifically for a patio in an existing parking space, not on the sidewalk. The choice of the name of the project had been unfortunate; it was not a sidewalk café but a parking stall café. No existing cafes would be affected by the pilot project.

But Orser persisted. He wanted a grandfathering clause for existing sidewalk cafes and he couldn’t get anyone to listen him. “I’m getting frustrated,” he warned. However, without someone to second his motion, the vote to adopt the recommendation for the pilot project was passed. Unanimously.

So this summer, be sure to stop in at a restaurant along Dundas Street. There’s bound to be plenty of uptake by the restaurateurs, and you’ll be able to leave your car in one parking stall and have dinner in another. And if it’s after six o’clock, you can still park for free.

Or, you can ride your bike or walk or take the bus. It’s a flexible street, for all transportation modes.

But mostly, it’s for living.

As for the Whitehills residents, staff will explore some traffic calming options for Blackacres. Not necessarily a stop sign or speed bumps but, at the insistence of Councillor Joni Baechler, consideration of a “whole suite of options” for the most appropriate solution.

That won’t include a flexible street, but it is a flexible approach.


John said...

As someone living on Blackacres, I've never noticed a problem with speeders. In fact, many cars go slow because of the on-street parking and oncoming buses. There's no harm, I suppose, in looking at options, but this is not even on my radar of concerns within the City.

The Cynic said...

Stop signs do not help with traffic. As anyone who drives in this and other cities knows, drivers will run reds and stop signs when it suits them. We have seen the enemy and it is us. I suppose these rule breakers want the Fed government to be tough on crime, but only the ones they don't commit.

Anonymous said...

Orser again. heard the goof on the radio supporting table games at the casino at Western fair because it would be good for East London. Somehow he seems to suggest that the new jobs will only go to those who live in his ward, and that the people going to the casino will stop at stores and other businesses in the east end. He seems to think that those from the east end who will now gamble away more of their hard earned money are not important. Why did people vote for this twit?