How the University of Waterloo fails its pedestrians

Missing sidewalks are in blue, access roads that are used as paths are in red, and orange indicates unpaved or inadequately distinguished paths. (The image links to the detailed view on Google Maps.)

The University of Waterloo’s main campus was built in the 1960s, and it shows badly. The campus is designed with a strong car focus, despite UW being a university with extensive pedestrian traffic. I’ll leave further discussion of the problems of UW’s suburban form to a future post, and restrict this one to existing pedestrian issues.

How does the University of Waterloo fail its pedestrians? It often provides sidewalks on only one side of a road or sidewalks that are too small. Many main paths are not paved and encounter obstacles such as parking lots, man-made berms, poor or absent crosswalks, and, of course, weather conditions. UW forces pedestrians onto access roads designed for cars that make those on foot feel distinctly unwelcome. Instead of using more appropriately-sized vehicles, it uses regular vans and SUVs (maintenance, police, delivery, access vehicles) right on major pedestrian thoroughfares. Many buildings connect poorly to their surroundings, with few access points and several buildings actually surrounded by something resembling moats. The university is difficult to get in and out of, with poor connections to an existing path network and missing sidewalks on major roads (Westmount Road and Seagram Drive), as well as on the within-campus Ring Road itself. The adjacent shops on University Avenue surround busy parking lots and are frankly hostile to pedestrians, despite the vast majority of customers being pedestrians.

There are additional issues for cycling and handicapped access, such as excessive use of stairs, man-made topographic obstacles, mismatched or absent curb cuts, and so on.

In the map above, I’ve tried to point out most of the problematic sections around UW, excepting the significant additional troubles of ongoing construction. Below are a few photos I took this week that give a feel for the kinds of problems pedestrians face on the University of Waterloo’s main campus. UW does have many portions that work fine for walking, but that is no excuse for its failures.

(These photos are by no means a comprehensive account.)

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4 responses to “How the University of Waterloo fails its pedestrians”

  1. Jarek Piórkowski says :

    Don’t miss the ‘great’ crossing of University Ave by the tracks, to say nothing of the plaza as a whole.

  2. Free Refills says :

    As a University of Michigan alum, I would often hear from Michigan State University folks who would disparage U-M since it “lacked a real campus” and was “spread out across a city.” I would always retort that Michigan State’s “beautiful campus” was only designed to be seen from a car. Who wants to spend half a day walking to and from class? Give me a more urban, walkable campus any day.

  3. PeterM says :

    Great stuff, I remember my four years on campus, I kind of accepted most of this as a given. Seeing it here really reminds me of how nasty it can be. (That picture of westmount and university is darned dangerous, and I used it every day). One thing that always bugged me was snow shoveling. The sidewalks on university ave would never be shoveled in a timely way. 16-18 hours after snowfall was perfectly normal. It normally wasn’t shoveled on the weekends. I lived close to campus, and used university ave every day, and was always ticked to be trudging through a foot of day old snow, walking next to a parkinglot that was cleared of snow hours after it fell. Cut through the parking lot? Good luck with that! The darned little hills made it an absolute pain!

  4. anon says :

    In Winter 2008, we received a major snowfall the Sunday prior to the March Break Open House. By Monday afternoon, there was a single foot-width path connecting the access road to Modern Languages and ENV Buildings and the interlocking brick path between those Buildings. At the time I was in a Health, Environment and Planning course and a guest lecturer (another prof) was giving us a quick introduction to accessibility planning.

    My group had on a pair of goggles that changed depth perception, and we stumbled through that part of campus. By 5 pm (a day and a half after most snow had fallen) the path wasn’t any bigger, so I took the initiative to kick free a larger path.

    By 6 pm, nothing had changed, so I grabbed a snow shovel from and went to get the job done myself, knowing there wasn’t going to be much done otherwise. The next morning, crews finally arrived to finish clearing a path at 11 AM, several hours into the day’s program, and not at all worried about how this would be viewed by prospective students and their families.

    The Campus Master plan has provisions for, in conjunction with a way-finding system increased connectivity across campus. I pray that this means updating and resolving the hundreds of little problems with campus connectivity.

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