This post is cross-posted to the TriTAG blog. Go there to leave any comments.
It can be insightful to take another perspective on something we’re used to. Yesterday I walked the length of Kitchener-Waterloo’s Iron Horse Trail and photographed it from its most common vantage points — the roads crossing it. There is little immediately evident in these photos, but I will explain below. Read More…
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. Read More…
Few things devised by man really ever go away. Plenty, however, go out of use and become exotic or quaint — no longer of practical utility. But sometimes the utility of something can persist and even grow again, and yet this may be difficult to see through all the recreational use.
What the hell am I talking about? Tourist trains, for one. Trains have gone away as transportation in most of North America, but tourist trains abound. When looking up Port Stanley as a possible place to visit a few months ago, I found that there was a tourist train between Port Stanley and St. Thomas along the old London & Port Stanley line. Note that St. Thomas is pretty close to the 401 highway, while Port Stanley is much further south, on Lake Erie. I thought it would be pretty neat — drive to St. Thomas and take the train to Port Stanley and back. Unfortunately, this tourist railway deliberately prevents usefulness, since the only boarding is done at Port Stanley. (In fairness, the Waterloo Central Railway between Waterloo and St. Jacobs does allow one-way trips.)
The bicycle hasn’t been a major mode of transportation in North America for the better part of a century. At the same time that driving has become the predominant way to travel, bicycling has stayed around as child’s play and recreation. Go to any Wal-Mart and you will find a wide selection of mountain bikes with 20+ gears and fancy shocks. At the specialized bike shops you’ll also find ultra-light road bicycles for the spandex-wearers. At neither place are you likely to find many comfortable utility bikes, with fenders, baskets, skirt guards, and lights. And neither mountain bikes nor road bikes are well-suited to being used for utility cycling. Yet when I look at what people use to get around town here in Kitchener-Waterloo, it’s almost always the ubiquitous recreational bicycles.
Walking is no longer considered a serious mode of transportation. Parks, however, abound with all kinds of recreational trails; often you’re supposed to drive to the park so that you can go for a stroll. These paths tend to be under the oversight of parks departments and feature signs saying they are closed at night. And being recreational trails, why would anyone want to use them in foul weather? Presumably this is why the path through Waterloo Park is not paved, despite being extensively used as transportation.
The Iron Horse Trail has its share of irony. It’s a rails-to-trails on the old Grand River Railway right-of-way. Though it is paved and even plowed, it isn’t lit and is “closed” at night. What used to be a passenger railroad was converted into a recreational trail, which incidentally is now used as transportation by many people.
I would suggest that the focus should be more on recreation as an adjoint to utility, not just recreation for its own sake (perhaps with utility as an afterthought). When your regular travel take you through a park, that enriches each trip — as opposed to the few times a year you might get to an out-of-the-way park. Focusing on making a recreational space useful can end up adding more to the quality of life for many more people.
Similarly, downtowns also should be about utility and not just recreation. As Jane Jacobs wrote, “You can’t rely on bringing people downtown; you have to put them there.” After the post-war suburban sprawl took hold, downtowns suffered. Some tried to convince people to come back through demolishing buildings and providing plentiful free parking to compete with the suburbs, to little effect. Others, like Waterloo and Kitchener, built downtown malls in the failed hopes that people would come downtown for them (instead of the suburban ones). Unless your downtown is an amazing tourist spot, it just cannot be sustained as an occasional destination. Downtowns need to be places that are used in a variety of ways on a daily basis — for utility, not just recreation.
Most pavement is impermeable to water. As a result, paved surfaces need to be designed to funnel water into drains, and drainage and sewer systems need to be designed for the high capacity necessary to deal with runoff from the huge number of paved surfaces in our cities. Instead of replenishing groundwater, precipitation is redirected to rivers and lakes. Runoff from roads carries with it automotive pollution, which is then concentrated in downstream bodies of water.
Various technologies are coming into use, however, for pavement that is permeable to water. Porous asphalt and pervious concrete are fairly new techniques, so they are still being developed and improved. The main difficulties include weight resistance and longevity, as well as cold climate installation. And, of course, it’s more expensive to install (particularly for cold climates), though it may be cheaper than conventional pavement if considered together with the costs of storm-water management.
What’s the point? First off, urban runoff is reduced, and with it pollution and the need for large and extensive drainage systems. But there are other benefits that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere. On impervious road surfaces drainage can work poorly, leading to the sometimes hazardous accumulation of water, which could be averted by permeable pavement. Likewise, it can prevent the ubiquitous puddles that form in depressions on sidewalks and paths. This pavement can also eliminate the need for drainage grates that are often encountered on bike lanes, which can be a hazard and nuisance to cyclists. If pervious concrete is used, it has the added advantage of reflecting more sunlight than asphalt, which can have a significant mitigating effect on climate change.
The technology is promising and I am surprised that the Region of Waterloo hasn’t yet taken up the idea. The Region should investigate permeable pavement and at least pilot the technology. They could do worse than paving the path through Waterloo Park as a test.
Waterloo is a small city that has owed much to the rise of the University of Waterloo over the last half century. Uptown Waterloo is the thriving, if small, downtown area. Waterloo has 100,000 residents and the University of Waterloo has 30,000 people. It’s less than 2 km between Uptown and the main UW campus. Let’s take a walk from one to the other.