How the University of Waterloo fails its pedestrians
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…
Recreation versus utility in urban issues
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.
Missing sidewalks in Kitchener-Waterloo
For a city to be open to pedestrians, there need to be paths between useful destinations, the paths need to be maintained, and pedestrians need to feel safe. Before you can run, you have to walk, and before you can walk, you need a place to do it. In Kitchener-Waterloo there are numerous roads that are missing sidewalks, often on both sides of the street. Sometimes the sidewalks are sporadic: they appear and disappear on a stretch of road. Occasionally one-sided sidewalks even switch sides at intersections. Suburban subdivisions are haphazard, sometimes having full sidewalk coverage, but just as often leaving them out. And sidewalks in industrial areas are simple: there just aren’t any.
I set out to document the state of missing sidewalks in Kitchener and Waterloo. Using Google Maps, I drew red lines for roads missing sidewalks on both sides and blue lines for those missing a sidewalk on just one. I tried to cover everything that is not a suburban subdivision, and I did Eastbridge as an example of a suburban area. There are undoubtedly missing sidewalks that I did not document, and probably some tiny sidewalks that I mistook for curbs. Click on the below map image to see it on Google Maps in more detail. [Update: This is based on 2006 satellite imagery, and a few sidewalks have been put in since then.] Read More…
A walk from Waterloo to the University of Waterloo
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.