October 20, 2009
My mentor: Jason Potter
My mentor’s details: Transportation Planner, Bunt and Associates
A few years ago, I wrote a souvenir coffee table book on Los Angeles. In the course of my research, I was amazed by the amount of traffic factoids that I came across. I suppose it’s no surprise that L.A. and traffic are synonymous. But the tidbit that I found most interesting was the story of A.W. Ross. In the 1920s, Ross developed the stretch of Wilshire Boulevard that is now known as Miracle Mile. What was so special about this little stretch of road? What made it miraculous? For the first time, the area was developed to accommodate and attract automobiles, not pedestrians. The sidewalks were narrowed. The streets widened. Left turn lanes were created. So were timed traffic lights. Even the businesses lining the streets were redesigned to attract cars. Stores were required to provide parking spaces. Storefronts and signs were refashioned to be seen through windshields and at driving speeds instead of walking speeds. This stretch of road, which had previously been a dirt track, became the model for the linear downtown that now exists throughout most of North America. The European template that focused on wide-open, pedestrian only squares and boulevards never had a chance. It became all about the car.
When he first started, a lot of people thought Ross’ plan was crazy. They thought he would fail. I wish he had. I know it’s probably naive to think that another developer wouldn’t have just sprung up in his place, but I wish that the redesign that fueled, and still fuels our car-obsessed society had never happened. I’m not anti-car. But I am pro-pedestrian. And it’s a point of contention with me that Canadian city centers don’t have more pedestrian only spaces for people to congregate. That each neighbourhood doesn’t have a small square lined with food markets, cafés, bars, and shops where old ladies in black dresses sit on park benches gossiping while barefooted kids play soccer. Okay, I clearly spent too much time in Europe this summer. But I think it’s a legitimate pipe dream.
The Pedestrian’s Champion
With this car bias in mind, when I started my day as a transportation planner, I figured it would be all about the auto. That, like Ross, transportation planners existed to facilitate the needs of drivers and their vehicles. But I was mistaken. Because it turns out that they are actually the pedestrian’s champions. When they make assessments and recommendations on urban development, they first consider the needs of the walkers, then cyclists, then public transit, and finally, the cars. At least, that’s how the planner I was shadowing, Jason Potter, sees it.
Jason works for Bunt and Associates, which is a transportation planning and consulting firm that helps developers get the green light for their projects. Here’s how it works: When a developer, business, or an organization wants to make a structural change to their facility, or build something brand new, they have to apply for a city permit. Before the city will approve the application, it needs to know, among many things, whether or not the transportation network surrounding the area can accommodate the change. Developers hire the services of firms like Bunt to provide this assessment. Then planners, like Jason, go in to carefully study the existing needs and conditions of the area and produce a report on how the development will affect the community. This report is then submitted to the city.
To create the report requires a lot of data collection. And that means getting outside and counting cars, pedestrians, parking spots, bus stops, cyclists, and more. For bigger projects, Jason will put together a team of counters to collect the data. The day I joined him, he was working on a smaller project, and in an effort to keep costs down for his client, he was doing the counting himself.
Of course it was pouring rain. But in Vancouver, that represents an average day. And data collection needs to be done on an average day to best represent traffic patterns. So conditions were perfect. We combed the streets block-by-block counting, and then did it again every fifteen minutes. At peak times for passenger pick up and drop off at the intended development site, we paid special attention to any increased vehicle or pedestrian traffic coming in and out of the building. And did more counting.
This was just the first step in data collection for Jason’s report. He would then work with an architect to establish things like whether or not the proposed change would affect access for trash collection or emergency vehicles. He would also discern if it was necessary to make changes to the existing infrastructure, such as converting parking spots to a designated passenger pick up and drop off area. While examining all of the data, he would first put the best interests of the pedestrian into consideration before making his recommendations.
After four hours of collecting data, we were done. We were drenched and cold, but we were also intimately familiar with the transportation flow of the area. And this chilly discomfort seemed a small price to pay to ensure we were looking out for the best interests of the walkers, the cyclists, the bus riders, and lastly, the drivers.
I do wish Jason had been around in A.W. Ross’ day. Maybe if he had, our existing city plans wouldn’t be dictated by the automobiles. Maybe cities across North America would be a pedestrian’s paradise, free from traffic congestion, exhaust, and angry drivers. But of course, this is just wishful thinking. It is reassuring to know, though, that as our cities grow and evolve, that there is a profession that puts pedestrians first, even if it is only one development at a time.