The Coffee Crossing and bigger problems

New Westminster is a pretty pedestrian-friendly city, despite the hills. Our high urban density means services are always nearby, we have exceptional access to rapid transit, and our infrastructure is pretty good. Our City-wide “Walkability Index” is among the best in the Lower Mainland and Canada, and the City’s transportation plan emphasizes the importance of walking as a form of transportation, through the City’s ACTBiPed, and a Pedestrian Charter.

This is not to say everything is perfect. We still have too many pedestrians hit by cars, too few marked crossings, and accessibility challenges in some areas (including a general paucity of sidewalks in Queensborough). Overall, the City is doing a pretty good job, and the Staff and Council generally understand the issue, but there is always room for improvement.

Last week we had two news stories that demonstrate both the good and the bad.

There is talk that plans to “improve” the Coffee Crossing in uptown are on hold, and in this case, not fixing a problem that isn’t actually a problem is a good thing.

That pedestrian crossing is, actually, a very effective one for pedestrians, as Bart Slotman suggests in the article above. It is short, the cars are travelling slowly and they tend to yield to pedestrians more than most crossings. If there was any improvement needed, it might be as simple as getting rid of one or two parking spots (like where the gold Chevy truck is in the story above), to increase visibility for both driver and pedestrian. However, there is no need to spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to install signals to “fix” a pedestrian crossing that basically works and is not demonstrably unsafe.

If there is any perceived problem with this crossing, it is that it emphasizes pedestrians over drivers. It is occasionally inconvenient for the minority of users because drivers may, on some occasion, need to wait for 10 or 15 seconds for a line of pedestrians to cross. In extreme events, this may stretch to 30 seconds (the horror). This “problem” is built on the assumption that roads are for cars, with pedestrians a temporary inconvenience. The alternative point of view (supported by the Pedestrian Charter) is that roads are for moving people, and people moving using their feet have as much right to the road space as people carrying 1500kg of metal and plastic along with them.

This intersection is in one of the busiest pedestrian-use places in the City – the businesses and residents of Uptown rely on a safe pedestrian environment to go about their daily lives. If the busiest pedestrian location in the City is inconvenient for drivers, they can move a block over. This crosswalk is an important part of that safe pedestrian environment. If it delays the occasional through-driver by a few seconds, then so be it.

The second story provides a great suggestion for what to do with the money saved by not installing lights at the Coffee Crossing. The residents of Massey Heights have been concerned for years about the safety of 8th Avenue through their neighbourhood, both for drivers and pedestrians.

The problems on the Heights part of 8th Ave are pretty standard, from a traffic-management view. The road is a major arterial carrying a lot of traffic through residential neighbourhoods. With the slope, the sightlines are often challenging, and it is easy to underestimate your stopping distances as the hills gradually steepen. An engineering response to this is to make the road very wide to improve sightlines, but this invariably encourages drivers to go faster, especially as there are no speed controls between Cumberland and East Columbia – it is a 1.5km long, 12m-wide speedway that bypasses narrower, more speed-controlled alternatives (6th Ave, 10th Ave, etc.). This rather sucks if you live in the neighbourhood or try to walk across 8th Ave.

The old-school solution to the pedestrian problem was to build a narrow, dank pedestrian tunnel under 8th around Richmond Street, to keep pedestrians from causing traffic to slow down. As unappealing as the tunnel is for most people, for most of that stretch of 8th, crossing the road has been a daunting enterprise. It is almost impossible at rush hour, as a line of a couple of dozen cars approach from the west, then as they come to an end, a line of several dozen cars arrive from the east. Better road marking and signs will not cause that line of cars to break just because someone is at the crosswalk – they are all trying to make the next light. This is the place for pedestrian-activated flashers.

The ACTBiPed and the Victory-Massey Heights residents have been complaining about this for years. It looks now like the City is going to put some resources towards fixing the problem, and they are looking for your input.

My suggestions? First, forget the tunnel at Richmond Street, and do the job as recommended:.

This should be a fully-signalized intersection, one with full crosswalks painted on both sides. Richmond Street is a major north-south connection, close enough to the Crosstown Greenway that it is a major pedestrian and bike route to the Hume Park area and to Burnaby. Given the nature of the intersection and traffic, and slope of the hill there, full stop lights are overdue.

As for Sherbrooke Street, I frankly don’t care if they close off Sherbrooke and Devoy (best ask the local drivers), and the sidewalk bumps help pedestrians (although they make things slightly less comfortable for cyclists). However, this is the place where a pedestrian-controlled flasher is needed. Traffic regularly hits 80km/h along here (despite the 50km/h limit), with long lines of cars between light signals at the distant intersections.

The same is the case for where Williams and McKay intersect 8th Ave, 300m to the west. This is another major pedestrian cross-street, where it is neigh impossible to cross safely as a pedestrian during rush hour. I suggest we need a second pedestrian-controlled crossing here. There is mention of “improvements” at that intersection, but no details provided. Clearly, all of the safety issues that exist at Sherbrooke also apply at Williams, and similar treatments are appropriate.

There is an on-line survey at the City’s website on the topic of 8th Ave improvements. You might want to fill it out right away, as it closes this Thursday. Please take 5 minutes and ask them to assure that pedestrian safety be the #1 priority in this residential neighbourhood. Accommodating through-traffic is important, but a distant second to the safety and livability of our neighbourhoods. We need a fully-singnalized intersection at Richmond, and pedestrian-activated flashers at both Sherbrooke and Williams.

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