Pedestrian Observations from Vancouver: Street Width and Building Height

I moved to Vancouver last weekend. The slow pace of posting will probably continue for another week, but I do have multiple posts in the pipeline. I am currently at a downtown hotel, commuting to Kitsilano to look at apartments and to UBC to deal with early paperwork.

My appreciation of Translink dropped within a day, after I discovered that discounted books of multiple tickets and monthly passes are only available at 7-11 and other convenience stores, rather than at stations. (The ticket machines offer what appeared to be multiple-ride tickets but turned out to be single-ride tickets, perhaps usable by multiple people at once.) I still think it’s better-run than the other transit agencies of North America, but it has a lot to learn from New York regarding how to make fare media usable by passengers.

The most surprising pedestrian experience I’ve had is about the street width. The streets are wide, which is what I expected, based on Jarrett’s paean to the grid at Human Transit (which is necessarily wide in North America). What I did not expect was that the buildings would be so short away from downtown. Jarrett’s description of Central Broadway, around the Canada Line stop, as the second downtown, made me think Broadway was a continuous corridor of high-intensity development. It is not; it feels more like a secondary retail strip. The commercial buildings are usually one- or two-story, with some clusters of higher density at major street intersections, especially Cambie but also Granville, MacDonald, and others. This development is more spiky than linear, as if there’s already rapid transit on the route, rather than just interlined high-frequency buses.

Away from Broadway, Kitsilano feels very suburban – at least, the part of 11th Avenue I walked on does. The density looks higher than in Providence because a few of the buildings are tall, but most of the buildings have ornamental front lawns, and the sidewalks are narrow paths through the grass, more like a suburb than like the very old New England neighborhoods I had gotten used to over the past year.

There’s a point I made early on in this blog – I can’t remember where – about the relationship between street width and building height. To be pedestrian-friendly, a street needs to have a certain proportion between the height of the street wall – for example, the height of the buildings flanking it if they do not taper toward the top – and the width of the street. The ratio I initially proposed is 1:1, with a favorable range of 1:2 to 2:1; nowadays I’d propose higher ratios – Providence’s East Side’s 1:2 feels a bit too low, while the 2:1-3:1 on old streets in Boston and Providence feels fine – but the principle is similar.

Downtown Vancouver has what feels to me like correct proportions. With the setbacks and the tapering buildings, the height-to-width ratio is kept to average levels, with modernist skyscrapers balancing wide streets. Because there is high density in the core, the streets do not feel desolate, and the major streets are flush with ground-level retail. Buildings that look very similar to Akirov Towers do not make me feel the same revulsion toward their design; Akirov Towers are built like any housing project, but the towers of Downtown Vancouver feel like New York’s towers on a base. Although many of those buildings do not actually have any street wall, enough of them do that I feel like I’m walking in a human city.

Broadway does not have the same feel. From the bus, the trees frame the street, making it feel less like a highway. On foot, it’s different, and it feels more open and less dense. It works well enough for transit – the bus lines on it have extremely high traffic, much of it due to the pull of UBC – but the pedestrian experience is less than perfect. The street is 30 meters wide, the same as a Manhattan avenue or two-way street, and it needs to be framed by buildings about that tall.

UBC is the worst. Granted, it is summertime, so it’s more deserted than it is during the year. But Harvard Square, Kendall Square, College Hill, Morningside Heights, and even Yale are teeming with people at all times of year. UBC clearly has people – they fill the buses to the rest of the city – but the campus is so spread out there aren’t that many of them at one spot (or if there are, I haven’t found it). There is one cluster of restaurants at University Village, and a few cafes and other retail outlets sporadically located elsewhere, but nothing truly mixed-use the way any of the aforementioned Northeastern college neighborhoods are. There is a grid of major campus boulevards, built with landscaped lawns, but they end up feeling like a large urban renewal project. Columbia has some of those, but they have more people using them; the only Northeastern school I know that has similarly lonely throughfares is MIT, but MIT has its livelier parts at the main administration building and near its subway stop.

Somewhat away from the grid is UBC’s bus loop terminal. My first experience at UBC was stepping off the 99-B express bus to a terminal with a few bays for buses, surrounded by parking, and landscaped lawns that are far prettier from a moving vehicle than on foot. According to a presentation about the proposed subway under Broadway, UBC’s mode split among non-Vancouver residents is 71-27 in favor of cars. (Central Broadway’s is 77-21, which surprised me since it looks not particularly dense but not really auto-oriented the way UBC is). For Downtown, the comparable figure is 49-49.

Despite all this, Vancouver is by North American standards a reasonably successful transit city. Its transit usage is okay, and unlike in most North American cities, it is growing, if not as fast as I’d like. Translink believes that a Broadway subway would get 146,000 daily riders, up from 60,000 on the 99-B plus about 50,000 on local buses today; intuitively this feels low to me, though achieving high enough transit mode share to UBC and Central Broadway would probably require more fundamental changes to their urban design than is politically acceptable. For one, local activists would have to stop referring to the few mid-rises amidst the two-story retail at Broadway and Cambie as high-rise or high-intensity development. It’s nothing upzoning won’t fix, but upzoning this intense is unlikely. It’s really too bad, because walking on Broadway I feel insufficient height is the only problem on the street.


  1. EngineerScotty

    Vancouver itself has lots of single-family homes. They are EXPENSIVE homes, generally, especially in the city itself, but as you note it’s no Manhattan or Paris. Lots of density near SkyTrain stops.

    It’s funny you mention the low density of UBC itself (for those unfamiliar with the campus, it lies at the tip of a peninsula, and immediately to its east is a rather large nature preserve separating it from the city). The need to get students between housing and campus is a big driver of current bus use on the 99B and the various proposal to extend SkyTrain or build surface rail. But there’s plenty of land on campus for that, were the political decision to be made to turn parking lots or quads into dormitories or apartments. I get the distinct impression that the power brokers involved, though, don’t want any such things defiling their pristine campus–better for the province to spend billions on a subway line than ruin some professor’s view.

    • Alon Levy

      The thing is, I don’t even find the campus that pretty. Maybe the parts near the water are, but the walk from the bus loop to the math department, allowing for some leeway for getting lost, is standard urban renewal hell.

      Once I spend more time there I’ll report whether there are parts of campus that are pretty in a way Riverside Park isn’t.

      • Adirondacker12800

        ..urban renewal hell…
        Probably because Vancouver is mostly a post World War II city and the campus is mostly post World War II construction.
        Columbia is probably the Ivy League with the “newest” campus. 1898. The El got to 116th St. in 1891. There’s going to be some difference in the layout if you are expecting people to arrive by elevated trains versus buses and cars.

        …scale… Metro Vancouver has as much population, very very roughly, as Brooklyn or Queens. A very very quick surf through Google Street View of Broadway, 10th Ave and 4th ave makes me think “Eastern Queens, Southern Brooklyn, Northside of Chicago” …. Bayonne…. Vancouver doesn’t have the population and employment centers to accrete Queens Blvd.

        • Alon Levy

          It does feel somewhat like QB, though with less residential density behind it. But the relative importance of Central Broadway is much greater than that of Sunnyside; in terms of metro area job share, I think it’s ahead of Downtown Brooklyn and Newark.

          The thing about the development is that Broadway does not feel postwar. It feels early-20th century in style and the patchwork of ethnic neighborhoods, but with some newer development: the residences on the side streets feel somewhere between Garden City and postwar, and the buildings that are taller than two floors are late-20th century in style. The same is true of 4th Avenue, another major east-west street in the same area. It’s just UBC that feels postwar.

          • Adirondacker12800

            The population of Vancouver at the 2011 census was 603,502. The 2012 Census for Essex County New Jersey was 783,969. That many people and you end up with Newark and the avenues leading out of it. You don’t get Broadway on the Upper West Side. The metro Vancouver population is 2.3 million. Essex, Hudson, Union and Morris Counties are 2.4. … You get Newark, you don’t get Manhattan… You get Eastern Queens and Nassau…. Especially since most of the population arrived after the War and owned cars.
            The population of B.C. in 1961 was 1,629,082, The size of the University would roughly correlate with that. In 2011 the population was 4,400,057. Of course the University looks Post War, It was grassy knolls back in 1946. Or wooded knolls.

  2. metasyntactic

    Former UBC student here. While UBC is not particularly high-density compared to the Northeast schools that Alon is referring to, they are in the process of adding a significant amount of additional housing. Just in the last few years, they have expanded the Totem Park dorm and approved construction on additional housing at the Ponderosa Hub and elsewhere. The bus loop itself is slated to be turned into academic housing once it’s moved to its new location. There’s also been active development on parking lots, such as the new pharmaceutical science building.

    Alon: during the school year, the student union building is quite busy. It’s possible that this isn’t the case now since it’s summer and also because of construction on the new building. It’s certainly not like Harvard Square though.

  3. mike0123

    Broadway has pockets of prewar multistorey commercial development where streetcar lines intersected at Main and Granville. The first wave of development occurred from 1907 to 1911, and accounts also for most of the larger pre-80s buildings as well as the large older houses.

  4. mike0123

    The early transit connections to downtown were at Main and Granville, so most of the early development in the pre-WWI boom happened there. The streetcar lines later fanned out from these two locations – creating a well-spaced transit grid – but the resulting development occurred during the slower period following the boom and was more diffused. The result is a suburban character in a city built for transit.

    The line over the Cambie (then Connaught) bridge was built later and was never extended past Broadway. Cambie was one of the last arterials to be developed, and there are large parks and large institutional buildings in fields along much of its length. Broadway and Cambie had strip malls with surface parking a few years ago.

  5. Ian Fisher (@electricyvr)

    Welcome to Vancouver! Yes, the fare machines at stations are currently limited to short-term fares but all that will change once the Compass Card (contactless smartcard) comes on line next year:
    Also note that TransLink is studying LRT and BRT alternatives for service in the Broadway – UBC corridor, as well as a SkyTrain subway all the way or a shorter subway in the densest part of Broadway (to Arbutus) with LRT or BRT beyond.

  6. Erik Griswold

    Fortunately your fare-saver ticket searches shouldn’t be too arduous as there are convenience stores often located near stations.

    Of note, the streetcars system is largely still present in the form of trolleybuses which you will hear referenced as simply “Trolleys”.

  7. keephoustonhouston

    To be pedestrian-friendly, a street needs to have a certain proportion between the height of the street wall – for example, the height of the buildings flanking it if they do not taper toward the top – and the width of the street.

    This is self-evidently false. For one, the Google Street View you link is teeming with pedestrians. For another, there are whole cultures that have always preferred low-rise buildings. Timbuktu comes to mind. Japan, also, was traditionally a nation of single-story structures, although the coming of elevators and electric trains made them the poster child for urban intensity. Multistory was only common where you had brick, stone, or tall timber – in other words, Europe and the New World. Anything that’s a pre-industrial vernacular architecture is by definition pedestrian-friendly, since that’s how people got around.

    Speaking from personal experience, all of the hippest parts of the western and southern cities I’ve lived in – the places you want to get out and walk around, even if you’re in a car – are all well below your 1:2 rule of thumb. Broadway in Seattle is an 80-foot ROW with 15-25 foot buildings. Hawthorne in Portland is 70′ with 25-30 footers. Westheimer through Houston’s Montrose is ~60′ with 15-20 footers and a few hybrids (two-story house with front yard converted to single-story retail).

    What this really is, basically, is Alon Levy is a New Yorker, and he really prefers NY levels of building scale and ped intensity. Which is great. We all have our preferences – I like redheads, for one. But there’s no inherent relationship between scale and walkability.

    • Alon Levy

      Well, Japan also has narrow streets – and the wide streets are fronted by taller buildings. The Old Urbanist/New World Economics argument against wide streets is precisely that they are out of scale.

      You’re right that the images I have of the main streets are teeming with pedestrians. Broadway, 4th, and Cambie are doing okay. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the amount of activity should be proportionate to street width, and commercial areas have more leeway there. From the bus, where you can’t see the tops of the streets, parts of Broadway reminded me of Kendall Square (and that’s mixed praise, but still praise). But if you check the residential streets, it’s a whole other world – even the stretches of Broadway that are residential, with about 4 floors. From the street, it feels suburban and automobile-scale, except the rents are urban and there are ornamental front yards but no usable back yards.

      • keephoustonhouston

        Anytime you have multistory residential with “ornamental front yards” – Seattle has a ton of this, as does DC – it almost always seems to be a single-use zoning district. Which almost by definition means you’re going to have low ped activity on the sidewalk… the only way you’ll get a ton of ped activity in restricted residential districts is if the commercial districts have shitty parking that forces people to park in the neighborhoods and hoof it.

        Conversely, there are a lot of older parts of Houston that are well below even 1:3, and in the “streetcar suburban” range of 5000-7000 people / mi2 – but they always seem to have a decent ratio of peds to cars precisely because they’re littered with small scale commercial… the magic of no zoning.

        • Alon Levy

          There is metered on-street parking on 4th, though not so much on Broadway – restaurants and such there tell you to park behind the place, in the alleys. It’s Broadway that has more activity, though it’s not because of the parking, since the corridor is generally more important; more likely the parking arrangement there comes from the need to use every available lane for moving rather than parking.

          For what it’s worth, although I’ve seen almost no residential activity on the residential avenues, which are parallel to Broadway and 4th, I’ve seen some on the streets, which connect to them. It’s obviously walkable here, and probably not very drivable for short trips; it’s just the scale of it that bothers me. Providence got me used to the idea that low-traffic, low-activity, low-rise residential streets are 12 meters wide rather than 30.

          And yes, it’s zoned residential away from the main commercial corridors. Not always single-family residential, though, and there’s a major loophole (alley housing) that lets you densify Tokyo-style, i.e. small buildings on small lots. For what it’s worth, rents here are on a par with the middle-cost parts of the Northeast (somewhat more expensive than Providence and Waltham, well below Boston, not in the same universe as New York), and much higher than in Houston. On the other third, Vancouver’s been much better than Portland et al at upzoning the areas along SkyTrain.

    • Adirondacker12800

      …boardwalks along the shore. almost always low rise buildings with a very very very wide “sidewalk” in the boardwalk and an enormous street in the beach and water. People pay premium prices to go spend time at some of them.

      • keephoustonhouston

        Good point.

        Last time I’m at Coney Island, I’m chilling on a bench watching these five Nuyoricans frolic. Girl #1 goes up and gives a smack on the ass to #’s 2, 3, and 4 – just whack, whack, whack. Girl #5 turns around with a pouty face and says “what about meeeeee!”, then sticks her ass in the air.

        I will tell you, at that moment, I was not thinking about building massing.

    • Matthew

      The trouble is that some of the worst locations for walkability are also less than 1:2. It’s less about building height, and more about intensity of usage. And whether a person feels safe crossing the street. The narrower the street, the safer it is to cross at any moment and at any place.

      Having near-zero setback is also nice, even if you don’t have too much height — for protection from the elements. On a warm day, you can walk in the shade of the buildings; on a cold day, you can walk on the sunny side. This is a choice which is lost to areas with height restrictions and setback requirements. Which is why walking on the sidewalk in suburbia is generally so miserable — no protection from the elements or the cars!

      • keephoustonhouston

        Setback requirements kill the sidewalkscape because there’s nothing to engage with, you can’t reach out and touch things (buildings, poles, newspaper stands, etc). Plus a lot of jurisdictions build sidewalks without a grass strip, so you’re right next to traffic.

        But you can get the comforting “street wall” with a single-story, single-use building. You don’t need to adopt some sort of form based code with ratios and detailing and articulation or something, just your basic single-story commercial building along with some parallel parking and now you have walkable retail.

        • Matthew

          Being “next to traffic” isn’t a big deal on a small street. I won’t deny that some places pull off “street wall” with single story, but it’s under-utilizing a resource. You’ll get more intensity and variety by allowing more than one story. A lot of one story districts I’ve seen have big parking lots hiding somewhere, because there isn’t enough intensity to support themselves otherwise.

          I’m not a big fan of any zoning codes beyond what’s necessary for public safety. Use-based codes are obviously a disaster. Form-based codes — and only those with a light touch — may have a place, insofar as they offer a potential bulwark against monotony and monopolization. I think I could use some more evidence of that, though.

          • keephoustonhouston

            I can’t think of any small streets where you’re next to traffic. On a residential street, integral curb and sidewalk is typically buffered from through lanes by a parking strip, or else the thing is so damn narrow that 85th-percentile traffic speeds are in the 15-20mph range. Moreso I’m talking about strips like this… sidewalk, curb, 45mph cars.

          • Matthew

            That’s too wide to be pleasant. 45mph cars … that’s pure “stroad” territory as Chuck Marohn would put it. I don’t see how that encourages people to get out and walk around. That’s like being on the side of a highway.

            The narrow streets I’m thinking about don’t accommodate traffic speeds higher than 15mph, if even that. If it’s wider, and there’s some protection from traffic, then maybe bump that up to 25-30mph. But my tastes run towards the narrower option.

  8. Reilly

    Translink believes that a Broadway subway would get 146,000 daily riders, up from 60,000 on the 99-B plus about 50,000 on local buses today; intuitively this feels low to me, though achieving high enough transit mode share to UBC and Central Broadway would probably require more fundamental changes to their urban design than is politically acceptable. For one, local activists would have to stop referring to the few mid-rises amidst the two-story retail at Broadway and Cambie as high-rise or high-intensity development.

    Yep. The developers and architects wanted to go a lot higher at Broadway and Cambie.

    • Reilly

      Also, welcome to Vancouver! I recommend checking out the local branch of SkyscraperPage Forum if you have time – I’ve found that it’s one of the best sources for discussion and news (mostly news) of Vancouver’s urban form. Would be great to see you there in some of the transit threads.

      • Alon Levy

        I registered, to give my two cents on the congestion thread. The other threads are ungodly long. 400 pages of news from the last 5 years about transit improvements? Really?

        • Reilly

          Hah, yep. It’s just the way they do things there – threads never get cleaned out. It’s not bad for day to day use (just go to the last page or two) but it does make finding old posts a nightmare.

  9. Pingback: How Residential Blocks Act As Barriers | Pedestrian Observations

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