Posts Tagged ‘Urban Design’

Designing a rapidway

Monday, October 25th, 2010

Designing a rapidway

Earlier this year, I wrote a series of blogs about planning for growth, discussing York Region’s long envisioned goal of a true rapid transit system. The system would have to connect regional centres and move the expanding population around quickly, without increasing car traffic. The plans for this rapid transit system have been in the works for several years, and given our population, we know that bus rapid transit (BRT) offers the right technology at this time.

But how did we get from knowing we wanted to have a BRT system, to the actual design of the rapidways?

The first design considerations went back to our basic goals for a rapid transit system: to move a lot of people around efficiently, and to not add to gridlock on the roads (in fact, to reduce gridlock). The easiest and fastest way to create rapidways on existing roads would have been to convert the curb lanes, replacing two lanes of traffic. While this option would have met our first goal of moving people around quickly, it would have also decreased existing road capacity – which would defeat our second goal of not adding to gridlock. This meant that we would have to add lanes to include the rapidways.

Once we knew that, the next design consideration was where to put those new rapidway lanes. Again, we referred back to our first goal: to move a lot of people around quickly. The basic benefit of rapid transit is that it provides a consistent, reliable way of getting from point A to point B. Riders know how often the vehicle will arrive, how long the trip will take, and they know they can count on it, no matter how heavy the traffic. So what are the design considerations to ensure a consistent, reliable ride?

One key design requirement is to provide level boarding, meaning that passengers don’t have to climb up or down steps onto the vehicle; for example, subways have level boarding. With level (or close to level) boarding, people have better access, regardless of their level of mobility or whether they are pushing a baby carriage. Level boarding allows more people to get on and off quickly and results in shorter dwell time, which means vehicles spend less time at stations. In short – level boarding helps make the service faster, which in turn helps vehicles keep to a schedule, and provide a consistently reliable, frequent service. These improvements make transit more appealing to more people – which meets our first goal.

But to provide level boarding, the platforms have to be close to bus floor height – which is about a foot off the ground (most sidewalks are closer to 6″ high). To provide higher platforms, our stations needed to be separated from sidewalks. Theoretically, we could have built higher platforms on the edges of sidewalks, but there are reasons why this isn’t ideal: our stations would take up too much of the sidewalk, which could interfere with local businesses. Therefore, the best place for our stations would be to have them physically separated from the sidewalk. In our case, this meant locating stations in the middle of the road. The benefit of having the stations in the median, is that passengers won’t have to walk all the way across the road to get to a station – they can meet us half-way.

But by adding the rapidways down the middle of the road, we then needed to widen the roads to accommodate both the rapidways as well as the existing traffic lanes. All of which takes us to our final design, which is have our rapidways running along the median, with median stations, and special left turn and u-turn lanes at intersections to allow drivers to safely and easily turn across the rapidways.

Of course, going this route has required more steps, including acquiring the land needed to widen the roads. But the end result is going to be a rapid transit system that meets our goals of providing fast, consistent transit, without adding to existing traffic congestion. And that’s a design solution that we can all be really proud of.

Planning for urban renewal on Davis Drive

Monday, September 13th, 2010

Planning for Urban Renewal on Davis Drive

If you’ve driven along Newmarket’s Davis Drive recently, you’ve probably noticed the signs of impending construction work, including building demolitions and soil testing. These preliminary tasks are taking place to prepare the roadway before rapidway construction begins. The actual construction stage is the final step in what will have been a long process of planning for urban renewal and redesign along Davis Drive – a process that will transform this important street in some exciting ways.

Much of the planning for the Davis Drive rapidway is as concerned with urban design as it is with public transit improvements. So what do we mean by urban design and what are the issues on Davis Drive?

In general, urban design is about deliberately shaping neighbourhoods and cities using architecture, landscaping and city planning. It’s about arranging things such as buildings, public spaces, services and amenities, in a way that will provide a certain feel or character.

When we started to design the Davis Drive rapidway, we had a number of urban design objectives. It goes without saying that the rapidway needed to be both functional and attractive. As with all of the rapidways, Davis Drive will use a design sensibility that reminds people of how innovative, exciting and fun Viva is.  Every element we will be using along Davis Drive, from station features to the pavement, retaining walls, handrails, and lighting, will reflect and repeat a consistent, appealing look that speaks to what Viva is all about.

But more than that, in keeping with the principles of transit-oriented-development, we wanted to create new destinations along Davis Drive, making it even more welcoming and friendly for people. The idea is to make Davis Drive feel like an urban space, encouraging people to walk around and visit local shops and restaurants. And with increased visitors, new development is more likely to take place, resulting in even more destinations and potential visitors.

Our plans for Davis Drive include wider boulevards, with pleasantly planted areas, trees, street furniture and landscaping. High-quality pedestrian and street lighting will provide an attractive, welcoming environment at all times of day. These elements will be designed to a human scale, which will make people feel more comfortable walking around and enjoying the sights and activities.

Another design objective has been to forge a strong connection between the heritage flavour of Main Street and Davis Drive itself. Main Street has a lot of character, and we want to extend some of that charm out onto Davis Drive; we want to provide a cue to people as they travel along Davis Drive that they are entering the old-time heart of Newmarket. So around the intersection of Main and Davis, our rapidway design will include some elements to visually connect the rapidways to the heritage area, including the street furniture, lighting design and the bridge over the East Holland River. We hope that people will be intrigued by the change in visual tone, and will want to explore more of the heritage shopping areas along Main Street.

Of course, with construction ahead of us, the final product is a ways off. Even so, we’re really excited about the urban renewal that we are a part of on Davis Drive, and we can’t wait to get underway!

Engineering well so you won’t notice

Monday, August 30th, 2010

Engineering Well So You Won't Notice

If you’ve ever come to one of our vivaNext open houses, you’ll be able to picture this scene: a room-full of long maps, blueprints and illustrations, showing all manner of lines, arrows and numbers. It’s not necessarily the most glamourous-looking stuff to many of us – in fact, some details can seem downright indecipherable! But to an engineer, these displays represent the product of months and months of immensely challenging puzzles, detailed analysis and problems to be solved.

Like other huge civil engineering projects, the vivaNext rapidways rely on an enormous amount of massively detailed planning; these details probably aren’t top-of-mind for the vast majority of people. When’s the last time you drove down a road in a rainstorm and paid attention to how well the water was draining off the roadway? Probably never. But I can guarantee that if the water was not draining well, you would notice. That’s the point of engineering – to anticipate and plan for a dizzying array of components,  in this case, the elements needed for roadway and transit system building – so that when the final project is built, everything works seamlessly and perfectly.

So what have those engineers (and architects) been doing for the last couple of years, anyway? Here’s a plain-language guide to vivaNext engineering.

Each week at the vivaNext office, our preliminary engineering team sits down and gives an update on all the project components they’ve been working on. Some items – like designing all the underpinnings (e.g. road grade, storm sewers and catch basins to make sure water drains properly) – are critical, but largely invisible. Some of the components require looking well into the future, for example, working with Regional and Town planners to anticipate future land use plans and potential developments to ensure intersections and stations are located where they will be most convenient and useful. Some of the planning is related to urban design issues, such as the kind of materials and finishes that will create the style of urban streetscape we want for our communities.

Did you ever stop to look at a street light pole? I confess that it never occurred to me what went into choosing a street light. I now know that there are many options for street lights out there, and someone actually has to spend time carefully considering what height, diameter, finish and shape will work and look best – not to mention what kind of foundations are needed, how they should be spaced, and what kind of light they will provide. Every decision point impacts the budget, how the streetscape will look and may impact the construction schedule as well.

And as with everything that involves public money, there is an ever-present (and totally appropriate) focus on getting the best value for money, and balancing design objectives with cost-consciousness. Some of these discussions involve items that I suspect many people would find interesting – like landscaping and street furniture choices. Other items deal with equally important but less visible questions (and let’s be honest, not terribly interesting for most people), for example, determining the best and most cost-effective way to protect all the electrical wires that will be buried under our rapidway stations.

Safety and legislated issues are key, of course – ensuring surfaces such as platform tiles aren’t slippery, and that stations and enclosures are accessible. Many questions – such as where to locate fare equipment and displays so people don’t have to go farther than necessary – involve anticipating how people will want to use the system and making sure it functions well. Some of the issues can draw on experience from other places – for example, understanding how wind and weather will interact with our glass canopies, so we can make them as comfortable as possible for riders. Others issues are totally dependent on finding made-at-home answers, by working with local municipalities, who in turn work with their stakeholders. These include things like fitting bike lanes into the roadway design, or how best to protect sensitive natural or heritage features.

One thing I have learned from observing our engineers at work, is how much careful thought, analysis and knowledge is required to build our vivaNext dream. For most – if not all – of the issues, there’s never an obvious answer. Every issue, from the most glamourous to the most prosaic, needs to be debated and weighed, with many different pros and cons considered and balanced. And everything is connected, so nothing is ever as simple or straightforward as you might think.

So next time you walk down the sidewalk or drive along Highway 7, give a thought to what you’re surrounded by, and notice all the little things that make up the streetscape –then consider the additional complexity involved in our vivaNext rapidway system! The effort is worth it to plan and build a vision, to make it work perfectly, and to get people around York Region easily, quickly and conveniently.