Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Peds on Weds: Toronto-style sidewalks part 3 - the downsides

There has been a fair amount of criticism of the Toronto-style sidewalk design since it was made the standard in the City of Ottawa in 2006, just as there have been various challenges implementing it. As with any standard, you can't please all of the people all of the time, especially in a constrained physical environment like Delaware Avenue, below:

In the first part of this series, I described what "Toronto-style" sidewalks are and how they're supposed to work. In the second part, I detailed the rather technical history of how this sidewalk design, also known as "ramp-style vehicle access crossing", became standard, following through minutes from post-amalgamation City of Ottawa through to 2006.

Feedback about the design started as soon as the sidewalks on Delaware (pictured above) and Holland Avenue were installed for the pilot project. Since then, the design has also received its share of criticism from various sources. Today I'll be discussing these criticisms, and other issues the standard has encountered. I'll finish the series next week with a review of alternatives, starting with how Ottawa's sidewalks have been designed through the ages.

As mentioned in the previous post, there was extensive consultation on the pilot project, including comments by the Accessibility Advisory Committee. Various issues and concerns are detailed made by residents are outlined in the minutes of the meeting where the report was heard (back when they did that sort of thing).

The report that these individuals were responding to included a number of diagrams and summary tables of input, detailing the differences between how the standard was implemented differently on Delaware and on Holland, and how the comments varied based on these differences.

One of the problems was that Delaware's sidewalks are only 1.5m wide, whereas the standard is based on a 1.8m sidewalk. This makes for a very narrow walking platform. It's fine if you're by yourself, but if someone is coming the other way, or if you want to walk alongside someone, or if you're pushing a wheelchair or stroller and someone's car is sticking out of their driveway, then you'll end up walking on the steep slope. This is even worse here on Craig Street in the Glebe, reconstructed in 2005 (during the pilot phase) along with nearby sections of Lyon and Fifth, where a series of driveways effectively reduces the sidewalk to the width of the flat part for much of the block:

The City acknowledges this drawback in its report on the Delaware style design (emphasis added):
The Delaware pilot installation was an amended version of the “Ramp” standard on Holland Avenue to represent a design that could fit the 1.5m exception requirement of the guideline. The amendments included a reduction of curb height to 100mm, a steeper ramp component and a smaller travel platform width. While the review indicates the design has potential to work, less consistent acceptance than the City's preferred wider sidewalks width was documented through the results of the survey completed during the monitoring. The design also introduces a travel platform width at the threshold of the CSA minimum requirements and ramp slopes that can be considered to fall outside reasonable acceptable recovery ranges for persons with disabilities.
This is the chief complaint of people who tell me they don't like the Toronto-style sidewalk design, and I can't say they're wrong (though when I inquire further, I find they strongly support the same technique when used in other locations with wider sidewalks). But given the constraints, what's the alternative?

This "worse but for all the others" problem was captured by the meeting minutes in the comments by Catherine Gardner, accessibility advocate, wheelchair user, and frequent visitor to City Hall (emphasis added):
Catherine Gardner advised that she learned about this project through the Accessibility Advisory Committee and then went to assess the two sidewalks herself. She expressed major concerns with the Delaware site, noting that the narrow width causes those with wider wheelchairs to slide towards the road; also, since many of the laneways are short, some cars protrude onto the sidewalk when parked, decreasing safety space for pedestrians. She articulated concerns as well that the slope of the ramp might cause children in wagons or strollers to tip over when a parent moves toward that slope to let someone pass by... When asked by Councillor Doucet, Ms. Gardner clarified that she prefers the sidewalk with a flat surface so she does not have to worry about sliding in icy conditions.
I made a pilgrimage to Delaware Avenue earlier this month to see the sidewalks for myself (whenever I've visited friends who live on Delaware, I'd never thought to look!). I was hoping to see evidence of the flat part of the sidewalk being dry and the rain/ice etc being stopped in the ramp part. Unfortunately, the Delaware sidewalks were covered entirely in ice! Instead I found something a bit different...

One complaint about the design is that the plow blade can't get into the cut like it could on a 'traditional' drop-style sidewalk. But what I saw on Delaware is that this isn't necessarily a drawback, but a potential benefit for pedestrians. Here in a stretch where the ice had been cleared to the flat part of the sidewalk, the ice in the ramp brought it up to the height of the flat part, resulting in a full 1.8m wide sidewalk! (albeit covered mostly in gritted ice!)

The staff report thus recommended against the Toronto-style sidewalk design, saying,
...the “Ramp” standard for sidewalk widths less than 1.8m generally will not be used. It can however be considered on a site specific exception basis subject to detailed consideration of constraints, the effects of the combination of mitigating factors such as mountable curb, steeper ramp, vehicle encroachments on travel path, drainage, implications of lowering roadway profiles, etc.
To that end, sidewalk on Glendale* had just been finished when I snapped this photo in 2011, and it's a roller-coaster. There are other potential alternatives, which I'll discuss in the next instalment.

(*I use examples from the Glebe because they've had many residential side-streets reconstructed since the Toronto-style was made standard, whereas in Centretown mostly main streets have been fully reconstructed)

There are other exceptions where the Toronto-style standard isn't used. For example, I was wondering if anyone would pick up on the clue I left in the first instalment with the photo of the Somerset Gardens condominium east of Elgin:

It's a very wavy sidewalk, yet it was installed in 2008. May 30th to be exact! Here they are putting it in:

So if the standard was approved in 2006, and this sidewalk was installed in 2008, what gives? Here's what staff had to say at the time:
"Although the sidewalk works associated with the site plan development located at 138 Somerset were only completed this year, these works are in keeping with the site plan agreement which was registered April 26, 2006.  The direction with respect to the use of the "ramp" style accesses occurred in June of 2006 (see attached technical information bulletin).  Therefore the new sidewalk standard was not in effect at the time of the site plan approval."
So it turns out it's an exception because the site plan was approved before the standard came into force. That's not likely to be the case in future projects.

Another exception, this time by City forces, is when only a portion of a sidewalk is re-done. For example, where they repaired the sidewalks around this catchbasin pair on Waverley Street in May 2012, if they did the replacement section in the Toronto style, then you'd have two different ramp styles meeting halfway across the driveway. Replacing the sections in front of the driveway would triple the amount of sidewalk to replace, and would likely require some additional work on the grading of the driveways themselves.

Here's an odd case where the reverse appears to be the case: a rebuilt driveway next to an old, broken up drop-style sidewalk. The new driveway is higher than the back of the old sidewalk, awaiting the sidewalk to be rebuilt up to the Toronto style!

But when the whole north sidewalk was re-done on Pretoria last year as part of a slate of sidewalk and curb rehabilitation projects approved in the 2012 budget, there presumably was a chance to re-do the vehicle accesses in the Toronto style. The contractor also dug up a fair bit into the driveways, which would have allowed them to adjust the grading for drainage to install ramp-style sidewalks. Instead it was disappointingly was built with drop sidewalks. Since it's not in Centretown, I wouldn't know if there was a dialogue that led to the standard not being used.

As part of the Bronson Avenue reconstruction, Christie Street was fully reconstructed from the sewers to the surface between Cambridge and Bronson (it was also resurfaced an additional block west, up to Arthur). The north side was indeed built in the Toronto style, but I recall hearing that the south side had to be the traditional drop style due to complications with drainage (it was never specified, but I think this meant that a Toronto-style sidewalk would be above the driveways so the water would pool in the driveway).

This "drainage" comment stuck in my mind when I visited during the early-January thaw which made for icy sidewalks across the city. Here's that block of Christie, looking towards Bronson. Perhaps a bit academic for the sake of this photo, but the south sidewalk is on the right:

For what it's worth though, there was one piece of the sidewalk on the north side that wasn't completely covered in ice, a Toronto-style driveway entrance. The flat part of it was indeed fully above the shoreline of Christie Lake:

There were some other issues with the Bronson Avenue reconstruction. First, recall what the sidewalks on Bronson used to look like: too narrow, too steeply angled across the walking path, and too wavy:

In 2012, the first year of Bronson's reconstruction, the section between Gladstone and Arlington was rebuilt. Much wider and more consistent sidewalks, but as Eric observed, still wavy. Better, and not as wavy... but not the standard.

In December, the project engineers offered up a babbling excuse that didn't admit that they failed to follow the standard, but can otherwise be simplified to 'sorry, we were just trying to make it easier for vehicles, but we were planning all along to use the Toronto style in the section that hasn't been built yet.' I reviewed all my notes from the extensive Public Advisory Committee (PAC) meeting discussions and didn't find any reference to the Toronto-style sidewalks, but then why should there be when it's standard?

Sure enough, when the next section of Bronson was built last year, between Gladstone and Somerset, the Toronto-style was used. But there was a problem: that lovely paver strip along the edge of the sidewalk, whose absence delineates the vehicle accesses? The engineers said that they couldn't extend it over the transition from the flat part of the sidewalk to the ramped part. As a result, the gap in the paver strip is much wider than the formal vehicle entrance. But if we build traditional drop style sidewalks, the engineers suggested, we can extend the paver strip all the way to where this man's foot is:

As is so often the case, "we can't" in traffic-engineer-speak translated in this case to "we really don't want to". Surrounded by (non-traffic) engineers in friends and family, I know they are natural problem-solvers. Sure enough, when pressed, they made it work very well to get the paver strip to close in on the vehicle access on the third section of Bronson (also last year), from Somerset to Laurier, shown here on the west side of Cooper:

To boot, during the icy spell, I found that most of the new sidewalks along Bronson itself were clear of ice and didn't pool up with water like they used to.

Bronson wasn't the only reconstruction project where this was overlooked. While Somerset Street east of Bank got the Toronto-style sidewalks, those were built in 2006 right when the sidewalk design was top-of-mind:

When it came time to build the sidewalks on Somerset Street through Chinatown six years later, the Toronto-style was no longer a current topic and wasn't discussed in the 17 or so committee meetings I sat in on as a community representative for that project!

Other complicating/mitigating factors are that the sidewalks on Somerset were built in precast pavers (which it may not be possible to do a Toronto-style design with once settling is factored in), the sidewalk is very wide so the cross-slope is slight, and the street itself is steeper than any dip in the sidewalk could ever be (which also helps with drainage to avoid ice buildup):

The upcoming reconstruction of Gladstone Avenue between Cartier and Bank this year will include Toronto-style sidewalks. I admit I gave photos of the narrow Craig street sidewalks to the project manager to use in the public open house, which might have caused some undue concern! Gladstone's sidewalks currently look like this puddle of slush from December 2012 next to the Elphin:

Unlike the Craig sidewalks, for the most part Gladstone's sidewalks will be in the traditional style envisioned in the guidelines: namely, the sloping part of driveways will be in the new boulevard, and the entire 2m-wide sidewalk will be a flat, consistent surface. Only in a few spots where there isn't room for a boulevard will the ramp encroach into the sidewalk, but the sidewalk will still be 2m wide, rather than the 1.8m wide ones on Craig St.

These ones, installed on the north side of Argyle east of Elgin in 2010, are more like it. The landscaping/streetscaping on Gladstone will vary due to situational issues but the mechanics of the sidewalks and vehicle access will look like this:

I know what you're thinking. "But why can't they build them some other way?"

That's for the next instalment... starting from Centretown's earliest sidewalks through to what the future can hold, I'll have it all!

[Tune in on Wednesdays at noon for a new pedestrian-themed blog post. View the Pedestrians label for previous Peds on Weds posts]

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