New Bike Lanes, Plazas, and Pedestrian Scrambles - Part 2 - Wharf Street

If you are here, I am really hoping that you read the first installment of this two part series on the new infrastructure along Wharf and Humboldt Streets. If you haven’t read the first one, I would highly recommend going back and looking at that one now and then coming back here.

Okay, so for those of you that are meant to be here, as you saw last time despite some of the negative press parts of the new infrastructure outside of the DoubleTree Hotel has received, I actually thought pretty highly of what the City has built in the first section I looked at. It was well put together and felt for the most part, complete and tightly integrated into the surroundings. I am not feeling quite the same about the other half of this project along Wharf Street, but it is not all bad either. For this second piece I think that the best way to look at it is to break it down into parts: the bike lanes, the pedestrian environment, and the Johnson Street Bridge intersection. Each one I think has its own impact on the user and certainly for me has its own merit or lack thereof. So lets get started looking at the bet part of the work.

Wharf Street Bike Lanes

I know that if you primarily use Wharf Street as a driver, you likely are not a fan of the new set-up. But really there are very limited reasons why a Victorian should ever be using Wharf Street for anything other than a Sunday drive. I realise that if you are driving north out of James Bay towards Vic West, then Wharf is the logical route due to the limited left hand turns on the other main north/south options, but that has to be a really small amount of people that would be doing that on a regular basis. So that means that the rest of the people that are using Wharf are either visitors, commercial traffic or people okay with a slower route. For those limited types of drivers the road can still work adequately, but slowly. But that is not what I am looking at, this is about the bike lanes.

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So the bike lanes are very similar to the ones put in along Pandora Avenue and Fort Street. One of the really nice parts of it from a cycling perspective is how it is starting to tie the pieces that have been built together. It is great to be able to ride down Pandora, then along Wharf and then back up Fort Street. As the new Humboldt and Vancouver Street parts are completed, depending on how they turn out, I expect it will be easy to create several little circuits as you ride for fun or if you are heading downtown to shop for a bit.

Another great part of the new bike lanes along Wharf is that it seems the City is starting to realise that when they put in bike lanes like this they need to include a lot bike racks. This part of the network has a good selection of spots to stop and park your bike which was very nice to see. I know that there has been some consternation among some cyclists that there are too many pedestrian crossings and that it makes Wharf a slow ride, but these bike lanes are not meant to be race tracks, they are meant to provide a safe place to ride downtown and that means having to stop for pedestrians at crossings. Overall from a cycling point of view I think that this new work is a great success.

Pedestrian Environment

So the bike lanes are pretty great and definitely a worthwhile addition of infrastructure in my opinion. While the work was ongoing the roads were dug up significantly and I would have thought that the City would have taken the opportunity to fix up the sidewalks. There are some improvements, especially to the street crossings at Bastion Square, Fort Street and Yates Street. At Yates Street there is even an additional light that is beneficial to pedestrians, cyclists and car drivers. What was not touched almost at all though, was the sidewalk along the west side of the street, the one right next to the bike lanes.

If you have walked along Wharf Street recently, especially on the harbour side, you will get to experience one of the worst pedestrian environments in the city. I keep hoping this is because there are plans to allow significant development on the three harbour parking lots and Wharf Street will not be the water side road anymore and instead be a regular downtown street one block removed. If that were the case, I would likely not be so concerned about the sidewalk here. Still as it is this is the second most important pedestrian route after Government Street for tourists and it should look that way. In actual fact though, the way it looks is terrible. First, the length between Bastion Square and Fort Street has always been a bad sidewalk. It has a nasty looking railing and is very narrow strip of sidewalk. It doesn’t help that the view here is stunning so people are stopping all the time, making it near impossible to get through. One would have thought with the effort that was going into the bike lanes they would have planned to build something to extend the sidewalk over the parking lot or have removed more parking to give a bit more space. Perhaps the City should have bitten the bullet and turned Wharf into just a single travel lane going south so that the width could have been really opened up but they didn’t which is unfortunate.

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The sidewalk in the next block south, while not narrow (actually it is a good size), is barely a sidewalk and certainly an embarrassment for a city that is focused on tourism. Looking specifically at the sidewalk between Fort Street and the Homecoming statue you will find almost any material besides a properly poured sidewalk. There is cracked cement, lumpy asphalt, haphazard grates and ill-defined driveways. It must have felt awkward for the City Workers to be building a beautiful new bike lane next to this mess. I am unaware of any current plans to fix this section up either but I am certain that the answer the City would give is that with the plans for the Ship Point parking lot that the sidewalks will get dealt with at the same time. I am also aware of just how unlikely that project is ever to come to fruition. So from a pedestrian perspective, I will say that things have marginally improved at the crossings but that the sidewalks themselves along Wharf remain cramped and in need of significant work. So it couldn’t get worse right?

Johnson/Pandora and Wharf Intersection

It gets worse. I know that some people will say that that this really isn’t part of the new project as it is kind of a piece of the Johnson Street Bridge project, well the new bridge has been open for over a year and so I think we can safely move the work in this area into the latest project to touch it, which would be the Wharf Street upgrade project. I just don’t know where to start with this mess. I know that some people will focus on the new bike lanes, multi-use path, pedestrian path and the plaza at the north end next to the Janion and say that there are so many improvements here that you can’t possibly find anything wrong with it. For me the real achievement here is that the space is now uncomfortable for those on bikes, in cars and on foot all at the same time. I think that the city took what was a basically a 1950’s motordom design and just tuned it down by a couple of notches rather than taking advantage of both the bridge project and the bike-lanes project and seeing if something new could have been done.

While I know that there are a lot of cyclists that would not be fans, however, I think that the best thing that we could put into this space and give it the gravitas that it should have as main gateway into downtown, would be to have a roundabout here. There are a few designs that are used in places around the world that do incorporate dedicated bike lanes and it would allow all of the various mode users to have a more freedom to move through the space smoothly. It also might give a little more purpose to the empty gravel island that is there now, if it was a proper old world traffic circle. That said there may be other options that would work just as well. What are your thoughts for what would work in this space?

I would also love to know what you think of the whole project along both Wharf Street and Humboldt Street!