Archive for August, 2010

What Should an Urban Walking Map Include?


I am a member of Ottawa’s seniors transportation committee, attached loosely to the Council on Aging.  Recently, we started a walking committee, which I agreed to chair.  I wrote a position paper on seniors’ walking and sent it out to the other three members.   We have had three meetings since.

My draft pointed out that seniors need not just the physical exertion of a mild nature that walking provides, but also the social opportunities that come from walking, since so many seniors live alone.  And, of course, walking is the ‘glue’ of the transit system, which seniors need more than when they are younger, since their incomes are lower.  Even though they (we) don’t commute daily anymore, that cuts two ways: lower income and more reliance on transit and walking, but also less of an economic case for car-ownership and its high fixed (‘sunk’) costs.  That latter situation is only made dire since often there is only one driver in the senior’s household, and parking too often is a costly option in the kind of housing seniors gravitate to (apartments and townhouses).

One member wants has proposed that we focus on getting the City to support us doing a walking map, updated annually or biennially, and available in some format to the public, like road, transit, and bicycle maps are today.  The map would be something those who walk would refer to in order to find the shortest distances, avoid hills and streets without sidewalks, and get access to benches, washrooms, and water fountains along the way at key points.

The map intrigues me, and I write this piece today, to seek ideas on how to make it a better project.  The City completed a Pedestrian Plan just a year ago, and the Council, in adopting it, committed itself to increase 10-fold the amount of capital improvements it would do each year, from half a million dollars to $5 million.

What should such a map aim to accomplish?  First, it can become a resource to those already in-tune with walking, either locals wanting to consider other routes, or wanderers/explorers wanting to discover local details, or those thinking of moving to a particular area that they want to be assured will have good walkability in general or easy and safe routes to specific destinations from a particular address.

Second, it can be a record of features of walkability at different points in time, for those chronicling the history of movement or some other social trend.  This would also serve the political purposes of local politicians wanting to improve things at the most local of levels, and for the most humble of constituents.

Third, it can be a guide for improvements in local quality of life for the city departments wanting to encourage more walking (for traffic efficiency, for health goals, for recreational ends, or even to improve civic life and an openness of the population to others).  Such a map should show shortcomings in particular areas, gaps in important routes, lacks in amenities in areas with large populations needing such things.

As to what form the map should be, that is an important question.  A walking map is one of greater details than road, transit-system, or even cycling maps.  [Those three could be easily shown on a single map, since all use roadways that are covered by the Highway Traffic Act of Ontario.  Transit on its own rights-of-way are still covered by the HTA.  Pathways that are not part of the roadway system are to be used equally  by cyclists and walkers, even if they are erroneously called “bike paths.” ]

What pedestrians need are the more fine links that exist — or should exist — to recognize the finer grid that walkers need.  Walkers move at 3-5 km/h, about 1/5 of the speed of bicycles, and 1/15 that of cars.  Therefore washrooms and water fountains must be closer together, and because walkers don’t carry their own seating with them, they also need to know where public benches are located (as opposed to the private seating found aplenty in every parked car sitting on the public right-of-way).  Besides the relative speed of walking, another reality that walkability must recognize is that those populations that walk more than average include those with more limited walking abilities and less patient bladders.

This level of detail makes printed maps onerous, and somewhat unnecessary, since a walker, for any particular trip, only needs a small area of representation.  On the other hand, putting this onto the Internet or in GPS mapping files for viewing on handheld devices can put them beyond the means of many who find themselves among the ranks of walkers re: affordability or to technological know-how.

That makes the best ‘product’ format to be the Internet with an ability to define an area which can be printed off in a format to carry along with oneself on any walk.

The latter bodes well for the sustainability of the project: those who use the map(s) should be regularly contributing additional detailed information to the ‘keepers’ of the data, either changes or errors. The plain-paper copies of maps sections would be an ideal format for using to submit such data.

In fact, our committee thought that the 130 or so existing local community associations should be enlisted as soon as we get a commitment from the City to allow us to collect data to be added to its GIS system to provide us with active seniors in their communities who can attend a workshop for training and receiving kits of starter maps to recording information on shortcuts, washrooms, benches, water fountains, and special challenges (stairs. inclines, missing sidewalk ramps, etc.) they come across.

Thoughts and ideas will be appreciated and acknowledged.

Shopping mall without power is eerie


Last Wednesday, on what is a weekly fare-free day on Ottawa’s transit system, I headed out to a suburban mall, Place d’Orleans.  It took two buses, the second plying the ‘transitway,’ our buses-only mini-freeway that parallels the only east-west freeway in this national capital of 1.25 million.  Thankfully, I took along a book to read on the bus.  I say, thankfully, because I needed it for killing more time that the ride.

I noticed, when I alit, that the pavement everywhere was wet.  When I got inside, there was a dreary look to everything.  There were people standing and sitting, talking to each other, but there was nothing else going on.  And it was rather dark.

I started my walk to the shop I had planned to visit first, but noticed that most shops were closed; and all spaces were dark — no overhead lighting.  When I passed the food court, I saw most places open, and stopped at the A&W counter to ask what was up.  “The power went  down during that thunderstorm about 10 minutes ago.  Since I had been walking for five minutes, it means that the power went off just as I had arrived.

A later stop at the info desk got me more info: the problem was elsewhere, but not far away, as no other malls or commercial areas were affected.  I decided to hang around till the power was restored.

I walked some more at first.  I found the Bay store, one of the two ‘anchors,’ to be open.  That meant having power for both lighting and for their point-of-sale machinery.  Then I headed to the opposite end of the mall to the other anchor, Zellers, that I had planned as stop #2, thinking it, too, might have planned for this, and also installed emergency power (as the mall had for all washrooms and other public-area corridors).  But Zellers was down, too.

I then sat at one of the many benches that sat under one of the many skylights, and read from an odd 1929 book, The Life of the Automobile, by a Russian, Ilya Ehrenburg.   It was written by a Parisien resident, in Russian, translated into German for publication i 1929, and finally translated in 1967 into English.  Despite its obscurity, it is about a popular target that is written about all too often.  I expected to be reading a novel, but I found it to be a series of chapters on different aspects of the automobile’s then-current history (roads, gasoline, the stock market, tires, and two ‘lions’ of the industry: Henry Ford and Andre Citroen).  Although mostly non-fiction, the author admits to making up some content to make it more interesting and tgo fill in gaps in his effort to use many quotes and anecdotes.

Anyway, after an hour of walking and reading, my expectations that the investment in time would be repaid with a short hydro-repair time was realized.  However, although the two stores opened promptly and the aisles were wide-open, I didn’t find what I was looking for.  I did get well into the new book, though.

But I did find that malls are very dependent on electricity, and that consumers will go through a lot to live out plans to shop.   There were still some window displays worth looking at.  Couldn’t the stores have remained open (the staff were mostly among those sitting in the mall, just by handing our flashlights to customers?  Apparently, the sales electronics can’t be so easily replaced by batteries.