Using the Entire Tool Box to Bring Complete Streets to Courtenay
When it comes to Complete Streets projects, the road forward is hardly straight and narrow. Changing the composition of streets that have been designed a certain way for decades can lead to worry from the people who call these places home, unsure if the proposed redesign will truly benefit the community. So it was in Courtenay, BC, and small city in the Comox Valley on the east coast of Vancouver Island. Although it boasts a population just under 26,000, that number has been growing in recent years, leading to inevitable issues around congestion, particular on 5th Street, one of only two crossings over the Courtenay River which bisects the City.
“ln order to make sure the project is a success, we’ve had to make sure that the community was engaged,” explains Eric Sears, a Project Engineer who recently moved from Fort St. John to Courtenay with his family. The project, a redesign of four blocks for 5th Street from Menzies to Fitzgerald Avenues, is a high priority for Council, so ensuring that the residents of Courtenay understood what the project entailed and its positive impact to the city was crucial.
As a result, Eric and the rest of the project team, which includes Urban Systems consultants from Courtenay, Victoria, Vancouver and Surrey, have been actively engaging residents throughout the project. “That’s where we have really been able to succeed because we can bring in the best partners, and staff generally trusts us to lead the engagement, which can be rare in communities where staff really want to do that themselves.”
Using Engagement to Change Public Perception
The project itself is the first of its kind in Courtenay, making it very much a foreign concept for many people in the community. There are certainly local champions for it among those who feel the conditions for people who walk and bike need to be improved, however some have viewed it as bringing a “Vancouver-style” street to Courtenay, and are happy with the streets as they currently are. This has meant taking a different approach to engagement, allowing for an impressive amount of input from the public through open houses, design charettes with Council, and even a pop-up intersection at 5th Street and Fitzgerald Avenue.
“I feel that the engagement has swayed public opinion about the project,” says Eric. He explains how the public were presented with the six concepts Council felt were the best options for the street redesign, allowing them to look at each design critically and offer their opinions. “We tried our best within the constraints of the project to allow them to choose what was best for them.” Using that feedback, the team has been continually adapting the project to make sure that the design will be amenable to as much of the community as possible. As it came closer to the final design, most negativity towards the project declined as residents have been able to see what it will look like when complete.
Engaging Experts a Key to Success
Using the feedback they’ve received, the team engaged Katie Hamilton, former Director of Citizen Engagement and Strategic Planning at the City of Victoria, who now leads her own Management Services practice, to help compile that information into council briefs and reports to move the project forward. “The more expertise we can bring in and the more we can communicate, the better,” Eric states, who also notes that City staff have appreciated this added support due to their limited capacity. Katie’s previous experience working with municipal governments has been a significant benefit to the success of the project, which Eric says brings a different lens and perspective that has helped the team greatly.
Using Temporary Tactics as a Teaching Tool
Of all the engagement, Eric identifies the pop-up intersection as being a key link in gaining public support. Installed in May of 2017, the temporary activation allowed residents to see what the proposed changes would look like without having to permanently change the streetscape. Using this tactical urbanism approach allows people to experience the impact–or lack thereof–of reducing car travel lanes down from four to two, creating safe, shorter crossings for people walking and adding in a separated cycle track for those on bikes. “That pop up intersection was a great tool because of the quantitative data that came out of it,” reveals Eric, who feels it was integral in getting people’s support.
The Importance of Ongoing Education
Scheduled to be complete by the end of 2018, the project will greatly improve the comfort of travel for people who walk, bike and use electric mobility devices, many of whom currently share the road with cars due to narrow sidewalks. But Eric is aware that the redesign alone won’t be a silver bullet to solving current conditions.
“We’re going to have make sure that we’re out in front of the education piece of this project to help ensure it’s continued success. Education will be key–there are a lot of different elements to the project like floating bus stops, irrigation controllers, bike lanes, widened sidewalks, parking, etc., which residents may not be used to.” Eric thinks of the concerns for how people on scooters will integrate with those walking or riding bikes on these new facilities, and recognizes that understanding the solutions will be a work in progress to make sure all modes move together harmoniously.
Overall, he is excited to see the project come to life in his adopted-community, and grateful for the opportunity to work on a type of project formerly unfamiliar to him. “It’s been a real learning experience for me. It’s a foreign concept even for me, coming from Fort St. John, so I’m learning as well. For me, the learning has been seeing how the South Coast offices approach things differently. We approach these projects as specialists, integrating with people across numerous disciplines and offices with a different dynamic.”