When I lived in Calgary, Alberta, I fell in love with Stephen Avenue in the downtown.  This dedicated pedestrian street was a great place for a walk at lunchtime – the people, the sights, the sounds – it was always one of my favourite places to be, especially during summertime and Stampede.

In 2009, I moved to London, Ontario and I looked for pedestrian spaces (similar to Stephen Avenue in Calgary) to spend time, but alas, none appeared to exist.  Walking around downtown here, you quickly realize that there are several nice pedestrian spaces – such as around the Covent Garden Market, the Forks of the Thames, Victoria Park, and even Richmond Row, however these spaces aren’t always connected in an easy, walkable way.  We need better spaces in London to entice people to spend more time in the core, primarily along Dundas Street.

Stephen Avenue - Calgary, Alberta (c. 2008)

Stephen Avenue – Calgary, Alberta (c. 2008)

My primary walkability criticisms of downtown London include:

  • Poor land use in and around Dundas Street in the downtown does not promote a safe environment for people to visit and spend time. You can build a nice streetscape, but if the policy for quality land use does not happen in conjunction, the environment will not improve.
  • Lack of pedestrian-focused connectivity between various green spaces and public commons. If you’re around Coven Garden Market and Budweiser Gardens (formerly the JLC), you feel as if you’re on an “island” of sorts with connectivity.  Sure, there are great amenities in the immediate area, but to connect with other great pedestrian spaces, you likely have to traverse concrete, vehicle-filled obstacles.
  • Poorly timed signals and cycle lengths, especially in off-peak hours, which are not conducive to pedestrian walking speeds and flow. Wait time is one of the higher perceived travel costs in transportation modelling, leading to high impedance.  In practical terms, walking is less attractive and for those who do walk, there is more impatience and greater jaywalking.

Existing Dundas Street – London, Ontario (2015)

However, despite these criticisms, I have come to realize that downtown London has a lot of unfulfilled potential just waiting to be realized!

Ideally, I would like to see the de-emphasis of London Transit (LTC) bus routes on Dundas Street and at least a semi-regular closure of vehicular traffic between Ridout Street and Wellington Street.  It is encouraging to see that there are potential plans in the works to some degree via working sessions I attended for the London Plan, recommendations of the Downtown Master Plan (Draft 2013), through the annual car-free festival on Dundas Street via Our Street London, and through the recent funding received for Dundas Street improvements.

Through these various plans and events, Dundas Street is recognized as one of the key corridors through downtown London in terms of public spaces.  However, it currently does not feel like a place where one wants to spend any significant time.  It is utilitarian – you traverse Dundas to get to the places you want to be, you generally do not stay there.  Dundas Street as a destination needs some serious work.

Last spring, I had the opportunity to attend the Canadian Institute of Transportation Engineers (CITE) 2014 Conference in the Region of Waterloo.  As part of my time there, I went on a walking tour of downtown Kitchener along King Street, where they have an ambitious plan to create a sustainable, pedestrian-friendly corridor.

King Street - Kitchener, Ontario [Source: City of Kitchener]

King Street – Kitchener, Ontario [Source: City of Kitchener]

To the credit of the City of Kitchener, they have already done the legwork to design and construct the streetscape infrastructure based on European influences.  With blurred lines between pedestrian/vehicle spaces, wide sidewalks, removable parking, green spaces with bioswales, and land use incentives for the opening of new businesses, King Street is well on its way.  Is it there yet? No, but it’s on the right track – supporting land uses via incentives.

While I still love what Stephen Avenue has done for Calgary, in the London context, I believe a solution similar to King Street in Kitchener would be more appropriate to a smaller city such as ours – we need a flex street.  Stephen Avenue is closed to vehicles during daytime hours, but open in the evening.  It is my understanding that King Street is open to vehicles, but closes more regularly for events – it is a place where people can go as a destination.

Of course, at the end of the day, someone needs to pay for these improvements for Dundas Street in London.  While various grand plans have been studied and proposed, the implementation of critical key elements must be the focus of any viable plan – we need some easy wins to build off of before realizing a larger vision.

How about you?  What would make downtown London more walkable?  Is a Dundas Street pedestrian space and flex street a good idea?  What would make Dundas Street a downtown destination for you?  Please share your comments below.

Disclaimer:  This article is not intended to be a full study on what should or should not happen in downtown London and on Dundas Street in particular, but merely my personal observations and opinions based on what I see daily during my downtown visits.  I have never studied this issue from a professional perspective.  Plans are currently underway at the City of London to make a flexible use Dundas Street into reality – stay tuned. Cover image taken from the Downtown Master Plan (Draft 2013).