ASK PAT: Small trees and Beg Buttons

neil21 asks—

Howdy. Two questions having just moved here from Vancouver’s West End.

1. Why are the street trees so short? Is it just time (but I thought this city was older) or the species? The streets are really hot without that shade.

2. At 6th and Carnarvon, pedestrians don’t get to cross without pressing the button. Even if pedestrians are crossing the same way on the other side.
2b. Also why aren’t your beg buttons those buttonless ones like you have for the bikes? Those are better.
2c. Also why does 6th and C have beg buttons at all? Just let peds cross with green cars always.

Welcome to New West. I would love to hear more about your decision to move here from our western suburb, and your experiences since making the shift. The theme of my answers to the above will be “A City is always a work in progress”. We are now headed the right direction, but have more work to do.

1: (caveat: I’m not an arbourist, but I have a couple of suppositions) First, the trees may be younger than you are used to. The City of New Westminster, with the exception of Queens Park (the neighbourhood) and a few parts of Glenbrooke North and Sapperton, really lost the plot on street trees a few decades ago. It may have been the fashion of the time, the cost of development, a mandate by the electrical utility, or just short-term thinking, but our urban forest was cut back in a devastating way. Our canopy cover City-wide is less than 18%, which is similar to Vancouver, but low compared to much of North America. It was only a few years ago when New Westminster introduced a new Urban Forest Management Strategy, and started to a) proactively protect the trees we have; and b) ramp up plans to plant trees and bring back more canopy cover. Unfortunately, the ultimate results of this will not be seen for another decade or two. That said, although the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second best time is today, and we are getting on it.

That said, it is also possible that trees are smaller above ground because they are smaller underground. Trees need healthy root systems to prosper, and our 150-year-old streets and sidewalks and utility corridors mean that the area of healthy nutrient-rich and porous soil around many of our newer trees is limited. This may mean staff decided to plant diminutive tree species to respect the available growing area, or it may be that the lack of soil is keeping the tree from meeting its ultimate size. There is a bunch of new engineering practice around creating “soil cells” as part of new street tree installations, but see last paragraph about 20 years.

2: (Mostly) because the City is old, doesn’t have endless money, and until recently, it wasn’t a priority.

Beg Buttons (the pejorative name given by pedestrian advocates to buttons that must be pushed by pedestrians in order for the red hand to become the white man at light-controlled intersections when the cars get a green light) were all the rage at one time, because everybody important drove, and pedestrians were just another thing that needed to be managed within car spaces to get traffic moving.

Our new Master Transportation Plan, however, prioritizes pedestrians for the first time, so we are working on changing these things. That said, Beg Buttons can still serve a purpose for system-wide traffic management in more pedestrian-oriented urban areas. They can assure that crossing times for wider roads are adequate for slower pedestrians when they are present, and not too long when they are not. They also make the audible crossing signal for the hearing impaired work better. As always, the devil is in the details.

In some places, we still have older Beg Buttons (even old-style small-button ones in place of the larger panel-type ones) in places where more modern treatments would be appropriate. These are being replaced as budgets allow on a priority basis. Every year, Transportation staff do a review of all  identified crossing improvement needs, place some draft priorities on them based on safety, potential to dovetail with bigger projects or adjacent development, and other factors. They pass that priority list through the Advisory Committee for Transit, Bicycles and Pedestrians, the Access Ability Advisory Committee, and the Neighbourhood Transportation Advisory Committee, then spend their budget making the changes. Sometimes that means curb bulges, marked cross walks, lighting changes or updating the signal operations. All of these things are ridiculously expensive, hence the need to set priorities.

In some places, the Beg Buttons will remain (although I hope we will eventually migrate all to the more accessible panel-type ones) because they are a useful tool. If well applied, they make crossing safer for pedestrians, especially in lower-pedestrian-traffic areas. However, when they are not well applied (as you point out a 6th and Carnarvon, and I can point out a few more in the City), they create an impression to pedestrians that are not a priority in our public spaces, and sometimes go so far as to create inconvenient barriers to pedestrians. Perhaps a good example is all of the crossings along Columbia Street in Downtown, where there is an almost constant east-west flow of pedestrians, and pedestrians should see the white walking guy every time cars get a green light.

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