Arbutus corridor and accessibility: a straw man argument?

August 9, 2016

the debate is framed like it: to be against a blacktop path  is to be against accessibility.

Accessibility for all activities or all abilities?


It is no secret that the debate is mainly  geared by the Vancouver cycling community, and the main local organization, HUB, has made clear its vision; a cycling highway -where one can “bike from the Fraser River to False Creek in  30mn” (that makes an average speed of 20km/h+) [1]. From there,  the conversation regarding accessibility is mainly reduced to wheelchair accessibility concerns, while at the same time accessibility is understood as skate board and roller skate users inclusion.

However, if we understand accessibility as “universal access” for people with impairment of various nature, the conversation take another turn: A trail where a cyclist can  zip at 25km/h  becomes quickly unfriendly to people with a visual impairment [2]. The accessibility problem is multidimensional and can’t be reduced by how comfortable it is for the small wheels.

A cycling corridor or a  greenway Promenade/trail

Emphasis on cycling speed, as  Hub is advocating for, is in full contradiction with the concept of Promenade as inferred by a Greenway designation  [3].  We can consider 2 main family of promenades:

  • Scenic promenades; and
  • Experential promenades

The Vancouver Seawall is a great example of scenic promenade: the emphasis and the purpose of the promenade are the views it can offer. The west Richmond dykes falls also in this category. other trails could not offer too much of a view but  a more experiential aspect: the Stanley park  inner trails fall in this category, as well as the Richmond Shell road trail or the Lynn valley trails (including its suspended bridge).

If the focus of a trail is a  viewpoint, one would like then provide the easiest access to it, if the focus of a trail is experiential, then one would like provide the best compromise comfort/experience. That is the trail itself, and noticeably its surface shouldn’t distract of the experience, which sensorial aspect must not be neglected. A universal accessibility  trail exists in Stanley park, it is Beaver lake trail [6]:


Stanley park: Beaver lake trail entrance

Similar trails exist elsewhere in the region, Fitzsimmons trail in Whistler, the Panorama trail at the top of the Squamish SeatoSky Gondola or the Spirea nature trail in the Golden Ears park are among them. However some other trails, though not designed universally accessible  could in fact be much more wheelchair friendly that the Stanley park’s Beaver trail (which has not keep up with the up to date standards): it is at least the case of most of the Burnaby Central park trails:

The wide and flat enough trails of the Burnaby central park offer good rolling condition, and stay in good condition during raining periods as illustrated in this Google view.

The Stanley park trails accessibility could not be up to the current standards:
What about the state of the art?

In BC, the very recently opened Great West Life trail in Prince George is pretty much the state of art:


The Great West Life Trail of Prince George

A hard packed surface, soft enough for the knees of the elder, and still presenting good rolling capability, as well as other surface treatments, such has woodboards, provide a rich experience [4]. It features wheel-guard where required and slope not greater than 3%. Such a trail design is the result of a cooperation with the Spinal Cord Injury-BC society.

Trail head accessibility?

It is another aspect where the Burnaby central park is hard to beat: it is directly serviced by the Skytrain (Patterson station) as well as 2 frequent transit bus routes (19 and 49). Something Stanley park can’t compete with.

What about the bikes on an universally accessible trail?

The state of the art doesn’t seem to have found a compromise much better than this:


The all ability accessible GWL trail in Prince George is not allowed to bike

The banning of bike from Universal accessible trail, seems to be common [5] for reasons previously touched. Cycling is in theory also not allowed on the “universal accessiblity” trails of Stanley park , but the rule is not well respected.

A preliminary conclusion

Our region is surrounded by trails often offering first class experience, but when time comes to find an accessible trail, the region becomes  a laggard. When it is time to find an “universally accessible trail” reachable by public transit: pretty much nothing exists.

it is where the Arbutus corridor becomes a golden opportunity: it presents many characteristic required for  an “universally accessible trail”, first of them, being the gentle grade, second being the experiential aspect- including the sensorial aspect capitalizing on the meandering among community gardens. third it is easily reachable by many frequent transit routes, allowing to experience it in many different ways.

It is also clear that an  “universally accessible trail” vision capitalizing on the experiential aspect of a greenway is not compatible with the cycle track vision as exposed by Hub, and a compromise will need to be found.

[1] Arbutus Greenway Announced, Hub news, March 14, 2016

[2] Similarly, Accomodating visual impaired people is also the main challenge the designer of shared space has to address

[3] A reason why a cycle track on the Paris Petite Ceinture (a disused rail corridor) has been dismissed, as we have seen in a previous post


[4] It is also  good at maintaining the motor skills  and enhance  the mental health, a reason why such surfacing are often preferred.

[5] It is also  the case for the promenade built on the Paris Petite Ceinture, among others.

[6] The ravine trail is also presented as “universal accessible” by the Vancouver park board, thought it has some questionable access impediment.


8 Responses to “Arbutus corridor and accessibility: a straw man argument?”

  1. MB Says:

    All fair weather photos.

    The only way that trail will stand up is if it is designed for service vehicles. That is, a deep 19mm minus well-compacted road base under the cap layer. Even then, the challenge is for wheelchairs to negotiate the rills, puddles and pockets of soft aggregate surface after three dozen pounders November-March. Prince George gets freezing winters and snow. There is no comparison.

    And you forgot about the annual maintenance costs, which are a lot higher than for asphalted trails, especially in higher use routes.

    • Voony Says:

      That is all fair comments, and a reason why I have included a link on the Burnaby central park trail under the rain
      (Otherwise I took the other pictures saturday, and the surfacing is far from new, so yes it got weather tested).

      I am planning to write a post focusing on the french experience. As a head up, I could refer to this document evaluating the whole life cycle cost of different surfacing (as assessed in Brittany area, where the weather is very similar to the one in Vancouver area) and more noticably this table:

      all numbers in € for 10km of cycle track

      surfacing investment cost maintenance cost span
      5 years 10 years 15 years
      type1: stabilisé / sablé, naturels 740 000 454,000 1,105,500 2,017,500
      type2: bitume + granulats (mono-couche, bi-couche, RECOOL…) 730,000 236,500 575,000 1,050,200
      type3: enrobé bitumineux (Béton Bitumineux, …) 920,000 109,500 266,000 485,600
      type4: stabilisé au liant hydraulique (Enverpaq, Stabipaq, sable ciment, grave ciment…) 1,000,000 109,500 266,000 485,600
      type5: enrobé, liant végétal (Végécol…) 1,670,000 109,500 266,000 485,600

      the first take of this table is that there is not one type of gravel/hardpacked surface (as there is not one type of blacktop either).

      So far I can say, what has been lay down on the Arbutus corridor (between 16th and 33rd) is the surface type 3…the gravel path you refer to is most probably the type 1 (notice that for temporary application, it could have been a cheaper option according to this document)…when I argue for gravel, I am thinking more of type 4. (so far I can see there is no experience with it here, but french nowadays extensively use it)…and the track ballast grade gravel the city plan to lay down on the rest of the corridor could not be considered as a viable surfacing for an accessible trail by most french standard (so it is not listed in the table above).

      If we want to have an educated discussion we need to be aware that there is a whole gamut of possible surfacing (and not only a binary choice), as well have all the elements on them to enable a honest discussion…so far the city didn’t bothered to drive a discussion in that direction.

  2. garry chalk Says:

    everyone knows it’s a raceway for cyclists. I think people with mobility and visual issues would be more comfortable on the sidewalk where they are visible. and to my mind a lot safer. For the taxpayer who has paid an enormous amount of money for this luxury when many departments in city hall are facing budget cutbacks. And the decided lack of affordable family housing in this city seems wrong. This councils priorities are screwball but unfortunately we won’t find out how screwball until the next election.

  3. I love the natural paths along Jericho, Locarno and Spanish Banks. I see all kinds of people using these paths, by foot, scooter, bike and wheelchair. My main issues are transparency and trust. I do not trust the city to be transparent and open in their policy-making and decisions, so I am more resistant than normal to things that are railroaded through without thought or consultation.

  4. Jeff Leigh Says:

    Perhaps the strawman is referring to the path, when it should be paths.

    Cycling advocates would like to see a paved cycling path. Some want a gravel walking path. Fine. This is when the accessibility issues get raised. If we need a paved path for those using mobility aids, then it is three paths. The skateboarders, push scooters, and roller bladers are accommodated on the cycling path.

    If you have only two paths, then we need to figure out how to manage the interactions between people travelling at different speeds. Experience shows that with a gravel path and a paved path, many choose the paved path. Ref the BC Parkway.

    We as a City just went through over a year of consultation, with detailed design workshops, for the upcoming improvements to the False Creek Seawall. There were local residents, people representing cycling, people representing seniors, people representing people with disabilities, etc. At the final open houses, we saw agreement in the 80% range. We can learn from this, if we choose to.

    • Voony Says:

      We will put that on the account of my poor ESL skills, but yes the straw man argument I am referring to is the assertion that “to be against a blacktop path is to be against accessibility”.

      The blogger, you refers to, recognize that:
      It is worth noting that paving is neither a guarantee nor necessarily a requirement for accessibility. Accessibility is the goal – paving is merely a means to achieve it.

      And it is what this post argues (blacktop is not a requirement for accessibility).

      Stephen Rees has photographied the below in the poachest district of Paris:

      the panel title reads: “from the railway brownfield to the nature trail”:

      pdf here, See more about it and what that can teach us in this post

      the blogger thinks such concept has no place in the centre of one of Canada’s largest cities.
      That is her opinion and that is fine: some will share her viewpoint, and some other will have a different view: just have a public consultation about that (in Paris, the later view eventually won)…and yes accessibility should be a given (…but the means to achieve it is not!).

      regarding the number of paths, I don’t have a very formed opinion, but I think it should be a bike path attached to 6th avenue – East Boulevard – Maple Crescent (the Pacific Boulevard is a good model to follow, though point grey could prove good enough), then only one accessible trail using “sensible” materials in the middle of the corridor, this to minimize the blacktop footprint (be real or perceived) (*). That will left open some sections (such as 6th to 16th) where multi paths could be the best compromise to provide both a walking and cycling continuity (in those sections I could have no strong objection to blacktop, since a diversity of experience along the corridor could be still provided)

      (*) the issue you mention about the BC parkway could have no reason to be observed, both trails being not immediatly adjacent (a design mistake of the BC parkway), and the middle trail providing a more “greenway” centric experience than the bike path.

  5. Alex Mandel Says:

    I know this is pretty late to comment on your article, but I wanted to add that bicycle access to Kerrisdale and Marpole from Downtown/Kitsilano/Burrard currently allows cyclists to choose two bikeways, “Valley” or “Cypress”. In my humble, safety oriented but skilled cyclists opinion, these routes suck. Portions or each are good, but most include numerous dog legs and several stages of up and down and some pretty steep slopes where you are standing to go up, and need to use a lot of brakes to slow down going down. There are also several crossings of major roads (33rd, 49th) with no signal for bikes. For a casual cyclist, these routes are not acceptable, and the city may add signals, but can’t regrade the hills.

    The paved section between 16th and 33rd was like a dream, where I was able to ride smoothly in both directions without the feeling that I was wasting energy or getting too sweaty in my clothes.

    The surface used from 33rd to 41st in the example was too loose to ride stably, I almost slipped over twice in one ride. It requires a lot of effort to push through the drag of the gravel. This gravel has also been laid down in Pacific Spirit Park on the Imperial Trail with the same effect. I have been in other areas with a hard packed dirt that is actually pretty pleasant to ride on (except with thin tires). Unfortunately, this is usually undercover; I assume that without the heavy forestation as in Burnaby Central Park, it would become impassible in the rain, or would become a mess and erode.

    Completing the asphalt along the Arbutus corridor helps encourage trips by bike that I used to do by car or bus.

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