COLUMN: How to deal with New Westminster's steep hills?

A gondola at work in Tlemcen, Algeria, a country that has several systems. - Image Courtesy of Doppelmayr
A gondola at work in Tlemcen, Algeria, a country that has several systems.
— image credit: Image Courtesy of Doppelmayr

New West residents took their neighbours on 12 Jane’s Walks last weekend, another confirmation that we love walking and exploring our city.

We’re blessed that many destinations can be easily reached on foot, by bike or by bus.

The problem, of course, is our bloody hills. Think 10th Street hill coming up from Columbia Square. Or Queens Avenue between 11th and 10th streets.

Might as well call them Thigh Busters 1 and 2.

So is there something we can do to help people travel under their own steam around town, particularly between Downtown and Uptown? After all, the more we get around without a car, the more vibrant our streets will be.

And the more healthy and happy we’ll be.

LEFT: Queens Avenue hill between 10th and 11th streets—a real thigh buster.

These hills don’t daunt fit, young people. But what of the rest of us?

City social planner John Stark has looked at the problem from the perspective of seniors and people with disabilities.

A few years ago, he led a “wheelability” assessment to look at what it’s like to get around the Royal City when you use things like wheelchairs, scooters and walking sticks. The study included “walkabouts” with the people affected, to see the obstacles first hand. It has led to strategic investments in better sidewalks, curb cuts, and “wheelability maps” for Uptown and Downtown, to help folks avoid the steepest grades.

Stark even heard about a couple of seniors who’d enter Douglas College off Eighth Street, and take the elevator to an upper floor for more level access to Royal Avenue. Some use zig-zag routes, finding more gradual grades to travel, even if the distance is longer.

They can take a bus, of course.

And when it comes to transit, our city is well served. Buses go up the Second, Sixth, Eighth and 12th street hills on a regular basis. Most stops—83 per cent—are fully accessible. And to make it easier—particularly for those on a fixed income making only a small trip—the city is urging TransLink to create a reduced-fare zone in the central city.

Another city planner, Mark Allison, says there’s a good case to be made. Just jump on a crowded bus leaving New Westminster SkyTrain station and before it leaves the city limits it will be almost empty, he says.

“Between Uptown and Downtown there is a lot of traffic.”

I’m partial to a streetcar—the modern kind—running up Sixth Street, along Sixth Avenue and down Eighth Street to Columbia. A dream for another day. Just as likely is residents embracing an idea pitched to the city by the Austrian company Doppelmayr —a gondola up Sixth Street.

These hills are daunting to cyclists, too—even the fit ones.

When he commuted to New West from Surrey, Allison had a friend show him a route from the Pattullo to “tack” up our hills.

In San Francisco—a city famous for hills, yet one of the top-five cycling cities in the U.S.—they’ve actually formalized one tacking route, called The Wiggle. For cyclists travelling from Market Street to Golden Gate Park, the one-mile Wiggle stitches together a combination of bike routes with helpful wayfinding signs.

One fanciful option discussed here and also in the City of North Van is a bike escalator. A likely location is a stretch of 320 metres on Fourth Street between Columbia and Royal.

Marion Orser likes the idea. She’s in her 70s and has used her bike to get around for years.

She thinks the “cyclocable,” as the escalator’s called, could make the Downtown-Uptown cycle easily managed, and would be a great tourist draw to boot.

Meantime, as we seek ways to ease the climb, we can also celebrate these darned hills.

World over, people are taking a fresh look at the vast amount of space we set aside for cars.

Perhaps one day we’ll re-purpose a steep street as an urban cycling/walking path. Install seating along the way to rest, chat, and enjoy the views. We might wind the path to ease the grade. Plant trees and flowers.

Might as well enjoy it. After all, these hills aren’t going anywhere.

Chris Bryan is editor of the NewsLeader.

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