Nanaimo’s street smart design garners national acclaim

Nanaimo creates award-winning standards for new city streets, centered around safety and multi-modal transport.

Artists rendering of the Complete Streets project for the City of Nanaimo.
Artists rendering of the Complete Streets project for the City of Nanaimo. Image supplied.

A makeover to Nanaimo’s street design is winning awards for the way people interact with the thoroughfare. The Complete Streets project developed new engineering standards for the city’s streets, which increase safety, accessibility and sustainability. They include protected bike lanes, wider sidewalks, and continuous raised intersections designed to reduce collisions. The Metral Drive project is Nanaimo’s first implementation of the Complete Streets designs and will see a 3km section of the Metral Drive Corridor updated to meet the standard.

The designs, inspired by Dutch engineering, centre safety, accessibility and sustainable transportation. The projects have received the Transportation Association of Canada (TAC) 2020 Sustainable Transportation Award, the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) 2021 North American Complete Street Technical Achievement Award, as well as the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) 2021 Community Excellence Award for Excellence in Sustainability. The Metal Drive project also received a $500,000 Active Transportation Grant from the B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure in both 2020 and 2021, totalling $1 million. 

Part of what’s made this endeavour such a success is the parallel development of new street engineering standards (the Complete Streets project) with a pilot construction (the Metral Drive project). This tandem approach was important to project engineer Annalisa Fipke. It allowed for testing how the designs worked in real life and tweaking them as needed during construction. Metral Drive was the perfect candidate for the task for two reasons. It was a missing link for pedestrians and cyclists, with only a gravel shoulder running beside a busy thoroughfare. And it required significant infrastructure upgrades. 

“If the City is having to rip up the road to replace aging utilities, then let’s put it back the way we want it,” says Fipke. 

The Metal Drive project consists of two phases. Phase one, which is now complete, was a roughly $4 million upgrade to a 1.4 km section of the Metral Drive corridor. Phase two, estimated at $6.5 million for the 1.6 km section, began construction this summer. 

In Complete Streets, not only are sidewalks separated from roads but cyclists are separated from pedestrians. With e-bikes becoming more popular and the average cycling speeds increasing, this helps keep pedestrian pathways welcoming to all and increases cycling adoption. 

As well, the new streets deploy raised local intersections which means instead of pedestrians stepping down into the roadway, the crosswalk remains at a continuous height thereby increasing accessibility and safety.

“At a crosswalk, the pedestrian has the right of way,” says Fipke. “But often the road doesn’t intuitively communicate that.” The complete streets designs make the rules of the road clearer and prioritize those whose safety and mobility is of the utmost importance. “It’s much easier for a car to go over what’s essentially a speed hump than it is for a person in a wheelchair to navigate an intersection with curb ramps.”

With phase one complete, the Metral Drive corridor is beginning to see changes and, like any evolution, it takes adjustment.  

“Change management is difficult,” says Fipke. Some drivers have said the new roads feel narrow. The roads themselves are not that narrow but they may feel that way due to the trees lining the streets and the slight decrease in width. As cities shift to prioritizing multimodal transport and decentralizing cars, there will be a transition period where the new feels strange and unnatural. But some of that discomfort isn’t a bad thing. 

“For decades, drivers have gotten used to wide multi-use curb lanes that were meant to accommodate vehicles and bikes side-by-side,” says Fipke. “The wider the road and more open the landscape, drivers are more likely to distracted drive or drive faster than they should. When roads are narrower with curbs, right-sized lanes, and street trees, drivers intuitively feel constrained and drive slower.

While drivers might be adjusting to the change, the benefit to other road users is obvious. 

“Parents voiced that they would never have let their kids walk or bike to school via Metral Drive,” says Fipke. “Now I see kids biking to school, toddlers out on strider bikes. The other morning I saw a group of six elderly women out for a morning ride on e-bikes. You can see the community coming alive.”