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Civil Rights Meet Civil Engineering: Urban Public Space and Traffic Logic

  • Nicholas Blomley (a1)


The scholarly analysis of public space, despite ideological differences, has tended to focus on the political and ethical dimensions of public space, construed as a site for encounters between people. This has been at the expense of what the author terms the “traffic logic,” a pervasive administrative view of public space that emphasizes pedestrian flow and motion, and tends not to discriminate between things and bodies. The paper illustrates the prevalence and effects of traffic logic with reference to By-Laws in the city of Vancouver. The author notes its important consequences through brief discussions of cases involving public protests and begging. While important, traffic logic's pervasiveness and bureaucratic commonsensicality render its reach and effects harder to discern. As a powerful yet mundane form of urban governance, it demands closer scrutiny.

En dépit de divergences idéologiques, les travaux savants sur l'espace public entendu comme site de rencontre entre les gens ont eu tendance à se centrer sur ses aspects éthiques et politiques. Cela s'est fait au détriment de ce que l'auteur nomme «la logique de circulation», une perspective envahissante de l'espace public qui fait valoir le mouvement et le flux des piétons et ne discrimine guère entre des corps et des choses. L'article illustre la fréquence et les conséquences de la logique de circulation en référant aux règlements municipaux de Vancouver. L'auteur relève ses importantes conséquences grâce à de brèves discussions de cas impliquant la mendicité et des manifestations publiques. L'étendue de la logique de circulation et l'évidence bureaucratique, bien qu'importantes, permettent mal de discerner ses effets comme sa portée. Forme influente bien que courante de la gouvernance urbaine, elle exige un examen plus minutieux.



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1 Zick, Timothy, “Speech and Spatial Tactics” (2006) 84:3Tex. L. Rev. 581.

2 Ellickson, Robert, “Controlling Chronic Misconduct in City Spaces: of Panhandlers, Skid Row, and Public Space Zoning” (1996) 105 Yale L.J. 1165.

3 Cf. Mitchell, Don, The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space (New York: Guilford, 2003); Ruppert, Evelyn, “Rights to Public Space: Regulatory Reconfigurations of Liberty” (2006) 27:3Urban Geography 271.

4 Ellickson, supra note 2.

5 Ibid. at 1168.

6 Ibid. at 1173.

8 Mitchell, supra note 3.

9 S.B.C. 2004, c. 75 [Safe Streets Act].

10 Interview with author (21 September 2006) [Interview A].

11 Walia, Harsha, “Legislating poverty in Vancouver: The Safe Streets ActSeven Oaks Magazine, online: <>.

12 City of Vancouver, By-law No. 2849 (2 October 2007) [Streets and Traffic By-law].

13 Interview with author (19 October 2006) [Interview B].

14 Though cf. Valverde, Mariana, “Taking ‘Land Use’ Seriously: Toward an Ontology of Municipal Law” (2005) 9 Law Text Culture 34; Levi, Ron, “Loitering in the City that Works: on Circulation, Activity and Police in Governing Urban Space” in Dubber, Markus & Valverde, Mariana, eds., Police and the Liberal State (Stanford: Stanford University Press) [forthcoming]; Joyce, Patrick, The Rule of Freedom: Liberalism and the Modern City (London: Verso, 2003).

15 City of Vancouver, By-law No. 8735, s. 3 (d) [City Land Regulation By-Law].

16 City of Vancouver, By-law No. 5985, (1 September 1992) [Street Tree By-Law].

17 City of Vancouver, By-law No. 9350, Street Distribution of Publications By-Law.

18 City of Vancouver, By-law No. 4781, Street Vending By-Law (1 January 2007).

19 City of Vancouver, Parks Control By-law (28 April 2003), s. 3(a).

20 Ibid., s. 6.

21 Ibid., s. 16.

22 Ibid., s. 8(b).

23 Ibid., s. 10.

24 Streets and Traffic By-Law, supra note 12, s. 12 (2).

25 Ibid., s. 17.2(c).

26 Ibid., s. 32.

27 Ibid., s. 35(1).

28 Ibid., s. 60(b).

29 Ibid., s. 85(a).

30 Ibid., s. 88(2)(b).

31 Ibid., s. 70(a)(1)(a).

32 Ibid., s. 70.

33 Ibid., s. 69(1).

34 Ibid., s. 67(1).

35 Ibid., s. 89.

36 Interview with author (31 October 2006) [Interview C].

38 Federated Anti-Poverty Groups v. Vancouver, [2002] BCSC 105 [Federated] (Affidavit of Rowan Birch).

39 Interview by author (24 January 2006) [Interview D].

40 Interview C, supra note 36 [emphasis added].

41 Interview D, supra note 39.

42 Southworth, Michael & Ben-Joseph, Eran, Streets and the Shaping of Towns and Cities (Washington: Island Press, 2003).

43 Brown, Jeffrey, “From Traffic Regulation to Limited Ways: the Effort to Build a Science of Transportation Planning” (2006) 5:3J. Plan. Hist. 3.

44 Cf. Hoogendoor, Serge P. & Daamen, W., “Pedestrian behavior at bottlenecks” (2005) 39:2Transport. Sci. 147.

45 Sennett, Richard, Flesh and Stone: the Body and the City in Western Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994).

46 Amato, Joseph, On Foot: a History of Walking (New York: New York University Press, 2004).

47 Ibid. at 183.

48 Ehrenfeucht, Renia & Loukaitou-Sideris, Anastasia, “Constructing the Sidewalks: Municipal Government and the Production of Public Space in Los Angeles, California, 1880-1920” (2007) 33 J. Hist. Geogr. 104.

49 Ibid. at 110.

50 Ibid. at 108.

51 Ibid. at 124. See also Baldwin, Peter C., Domesticating the Street: the Reform of Public Space in Hartford, 1850-1930 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1999); Brown, supra note 43; Fairfield, John D., “The Scientific Management of Urban Space: Professional City Planning and the Legacy of Progressive Reform” (1994) 20:2J.Urban Hist. 179; McShane, Clay, “Transforming the Use of Urban Space: a Look at the Revolution in Street Pavements, 1880-1924” (1979) 5:3J. Urban Hist. 279.

52 Harrison v. Duke of Rutland, [1893] 1 QB 142.

53 Ibid. at 153.

54 Director of Public Prosecutions v. Jones and Another, [1999] Cr. App. Rep. 348.

55 Ibid. at 352

56 Vancouver v. Burchill, [1932] 4 DLR 200.

57 Ibid. at 206.

58 Cox v. Louisiana, [1965] 379 US 536.

59 Ibid. at 555-56. Also cf. W.M. Berg, “Roulette v. City of Seattle: A City Lives With its Homeless” (1994) 18 Seattle U.L. Rev. 147.

60 Interview D, supra note 39.

61 Cf. Sennett, supra note 45 at 255-376.

62 City of Vancouver v. Maurice et al, (2002) BCSC 1421 [City of Vancouver].

63 Ibid. (Written argument of the plaintiff). Thanks to Tom Zworski and Noah Quastel for this.

64 Ibid. (Memorandum of argument of the intervenor).

65 Ibid. at para. 24. The references are to R. v. Guignard, [2002] 1 S.C.R. 472, 2002 SCC 14; Ramsden v. Peterborough (City), [1993] 2 S.C.R. 1084 and UFCW Local 1518 v. Kmart Canada, [1999] 2 S.C.R. 1083, a series of Charter cases concerning freedom of expression.

66 City of Vancouver, supra note 62 at para. 6.

67 The court deemed these to be “social and political issues,” not “legal issues,” ibid. at para. 22).

68 Committee for the Commonwealth of Canada v. Canada, [1991] D.L.R. 77 (4th) 385 [Commonwealth].

69 Anyone who knows the Downtown Eastside will note the irony in characterizing this stretch of Hastings Street as a zone of purposeful pedestrianism given prevailing representations that centre on the disordered and anomic patterns of walking and street use.

70 Commonwealth, supra note 68 at 23.

71 Blomley, Nicholas, “How to Turn a Beggar into a Bus Stop: Law, Traffic, and the ‘Function of the Place’” (2007) 44: 9Urban Stud. 1679.

72 Defined as sitting or lying in the street so as to impede pedestrian traffic, continuing to solicit from a person after a refusal, soliciting in groups of more than three, soliciting within 10 meters of a bank or ATM, and soliciting from a driver so as to obstruct vehicular traffic. See Streets and Traffic By-law, supra note 12, s. 60(a).

73 Federated, supra note 38 (Written argument of the respondent City of Vancouver, at 2) [Federated, Written Argument].

75 S.B.C. 1953, c. 55 [Vancouver Charter].

76 Federated, Written Argument, supra note 73 at 2.

77 Kelling, George & Coles, Catherine, Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities (New York: Martin Kessler Books, 1996).

78 See online: Project Civil City <>.

79 Federated, Written Argument, supra note 73 at 2.

80 Ibid at 7.

81 Ibid. at 72.

82 Ibid. at 82.

83 Fryslan Province, The Netherlands, Shared Space: Room for Everyone (June 2005), online: Shared Space <>.

85 Blomley, supra note 71, though cf. Johnson v. The King (1947) 89 CCC 305, a case involving union activists collecting money on the street who successfully appealed a conviction under the Streets and Traffic By-Law for obstructing traffic on the basis that they were not, in fact, physically obstructing traffic.

86 Interview B, supra note 13 [emphasis added].

87 Street Distribution of Publications By-law, supra note 17.

88 Dudley, Michael, “Superboxes: the End of Sidewalk Newspaper Dispensers”, online: Planetizen, Urban Planning, Design and Development Network <>.

89 Interview by research assistant (12 July 2006).

90 See, for example, “Outdated by-laws lifted on prom” BBC News (25 March 2007), online: BBC News <>.

* A version of this paper was presented at the University of Lund. I would also like to thank Lisa Helps, Mario Berti, Micheal Vonn and three anonymous reviewers for their comments and insights. The research for this paper was funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council.


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