Walk This Way: Pedestrian Streets on the Rise

European-style pedestrian streets are coming to B.C. It’s a move widely praised by local academics and community activists – but is it good for business?

European-style pedestrian streets are coming to B.C. It’s a move widely praised by local academics and community activists – but is it good for business?

Standing on the loading dock outside Starbucks at downtown Vancouver’s Davie and Mainland intersection, it isn’t difficult for urban planner Ian MacPhee to imagine the future. Where today there’s a Canada Line SkyTrain construction site, in seven months over 1,500 people a day will congregate at the newly opened Yaletown-Roundhouse Station. They’ll funnel along the narrow sidewalks of Yaletown, jaywalk, clog traffic, stop for coffee or sushi, and wonder how might the city better accommodate their efforts to move around. MacPhee has a solution.

Sitting in the window of the Abruzzo Cappuccino Bar on Vancouver’s Commercial Drive, activist European-style pedestrianized retail streets are coming to B.C. It’s a move widely praised by local academics and community activists – but is it good for business? Carmen Mills can see the future too. Five years ago, amid a lot of skepticism from local merchants, she helped organize the Drive’s first one-day car-free street festival. Now, with an estimated 60,000 people attending the 2008 event – and with retailers reporting an average 80 per cent increase in gross sales (according to a recent East Vancouver Celebration Society survey) – she expects civic authorities will respond to merchants’ new-found enthusiasm and institute more Sunday street closures there.

From his window overlooking the intersection of Vancouver’s Cordova and Water streets, SFU’s director of Urban Studies, Anthony Perl, has a view of the future too. What will happen, he asks, when the downtown trolley system – now running on tracks between Granville Island and Science World – is extended north, as is planned, to Water Street and the retailers there realize that money might be made if those three blocks of Gastown were converted to a pedestrian-priority transit mall?

Restoring downtown vitality

All over the world, in hundreds of cities and in a variety of ways, planners, politicians and merchants have sought – in the face of urban traffic congestion and the lure of big box suburban malls – to restore the vitality of downtown retail streets. According to Perl, many North American myths of how cities work – and how merchants make money – have been disproved in recent years by what has happened in Europe. Instead of making cities easier for cars, make them harder. Instead of emphasizing traffic flow and parking spaces, encourage the use of foot power downtown. And instead of car-only streets or pedestrian-only streets, allow walkers, cyclists, transit and slowed automobiles to all exist together, just as happened a century ago at the dawn of the Autosaurus Age and as happens today on Vancouver’s popular Granville Island. “Traffic engineers realized,” says Perl, “if you take away some cars and widen sidewalks, you get more people. A parked two-tonne container takes up a lot of space compared to a person. More people: more shoppers. More retail revenue: higher real estate values. Look what happened on Vancouver’s Commercial Drive with their annual car-free Sunday. At first retailers suspected it. But after a few years, it’s one of the retailers’ busiest days of the year there. Businessmen like making money, right?”

But marketing isn’t just about making money. It is – as advertisers, resort operators and mall-owners know – about the Snap! Crackle! and Pop! of selling things. The pizzazz. To regain favour with urban shoppers, streets need – to use the words of Andrew Pask, director of the 2,000-member Vancouver Public Space Network – “a profound sense of invitation.” It’s his view this occurs when streets have texture and don’t just serve as noisy rights-of-way for vehicles (or, for that matter, not just for pedestrians either). “You can’t just close a street and expect it to work. Businesses have to see the advantage. You want layering. You want transit. You want wide sidewalks. You want zoning that supports a vibrant mix of uses: high-end retail, chintzy tourist shops, galleries, outdoor cafés. You want benches and public toilets. You want to manage the place, with buskers, fashion shows, kiosks. You want low-rise three- to five-storey buildings around so people don’t feel intimidated. You want a place people go.” Pesk points to sections of Amsterdam or Copenhagen as examples of how European cities have converted their downtown streets to mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly areas, while maintaining adjacent commercial vitality. In fact, there are 174 car-free or pedestrian-priority urban zones in Europe today plus 44 in the United States and 15 more in South America, including Argentina’s famous 12-block Florida Street district of Buenos Aires, which is packed daily with tens of thousands of strollers who crowd its adjacent stores. [pagebreak]

Copenhagen’s Strøget


Vancouver pedestrian streets

Charles Gauthier, executive director of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA), has heard the arguments and – like many involved with retailing – has listened with intense skepticism. After all, Vancouver’s 1970s conversion of Granville Street to a carless, pedestrian/transit mall was widely viewed as a failure, thanks to the simultaneous opening of the underground Pacific Centre complex nearby and the subsequent deterioration of the street as quality stores closed and porn shops and drug dealers moved in. In B.C. pedestrianized streets were seen as cursed. But that has changed in the past year as the $21-million restoration of Granville Mall, with strong support from the DVBIA, nears completion. Reopening this November, it will again be a pedestrian/transit thoroughfare.

Extending through the heart of Vancouver for 10 blocks, from Drake to Cordova streets, the mall will feature wider sidewalks and better lighting, new street furniture, renovated shop fronts, more neon and a performance area mid-mall at Robson Street where staged events will occur. As Gauthier explains, the errors of the past have become lessons for the future: “There are models where pedestrianized streets and retailing thrive. Look at four-block-long Pearl Street in Boulder, Colorado. They have sidewalk art shows, dancing on summer Wednesday nights, outdoor restaurants. The trick to pedestrianized streets is, you need to program the public space. It’s not just build it, but build it and manage it, and they will come.”

These sentiments are echoed by the Kimberley and District Chamber of Commerce, which faced initial resistance from both retailers and residents in 1973 when authorities proposed closing two downtown streets to vehicles and giving the town a Bavarian theme. Advocates argued the street closures were a sort of Hail Mary pass in the face of the shutting of the nearby Sullivan Mine and the prospect of Kimberley becoming a ghost town. After a lot of lobbying, 35 retail merchants committed to the plan. Five blocks became car-free. Open-timbered storefronts and cuckoo clocks appeared. A bandstand was built on the Platzl. Accordions and tubas replaced car horns. Today more than 100,000 tourists a year provide the economic benefits produced by the city’s reinvention. Says Marg Holman, spokesperson for the Chamber of Commerce, “Without the conversion, Kimberley was down the tubes. It saved local businesses. It saved the town.”

Are Vancouver’s streets conducive to car-free?

While it’s relatively easy to convert a few blocks in a small town such as Boulder or Kimberley into a car-free zone, B.C.’s urban experts know the difficulties grow exponentially when the tactic is considered for the busy retail streets of cities. Unlike the car-free zones in Europe that have usually been established in cramped medieval town centres, places such as Vancouver were built on a grid for cars and are serviced today by electric trolley buses on all major thoroughfares – like Kitsilano’s Fourth Avenue or Grandview’s Commercial Drive. Were a total vehicle-free policy instituted in these places, where would transit go? This is the central contradiction that proponents of car-free streets face: if there’s no transit, there will be little support from local merchants.

Former Vancouver city councillor Gordon Price, a cyclist and urban activist, understands this well. As program director of the City Program at SFU today, he’s often called to speak about the qualities that have made Vancouver famous for its livability. “The dilemma of pedestrian-only malls,” says Price, “is they sterilize the streets for one mode of transportation: walking. A lot of people want to do this. It’s liberating! It’s a way of reminding ourselves what community is about: people, not cars. But the reality is, we have five modes of urban transportation: cars, taxis, transit, bicycles and feet. If you eliminate cars and transit, you undermine local retail businesses. So the question isn’t, How do you get rid of vehicles? It’s, How do you make streets more flexible? You have to provide for all five modes.” (Actually, it’s all six, Price adds with a laugh, “if you include the aging boomers getting out of their SUVs and into their oversized, overpowered wheelchairs.”) “What you get then is a variety of street uses. Vancouver needs to try different things in different places. See what works. And be ready to change if things don’t.”

With a new, more activist municipal government in Vancouver, the impending conversion of either one or two lanes of the Burrard Street Bridge to bicycle-only use later this spring, a recently completed civic feasibility study on the value of initiating a three-month trial of car-free Sundays on sections of Vancouver’s busiest retail streets this summer, and the closure of over 30 blocks of downtown Vancouver’s retail streets during the upcoming Winter Olympics, the city is about to confront the very experiment Price is suggesting. In Vancouver’s Strategic Transportation Planning office these days, the engineers are busy. Can the proposed Sunday closures of Commercial Drive and the Punjabi Market section of Main Street – both endorsed by local retailers and business associations – succeed? What is the right set of conditions? Can the major downtown Olympic closures be utilized as tests of residents’ and retailers’ support for long-term pedestrian-priority streets? Where exactly? Yaletown? Gastown? What are the costs? What are the transit issues? [pagebreak]

Florida Street in Buenos Aires

Reclaiming the streets

From her vantage point inside Commercial Drive’s Abruzzo Cappuccino Bar, activist Carmen Mills is certain time and the tides of history are on her side. “These aren’t street closures,” she says of the car-free Sundays. “They’re street openings. Streets are public places. It’s amazing how quickly things have changed.” On a summer day in 2004, a group of Commercial Drive residents simply seized one block by erecting sawhorses mid-street in a sort of anarchistic demonstration that roads belong to people – and for an hour they played street hockey, as cars were forced to detour and police looked on in amusement. They even had a push-broom-towing bicycle as their Zamboni. In early 2005, Mills and members of the newly formed Car Free Commercial Drive Festival solicited local retailers’ support for a full-day Sunday closure. “ ‘You want to do what?’ ” says Mills, mimicking the merchants’ initial responses. “ ‘Close the street to cars? No parking spaces? We’ll lose business!’ ” She countered, “Let’s just try it . . . once.” With a few dozen letters of support from reluctant retailers, a lot of volunteer help and official civic approval, the first one-day, eight-block-long closure happened. Thousands of people came; by 2008, it was tens of thousands.

“It was a great party!” says Jasmin Crawford, manager of Commercial Drive’s It’s All Fun & Games. “There was music and silly races. We went out and played with hula hoops and bubble blowers on the sidewalk. You meet people. You laugh. They come back later. Being a retailer isn’t just about money, you know.” Likewise, the manager of the Abruzzo Cappuccino Bar across the street barbecued lamb on his sidewalk grill. And clerks at nearby Banshee, a clothing and lingerie shop, sold older stock on sales tables in front of their store. In the fall of 2008, a survey of Commercial Drive’s businesses sought opinions from 100 different area retailers on the festival’s street closure. It found that 95 per cent supported the car-free concept and 71 per cent wished to have the event occur more often. The survey also found there was a 72 per cent increase in staffing that day.

Aware of what was occurring on Commercial Drive, some merchants in Main Street’s Punjabi Market district, suffering from a loss of business to suburban malls, are lobbying for their own street closure as a way to revitalize their area. Standing in front of a series of vacant shops on south Main, Daljit Singh Sidhu, president of the Punjabi Market Association, says, “In this tough time, we need more people here. We want to have more fun in this area.” He looks to the Commercial Drive festival for inspiration and to Vancouver city council for assistance.

The person who will likely make all these changes happen is bus-riding environmentalist Andrea Reimer, a new member of Vancouver city council. Last December she tabled a motion for city engineers to report in early March on the feasibility of closing sections of Commercial Drive and Main Street to cars every Sunday all this summer. And she says word has spread among retailers about the revenue increases during the car-free days, with merchants on Kitsilano’s Fourth Avenue, on Cambie Street, in Yaletown and in Gastown calling to express interest. Reimer talks of global warming and the new consensus evolving out of these more prudent times. “We’re getting out of the idea of single-occupancy vehicles for everyone,“ she says. “It’s happening all over the planet. The Earth can’t support it, and the public realizes we can’t support it anymore either. We need to make it possible for people to use their cars less.” She notes that the Prague-based World Carfree Network reports that when cities make some retail streets car-free or pedestrian priority, store revenues in those locations go up, typically 30 to 35 per cent. As well, in this slowed, interactive environment, people feel an enhanced sense of community and safety.

If you stand at the Starbucks on Yaletown’s two-block-long Mainland Street, as urban planner Ian MacPhee often has, and look left, you can imagine the kinds of changes scores of pedestrian-priority retail streets across urban B.C. might experience in a decade or so. Mainland, explains MacPhee, is a narrow, transit-free, loading-dock-lined, car-filled alley now, but when the new Yaletown-Roundhouse SkyTrain station opens directly onto Mainland, it will bring thousands of pedestrians past its upmarket shops and restaurants. The street is also three blocks from B.C. Place Stadium, which means it will be included in the 2010 Olympics street closures. Countless new residents and visitors mean countless potential customers. “Everyone talks about what a great place Vancouver is,” says MacPhee as he surveys the scene. “Why don’t we have any pedestrian streets – like there are all over Europe? We’ve talked about it. But so far, there’s been no action.”