Posted by: Alvin | March 11, 2009

Olympics as a Street Closure Warm-up

vanoc_transportMinutes ago, VANOC released their transport plan for Vancouver during the Olympics. Part of the plan was to create pedestrian-only sections of major streets including Granville and Robson. In the context of the Games, this makes perfect sense. There will be thousands more people in town, coming to take in the games, and enjoy the city (hopefully). Vibrant strips like Granville and Robson would benefit tremendously from being car-free, apart from the obvious benefit of reducing overall downtown traffic during the games.

What excites me most though is the potential this has to shift the thinking Vancouverites have about streets. Vancouver has an average amount of car culture, not as good as New York or Montreal, not nearly as bad as Calgary or Toronto. Despite how much we talk about walking, cycling, and transit, Vancouverites seem loathe to shut down streets (at least those that vote…damn car driving home owners). What the Olympics could do is serve as a test case to prove to people that shutting down streets can not only be fun and vibrant, it can be done in such a way that isn’t a headache for other commuters elsewhere and can still benefit business.

Vancouver, for a city of its size, has a disturbing lack of live outdoor music festivals. The single biggest reason for this is lack of large public spaces and arcane regulations around policing and permits. Another huge deterrent though is our unwillingness to shut down major strips like Robson, Georgia, or Pacific Blvd. Until we get moving crafting serious areas of public space into our urban landscape, we have huge swaths of land we can use in the meantime…our streets.

Hopefully everything goes well, and we have a council that responds by making it easier to apply for street closures and provides the necessary supports to foster a culture of outdoor celebration on our streets. Cities like Montreal, New York, Ottawa, and countless countless across Europe have no problems dropping a car-bomb (so to speak…) and shutting down streets. For all our talk of being a world class city, we need to back it up. The Olympics might just give us the kick in the pants we need to make it happen.



  1. Alvin,

    I share your desire for a more car-free celebrations and spaces in Vancouver. I think that Vancouver does need more outdoor musical celebrations and public spaces to congregate. (I love car-free days on the Commercial Strip). However, I am not so optimistic about the Olympic ‘car-bombs’ giving Vancouver a kick in the right direction for more street celebrations.
    I believe that problem is a pervasive cultural problem. Too many individuals cannot live without their car. Judging by the reaction of many people to the idea of major streets being closed and their horror at not being able to use their cars, I am not optimistic about a cultural shift because starting because of the Olympics.
    Similarly, too many small business owners are strongly against the closure of streets because of the potential loss of car driving customers. This entrenched ideology is understandable yet regrettable as well. I do not have a source but I seemed to remember that there was some consideration for closure for streets around Denmen area on Sundays which was met with significant objection by store owners. The areas which would be most ideal for street closures (Robson, Granville, Denmen) already have considerable pedestrian traffic. I would argue that the benefits of street closure are not as beneficial as we might think for them.

    One other problem that I could see inhibiting the regular closure of streets after the Olympics is resources. The Olympics will provide a fine atmosphere of car free areas (hopefully – not traffic and commuter nightmare). But ultimately the success of this will be based on a significant pool of resources – money, governments support, volunteers and even tourists. However, on a more regular bases I wonder whether there would sufficient resources to ensure there success. Car-free days have been a considerable success because of the thousands of volunteer hours. I believe the Strait or the Courier had an article on a councilor (Riemer I think) trying to make car-free days more regular throughout the city during the summer. However, she received little support simply because the resources weren’t there. Those involved in the June 14th car-free days told her they simply didn’t have enough time to ensure success.

    After all this nay-saying, I actually do think that there is a gradual shift in Vancouver towards more support for car-free areas. The change in council plays an important role but even under the NPA there has been a shit. One excellent example is the closure of the Granville Entertainment Strip. However, these closures need to go further inviting artists and vendors to come onto the street to entertain people on the street. Any way enough rambling…

  2. I agree with a lot of what you said Garth, but what makes me mildly optimistic is this very conversation we’re having, and the fact that I have been having them with so many people from our generation for years now. The truth is that we are faced with a big disadvantage when it comes to articulating these opinions in front of our government and getting results. The way our civic election system is set up, there’s a tremendous disincentive to vote, which means voters tend to be older property owners of single detached residences (SDRs). The result? We have a city that favours policies demanded by older property owners of SDRs.

    The things is though, the majority of citizens though aren’t owners of SDRs. They’re renters or condo owners and these people tend not to drive often, or at all (In 2001 there were 65,390 SDRs representing only 28% of the 236,095 dwellings – I suspect that percentage has fallen even lower in recent years). The other way this disincentive acts against these opinions is that younger people are less likely to vote and attribute it largely to an under-representative voting process.

    A smart civic government would do two things very quickly: 1) change the electoral system to one that is proportional 2) engage with the 3/4 of the city that don’t own or occupy SDRs. There’s evidence to suggest that this government is doing both, but not fast enough in my opinion. Anyways, my point is that there are more of us than there are of them, and it’s time we start turning these quiet conversations we have with our friends into solid, articulated policies that can become blueprints for a more dynamic city.

  3. Note: I did read this a while ago, when you posted but I’m in the midst of procrastinating… I mean studying.

    I’m curious about what you are referring to when you are discussing disincentives to vote in local elections? Is it that the system doesn’t entice the young vote? Or are you referring to the ward vs At large electoral system?

    The real problem with the disinterest of youth at the municipal and community level is similar to problems at the provincial and national level – complacency and ignorance. These problems are more acute in regards to local governance because it receives less attention throughout our education system. What little emphasis is placed on understanding political processes is placed on provincial, national and international processes. What are education system needs to encourage is more discussion about local issues and more importantly education about the responsibilities and processes involved with local governance. Hmm.. let me ponder on this a bit longer… I’m puzzling over how you entice kids into the process? How did your school earthquake group get going? Who provided you with direction? What made you guys start?

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