COVID Place making
May 17, 2020

Slow and Muddled at 12th and Cambie

Sandy James and I were both struck by Daphne Bramham’s recent column in The Sun.  She asked the question many have been wondering:

By the end of May, Seattle will have permanently banned cars from more than 30 kilometres of city streets, making permanent a temporary response to the COVID-19 pandemic’s imperative that people maintain physical distance.

In Vancouver? The city has closed a single street — Beach Avenue along English Bay — and parking lanes on 10 streets to allow space for people to wait to enter the few stores that are open. …

While other jurisdictions have acted boldly and swiftly, Vancouver council’s pandemic response has been slow and muddled.

It’s true, there’s not a lot of overt enthusiasm from Council on reallocating street space, even when it seems to be a win-win-win: good for local community, climate change, active transport and good health.  Council is supportive of all that, of course; they’re just not rah-rah.  Maybe it’s too Visiony, too associated with different politics and priorities. Urban design is not the Mayor’s forte.

It’s not that Council has failed to articulate its ambition.  With recognition of a climate emergency and the approval of Six Big Moves, Council committed to accelerating things we coincidentally need to do now to respond to the covid emergency.  Here’s what they moved just one year ago:

That Council accelerate the existing sustainable transportation target by 10 years, so that by 2030, two thirds of trips in Vancouver will be by active transportation and transit …

The pandemic response seemed the obvious time to compress that 10-year commitment into a month.  And it looked, briefly, that the City and Park Board were on their way.  In what seemed like a weekend (but must have involved a lot of preliminary planning), Park Drive in Stanley Park and Beach Avenue were turned into flow ways with cones, signs and not much consultation.

But in the weeks that followed, except for a few queuing lanes in commercial zones … not much.

As Daphne noted, that required ignoring a lot of what was happening in the rest of the world.

All through March and April, city after city announced a slow or open street strategy of some kind.  From Oakland to Milan, from Edmonton to Seattle, Vancouver was practically surrounded by ambitious plans and responses.  Yet in that time, no enthusiastic embrace from the Mayor of Vancouver, even when the mayors of Toronto and New York, after initial tepid responses, came back with more ambitious agendas for immediate action.  Not Vancouver.

Little response emerged from City Hall until late April when, surprisingly*, NPA councillor Lisa Dominato came forward with a call for action – and a motion to instruct staff to do two big things:

  • Expedite identifying and implementing reallocations of road space
  • Come back in the fall 2020 with options for mobility and public realm use.

The motion made it on to the agenda on Tuesday, May 12, with a briefing before the final vote expected on Wednesday.  CBC reported:

At Wednesday’s city council meeting, conducted via conference call, senior Vancouver staffers mapped out a vision for “short-term actions for long-term transformations” of city streets in response to the health crisis.

The coming weeks will see 50 kilometres of Vancouver roads designated as “slow streets” with traffic-calming measures to promote walking, rolling and cycling, while other side streets could be closed to car traffic altogether to make way for temporary plazas.

An easy vote, one would think – an opportunity for Council to reinforce the city’s leadership in sustainable transportation.  Vancouver has been a world leader in what are now called complete, open or slow streets – from the traffic calming in the 1970s, to the greenways and bikeways of the 1990s, to the reallocation of street space on bridges and arterials in the 2000s.  We had the experience, the staff and the political will – and here was a chance for the Mayor and Council to make their mark.

Instead, when the motion finally came up for debate, hours were taken up addressing the issue in the Downtown East Side, a neighbourhood that,

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