West End seniors are praising Vancouver city council’s decision to reopen a key part of Robson Street to cars and buses after three months of consultations this fall about whether to turn it into a permanent public plaza.
“This proves you can fight city hall,” said Peggy Casey of the West End Seniors’ Network, adding that she and her peers are “very, very pleased” that the city opted to reopen as of Dec. 1 the one-block pedestrian zone created between the Vancouver Art Gallery and courthouse complex, which had been closed for five months.
They are also hoping that the city will listen more carefully in coming months, as it continues to look at ways to create a permanent public plaza.
Councillors approved staff recommendations to prepare for closing the street again next summer, while city officials investigate solutions for transit, weather protection, and programmed activities for a future plaza.
Casey and many other West End residents have been angry that the main bus that serves the West End, the No. 5 that runs down Robson, was rerouted to bypass the block of Robson next to art gallery. The bus used to go along Robson as far as Granville. During the closure, it was re-routed to Burrard, three blocks away.
Casey, who is 84, vision-impaired and dependent on a cane, said that walking an extra three blocks to reach Granville has been “extremely difficult.”
The seniors’ network recently collected 143 signatures in one afternoon to petition the city to make the bus accessible for them once again. Casey said the staff report, which cites the No. 5 bus and its use by seniors as an important consideration, proves their campaign was successful.
Pedestrian-friendly city centre
The city had closed Robson Street for the past two summers in an effort to bring people together in a more pedestrian-friendly city centre. This August, instead of opening it up to traffic again for the fall, the city announced that it would keep the street closed until the end of the year. It held public events to discuss the future of the block.
That prompted many to talk about the importance of having a car-free space for people to gather and play downtown.
Lawrence Frank, a professor of urban planning and public health at UBC, said the street closure provided an area where pedestrians don’t have to worry about cars. He said it makes so much sense to unite the pedestrian spaces of the art gallery and Robson Square that he used to wonder “Why is this open? Why can’t we get the cars out?”
“The benefits of doing this far outweigh the cost,” he said. His research has found that encouraging foot traffic has many benefits such as improved public health.
Ottawa and Calgary each have a pedestrian-only street right downtown lined with shopping and dining. Those streets have been closed to traffic since 1966 and 1970 respectively.
In 1990, Seattle tried to create a public square adjoining a park much like Robson Square, but it only lasted for five years before pressure from an incoming department store led to a public vote that brought the cars back.
Times Square has been the subject of much debate since New York City’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, decided to make it a pedestrian zone in 2009. It is well-used by pedestrians and popular with tourists.[/pullquote]
Frank said for urban planning to be effective, “it’s important to look at the collective effect on as many segments of society as possible.”
“When you try to make spaces work for everyone, there are some people who are not going to get it exactly as they want because it’s all about compromise. If you look at the overall number of streets downtown, almost every other street is completely for cars.”
Frank said he is wary of any options other than a dedicated pedestrian zone on Robson, so he wonders if the best way to accommodate the seniors would be to find a new route for the No. 5 bus that connects them to Seymour and Granville streets without passing through the pedestrian mall. TransLink will be looking into an improved reroute for the bus next year.
Street closure done “without much forethought”
Whatever happens with bus routes in the future, residents hope there is more planning and discussion beforehand.
They were not only concerned about the bus rerouting during the closure; they also complained about the lack of due process before the city closed the street. Casey said she thought the street closure seemed to be “done on a whim, without much forethought.”
The new report seems to acknowledge such concerns, saying that further review is needed before making any lasting changes. City staff have recommended a more incremental approach to creating a public square on that block.
Coun. Andrea Reimer said the August decision to keep the street pedestrian-only was partly due to provincial government plans to redevelop the north side of the art gallery, which has been a traditional gathering place for protests, festivals, and rallies. Construction plans would have left the area temporarily without enough public space.
“TransLink needed an answer urgently,” she said, so the city decided to close the street and ask for the bus to be rerouted. By the time city staff learned from the province that construction would not actually happen, TransLink had already planned its fall schedule, so it was too late to put the bus back on Robson.
Residents hope they will continue to be heard
Casey hopes that the city will continue to listen to concerned residents and said the best thing the city can do is show residents their plan before going ahead with changes.
As for the prospect of Robson closing again next summer, she said that it could be fine as long as TransLink can make the transit route accessible and effective like it once was. But for now, she’s just happy that the bus will go down Robson to Granville again.