British Columbia·Opinion

The Granville bridge needs all the help it can get: A case for cyclists, pedestrians and 'streets as places'

The City of Vancouver is considering something very new with its proposal for a shared pedestrian and cyclist greenway along the centre of the bridge.

A greenway along the middle of the bridge is one proposal being considered by the City of Vancouver

Columnist Uytae Lee and CBC's Stephen Quinn, host of The Early Edition, walk across the bridge as a truck passes by. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

If you like living life on the edge — if you're the kind of person who skydives or rock climbs on the weekends, perhaps — then the Granville Street Bridge might be for you.

Right now, crossing the bridge on foot or bike is a death-defying feat. Traffic whizzes past the narrow sidewalks that have no barriers on one side and a vertigo-inducing drop down to Granville Island on the other, and spits out at two faded crosswalks across three lanes of traffic on the downtown side. 

There are no bike lanes, so cyclists are stuck between using the sidewalk or the car lanes. Neither choice makes them popular with others.

In fact, Google Maps doesn't even recognize the Granville bridge as a bike route at all — when I punch in a route, standing at one end of the bridge, my map directs me to make a U-turn and take the Burrard Street Bridge instead. 

It's not a pleasant experience.

That's why I'm excited that the City of Vancouver is considering plans for a greenway path on the Granville Street Bridge for cyclists and pedestrians.

Attempting to plan a bike trip across False Creek at the entrance to the Granville Street Bridge. Google Maps recommends taking the Burrard Street or Cambie Street bridges. (Google Maps/screenshot)

One proposal for the Granville Bridge Connector is a walking path and two-directional bike lane right down the middle of the bridge, with extra room for seats, signage and greenery.

There's also the possibility of adding an elevator from Granville Island to that path, but that project is much further out in the future.

In Vancouver, these kinds of projects stir up controversy and almost a knee-jerk reaction to any proposal that takes away vehicle lanes. 

I understand where the traffic concerns are coming from.

An illustration of what the Granville Bridge Connector would look like. (City of Vancouver)

The Cambie Street Bridge and Burrard Street Bridge have both already had lanes removed to accommodate cyclists. 

Some people claim that many of the cars that were using those bridges are now taking Granville and that removing lanes here could lead to much more congestion on Vancouver's bridges.

But if you look at the facts, it's pretty much impossible for the Granville Street Bridge to ever reach its full capacity because there just aren't enough roads around it to fill it with traffic.

The smaller two- to four-lane streets surrounding it, like Howe Street and Hemlock Street, feed into Granville's eight.

It's like trying to fill a swimming pool with water guns. Even during rush hour, the bridge itself is seeing less than half the amount of traffic it was originally designed for.

A time lapse of Google Maps with the traffic layer enabled shows the Granville Street Bridge remains clear throughout the day:

To be honest, I think this controversy around traffic and bike lanes is distracting us from having a more in-depth conversation about the Granville Bridge Connector.

If this project was just about adding bike lanes to a bridge, it'd be kind of boring for me. But I think the city is trying something very new here.

Sketches of the proposed pathway down the middle of the bridge show much more than just people walking or cycling. There's seating, there are tables and trees, and even an ice-cream cart.

Unlike the Cambie Street Bridge or Burrard Street Bridge, there is no barrier between pedestrians and cars. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

That seems like a huge departure from how we've designed walking areas on bridges in Vancouver so far.

And it's part of a much larger global movement.

"Streets as places," coined by an organization called Project for Public Spaces, is the idea that streets are more than just for transportation — they hold the potential to become public spaces for gathering, markets and other events. 

The hope is that it'll encourage more people to walk or cycle because it's more enjoyable and exciting. 

But what makes the Granville project especially interesting to me is that it could be the very first of its kind.

I spent quite a bit of time looking for similar bridge design around the world but I couldn't finding any that placed pedestrian paths and bike lanes in the centre lane with traffic on both sides.

When pedestrians make it to the downtown side across the bridge, they have to cross three lanes of traffic using two crosswalks with faded paint and no signals. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The closest example, I think, is the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City, which does have a pedestrian path in the middle, but it's elevated above traffic.

This proposal is risky, but definitely worth talking about. And when we're done with making this conversation about traffic, I hope we can have that conversation about streets as places. 

Because, frankly, the Granville Street Bridge could use all the help it can get.

About the Author

Uytae Lee uses his background in urban design to rethink the city in a column with CBC's The Early Edition.  He graduated with a degree in Community Design from Dalhousie University and produced videos on city issues in Halifax for three years before moving to Vancouver in 2018. He hosts a YouTube channel, 'About Here' where he makes videos about urban planning issues in Vancouver.   

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