British Columbia

Will some city streets in Vancouver remain closed after the pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an unexpected drop in vehicle traffic in cities like Vancouver, coupled with the need to create more space for pedestrians to safely distance. The result? Officials closing certain streets to vehicles. But what will happen after the pandemic remains an open question for city planners.

Changes to the city's streets could be part of the economic recovery and long-term strategy say planners

A man crosses an empty street in downtown Vancouver on April 14, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

In Vancouver, cyclists circling Stanley Park now have a two-lane road to themselves as pedestrians get exclusive use of the picturesque seawall. Motorists are banished from nearly the entire thousand-acre park.

Beach Avenue's eastbound lanes are closed to cars all the way to Hornby Street. In a several busy commercial areas, the city has taken what would normally be curbside parking space and created room for people to safely line up outside stores.

On many quieter neighbourhood streets throughout the city, people are taking it upon themselves to walk or run in the street, leaving space on the sidewalks for others.

Cities all over, like Vancouver, have had vehicle traffic suddenly drop, while people getting fresh air and exercise have found the need for more space to physically distance in the name of reducing the spread of COVID-19.

The roads through Stanley Park are closed to encourage people to practise physical distancing while walking and cycling through the park in Vancouver. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

The abrupt changes to city streets have some wondering what the streets will look like after the pandemic has run its course.

Paul Storer, manager of transportation design with the City of Vancouver, is one of the people now planning for the next steps.

"Obviously, right now we have way more pavement out there than we need to move all the vehicles around," said Storer.

"We're seeing some very different trends now," he said. "It's been a real shock to the transportation system."

Commuter patterns make up the lion's share of the changes, said Storer, with an 80 per cent decrease in transit trips, nearly 50 per cent less vehicle traffic in and out of downtown, and fewer people making bicycle or foot commutes.

City greenways a network with potential

Sandy James, who worked for the city between the mid-1980s and 2013, ultimately serving as a city planner, is giving kudos to the park board and city for the closures that have already taken place, but she would like to see more.

A sudden drop in vehicle traffic in late March left Vancouver streets empty. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

James points out that a 140-km greenways network was established by a task force in 1995, including Ontario Street, Point Grey Road, 37th Avenue and other routes that have seen development as cycling infrastructure in recent years.

"It's a bit of a safety valve, and the intent with greenways was that in the future at some point, as the city densified, they could be turned into parklike streets that could be closed to traffic," she said, adding that now is an opportunity to do that.

"Right now what I'm seeing is people are walking that have never walked before," said James.

She stopped short of calling for a permanent closure of the designated greenways streets after pandemic restrictions are lifted, saying it could take 10 to 50 years for density to be high enough in some areas.

Storer said a process to refresh the greenways plan was actually kicked off just before the pandemic hit, and planners are now seeing more interest in continuing the development of those routes.

He said the city is eager to make changes to the streets in the short term that will help struggling businesses recover, perhaps things like extended patios to allow for restaurants to serve physically distanced customers — though the province would have to alter liquor laws — and loading zones for curbside pickup.

After the pandemic though, Storer doesn't know what to expect. Will the comfort with working from home stick around, reducing commutes and emissions? Will people continue increased recreational walks, runs and bike rides?

"We're keeping an eye on what's happening out there," he said, adding that any major, long-term changes will be based on planning processes.


Do you have more to add to this story? Email rafferty.baker@cbc.ca

Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker

About the Author

Rafferty Baker is a video journalist with CBC News, based in Vancouver. You can find his stories on CBC Radio, television, and online at cbc.ca/bc.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now