British Columbia

City of Vancouver considers 'slow streets' for 50 km worth of roads

The City of Vancouver will be expanding on experiments at Beach Avenue and Kits Point for street use — but don’t expect widespread change soon.

Vehicles wouldn’t be banned, but focus would be walking, cycling and local traffic

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

The City of Vancouver will be expanding on experiments that partially closed lanes on Beach Avenue and at Kits Point — but don't expect widespread change soon.

"This is a complex undertaking, and there's a lot of competing interest for public space," said Lon LaClaire, Vancouver's general manager of engineering services, as staff outlined to council Wednesday what steps the city would soon be taking.

Up to 50 kilometres worth of "slow streets" will be created across the city on a temporary basis over the next two months using construction-style barriers and "local traffic only" signs designed to create routes for cyclists, pedestrians and neighbourhood traffic. 

Like many dense cities across the world, Vancouver is trying to find ways that people can move around outside while respecting physical distancing guidelines put in place to combat the COVID-19 virus.

Gil Kelley, the city's top planner, said the pandemic could be a catalyst for the city to accelerate work being done to promote active transportation options. 

"I think the COVID crisis has just opened up the possibility for us to experiment, to pilot, often at low cost, and to try things out," he said.

Paul Storer, the city's transportation director, echoed Kelly's sentiment.

"As we're moving forward, a lot of our thinking is moving towards recovery," he said.

"It's to enable physical distancing and exercising … and also starting to think about in recovery, as more people start to come to work, how we use that street space."

Since the outbreak began, walking in Vancouver is down 40 to 55 per cent, driving is down 39 to 48 per cent and transit use is down 80 per cent, according to staff. 

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

Questions on speed and length

But what the city will do is somewhat limited: major arterial streets aren't being considered for changes and there's no plan at this point to ban cars from roads.

"If you're actually talking about a closure of streets to cars, you really need to do it carefully," said city manager Sadhu Johnston. 

"Otherwise you end up causing a lot of access issues for people, and I think what we want here is success, rather than we're going to end up backwards because we did this too rushed."

In addition, reducing speed limits for large stretches of roads is expensive, because the province's Motor Vehicle Act doesn't allow cities to lower limits without signs at every block. 

Staff also said they were looking at ways to expand temporary plazas on side streets and promote flexible patio space, both of which were the focus of a motion by Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung on Wednesday.

Most members of council said they supported the changes, but some hoped for a quicker pace. 

"We're seeing other cities … are trying, it would be really nice if we can start to move forward on reallocating vehicle space," said Coun. Michael Wiebe. 

Coun. Colleen Hardwick, however, wanted assurances that the changes won't be permanent because lanes devoted to walking and patios will have a limited appeal in the winter.

"As we get into the fall, we do live in a rainforest, and a lot of the things we're talking about will be challenged when the weather turns," she said.