New Brunswick

Saint John debates benefits of closing streets to vehicles, but experts say it works

As business and political leaders debate the benefits of closing down some Saint John streets to vehicles, a pair of urban planners argue the benefits are already proven in communities around the world.

Most owners worry about parking, while urban planners say pedestrians are good for business

Pedestrians walk along a closed section of Sainte-Catherine Street in Montreal on Friday. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

As business and political leaders debate the benefits of closing down some Saint John streets to vehicles, a pair of urban planners argue the benefits are already proven in communities around the world.

Nina-Marie Lister, the director of the graduate program in urban planning at Ryerson University, said there are many benefits to allowing pedestrians and cyclists more use of urban spaces — and those become even more important during a worldwide pandemic. 

"So yes, get outside but get outside at a safe physical distance," said Lister.

"Closing streets is an absolutely important part of increasing physical distancing in the public realm while recognizing the importance of being outside."

Saint John Coun. John MacKenzie seems to agree. He said closing city streets to vehicular traffic is "absolutely imperative for uptown restaurants right now." 

Prof. Nina-Marie Lister, the director of the graduate program in urban planning at Ryerson University, said research shows that pedestrian zones are 'economically profitable.' (Submitted by Nina-Marie Lister)

And he isn't keen to wait to move on it. 

"Waiting another month, I think we're going to lose business," he said during an open session of the city's growth committee on Thursday. 

"I know you don't want to jump the gun on this, but at the same time we've got to reduce the risk of people losing their business because we're taking time on it."

Proponents of closing streets said this would allow restaurants to serve patrons on sidewalks.

But city manager John Collin said the city needs more input from businesses before making a decision. 

"It's not that we're dragging our heels on that at all," he said. "I think it's just a little bit too raw right now for the business owners to make their determinations."

At the moment, Collin said, it appears they're evenly split on street closures. 

"They were just allowed to open last week," he said ."They're still trying to figure out how they would do it. They're very much concerned that a street closure may affect their pickup and drop-off capability that they currently established."

He said city officials have "some more work to do with those who will be affected before we can come to council with a firm recommendation."

In the past, Grannan Lane and Canterbury Street, between King and Princess streets in uptown Saint John, have been closed to vehicles for special events. (Submitted by Dan Culberson)

 As the city of Saint John continues to gather information on whether businesses want streets closed to vehicular traffic, a recent survey commissioned by Uptown Saint John sheds some light on the subject. 

Based on 101 responses from business owners in the uptown, they're not so keen on street closures — and even less keen about sidewalk patios. Both issues were on the bottom of a list of what businesses would like to see from the city. 

What they really want, said Uptown Saint John executive director Nancy Tissington, is free parking. 

Tissington is pleased that the committee decided to hold off on making a decision until a more clear directive could be obtained from business owners. 

Holly Singh, who owns Thandi's restaurant on Canterbury Street, said she's in favour of closing Canterbury, which would be a likely candidate since it's usually closed for special events held in the area. 

As long as people were aware of the closure, she thinks they won't mind parking a block or two away and accessing the businesses on foot. 

But she prefers that it's just her block that's closed. She said allowing vehicles to access Canterbury from King and then to turn right onto Grannan Lane would still allow for deliveries and garbage pickup. 

Singh said she'd like to see the approach piloted for the summer.

Holly Singh, of Thandi's restaurant, would support the closure of Canterbury Street for the summer. (CBC)

In Moncton and Fredericton, business groups have already made it clear that they want to steer clear of street closures. They say the move will hurt local operators. 

But two urban planners said street closures typically help local businesses. 

Raktim Mitra, an associate professor of urban planning at Ryerson University, said closing streets makes sense for several reasons. 

First, he said, "it's important to understand the necessity within the current context, which is that people are generally encouraged to stay within their community during the COVID outbreak."

Add to that, the difficulty to stay two metres away from other people on public transit and more people have been walking and cycling, he said. 

Raktim Mitra, an associate professor of urban planning at Ryerson University, said a pandemic is a good time to experiment with new ideas in urban design. (Submitted by Raktim Mitra)

"Because of this unprecedented crisis, the traffic volume in all streets have declined quite drastically, which creates an opportunity for planners and policy makers to experiment with new policies."

He said several studies indicate that the main concern is not about closing streets. It's about losing parking. 

"There's a perception by some that street parking is good for retail activity. However, the data suggests that those who come by walking or by bicycle visit the stores more frequently and, on a month-to-month basis, they actually spend more money in local stores compared to those who would drive to these stores."

Mitra said street closures are most effective on relatively small sections — perhaps a couple of blocks — of streets that have already been proven as "a destination." 

"My understanding is that those do — and would continue to do — well without vehicular traffic."

He said the parking issue is often "a one-sided perception, which is primarily something that is emphasized by store owners, whereas the users don't see parking as that big of an issue."

Cities all around the world have been reclaiming streets for pedestrian use to create more space for physical distancing. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

The "silver lining" of COVID-19 is that it's a great opportunity to experiment with urban land use. 

And it doesn't have to be permanent or persistent. 

Lister said cities could experiment with weekend closures to start — or at least a few weekend closures in a row as a pilot project and then determine whether to continue for the rest of the summer. 

"Pilot testing is a smart strategy to start with," she said. 

"I wouldn't say it's not fully committing. I'd say it's seeing what works best with what you've got."

Lister said she's surprised that retailers wouldn't want slower-moving potential customers passing by their establishments. 

"There is good evidence from around the world to show that pedestrian zones are economically profitable but also very desirable in terms of rents and in terms of tourism draw."

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