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Blocking cars from Government Street not a ‘silver bullet’: planners

Victoria council won’t find a magic formula for success to help turn a stretch of Government Street into a pedestrian mall, say urban planners from across the country.
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Artists work on their projects on Government Street during the 2013 International Chalk Art Festival.

Victoria council won’t find a magic formula for success to help turn a stretch of Government Street into a pedestrian mall, say urban planners from across the country.

“The three most important criteria for a good pedestrian street are context, context and context,” said Brent Toderian, a former Calgary and Vancouver planner, who was involved in making Vancouver’s Granville Street a pedestrian enclave.

“The suggestion that any street would be successful as a pedestrian street is flawed. In North America, there have been more failures than successes, and yet, there have been excellent and wonderful successes.”

John Vickers has pitched to Victoria councillors the idea of closing Government Street to vehicles between Humboldt and Yates streets on weekends this summer, with Fort Street remaining open to traffic.

Vickers organizes Victoria’s busker and chalk festivals, during which the street is partially shut. He believes a seasonal pedestrian mall would enliven Government Street, and attract more people.

READ MORE: Examples of pedestrian malls in Canada and the U.S.

But Government Street business owners have protested, saying it will only threaten business in an area that already has too many empty storefronts.

About three-quarters of voters in an informal Times Colonist poll said they supported the pedestrian mall idea in some form, including permanent, temporary and trial-period closings to vehicles.

Among 2,192 votes, 581 (27 per cent) were opposed to it.

Reuben Rose-Redwood, associate professor of geography at the University of Victoria, said the five-block area of Government Street is a good spot to block traffic. It’s already distinct, as a one-way street, and he believes the potential damage to businesses has been overstated. Some concerns could be addressed by allowing special road access for things like deliveries, he said.

Walkability is identified as a priority in Victoria’s official community plan, and creating pedestrian malls may reduce the city’s carbon footprint, he said.

“I personally think it would be a great idea. There are often concerns from the business community about the reduction in car traffic reducing sales and things. But from the studies I’ve looked at, I haven’t really seen much evidence to back that up,” Rose-Redwood said.

Although there’s no perfect model for pedestrian zones, experts have identified some features that can help make them viable.

The most successful pedestrian streets in North America have been entertainment or “experience” heavy, Toderian said. That means cafés, restaurants and theatres, instead of retail-only stretches.

Anchors, or attractions at either end of a pedestrian street, guarantee a flow of foot traffic between them. Toderian pointed to State Street in Madison, Wisconsin, which is sandwiched between a university and the State Capitol.

“Add to that the fact that the blocks are short, which is also an important detail, and the retailers tend to be on the corners where perpendicular traffic goes by. That’s a pretty good recipe for a successful pedestrian street,” he said.

Some pedestrian streets work because their particular population guarantees a flow of walkers, whether it be tourists in Whistler Village or students in a university town. But the pedestrian mall itself shouldn’t be relied upon as the attraction, which several North American cities thought might be the case from the 1950s through 1970s, he said.

“The idea that people travel from all over the world to experience a pedestrian main street led a lot of cities to assume that could be a silver bullet,” Toderian said. “And a lot of those streets failed.”

It is possible to change a culture, however, if the community is on board, he said. When naysayers in Copenhagen said it was too cold to sustain a patio culture, restaurant owners handed out blankets and plugged in heaters to encourage visitors year-round.

“You can change people’s perception of the street, but it’s not easy and you can’t assume it’ll happen just by blocking cars. It takes more thought than that,” he said.

The closing of Granville Street in Vancouver has drawn mixed reviews, and Toderian agreed the jury is still out on whether it would make sense year-round.

“The important thing to remember is that pedestrian streets aren’t just about replacing cars with pedestrians on the streets. It’s about turning streets into places where people don’t just walk, they sit and linger,” he said.

Kevin Manaugh, a geography professor at McGill University, said street art and furniture can help make that happen. It’s also important to have businesses that are open at the same time, to avoid dead zones.

Many agreed that an important key to success is building community consensus. Shamez Amlani, a restaurant owner in Toronto’s Kensington Market who initiated the neighbourhood’s “pedestrian Sundays,” said the idea was initially met with resistance. He visited business owners in the area and knocked on 800 residents’ doors to persuade them to try it out.

It remains a successful monthly event and Amlani said that’s a good thing. Although he wanted to make it permanent in the beginning, he now believes the temporary closing prevents the area from turning into a Disneyland and maintains a healthy mix of businesses.

There’s renewed interest in pedestrian malls in North America, following a general failure in the 1970s, said Paul Hess, a University of Toronto geographer. He pointed to New York City and Vancouver as examples of cities experimenting anew with pedestrian malls.

When it comes to revitalizing an area, however, he said blocking traffic won’t likely change things for the better on its own.

“Why are those storefronts empty now? You kind of have to figure that out to understand if pedestrianization is going to be helpful,” he said, saying it could be prohibitively high rents or other things.

“It’s more of an art, than a science.”

Without rebuilding a street, blocking traffic has little chance of succeeding, said Gordon Price, director of Simon Fraser University’s city program.

“If the street is not rebuilt, then people will not change their trained patterns,” said Price, who grew up in Victoria.

If the road still seems like a road, in other words, then pedestrians will avoid walking on it, he said. Placing elements like sculptures or fountains in the centre of the street can change that.

It’s helpful to think of the street as a room, he said. Are the “walls” — the storefronts and patios — dynamic or closed off? Even the “ceiling” is important: Are there lights strung across?

A successful tourist destination has elements that also attract locals, Price said — tourists typically want to go where the locals go.

The relationship with the surrounding area is also significant. Is there parking nearby? Is it connected to part of a transportation network?

“You’re building a room. But rooms are part of houses and houses are part of neighbourhoods and they all have to interact.”

Map Government Street in Victoria, Feb. 6, 2015