Closing of Government Street to cars should be postponed, city staff say

Victoria should postpone any further closings of Government Street to cars until at least next year and look at other ways to “refresh” the popular tourist stroll, say city staff.

Council’s strategic plan called for a continuation of pedestrian-only pilot projects on Government Street this summer, with the potential goal of making Government Street pedestrian-only in the 2020-21 budget year.

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Government Street businesses, however, have long expressed concerns about the idea, staff say, and would like to see a refresh of the furnishings, planters and trees along Government from Wharf to Yates Street.

In a report going to councillors Thursday, staff are recommending that council defer the decision to make Government Street pedestrian-only until 2020 or 2021. They also suggest looking at other cities with “people first multi-use streets” to determine best practices.

Mayor Lisa Helps said she supports some of what staff are recommending, but “cars versus no cars” are not the only options. Helps said another path is possible: very limited vehicle traffic.

She wants staff to look at ways to limit the number of cars, through traffic calming and other measures, and in 2021 make permanent measures that were successful. She also wants to change the designation of Government Street from “pedestrian only” to “people priority.”

While in Heidelberg, Germany, Helps was impressed by the way cars, cyclists and pedestrians all shared the main street and town square, which were clearly pedestrian-oriented.

“My idea … is to transform the street, not just put up barriers for two blocks on a Sunday and block off part of the street,” she said in an interview. “I think we can still have cars kind of inching through, but really reorient the street for people.”

Helps said when she was downtown on a recent Saturday, Government Street sidewalks were packed but the roadway was almost empty.

Jeff Bray, executive director of the Downtown Victoria Business Association, said many merchants believe improvements can be made to Government Street without eliminating cars.

“Our members would be supportive of the city looking at improving other aspects of the streetscape on Government Street,” Bray said. “Just closing it to traffic was not something that they were very supportive of. So we’re really pleased the city has been listening to those businesses.”

He noted that Government Street already has the widest sidewalks in the capital region.

“The pilot showed that unless you activate the street, blocking it to traffic doesn’t really add to it. And, of course it’s one thing to make it a pedestrian area in July and August, but how does that look in February or November?”

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