The following was submitted by Transport Action BC to the Vancouver Sun as an op-ed piece. It was written in response to the City of Vancouver staff report recommending that the 800 block (Robson Square) of Robson Street be permanently closed to all vehicles, including transit. This proposal requires a permanent re-route of the 5-Robson bus along Burrard and Pender Streets.
Making Robson Square in Vancouver more welcoming to people is a great idea, if it is inclusive, accessible, and is not built at the expense of accessibility to other destinations.
However, if Vancouver wants more than a pedestrian island between two thoroughfares, it should start from a pedestrianisation strategy, making sure that pedestrianisation is not done at the expense of accessibility but enhances it and supports the city’s retail sector. Walking and cycling support many travel purposes but they have limitations in range and the ability to meet certain needs. Weather conditions, cumbersome shopping bags, travelling with children, personal mobility challenges or simply being tired are all issues that factor into a decision on how to travel: a good city transit network is needed to complement other active transportation modes, and to make sure access to the city core does not discriminate against people based on their ability to walk or cycle.
Many European cities recognize that vibrant pedestrian spaces must be accessible and inclusive for people of all abilities. Furthermore, with an ultimate goal to reduce auto usage in their centres, their pedestrian spaces are not built at the expense of transit. Rather, transit is seen as the connecting spine of pedestrian spaces. That is why European cities have mastered the art of seamless and safe integration of transit into their pedestrian realms. This is a recipe also successfully applied in Denver’s 16th Sreet Mall.
The importance of transit to the success of pedestrian places was recognized by Arthur Erickson in 1974, when he was envisioning Robson Square: “The only traffic through the Square will be inner city buses, linking the West End and False Creek. Since buses function as people movers, they are seen as a compliment or enhancement to the pedestrian activity of the civic square…”.
The foundation principles for a good transit network, upon which a good pedestrianisation policy can be built, are well-known, and were recognized in the 1975 Vancouver downtown bus review . The most important is to have direct routes going straight to the center of gravity of an area to minimize walking. That is how the downtown bus grid network was built, why retail strips gather along it, and why the current Robson bus route is well patronized with over 3,000,000 passengers per year. A detour to avoid Robson Square may mean little for a motorist but for a transit customer, it means a less legible route with compromised connections to the rest of the network. It forces transit users on a circuitous routing, eliminates the quickest and most direct connections to the rapid transit system, penalises riders who wish to transfer to southbound buses on Granville, and inserts a gap in the transit grid on one of downtown’s few major east/west transit routes. Ultimately it results in a less accessible Robson retail strip, as well as a less inclusive Robson Square for the most vulnerable people.
Closing Robson Square to transit fails on all counts of accessibility and inclusiveness. Additionally TransLink estimates that the bus detour could add $300,000.00 to the route’s annual operating cost. Will the City cover those additional costs?
Robson Square has been a popular downtown meeting spot but the Canada Line opening and recent proposals for the VAG North Plaza indicate that a square facing Georgia Street could be the new ‘natural’ meeting place downtown since it closer to rapid transit and regional bus services than Robson Square.
Prudence dictates that a decision to close the 800 block of Robson should be delayed until the VAG North Plaza changes are completed and their impact evaluated. A successful public space rehabilitation of the North Plaza could render the Robson closure anachronistic, and even be detrimental to the North plaza success, without granting success to the Robson Square, since the level of pedestrian activity may not be great enough to activate both squares.
Rather than a case by case street closure policy built at the expense of transit and inclusion of people of all abilities, a better approach is to learn from the successes in Europe and North America, to develop an effective and ambitious pedestrian oriented space strategy; which doesn’t necessarily mean full closure of streets; but which is articulated around an efficient transit network, to effectively reduce the presence of cars in downtown without compromising its accessibility and inclusiveness.