Stanley Park: Should it stay car free? What Vancouver city builders say about the car ban

June 2, 2020

Mash Salehomoum

It’s been over a month since the Vancouver Park Board made the decision to close the Stanley Park roadway and part of Beach Avenue to personal vehicles. The roads through Stanley Park are closed to encourage people to practice physical distancing while walking and cycling through the park in Vancouver.

Cyclists and pedestrians alike have been rejoicing in the newfound sense of calm, spaciousness, and safety throughout Stanley Park.

As the province of BC begins to ease some lockdown restrictions, people are calling to make a similar change in Stanley Park with a move to permanently restrict private vehicles in the park. In 2018 New York City closed the Central Park to vehicular traffic, following 50 years of public advocacy with overwhelmingly positive feedback.

 

However, not everyone supports closing the park to cars… 

 

 

The Cycling Advocate

The strongest advocate behind making the car ban permanent is HUB, a cycling advocacy group that runs Bike to Work and Bike to School Week in the Lower Mainland.

HUB has been working for over 20 years to remove barriers to cycling in Metro Vancouver while cultivating the health, environmental, and economic benefits that active transportation can bring. Through education, actions, and events they have successfully petitioned for better bike infrastructure on roads, transit, bridges, and parks.

They’ve noted that bike traffic has increased by 76% in Stanley Park since the change was implemented- up by an average of 3,000 cyclists per day to over 5,300. The single-day peak was on Mother’s Day when 8,301 people rode through the park.

As HUB’s VP, Jeff Leigh told CityNews1130, “I think it would be a shame if we simply reverted to the way this was two or three months back.” The Van Bikes blogger mentions that there is discussion on what a permanent change could look like, “one idea is to turn one vehicle lane on Stanley Park Drive into a passing lane.” Which would create space to create a protected bicycle lane all the way around the park perimeter.

Limiting park traffic to transit, essential vehicles, and those that work in one of the Park’s commercial establishments would ideally be coupled with increased transit service or a shuttle service.

Sam Reeve of Car-Free Vancouver suggests, “ Transit is more accessible to more people than cars because when you think about it through an economic accessibility standpoint, cars are only accessible to people who have the money for a car.”

 

 

 

The Conservationist

Stanley Park is a natural haven for people and animals alike in otherwise busy downtown Vancouver. Back in 2015, a deer even showed up in the park. Unfortunately, only a few weeks after the initial spotting, the deer was struck by a vehicle and killed. Although this tragic accident was also due to people feeding the young buck, animal fatalities due to vehicles is a common occurrence in many parks, with Stanley Park being no exception. Wildlife uses the roads as they are easy to navigate and the warmth is appealing to reptiles. Furthermore, the decreased noise disturbance brought on by motor vehicles will reduce stress on animals and allow for birds, small mammals, and amphibian populations to flourish.

Dylan Rawlyk from the Stanley Park Ecology Society tells us that one of Stanley Park’s biggest challenges is habitat fragmentation caused by trail networks, roads, and developed areas:

“The roads separate the flow of organisms including plant spores, pollen and seeds, small mammals, amphibians, invertebrates and breeding forest birds. Small, isolated patches of habitat are more vulnerable to disturbance and are often unable to support viable populations.”

Other negative effects of fragmentation include changes in microclimate and species composition, loss of gene flow resulting in inbreeding, increased competition and predation, and degradation of the existing habitat due to edge effects and exotic species invasions.

While banning cars through the perimeter roads of Stanley Park would be beneficial to wildlife, Dylan recognizes that the two major causes of habitat fragmentation in the park are the causeway which connects to the Lion’s Gate Bridge leading to North Vancouver, and the Seawall, both of which would be much larger undertakings to manage.

 

 

The Commissioner

While the idea of a permanent car ban in Stanley Park seems popular on Twitter, at least one Park Board Commissioner is not in favour. John Coupar, representing the NPA, says that the park should be accessible to everyone, including seniors, people with disabilities, and large families that may not be able to ride a bike or walk long distances. Furthermore, as he tells CityNews1130, “the parking in the park actually sustains the park.” The 2,600 parking stalls in Stanley Park generate approximately $4 million in revenue that goes towards maintaining the popular and heavily-used park.

Commissioner Coupar is also concerned about the impact that closing the park to personal vehicles would have on organizations that operate out of the park such as the Vancouver Aquarium, the Teahouse, or the Rowing Club. As Kenneth Chan, a writer at Daily Hive points out in his recent opinion piece, the Park Board has a mutually beneficial relationship with these high-profile restaurants and the Vancouver Aquarium. Stanley Park’s privately-operated restaurants provide about $1 million annually for the Park Board. For some visitors to Stanley Park, the main purpose of their trip is to visit these restaurants. Additionally, the Vancouver Aquarium has an agreement to pay about $300,000 annually in rent, plus an additional amount of its food and beverage services.

Kenneth Chan suggests that “it takes the entire region to support a major attraction like the aquarium, and this is partially accomplished by ensuring road access is maintained for suburban families with young children arriving by private vehicle, students in school buses, and tourists in tour buses.”

While Commissioner Coupar is not in favour of a total closure to personal vehicles in the park, he is open to the idea of car-free days or traffic adjustments for special events which are already implemented for special run events.

 

The Professor of Architecture

“Closing Stanley Park to traffic is a simple idea with immediate benefits. However, ensuring that all park visitors can access its varied attractions will require careful planning,” says Joseph Dahmen, an associate professor at UBC in an opinion piece published earlier this month in the Vancouver Sun.

While it might be hard to imagine asking people to take transit at this time, it won’t be the case forever. Additional electric busses that run to and through the park at regular intervals will address many of the accessibility concerns for older visitors and others for whom walking or cycling isn’t an option.

Dahmen suggests that a more permanent shift to reduce traffic in the park could entail narrowed roadways, decreased paved areas within the park, and increased sidewalk widths. He also recognizes that the causeway linking downtown to the north shore would need to remain but suggests that it should be repaved with environmentally friendly “quiet” pavement. The porous surface of this material reduces tire noise and decreases harmful surface runoff.

Another option to reduce noise levels would be for the Ministry of Transport to “sink” the roadway below the level of the park in the future. This would also provide opportunities for level bridges for both people and wildlife.

“Stanley Park without cars is like an unplowed street after a snowstorm. A new sense of calm pervades this magnificent metropolitan park. With the perimeter roads closed, the sound of birds is everywhere…The park feels whole, no longer carved into pieces by the constant flow of traffic. Why would we ever go back to the way things were?” argues Dahmen.

 

 

 

Park Board staff are collecting data on the number of cyclists on the roadway and pedestrians on the seawall and will be reporting back to the Board about how to promote active transportation around the park. At this point, there’s still no word on when Stanley Park will reopen to vehicle traffic. The Park Board is expected to see rolling changes as the situation progresses over the coming weeks.

Folks on Twitter have also been offering their thoughts. Some people suggest that the focus on greenway expansions should shift to the eastside of Vancouver, where parks are not given the same level of attention compared to the westside’s waterfront parks:

 

 

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