March 23, 2022

Patio Program & Pop-Up Plazas Continue, But How do Vancouver’s Pandemic Slow Streets Fold In?

During the pandemic the City of Vancouver did some initiatives in a fairly nimble fashion. The City allowed restaurants who for health restriction reasons could not seat patrons inside (as well as all those potential customers that wanted to stay outside) the opportunity to build and expand outside sidewalk table seating.  This patio program has now been adopted to be part of every Vancouver summer, as can be read about in this Vancouver council report.

The City also expanded on the pop-up plazas that appeared during the pandemic near commercial areas that often closed a half block of a side street. As reported by Vancouver Sun’s Dan Fumano   the twenty pop-up plazas placed in Vancouver during the pandemic have been “wildly popular with residents and businesses” and the City has indicated that they will stay in place.

The City of Vancouver is now asking residents to provide input on improvements to two plazas,one at 18th Avenue and Cambie Street and one at 13th Avenue and Granville Street.

The patio programs and pop up plazas in commercial areas lack a critical infrastructure element: how to get there sustainably. While patios and pop-up plazas are directly connected to increasing public use of  commercial areas, Vancouver has been silent in tying in a critical piece, the application of “slow streets” that allow the equitable use of walking, rolling and cycling to access these areas. This also offered the chance to enhance mental and physical health through exercise, and increased sociability while respecting physical distancing norms associated with the pandemic.

In Vancouver Slow Street implementation during the pandemic, opening up traditional vehicle only road space for walkers, rollers and bikers  lagged behind the implementation of the same in Calgary and in Winnipeg in 2020.  Calgary closed six major roadways on weekends to give physical distancing for people to walk and get outside.

In the Calgary case, the routes ran over bridges and  close to parks and the river valley, offering people the chance to make a loop during their exercise routines.

The City of Winnipeg already allowed  pedestrians and cyclists to have priority on four major roads on Sundays and holidays from May through the summer. Winnipeg   implemented  those road and lane priority for active transportation in early April.

Vancouver was late to the party implementing a series of plastic, very moveable gravity barriers as defining “slow streets”  requesting that only local drivers use these roads, and that traffic proceed slowly.


Sadly the barriers were never filled with sand or water, and there was no follow up procedure whereby the City checked to ensure that the barriers were in place, not vandalized, or discarded.


The network was to be 50 kilometers, but it appears that only 40 kilometers are currently classified as Slow Streets. The map below is from the city’s website discussing Slow Streets.

It was actually Gordon Price that first wrote aboutFlow Streets” which is a much better wording than “Slow Streets”. Gordon defined Flow Streets as streets that “accommodated a multitude of users who have to physically distance themselves” and included the City’s greenways network and “relief” roads.

Regardless of the moniker, the City of Vancouver has not really defined what future plans are, and are not engaging with neighbourhoods on potential routes or  design plans, preferring instead the model of “talk to us” about already suggested routes and amenities. Designed to make it “easier for people to exercise and access businesses in their neighbourhoods” Slow Streets were designated based upon “traffic volumes, signalized crossings, equity and access to green space, parks and community amenities.”

There’s a  Slow Street “design guide” online, but it is missing that essential element of going out and asking neighbourhoods what they need. Looking at the City’s Slow Streets map, it misses Southeast Vancouver almost entirely, which is an area that also has substantial grade changes, traffic, and is need of streets that are safer to walk, roll and bike on. The online materials have also not been updated since 2021.

Claire Lee from Queens University has written an excellent synopsis about Vancouver’s Slow Streets as a case study and her work can be accessed here.

Ms. Lee’s work pinpoints the importance of expanding the walking and biking priority network, and folding the Slow Streets designated streets into the City’s greenways system which expands border to border east to west. What is missing and is picked up in Ms. Lee’s report is vital north to south walking and biking connections, especially on the east side of the city which also has a huge topographical grade change in that direction.

Slow Streets appeared to be an opportunity to complete the greenways network of streets that had a priority for walking, rolling and biking over transit. The next steps should be for a coherent review how the pandemic inspired Slow Streets program can be folded into providing that “last mile” access to commercial areas, and coherently build upon the existing greenway and bikeway designated and traffic calmed routes.

As Ms Lee concludes in her executive summary, “investing in durable materials, prioritizing maintenance, being ambitions, trying and testing” are paramount for a more permanent application of Slow Streets.

This should be a fundamental part of the city’s investment in amenity, just as important as making the patio program and the pop-up parks a permanent post pandemic asset.

Here is the City’s Slow Streets video from the Fall of 2021. It’s short and peppy, but not rich in any substantive detail.


images: globalnews,cbc,reddit



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