September 1, 2022

Guest Writer Rob Grant on “Granville Island-A Question of Accessibility”

Guest writer Rob Grant is a retired architect who has been the designer/project architect on a variety of work including  nursing homes, residential high-rises, mid-rise apartments, townhouses, and a variety of single-family dwellings. His work  includes a number of courtyard houses in the villages of Loreto Bay In Baja California planned by the architectural planning firm Duany Plater-Zyberk. 

Rob has also been actively involved in local design competitions, including the Vancouver Special Competition. His attention to detail and thoughtfulness usually places his work in the top three. An active walker and cyclist, Rob has served on the Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition (now HUB)  advising on downtown cycling lanes and the Arbutus Greenway Corridor.

Rob has expertise and interest in the West End’s RM-5B zone that replaced modest housing with luxury buildings. You can read one of his articles about the parking debacle caused by these new buildings here.

Here is Rob Grant on the Granville Island  transportation “disconnect” and a well thought out plan for integrating the island with the surrounding community.

“You would not think that the cities of Vancouver and Paris had much in common. Paris the crossroads of rich and elegant European urbanism where the original geography of a river meandering through rolling terrain is mostly absent from view, while Vancouver blessed with a dramatic coastal mountain setting but with a banal suburbanism occupying the greatest part of its land base.

At the same time there are many similarities. Paris with arguably the boldest plans of any big city to address the issue of climate change, while Vancouver with “greenest city” aspirations leads North American on the environmental front.

Image 1 –Il de la Cité in Paris compared to Granville Island in Vancouver

Il de la Cité situated in the middle of the Seine goes back to the indigenous Parisii tribe as fishing and trading outpost, then Roman town, evolving into a medieval religious and administrative centre, now one of the three most visited tourist sites in Paris.

Granville Island, fishing ground for the Musqueam First Nation, demoted to peninsula status with the arrival of colonial resource extraction industries but later revived as a public market and cultural centre, now one of the three most visited tourist sites in Vancouver.

Aerial views of both reveal a tale of two islands. Il de la Cité is knitted into the urban fabric of Paris by nine bridges connected to left and right banks of the Seine. It is easily accessible by all modes of transportation including increasingly popular bicycle and related forms of micro-mobility. Granville Island on the other hand is dominated but not served by a single high-level bypass bridge that rather than connecting supports the smooth flow of traffic dispersal far and wide.

Local architect Mark Melnichuk last June stirred up debate on the increasingly dysfunctional state of affairs on Granville Island as vehicular traffic continues to clog public space in the elusive search for parking. In a Reddit post he offers two thoughtful solutions.

First is to restrict cars from going past the first crosswalk under the island welcome sign, allowing only island employees, hotel guests, residents and emergency workers vehicular access, so that all streets essentially become pedestrian zones. The second is to restrict vehicles to the eastern end of the island, while incorporating a bike path into Anderson Street that connects the island to the seawall cycle route.

Granville Island manager Tom Lancaster diplomatically agrees with the idea yet is concerned about unintended consequences for businesses and artists on the island. A CMHC sponsored study in 2018 entitled Granville Island 2040, suggested two possibilities for reducing traffic on the island, including the revival of the Olympic line tram and the possibility of building an elevator from the upper deck of the Granville Bridge.

Indeed the City of Vancouver Planning department commissioned a study in 2018 to quicken the hearts of streetcar advocates. What was proposed is a 12 km long streetcar network of two routes serving the central core of the city stopping just south end of Granville Island.


Image 2 – Redundancy of proposed downtown streetcar

What seems to have been lost by planners and the proponents of this scheme is that they would replicate existing bus routes and they often do it badly. As transportation expert Jarrett Walker has observed, “streetcars that replace bus lines are not a mobility or access improvement”. Changes to these streets to prioritize buses giving them the same advantages as streetcars, as well as more buses to address chronic overcrowding would be a wiser and less expensive transit investment.

Image 3 – Real accessibility solutions for Granville Island?

The fanciful proposal to create a bus stop on the upper deck of the Granville Bridge and to connect that stop to Granville Island with an elevator is a convoluted and expensive way to provide better bus service to the island. Buses currently stop at West 2nd and Anderson, close to the proposed streetcar stop. That service could be improved with a bus roundabout in the centre of the island where that proposed elevator stops. It could also accommodate tour buses.

The “bridge park” shown with this proposal, is an attempt to recreate the popular High Line in New York City. While the High Line is an oasis of calm and quiet above inner city neighbourhoods, this “park” is adjacent to busy bridge traffic and is likely to have the same fate as underused Devonian and Seaforth Peace parks.

The Granville Island 2040 study noted that the island sits in a central location within a 2 km radius circle encompassing False Creek South, Fairview and Kitsilano to the south and parts of the West End, Yaletown and Downtown Vancouver to the north as illustrated in Figure 4. What this analysis misses is that to actually access Granville Island by foot or bicycle from the north side of False Creek entails taking one of four routes over high-level bridges, routes that are longer than 2 km. This means that for all intents and purposes the downtown neighbourhoods are outside of the 2 km zone.

Image 4– A low level bridge provides the access to Granville Island missing in existing upper level bridges

The image below shows how a low-level bridge beneath and slightly to the east of the Granville Bridge can also be the missing link in both recreation and commuting bike infrastructure, and by doing so puts Granville Island in the position of being a micro-mobility hub. Making the island more accessible to pedestrians as well as those adapting to new innovations in micro-mobility will lessen the need to rely on private vehicle access.

This is also a sensible response to new developments on the south side of False Creek. The highly dense Senakw development has one parking space per every ten units. This overdue and enlightened approach to parking could also be a feature of the proposed tech hub on the Molson lands and future additional density in False Creek South.

The areas of Kitsilano and Fairview that are slated for densification in the wake of the Broadway rapid transit line should follow suit with building typologies that have minimum parking while prioritizing transit and micro-mobility. Existing bike routes such as the Seawall routes around False Creek, the downtown Hornby and Richards bike routes and the Arbutus Greenway already have desire lines that converge on Granville Island, many of which could be further upgraded with the promise of a rich urban network based on walking and micro-mobility.

Image 5– How a low-level bridge knits together recreation and commuting bike routes as the island evolves from a cycling dead end to a micro-mobility hub.

The concept of an operable double door bridge comes from the Scale Lane swing bridge in Hull, England. The advantage of this type of swinging bridge is that pedestrians and cyclists can remain on the bridge as it opens to let marine traffic pass through. In this concept all over-height vessels such as sailboats and large yachts moored in the east part of False Creek would be fitted with transponders that as they approach the low bridge would activate a gate that would rise up blocking pedestrians and cyclists, while disengaging the two “doors “ that would swing away from the boats approaching allowing for safe passage without delay. Once the boats are clear, the “doors” would swing shut. The delay caused to the people on the bridge would be no more than if they were waiting for a traffic light.

Image 6 – Illustrating a concept for a low level footbridge


The bridge would be fully automatic using widely available sensing technology. With an iconic design and premium specifications, it would operate autonomously as a daily feature of Vancouver life. It will and must be expensive, approximately $20-25 million, but a fraction of the $1.1 billion cost of the proposed downtown streetcar.

The impact on accessibility to Granville Island would be immediate, opening it up to dense downtown neighbourhoods. It would also remove much of the dependence on vehicle traffic that creates so much congestion, while freeing up much of the surface parking for new buildings thus improving the financial situation for CMHC.

As a key part of a vital commuter route with many on scooters, bikes and other mobility modes, the bridge would give Vancouverites a more intimate connection to the water and maritime activity, while being a tourist attraction in its own right.

Imagine not only passing through the island on your way to work but also stopping for breakfast, or on the way home pausing to meet someone for a drink, dinner or to pick up some food at the market, on a revitalized Granville Island that has regained its stature as one of the focal points of Vancouver life.”

-Rob Grant


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    1. Nathan, architect Peter Reese and I suggested a pedestrian cycle bridge in the rail easement beneath the Burrard Bridge in a winning scheme for the Seachange Competition in 1999 as an alternative to the cycling lanes on the upper deck. I have cycled over this bridge before the cycle lanes were introduced and continue to cycle there. I am grateful for the extra space, but I still find accessing the bridge on the north side awkward nor do I particularly enjoy cycling alongside of noisy fast moving traffic. I think much of the money spent on the Granville Bridge was for seismic upgrades. As the highest bridge deck with the on and off lanes at both ends, this bridge will never be a popular cycling route.

  1. Thank you Rob for your thoughtful analysis. I’ve often thought about how to resolve Granville Island’s issues of ‘over success.’ Many years ago I worked at a marina on False Creek and visited the island by boat. Later I lived at 14th and Fir and often walked to the island. I’ve also made use of the ferries. A key aspect to managing and evolving the island’s success is an analysis of users and when different user groups can visit. I have an aunt who lived in West Vancouver and used to visit the island regularly. Some city core residents may get better access from bridge stairs or elevators, but those upper middle class non-core residents/consumers the island businesses want will likely continue to come by car. Parking time management (including reservations?), perhaps shutting off in-bound traffic (bus only) for certain hours might work better, particularly after the Granville Broadway Skytrain station is in place. Tourists will continue to come if the experience is high quality. Tackling the rat and seagull problem and programming for more of the island to replace Emily Carr U are quality issues that need to be addressed for long term success. Is CMHC the most appropriate management agency? It is still a good urbanist model, so good luck with keeping the success last.

    1. Thanks for your remarks Jon. I think it is best to have as many access modes as possible, though vehicular use is the is the least efficient and especially with so much area devoted to parking that could better serve as more businesses. This ties into existing high density areas downtown and proposed increased densities on the south side of False Creek supporting tighter more walkable communities. We are also looking at increased densities in less central areas such as where your aunt used to live. This creates the opportunity for markets and other services in those communities making car use less necessary.

  2. An iconic bridge at this location would be a very attractive visitor draw of high utility. It does raise an interesting conundrum. The Granville Island 2040 Plan suggests a bridge from the seawall, across the bay to the east side of the island, would make Island access so much easier for pedestrians and cyclists. I don’t buy that extravagance. Upgrading Old Bridge Walk from Lamey’s Mill Rd to a multi use path could be constructed for a fraction of the cost of a bridge. A further conundrum is raised over funding. By whom? The city and/or Translink? The funding of transportation for capital and maintenance of bridges is getting really obtuse. Translink’s recently released budget indicates over $5 million for the Granville Bridge upgrade and another $6 million plus for bridge maintenance. Because the funding for Translink is an addition to our city taxes, which is then given back, we seemed to have created a perfect circular economy based on job creation. I think that if Translink had $25 million for a Bridge, with annual borrowing cost of $1.00 Million (assuming 4% interest rate) then an alternative of subsidizing the ferry would be more cost effective. Ferry cost per trip $3.75. Compass Card fare $3.10. Subsidy by Translink $0.65. Enough for 1.5 million ferry journeys per annum. And the Compass Card swipe at the ferry’s fare box would still allow the user time for another bus journey. Anyway, I think in their own way, the ferry boats are iconic and self sufficient in terms of operation and maintenance. Am I missing something here?

    1. David, you raise some good points about funding. I don’t have the answers, but perhaps a combination of sources such as the MST who would benefit from having improved access to their Senakw development which has low amounts of parking, the City whose plans for densification of False Creek South would benefit especially if they followed suit is reducing parking allowed in any new development, the federal government through CMHC which would benefit the businesses on Granville Island, and allow more land now used as parking to be developed as rent paying businesses, and the provincial government who have big plans for not so green infrastructure bridges across the Fraser could contribute something. There are other potential sources for maintenance such as charging boaters to go through the bridge, and establishing small kiosks and bars a la Tokyo beneath the underside of the north side of the bridge up to Vancouver House with its disappointing urbanism. I agree about your assessment of the proposed bridge to create a shortcut before Alder Bay, but I don’t think ferries are a solution to accommodate a high volume of traffic between downtown and GI especially for cyclists.

  3. some context to this story:

    Granville Island is located in the Salish Sea. It is a unique place on earth. It is not like anywhere else. The local population there have developed a network of much loved boats that ferry people, wheels and goods across the water to various destinations.

    As the polar regions of the earth heat up, long range planning for Vancouver will have to consider a seawall and locks across English Bay in order to protect the False Creek Basin from seawater inundation. This construction will result in a new low level crossing for pedestrians, pets, bikes and wheels connecting Kitsilano with the West End. The construction will also require a pump house to empty the basin of storm water, and careful management of the locks in order to flush the creek with the tides. Holding back the sea will become the story of Vancouver.

    1. Jolson, You are quite right that there may be a need to do something to protect all that real estate in False Creek from sea level rise, and your proposed locks may be one of those solutions, much like the locks in Stockholm that keep Baltic water from getting into the lakes further inland. In 1999, I suggested a low level bridge beneath the Burrard Bridge occupying space designed for a railway swing bridge that was never built. This could be part of your lock system and provide another convenient low level bridge at the west end of False Creek.

  4. Rob, the streetcar article you linked specifically calls out the proposed Vancouver streetcar as a logical solution due to the existing rail right of way.

    “A proposed streetcar project in Vancouver involves using a piece of existing rail line, as does the small line in Kenosha, Wisconsin. In this case, the streetcar can obviously do something important that a bus can’t.”

    Although I would generally agree that a lot of places a bus can do what a streetcar can do, there are definitely some advantages to a single streetcar line for the Stanley park-Olympic village-Granville-senekawa line that I think the streetcar would handle better than the the current bus situation.

    Also a streetcar station at Granville island would also encourage your propped bridge as it would connect the high density developments on the north side of false creek to the streetcar with a <500m walk without needing the expensive second line.

    1. Sean, The proposed streetcar route that would run from Marpole through Kerrisdale, Shaughnessey, Kitsilano and around False Creek would not provide faster service than the existing Arbutus bus. Using maximum speeds for the streetcar for various sections from West 41st and West Boulevard to Granville and Hastings it would at best take 36 minutes. If you use Translink’s trip planner for same route it takes 31 minutes on the bus, a time that could be improved with some of the infrastructure improvements suggested by Jarrett Walker. The 2018 City study conducted no ridership analysis, other than a vague hope that tourists would use it. If you look at Transportation 2030, 2040 and the most recently approved 2050 version, Translink shows no mention of a streetcar in Vancouver’s future. There are numerous other reasons why this streetcar proposal is a bad idea both from a transportation and urban design perspective that I might get into in a future article. I believe the Vancouver planning department has not thought this idea through in so many ways.

      1. Rob, you are quite correct in making the point about effective Transportation. Jarrett Walker also made the same point in his lecture at SFU Downtown some 10 years ago that buses are more cost effective when connecting major hubs at what he called magnet points. He also said that the San FransiCisco streetcar didn’t pay for itself. Well that’s probably true for the majority of bus routes. But surely a city is more than just a bunch of bus routes on a linear grid? When I see tourist adverts for San Fransisco it’s not the bus service that’s advertised. It’s the Street car. A modern version, such as that in Europe, Bordeaux comes to mind, adds vitality to the street scene.. People enjoy the journey, to read or gaze, during a smooth ride. Like the small ferry boats, a streetcar could add joie de vie.
        One last thought. A streetcar extended from Marpole to New Westminster could connect the Expo Skytrain Line with the Canada Line to the airport for not only airline travellers, but the thousands who are compelled to use their cars to travel in from the Valley. I suspect that residents living in the Fraser Lands would also gladly forsake the Marine Drive bus service in favour of a streetcar.

        1. Good points David. On a visit to Berlin a few years ago, we stayed in the former East Berlin which is served by streetcars, and which seemed to have much more character than West Berlin which is served by buses. Vancouver was built along streetcar lines which informs much of the city we have today. Unfortunately those streetcars were replaced by buses, which don’t have the same comfort and character. However, by giving buses dedicated lanes and curb bulge stops, that comfort and efficiency can be applied to buses at a much lower cost than building new streetcar lines. As a mentor architect once pointed out, rather than focus on making your building beautiful focus on making it useful and a different beauty could be revealed. I think this applies to transportation modes. In this regard I am inspired by Jaime Lerner’s innovations for buses in Curitiba, Brazil. If we just focus on transportation that might attract tourists for a few months of the year with an expensive streetcar where Translink will be saddled with storing streetcars on rented rail lines on False Creek flats, and will need drivers with different training while ignoring the impact on existing bus routes, I think they will be saddled with a white elephant that will impact the transit needs throughout the city. I think our transportation energies should be focussed on the emerging issues of micro-mobility that Gordon Price has noted, and improving our bus routes by making hard decisions to reduce vehicle parking on transit streets. Whether LRTs in the valley and along Marine Drive are the best solution, I couldn’t say.

  5. All these ideas are very sensible and politically infeasible – for now. So long as the island remains a federally-administered vestige governed in fact by the votes of several hundred small, commercial tenants, expect nothing bold. Until and unless the city takes it over, nobody’s spending big money on it.

    1. Rob’s proposed low-level bridge would mainly serve residents living on the north side of False Creek and in the Westend. The populations there should be surveyed to determine level of interest: it may be substantial. Political interest may follow from that.

      1. I’m not sure how one promotes ideas such as this one, except that I thought by writing about it here would at least start a conversation. Paying for it is even trickier. However, there has been so much development activity recently on the north side of False Creek (Vancouver House and other buildings along with the new Beach avenue Richards Street bike ways), and so much planned for the south side, that an idea such as this needs to be looked at more closely by the City. It is also my hope that a bridge like this would not only be of interest to recreational cyclists but encourage people to use their bike as a primary means of transportation.

        1. I would think that GI’s manager and commercial tenants would lend much support to this proposal if a survey and business analysis showed that a significant number of residents living just a stone’s throw away on the north side of False Creek and the Westend would do their shopping there if access was relatively easy for them via bike or foot. The low level bridge would also draw the throngs of tourists cycling and walking the sea-wall in the summer.

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