photos: Should Commercial Drive become a car-free avenue similar to other high streets around the world? Photo: Jeanette / flickr.

Taking back the streets

Streets for Everyone reforms the Drive

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When Sarah FioRito moved from Montreal to Vancouver in 2012, one of the first things she did was buy a bike. The then-22-year-old had survived four cold winters while pursuing a business degree at McGill University, and the promise of year-round cycling on the mild West Coast loomed large. The bike was a red and yellow Pinarello. A 10-speed.

As a newcomer, FioRito was impressed by Vancouver’s thriving bike culture. It seemed to fit with the city’s desired self-image as a green city—the Greenest City, even—but there were still shortcomings. FioRito lived in the Grandview Woodland neighbourhood, and every time she biked along Commercial Drive to do her shopping, she felt like she was competing in a losing battle with cars.

It was this lack of bicycle infrastructure in the city’s High Streets that motivated FioRito to start investigating. She discovered a proposal in the City of Vancouver’s Transportation 2040 Plan to build a separated bike lane on Commercial Drive. The deadline for the proposed renovation was 2013, and the year was almost over. She learned that the proposal had faced opposition earlyon from the local business improvement association, taken a back seat to other concerns in the Community Plan, and had been largely forgotten. The cause for bike lanes on Commercial Drive needed a new voice.

FioRito booked a room in a local community centre and called an open meeting. Sixty people showed up, and a core group started meeting regularly to move forward on making the Transportation Plan a reality. “The impetus was that there was no space for bikes on the street,” says FioRito. “But when we drilled into it, we realized the Drive wasn’t that good for busses or pedestrians either, or wheelchairs or strollers or pets. It’s just generally car- centric.” In February 2014 they voted on a name for the group: Streets For Everyone.

The specifics of the group’s Commercial Drive For Everyone proposal were laid outin a well-attended Grandview Woodland Area Council meeting nine months later, in November of 2014. They proposed that a parking-separated bike lane extend from 14th Avenue to Graveley Street, one block north of 1st Avenue, reducing car traffic to a single lane in both directions. To speed up service of the #20 bus, which currently dekes between parked cars and the left-hand lane, Streets For Everyone is proposing a “bus bulge,” essentially a protrusion in the sidewalk that cuts out to the street, creating more space for bus users to enter and exit the bus. The group recommends wider sidewalks and more public furniture, as well as planters, to encourage a “more vibrant, inclusive and friendly Commercial Drive.”

For healthier cities, ditch the car?

The most apparent advantages to inclusive streets are the environmental health and sustainability of the community. Well-designed infrastructure encourages shoppers and commuters to use alternative modes of transportation, reducing our carbon footprint. Then there’s the safety of people: protected bike lanes result in fewer bicycle fatalities. Wider, more protected sidewalks can also reduce pedestrian fatalities, which accounted for 36 per cent of the total collision fatalies in Vancouver in 2014.

The trickledown of this kind of infrastructure is noted in Portland, where a 2011 study published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health showed that the city’s bicycle investments will result in healthcare savings of $388 to $594 million by 2040. The numbers speak to a simple correlation: cycling and walking are good for our bodies.

The less obvious and perhaps more controversial correlation has to do with commerce. Speaking to this at the Grandview Woodland Area Council meeting last November (not to be confused with a city council meeting, an area council is a local residents’ association), FioRito borrowed heavily from other urban case studies. After the New York City Department of Transportation added protected bike lanes to 9th Avenue, for instance, businesses saw a 49 per cent increase in retail sales.

She pointed to other cities with similar narratives. Four years after installing bike lanes in San Francisco’s Valencia Street, two-thirds of the business owners reported an increase in sales. And a 2009 study of Bloor Street, a commercial street in Toronto, showed that people who walked or biked to the area spent more per month than those who drove.

But many business owners on the Drive were not convinced. A local restaurant owner challenged the Streets For Everyone premise that more bicycles lead to more business. In order to accommodate the protected bike lane and bus bulges, Commercial Drive would have to be reduced to single lane traffic, and he was skeptical of the promise of no net-loss in parking (which Streets For Everyone touts as a core design element).

Customers to many of the Drive’s shops and restaurants rely on cars to access these businesses. They commute from the suburbs for a Friday night meal, said the restaurant owner—didn’t they deserve their portion of the street as well?

Battle in the BIAs

Carmine D’Onofrio is the owner of Kalena’s Shoes and the president of the Commercial Drive Business Improvement Association (BIA). He says that local opposition to the proposed separated bike lane is overwhelming (80 per cent, according to a BIA 2012 Vision Report).

He fears that reduced parking and a more efficient bike lane threaten to transform the Drive into a thoroughfare, not the destination neighbourhood that makes it so desirable to visit. The success stories—in New York, Portland, and San Francisco—don’t convince him. Commercial Drive is unique, and it’s this uniqueness that makes it so appealing. He’s concerned about what changes to the “fabric of the street” might mean for the character of the neighbourhood. “The street is like an ecosystem,” he says, “once you start changing it, and the result is not positive, it’s hard to get it back.”

Aiyana Kane is the owner of Bandidas Taqueria, a vegetarian-Mexican restaurant at 12th and Commercial, where the proposed infrastructure would go. She challenged the BIA (of which she is a member) on its Vision Report, arguing that the data was collected from a poorly managed survey.

Kane counts herself among a growing contingent of small business owners in the BIA who support the separated bike lane. She offers her own take on the issue: pedestrians and cyclists, not car-users, who are more likely to stop and shop. She feels as though the pro-parking stance is short-sighted and misinformed. “This is part of the wider evolution of how human behaviour really needs to change.”

By next summer, a new reality

For the team at Streets For Everyone,the bike lane debate is an important paradigm of the larger tension between sustainability and the economic status quo. “I think the biggest challenge to the work we’re doing is fear of change,” FioRito says. “In North America, we’ve been living for decades now with a widely accepted notion, perpetuated by a very powerful automotive industry, that public spaces are for one type of user, and that that type of user has some inherent right to the use of the road. We’re asking, Why is that true?”

Eight months after that heated area council meeting in November, the grassroots organization has made some important gains. The Citizen’s Assembly for the Grandview Woodland Community Plan compiled a list of recommendations in a formal report to city council, which was tabled at a council meeting in June.

In the report, the Citizen’s Assembly formally recommended all the key components of the Streets For Everyone proposal. City planning staff members are now working to incorporate these recommendations into a draft Community Plan, which will be presented to community members and business owners for final debate.

It is the organization’s hope that the separated bike lane will make it into the final plan, which will serve as the official blueprint for development in the community for the next 30 years. “We would like to see these changes completed by early summer of 2016,” FioRito says.

In the meantime, Streets For Everyone is kicking off an advocacy and awareness program within the Commercial Drive community to educate people on the proposed changes. They also have their sights set on rethinking car traffic on other local High Streets, like Kingsway and Main.

At Car Free Day this past June, FioRito stood in the middle of Commercial Drive and handed out stickers and pamphlets with other volunteers from the group. A man walked out of the crowd and approached her. He was the same restaurant owner who had denounced the campaign at the area council meeting (“I’m guessing you don’t own a car,” he’d said). FioRito greeted him by his first name, and instead of a handshake he gave her a hug.


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