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Commercial Drive struggles to find formula for weekly car-free days

August 3rd, 2009 · 28 Comments

As anyone who reads this blog even passingly knows, I love markets and street stuff in cities. So I’ve been watching with interest to see how the city’s car-free Sundays, aka Summer Spaces program, is going.

I went down to Commercial Drive yesterday, where they had their first non-car-free day of the summer (Main also scheduled a break in theirs, because it was too hard to get policing/barricades for the Summer Spaces when there were so many other things going on this weekend) and did this story for the Globe and on the dissatisfaction on that street with how it’s going. It also seems to be very much in question whether the originally planned car-free Sundays in August will take place.

However, the message didn’t seem to be that car-free days don’t work at all. Instead, it seems to matter who’s involved in organizing, which streets and how many blocks are closed, whether there’s an activity for people to come out to that they normally wouldn’t have, and other factors.

I went down to Gastown’s first Summer Spaces yesterday, which is planned to continue throughout August and September Sundays. It was only a block on Carrall Street and the Gastown business association has partnered with the Vancouver Farmers’ Market people, so I happily dropped all my available cash to get cherries, sweet peas, heirloom tomatoes, corn, small English cucumbers, field strawberries, onions and garlic. Tragically, that left me with not even enough change in the bottom of my bag for pistachio macaroons or something at the soap/nice smelly stuff booth.

It felt nice. It’s on a great block of Gastown (the block of Carrall between Water and Cordova, in front of the Irish Heather and Boneta) that feels intimate and historic. There was an older guy, clearly one of the area’s social-housing or SRO residents, buying some corn and a few out-of-area visitors like me. Leanore Sali, the Gastown business group’s longtime director, was watching from the sidelines and pleased to see what looked to her like a lot of local residents.

The Main Street people have told me they’re happy with how things are going there. They’ve rotated their Sundays among different sections of Main so that businesses share the impacts of the closures.

It’ll be interesting to see how the Commercial Drive organizers and businesses go forward from here, and what kinds of different solutions they can come up with to enhance the Drive’s already energetic street life but without actually making things even more inaccessible to regular people. (One of the problems was that buses got rerouted to Clark, even further away than the previous detour route of Victoria, making it a long uphill hike for anyone trying to get to the street by bus.)

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  • gmgw

    Frances said:
    “(One of the problems was that buses got rerouted to Clark, even further away than the previous detour route of Victoria, making it a long uphill hike for anyone trying to get to the street by bus.)”

    Not having attended the Commercial car-free days, I don’t know the precise extent of the car-free area, but I do know that one can easily walk from the Broadway Skytrain station to 1st and Commercial in under 10 minutes, and it’s not much of a walk up to “the Drive” from the bus routes on Hastings, either. So what’s the issue?

  • Sharon

    the problem we have is that politicians like to plan things at the 30,000 foot level. Car free day is great – for some… not so great for others. If you are a politician, cash in the local business till is not your priority – it is far more satisfying to see animation on the street.

    Get down to street level, and ask the folks that live and work there 365 days a year and the measurement of success is far different.

    Gastown should be applauded for their car free concept. It is well placed, a managable size, brings people into the area where there is no direct competition to the market – that way everybody wins.

  • i agree with you, it is all in the planning. if major cities – that we have been to – such as mexico city, new york, stocholm, london, rome – can have them and they are popular surely we can find a way in vancouver to make a go of them.
    Like you Francis I am a big believer in opening up streets to people. It is one of my pet topics.

  • Shane

    They should NOT give up on this! It is too important to let this go.

    Maybe it means closing from 1st to William only (enough to capture the park and the bulk of restaurants) and having the Trout Lake farmers market move to Commercial Drive instead.

    Some of the fruit & veg merchants might not like that idea, but it gives them a chance to set up their own farmers market stalls on the street. Even Super Valu could get in on that.

    The shops and restaurants outside of that stretch of Commercial could come up and set up their own stalls.

    Perhaps it just needs more structure. I live on Commercial/Kitchener and I really want this to succeed – it just needs a chance.

  • urb anwriter

    1) I live up the alley from the Carrall St. market.

    2) The heritage tomatoes were amazingly tasty. Note the plural, and past tense.

    3) Perhaps Vancouver (this only to get some people enraged) might consider that pedestrians deserve a small bit of the ground space currently reserved for cars.

    4) Do the Market again. Soon.

  • Bob Ransford

    I don’t live anywhere near Commercial Drive, but for the last decade, I’ve spent at least part of three to four days a week hanging out there, spending my money there and enjoying the eclectic street life and all that this most authentic of Vancouver’s neighbourhoods offers.

    I have forged close friendships with merchants on the Drive, with many neighbourhood residents and with “street regulars”– from homeless panhandlers to more distant but frequent visitors like me.

    There has been hardly a Sunday over the last half decade that I haven’t started my day with a cappuccino on the Drive and often ended it with dinner there.

    The street life is what attracted me there in the first place– a constant flow of pedestrians– especially north of 1st Avenue. I actually counted one Sunday last year 1,200 people walk by north and south on the east sidewalk on Commercial Drive at Graveley. (Less than 800 on a car-fre Sunday from the centre line of the street east)

    The first Car Free Day a few years ago– a renegade-like protest– was an interesting injection of the bizzarre and the urban elites. It infused the Drive on that one day with a wide range of entertainment and most businesses experienced a huge one-day boost in business.

    But when the Vision Council announced the Summer Spaces program, I wondered what that might mean for a street that was already alive with people. I wondered if they were merely trying to legitimize a renegade anti-car movement by literally seizing control of the vehicle lanes on the street for the sake of exercizing control or whether they actually had a plan and were willing to commit the resources to making a car-free Commercial Drive even better than a car-friendly Commercial Drive already was.

    Well, after the second Sunday of Summer Spaces, it was obvious that the application of this concept to a street as organic in its nature as Commercial Drive was a failure.

    Street life had declined. Street activity was dispursed. Those of us who went there regularly and shopped there, ate there and drank coffee there found it more difficult to get there by car or bus. Those who went there expecting something “different” found something foreign– a street closed to traffic, straggling people looking for something to do and businesses struggling to stay open.

    One of my friends who owns a long-established full service restaurant on the Drive suspended his long-standing Sunday brunch service with dwindling traffic and he opened an hour later for dinner. Another friend, who owns a newer restaurant did well — even better– for the first two weeks and then finally shut down on Sundays all together.

    The local BIA worked extremely hard to rally business supporters– with next to no resources from the City (I understand all the money went to the Car Free people to erect barricades to stops cars).

    Ideas were tossed around about theming each Sunday, hiring entertainment, alternating weekends and specific locations. Problems arose with conflicts over noise and parking with residential neighbours.

    It all seems to fall on the ambivalent ears of those who were quite satisfied in measuring success by the mere lack of cars on a street.

    What a sad effort. If it was all simply to ban cars from a street, ignoring the unique characteristics of that street, then the whole exercise was doomed to failure from the start, as some charged early on.

    Three years ago, I visited Boston’s North End in the middle of a hot summer. A number of historic streets in this special ethnic-Italian neighbourhood close to cars each Sunday. Each weekend is hosted by a different community organization celebrating a different Saint the Italians honour. Each weekend starts with a lively parade. There is street music and dancing through the afternoon. There are vendors and food stalls from all over invited into the area.

    Around 6:00 p.m., when the restaurants begin their evening trade, first taxis and buses return to the street. An hour later cars return. Sidewalk entertainment runs through until late in the evening.

    Let’s take a great concept, put some real thought and planning into it, check the partisan agendas and axe-grinding issues at the door and try to make the special area– known as Commercial Drive– exceedingly better than it already is.

  • FBT

    People often underestimate the ability to change one self, while often overestimating the ability to change others.

    Vision Vancouver has excelled tremendously in the latter.

  • Frothingham

    @Bob Ransford. Excellent comments! You have hit the problem dead on. It takes lots of Organizing to have these kind of events have a certain energy and focus in order to attract the public on an ongoing basis. Simply removing traffic is not going to cut it. Without some commitment from business owners and others the drive should limit themselves to 1-2 car free days in the summer.

  • Huh! Street markets? Good for lookie-loos and tourists! Not so good for the year-rounders!

    “Like you Francis I am a big believer in opening up streets to people.”

    Me too except it usually means once in a while seasonal tourists!

    It doesn’t take “a lot of orgainzing.” It takes tradition and local necessity, which tourists do not hace.

    Ummmm, let’s thinq: London – Portobello Road was heisted by Julie and Hugh! Petticoat Lane is cheap Chinese poly-prints.

    Ripon market, were we got our groceries when I was a kids was. Now the family shops at Tesco, but we still talk of Ripon Market.

    Chichcastenago, last time I saw, was black plastic consuming every street in that quaint little town.

    Buenos Aires: San Telmo, La Boca trinkets and tourists again. Abasto is huge and full of the corporate repetition.

    Mexico City. Now that’s were the tourist goes ga ga and . . . errrrr . . . misled big time. Tepito, miles and miles of Tennis de Nike: don’t go there. Laguna, alineadas de boda y smokinges solamente. Plaza Hidalgo, more trinkets. Merced, huge and huger and on and on and on!

    As for their street markets of La Ciudad there are none. There are literally score upon score of “ambulantes.” Ambulantes are, for the most part, desperate out-of-towners who have been dispossessed by NAFTA. La policia enjoy the occasional hose down.

    Street closures are cute if you don’t have to make a living there. Commercial Drive was my shopping center for years, especially Norman’s: 5ltr virgin olive oil, how much now? I used to take the bus. Most drive; and that’s the rub.

    And if you bike it’ll be pinched!

    Essentially the capricious, local tourist has pretty well kyboshed shopping streets and markets: yunno all talk, no shell-out, blame it on VV.

    The occasional Sunday afternoon Gelato does not a local economy make! Everyone arrives by car for the occasional fun and spend their major bucks at Urban Fair.

    Ah isn’t nostalgia comforting especially if you do not have to make a living at it . . .

  • PS The Romaneaque south, Villefranche et L’ Arbrelle don’t have street markets.

    They have localy scaled shops and awning that have been thwere for 2000 years or more.

    As for “it is all in the planning.” It sure as hell isn’t. Keep planners the #$%^ out of the way . . .

  • Bob Ransford

    By the way my reference to pedestrain traffic counts was a reference to an hourly total.

    “The street life is what attracted me there in the first place– a constant flow of pedestrians– especially north of 1st Avenue. I actually counted one Sunday last year 1,200 people walk by north and south on the east sidewalk on Commercial Drive at Graveley. (Less than 800 on a car-fre Sunday from the centre line of the street east)”

  • Kevin’s book store has gone out of business and major fast food outlets are swarming the place . . .

    Okay you wanna keep “Thu Drive” the way it is . . . then stop your ridiculous counting and do more than talk . . . open a business . . . make your living there . . .

  • Joseph Jones

    Ahhh, Commercial Drive. A senior city planner new to Vancouver proudly tells me he lives around the Drive. Now megaproject meister Bob Ransford goes on about how much time he spends there.

    On June 8, the city planner in charge of the Norquay Village Neighbourhood Centre planning process proposed to the citizen working group a dense strip stretching along Kingsway from Canadian Tire to Purdys. (After all, that 1450 meters is about the same as the Commercial Drive distance from First to Venables.) Our neighborhood’s big chance to give up having a center, to maximize a dumping ground for density – and best of all, to become another Commercial Drive!

    Funny how these people choose not to hang out in the places that they plan and develop

  • Brian Hi

    Another cryptic bit of blather from Jim Jones. What exactly are you on about now?

    Nice work on Norquay, btw. It’s completely stalled thanks to your one-man jihad. Kingsway is such a lovely part of the city thanks to your selfless efforts.

  • CV

    Streets like Commercial and Davie could certainly be enhanced for everyone by removing the lanes of parked cars and replacing them with widened sidewalks. That would allow for much larger sidewalk patios and places for people to linger.

    In this scenario everyone wins: people get a better pedestrian environment, the merchants get a street that attracts more people and allows them to linger. Motorists can still park on side streets but enjoy the benefits of a better shopping experience.

  • Westender

    CV, those lanes are sometimes used for moving traffic – as an example, parking in curb lanes is not permitted on Davie Street during rush hours. And as the side streets are rather congested as it is, there would be essentially no place for motoring customers to park – as a result, I expect businesses would suffer. (The City might also have some concerns about the loss of parking revenue).

  • Since you bring up NewGate . . . errr . . . I mean NorQuay . . . how absurd can you get . . . Kingsway as “Village main street”?

    Ditto . . . King Edward village just down the block.

    KEV came out of the early ’90’s CityPlan discussion: a wonderful opportunity that only the Vancouver Planning department could screw up . . . thanqxz to the Dragon lady!

    A vacant Safeway parking lot . .. ripe for an urban design, enclosed village center. And what do we get?

    A library opening onto possibly the busiest, most dangerous inter section on Kingsway, and an over-priced stump on top . . .

    Oh and by the way Rose Street (dust bins and all) , just behind “Thu Drive” was touted by the planners as VANCOUVER’S IDEAL STREET . . . Huh go figure . . .

    God help “Thu Drive” if the planners start fiddling . . .

  • not running for mayor

    Ahh good to see that Joseph Jones is still around and kicking. Life at cityhall would certainly be a little duller w/o the retelling of your latest “ideas”.
    Commercial drive survived and thrived in it’s early days due to it’s retailers caring and hard constant work at imporving the area, we all owe a thanks to the immigrants from Italy and a smaller part from Portugal. The reason Kingsway isn’t commercial drive can be clearly seen, the retailers don’t care about the surrounding area. Why the city can’t turn it around on it’s own it can push changes. At this point any change is almost an improvement.

  • WW

    Interesting discussion. As a resident of the Drive area, I’ve enjoyed the car-free Sundays but have noticed a steady decline in people attending (although corresponding to really high temperatures). The car-free festival day is insane; you can’t move on the drive so it’s no fun for families. The first two regular car-free Sundays seemed the right mix of activities and people.

    I like the ideas of a smaller area (1st to William); having a farmer’s market somewhere in Grandview Park; and perhaps fewer days. Maybe July is Commercial Drive month and August could be Gastown month, for example.

    On another thread..
    The theory of pedestrian malls would suggest that the Gastown size is ideal. You want lots of access by all types of transport: car, bus, bike, foot. So 1-2 blocks long max makes the best pedestrian mall. So, maybe Commercial Drive’s needs to be even smaller – Grant to Charles?

  • Joe Just Joe

    My 2cents, I think the action shouldn’t take place on Commercial at all but along the side streets, from 1st to Venables close every side street on both sides to the lane. This would allow buses to travel down the street as well as cars but would still alter the environment completely by not allowing any turns on or off of those streets. The space created would be rented out by the city with all money raised poured right back into the event.

    Might not work out but then again neither is the current plan, so I figure it’s worth a shot.

  • T W

    I liked Joe Just Joe’s pragmatism. So why are there no city wide advisory guidelines ?

  • Bill Lee

    Shop til you drop at your Carrall street market off the former rail line from the Interurban depot through the waterfront (that is the reason for Pigeon square shape, and the cause of many streetcar delays along Hastings only a few decades ago). The ATMs you need for more veggie cash are all on Pender destroying street facades as all banks do with their 10 metre wide fronts (see Kerrisdale) , when banks only need 3 metres and let other more real shops in, and have their back office stuff upstairs.
    Keefer, Pender have 7 banks with ATMs.

    Few take the bus to the Drive, and there is next to none off-street parking. And you’ll note that there are no parallel streets with shopping retail nearby (nothing on Clark, nor on Victoria, Nanaimo (tuppence around Charles), and a smidgeon on Renfrew) so why would anyone get off on Clark, Nanaimo and walk to the Drive.

    See UVic prof Patricia Roy’s thesis on the development of Vancouver along street car lines
    Also an emphasis in her Illustrated History…

    I”ve heard that muscians are annoyed as they are not allowed to ask for donations on the street when they perform.

    At least the beer, and the reason many come, as Greek Days, was sold to sitting down customers. The old Italian Days that closed the Drive lead to a lot of trouble, same with Greek Days, with urinations and fulminations.

    I lived on the Drive for decades and it was breakins every two years, just after schools let out. It is not a great place.
    But lively street scene! Check it out when it rains or is dark after 5 pm. Friends from out of town wondered where the street scene was, as the shops closed at 6 and there was hardly anything open after 9 pm. Were Vancouverites all tucked into bed at that time, they wondered. It’s not a Latin street if you listen to the voices and is cold in sensibilities,but was a cheaper place to live for a while.
    It is getting harder to live there, as the plumbing shop becomes a pub, a deli becomes a $1 slice pizza place, a bakery is torn up to make a larger club. Clothes shop becomes a sushi shop, etc.
    All these are small shops with a landlord who replaces the merchants every few months when they fall behind on rent.
    So the gas and water pipes are now in, the place will never revert to a retail shop, but a succession of immigrant businessmen trying to make a go of a small snack restaurant, same name on the awning, and different business persons running the front.

    # As to the street counts, that can be people walking up from the free (didn’t pay a fare) Skytrain, and not waiting for the bus on a Sunday slack schedule or not having a transfer.

    # The Fringe festival on the Drive showed that many of the visitors brought their SUV (and that was very noticeable) parked on the side streets, met their friends and went to venues all evening. We residents in this old part of town had to park blocks away because our usual spots on the street were taken over by Pt Grey matrons. (same for the VECC, and soon the revamped York).

    Head on off to Collingwood, South Fraser if you want an interesting street scene.
    Maybe Township of Hastings Suburban Lands should secede and reverse their corrupt 1912 vote to join Vancouver and we can let the 1908 separation of the Creme de la Creme from South Van never happen.

  • Were/are the Summer Spaces days on Commercial Drive a failure? Perhaps, but the impetus, the issue of traffic in our neighbourhoods, remains. There simply are too many cars travelling too fast in this neighbourhood (my neighbourhood). The vehicle noise is often as overpowering as the smell. I see belligerent drivers risk, and outright threaten, the lives of pedestrians and cyclist daily. Traffic, as it stands, is an anti-civic force encouraging alienation & community fragmentation (see 1st Ave).

    The issues of Summer Spaces and the issues of traffic must remain separate. Personally, I find the sight of a sparse street party around a makeshift psychedelic tipi out in front of Beckwoman’s as nothing short of embarrassing – but hardly as threatening as people racing down the street (where my child plays) in excess of 80 kph. Summer Spaces is the result of a misguided government plan organized by activist and a BIA woefully out of touch with their community.

    So moving on… Is traffic in Vancouver a problem? Yes, but this isn’t going to be solved by Sunday street parties. It’s going to be solved by infrastructure, by better planning, better rules, real transit solutions and more traffic cops & enforcement.

    Could Summer Spaces work? Yes, with a little planning and radical ideas like consulting local business and residents. Could vibrant community events exist without cars and still maintain a healthy commercial district? Of course it could and, indeed, this city is in desperate need of them. The festivals in this town are often too expensive, too far to commute to and, far too often, canned and commercial. Street closures offer civic space – a place were the people of the city can exercise their ownership of their city. And here is the key: as our cities are fragmented by traffic and increasingly full with faux-public spaces like malls and private condo parks, feelings of civic engagement wane. So perhaps we need a re-thinking and re-branding of Summer Spaces as Civic Spaces.

  • Bob Ransford

    Well said by Freeman O’Shea. I fully agree with the statements: “Could Summer Spaces work? Yes, with a little planning and radical ideas like consulting local business and residents. Could vibrant community events exist without cars and still maintain a healthy commercial district? Of course it could and, indeed, this city is in desperate need of them. “

  • Yes, indeed,

    “So perhaps we need a re-thinking and re-branding of Summer Spaces as Civic Spaces.”

    May the oracle shine upon you Freeman . . .

    The city has pursued a “bonusing” policy for decades that essentially provides public amenity in the form of social facilities: i.e. The Round House. Which, incidentally, we still must pay for the use thereof.

    Now it may be time for the city to turn its bonusing policy to public urban space: as per a recent SCARP thesis . . . and I quote:

    “Narrow covered pedestrian passageways wind through the block, creating links to surrounding streets. A small atrium courtyard, large central courtyards and arcaded walkways alternatively compress and explode the experience of the pedestrian.”

    Say wot!

  • Bill Lee

    No one mentioned going to the “Powell Street Festival” that was near the Drive this year in Woodland Park.

    Woodland Park is not visible from the Drive, being a long block west, and north of Venables, which may be part of the reason. But it got lots of publicity and had 4 times the space, which they used well. Two stages, and space for the retail was not hampered. Shade trees, wading pool. Kids loved it.

    Foods as always great, and the usual lineups for favourites. Lack of major water hookups was a small problem.

    3 days , with the Sunday Aug 2 overlapping the Car-free Drive but I suspect the lack of beer at this Nisei Japanese festival meant there might be less interest.

    One volunteer said that perhaps we could just rename one of the Woodland side streets Powell and thus retain the festival’s original name.

    Meanwhile the City has put a shockingly high covered fence around the old “heroin square” that is the Powell Street Grounds/Oppenheimer Park.
    And do we note that the Fiji-Asian Fest is leaving Vancouver for Burnaby. It was at the Graham Bruce school grounds in Augusts past.

  • Not running for mayor

    Looks like it’s now offical the remaining Summer spaces days on the drive have been cancelled.

  • Frances Bula

    Yes, the Courier reported it was officially off and I see from the city’s website that only three summer spaces neighbourhoods are now on the list.