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March 27, 2020 at 7:36 PM

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COVID-19 Response – Creating Safe & Open Streets in Vancouver

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In Chalk with Love - Robert Couse-Baker

As part of the worldwide response to COVID-19, there have been several examples of cities taking action to reallocate street space to support safe physical distancing measures. In practical terms, this approach means taking road space normally allocated to cars and assigning it for pedestrian or cycling only.

There are a number of benefits that come with this “opening up” of streets. Among other things, the approach allows for sufficient room for pedestrians to safely move around (where narrow sidewalks would otherwise create challenges for physical distancing) and has the added benefit of adding open space that can support mental and physical health.

Among the cities that have taken steps in this regard:

Here, in Vancouver, the City has indicated that it is considering some similar measures, although there are no specifics at this time. Some particular news articles have focused on the need to support residents of the Downtown Eastside by closing Hastings Street to car traffic.

The concept of street reallocation (or “open streets”, as some have termed it) is an important one in, even without the intense challenges imposed by coronavirus. Now, however, it has become even more critical to the well-being of our city and its residents. Those of you following the VPSN on social media will know that we have been advocating that the City consider this approach as part of its COVID-19 response.

To support this effort, and to further the discussion on this subject, we’ve put together an initial set of considerations and recommendations on Creating Safe and Open Streets for Walking and Biking. This is a work in progress, and it has come together fairly quickly. Given that it’s a draft document, we expect to make changes to it. To that end: please share any constructive feedback you might have. You can email us at .

wider sidewalks


This Position Paper outlines the Vancouver Public Space Network’s recommendations on converting key streets to Pedestrian or Pedestrian and Bike-only as part of the Response to COVID-19. This document outlines:

1. Goals and Intent
2. Guiding Considerations for Priority Setting
3. Recommended open streets (pedestrian and bike-only) interventions

3.1 Pedestrian & Bike-only streets; supported through existing policies or programs
3.2 Pedestrian & Bike-only streets; no existing policies or programs
3.3 Recommended small scale (“tactical”) interventions in commercial areas; pedestrian-only; no existing policies
3.4 Key streets that should remain open to car-traffic

1.0 Goals and Intent

The intent of creating of pedestrian and bike-only streets is to:

  • Support objectives around min 2m physical distancing
  • Provide additional public space for walking, biking and rolling to support physical and mental health
  • Prioritizes areas with key destinations, high population densities and lower provision of existing public space; ensures the approach is done equitably
  • Focus on key priority interventions using existing City of Vancouver policies and programs as a guide

2.0 Guiding Considerations for Priority Setting

The following considerations should be used to prioritize “open street” interventions. Categories are often overlapping, and it is recommended that the highest priority should be given to interventions on streets that meet multiple considerations.

Priority consideration for pedestrian/bike only interventions in

  1. Areas with high amounts of foot traffic (e.g. key destination sites – e.g. grocery stores, key service providers, etc.);
  2. Neighbourhoods with reduced provision of parks and open space. (Note: use of park space per capita measure to assess);
  3. High-density neighbourhoods – in particular apartment zoned areas;
  4. Neighbourhoods with high populations of at-risk and/or equity seeking communities. (Note: ensure a broad approach to understanding equity).

3.0 Safe and Open: Pedestrian and Bike-only streets – Recommended Interventions

3.1 Recommended Pedestrian & Bike-only streets; supported through existing policies or programs

3.1.1 Designated city-wide greenways*

  • Supporting Policy and/or example: City of Vancouver Greenways Strategy
  • Proposed Response: (1) Convert to pedestrian only (or pedestrians and bikes if overlap with an existing designated bikeway); (2) Automotive traffic through laneways only (unless no lane present)

3.1.2 Neighbourhood specific greenways and greenlinks

  • Supporting Policy and/or example: e.g. Grandview-Woodland Community Plan (“Public Space & Public Life”)
  • Proposed Response: Convert to pedestrian only; or pedestrian and bike if on a designated bike route; (2) Automotive traffic through laneways only (unless no lane present)

3.1.3 Areas already being considered for “car-light” or “car-free” 

  • Supporting Policy and/or example: e.g. Gastown Complete Streets / Water Street
  • Proposed Response: Convert to pedestrian only

3.1.4 Existing temporary closures and street-to-plaza initiatives

3.1.5 City-wide bike routes*

  • Supporting Policy and/or example: Transportation 2040 Plan / Ontario Street bikeway (route map)
  • Proposed Response: (1) Convert to pedestrian and bike only; (2) automotive traffic via parallel laneways only (unless no lane present)

Where existing routes also serve as transit corridors, ensure continuity of public transportation

3.2 Recommended Pedestrian & Bike-only streets; no existing policies or programs 

The intention of this category is to support neighbourhoods not otherwise covered by other categories of intervention.

3.2.1 Additional support for “middle street” (i.e. superblock) approach in areas not covered by other policies

  • Example: W 52nd (Angus to Heather) – considerable distance to nearest greenway/bikeway
  • Proposed Response: Consider on a case-by-case basis (potentially through neighbourhood petition)

Lining up to access good. Photo by Huub Zeeman (Flickr CC)

3.3 Recommended small scale (“tactical”) interventions in commercial areas; pedestrian-only; no existing policies

This category calls out commercial areas in particular, and aims to balance a number of important objectives:

  • Recognizing the role that key commercial destinations (e.g. grocery stores) are playing as part of the COVID response – and the fact that they are generating high volumes of foot traffic
  • Limited sidewalk width in many of these areas
  • Varying road-widths
  • Need to maintain vehicular access to these areas – for goods movement, service access, and people who require cars
  • The fact that many high streets are also on key transit routes
  • The highly precarious nature of small business during the pandemic

3.3.1 High Streets and commercial areas (“C” zoning and related); AND, Portions of flanking residential streets abutting key destination areas

  • Examples: Commercial Drive; West 4th Ave; Robson Street
  • Proposed Response: (1) Consider on a case-by-case basis. Focus on key destination areas; (2) Consider tactical removal or parking, or road space reallocation, or utilization of side streets for store queuing; (3) Consider reduction in maximum allowable traffic speeds for all non-emergency vehicles

3.4 Streets recommended for continued car-traffic

While the focus of the present position paper is on identifying streets that might be converted to pedestrian and bike-only use, it is important to note that other types of vehicular access (in particular public transit, goods movement, emergency and civic service vehicles, transportation for people with mobility challenges) remain critically important during the COVID crisis.

To that end, the following recommendations relate to vehicular traffic access and traffic speeds on streets not covered by other recommendations.

 3.4.1 City-wide truck routes / Major Road Network (MRN)

  • Proposed Response: Maintain as is; support public transportation, goods movement

3.4.2 Arterials (residential and industrial areas)

  • Proposed Response: Maintain as is; support channeling of automotive traffic on arterials. (Note separate opportunities for high streets and commercial areas.)

3.4.3 Arterials (mixed use/commercial areas)

  • Proposed Response: (1) See 3.3.1 – Allow tactical interventions to reallocate road space on a case-by-case basis; (2) Consider reduction in traffic speeds for non-emergency vehicles.

3.4.4  Collector Streets AND Residential streets not otherwise identified for pedestrian/bike-only

  • Proposed Response: (1) Maintain as is in order to channel car traffic and allow access to residential areas; (2) Reduce speed from 40km/hr to 30 or 20 km/hr

3.4.5 Residential and Commercial Laneways

  • Proposed Response: Maintain as is where parallel streets are closed to car traffic; provide access/egress for car traffic



Vancouver Public Space Network


Photo credits: (1) Sidewalk Chalk (with heart) – by Robert Couse-Baker, Flickr, creative commons; Sidewalk chalk (wider sidewalks) – by VPSN; (3) Line-up – by Huub Zeeman, Flickr, creative commons. 

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