Features Stories

CORRECTION: The Downtown Core Area Plan projects 20 000 residents moving into the Downtown Core Area over the next 30 years and 10 000 new jobs. The previously published figure referring to 10 000 new residents was incorrect. The editors apologize for this error.


It’s no apocalypse, but not everything is coming up roses in the City of Gardens. Trees are dying, parks are shrinking, and much of the city is covered in a dried oil-slick, blacktop, for the motor vehicles that dominate the downtown core and beyond. Pedestrians and cyclists live in fear of appeasing motorists’ daily appetite for victims to hospitalize. Downtown merchants suffer from customer-culling perceptions of money-grubbing, zealous parking enforcement and hoards of homeless panhandlers extorting a livelihood. It could probably be the out-of-control rents and property taxes that more likely have store owners and merchants running to the peripheries of Victoria, B.C. As quickly as their leases allow, businesses abandon the mismanaged downtown core like rats from a sinking ship.

Mayor Dean Fortin recently announced the City of Victoria’s $100 000 plan to solicit ideas and opportunities for renewal and revitalization of the Inner Harbour and the surrounding area. It appears to be an act of veiled desperation, void of acknowledgment of the mess that the downtown core area is currently in.

A press release on the subject gives the impression of a plan to improve a rosy situation, ignoring the reality of the dire financial climate exacerbated by an aging infrastructure, ailing green space, long-term social problems, and traffic issues that poison businesses.

Curiously, the city’s solution focuses upon, the lower Wharf Street parking lot, the Belleville Terminal site, and Ship Point as the three areas to work on within the Inner Harbour. This odd tack appears guided by the City of Victoria’s Official Community Plan that looks at the city through blacktop-coloured glasses.

Blindly following a car-centric perspective hasn’t served Victoria well. An ailing downtown core paved to the shoreline provides greater access to prime, ocean-front real estate and panoramic views to motor vehicles and their parking than it provides to people.

Although downtown merchants put up a good front, many are suffering. UVic’s Gustavson School of Business’s Report on Business Climate in Downtown Victoria from November 2011 revealed that 45 per cent of downtown business operators rated the downtown economy as either poor or very poor. They were unsatisfied with city parking rules and enforcement; they said panhandling and homeless people had a high or very high impact on their business; and they said that increasing or already high rents were a serious problem. Another 17 per cent had seriously considered moving their business out of the downtown core because of these issues, and even more had plans to do so in the near future.

Beleaguered transit buses do not permit loading or unloading bicycles on downtown’s main drag, due to high levels of congestion. Some alternate forms of transport are banned for the same reason from the downtown “red zone”—a sectioned-off area of downtown where no skateboarding is allowed—which suffers no shortage of on-street parking, large parking structures, and multi-lane thoroughfares bordered by congested sidewalks.

Motorists’ vehicles strike cyclists and crosswalk crossing pedestrians. The streets are understandably too frightening to ride a bike on for most. The mass of cars fill our streets more than they fill our sidewalks, stores, or business cash registers.

Victoria City Councillor Lisa Helps addressed the dangers of cycling in Victoria in a recent Times Colonist article announcing the city’s intention to update our aged cycling master plan. “I regularly almost get killed almost on a daily basis as cycling is my main way of getting around the city,” said Helps. Contradicting the City Councillor and reality, the City of Victoria claims that the Downtown Core Area Plan is “attractive to many cyclists for both commuting and recreation.”

Victoria’s Official Community Plan and the Downtown Core Area Plan reflect an old-school, car-centric perspective, in spite of the plans’ well-intentioned aspirations to create sustainable transportation and mobility systems that give priority to pedestrians, cyclists, and transit—a lofty goal void of wind beneath its wings. The only sign of “priority to pedestrians, cyclists, and transit” provided in the plans is a simple chart: an inverted pyramid that places pedestrians at the top and motorists at the bottom.

Beyond the chart, there is no concrete plan, only references throughout the reports to the chart, as though it were proof that pedestrians, cyclists, and transit were actually being given priority.

Something has got to give

In spite of the Downtown Core Area Plan providing drawings that make the promised Victoria streets look as wide and free-flowing as the Amazon river, there is only so much construction that can feasibly fit—especially when considering the city’s projected 20 000 residents moving into the Downtown Core Area over the next 30 years. Where are they going to fit all of the plan’s promises, people, and cars?

There is no credible plan presented that will allow them to bring together all of the elements listed:

“. . .maintain on-street parking / increase business, shopping, and tourism traffic / improve air quality / provide wider sidewalks / construct buildings with larger set-backs, and with open courtyards, promenades, and urban plazas / more parks and open spaces / more bike lanes / mid-block crosswalks / more street furniture / more public art / tree-lined streets / more landscaping. . ..”

If the Downtown Core Area Plan’s little triangle chart is to mean anything, the first thing that has to give is the cars. Unfortunately, we are gaining blacktop and losing green. Victoria, the City of Gardens, is shedding parkland and urban forest, in spite of the plan’s promises.

Less than two per cent of the Garry oak ecosystem that existed in Victoria in the 1800s remains today. Victoria’s trees are dying off, and the amount of concrete is growing, which is revealed in the Capital Regional District Land Cover Mapping Summary Report. In six years, Greater Victoria has lost enough trees to cover 12 Beacon Hill Parks.

Trees are not the only thing disappearing in Victoria; the Land Cover Mapping Report reveals that parks are too. The Rock Bay district has lost its only real park, and it’s about to lose its last little strip of grass and trees, while Quadra Village is about to lose significant green space to another building structure. With no new parks on the horizon, the credibility of the Official Community Plan and the Downtown Core Area Plan continues to wane.

Waiter, there’s a car in my mall!

Along with big promises, the City of Victoria uses the right terminology, but the definitions, plans, and revealing perspective leave little hope for improvement in the Official Community Plan and Downtown Core Area Plan:

“Raised, landscaped medians for pedestrian refuge.”

“Maintain on-street, short-term parking. . ..”

“Ensure Greenways do not adversely affect the operation or function of industrial and other employment activities in the Rock Bay District.”

Both plans constantly refer to the “Government Street Mall” and place high hopes on expanding this “mall” while supposedly providing priority to pedestrians, cyclists, and transit—in addition to somehow including motor vehicles, pedestrian refuge, and on-street parking in the package deal.

Unfortunately the “Government Street Mall” isn’t a mall—it’s a street, with cars and large tour buses.

Illogically, the Downtown Core Area Plan and the Official Community Plan fail to suggest restricting motor vehicle access to the downtown core (people with a disability could still have access). Conversely, the Victoria Pedestrian Master Plan survey revealed Victorians’ top requested item was that “parts of downtown be pedestrianized and closed to vehicle traffic”—specifically Government Street. The city of Victoria has known this since 2007, but, in spite of their triangle pedestrian priority chart, there is no mention of this critical public desire in the more recent Downtown Core Area Plan or Official Community Plan.

How is it possible to develop a thorough and extensive downtown plan and not even consider restricting or controlling the lowest priority group on the plans’ own triangle charts?

The current downtown plans have proven to be no plans at all, with so much attention and focus upon building heights, sightlines, and pretty pictures that they don’t address the multiple issues created by the deadly, polluting, and space-hoarding lowest priority group—the single-occupancy vehicle.

Simply referring to Government Street as a “mall” and having a triangle “pedestrian priority” chart in a plan is not enough of a commitment to citizen safety or the revitalization of downtown, nor does it help the city meet environmental emission reduction promises lauded in both plans. The city of Victoria needs to make its downtown core attractive and safe for people, not just efficient for cars.

Efforts to push the homeless and street community out of downtown, off boulevards, and out of park areas have only backfired at a high expense. Money spent on no-loitering signs, increased police presence, and having benches removed only reinforces the fear and discomfort of downtown.

Aesop has a fable for the city of Victoria. “The North Wind and the Sun” tells of a contest between these two opposing weather systems. The North Wind depended upon force and intimidation in the contest; the removal of the man’s coat. The Sun won because it used warmth and kindness; persuasion instead of force. Victoria needs to try a little warmth to address its concerns and make people want to come downtown.

The Government Street pedestrian mall

With plans already in the works to close down Belleville Street in front of the B.C. legislature, the complete closure of Government Street from Belleville to Fort Street would now be a natural fit. Closing a short section of Wharf Street and including green space in the development of the lower Wharf Street parking lot would then create a green waterfront pedestrian mall that would surround Victoria’s Inner Harbour, providing the prime real estate to people and parkland instead of roads and parking lots.

In support of many of the proposed improvements is Victoria’s sustainable transportation consultant, and local walking and cycling advocate, John Luton. Luton is the executive director of Capital Bike and Walk Society and the previous president of the Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition, as well as a former city councillor and Victoria cycling advisory committee member. In an interview, Luton said he feels the Downtown Victoria Business Association is slowly warming up to the reality that Victoria needs methods to service downtown shoppers other than motor vehicles. “There are some developers very interested in LRT [light rail transit]—they see the value of adding density to the Douglas corridor that would make properties more attractive for commercial and residential uplifts.” It’s apparent that only so many cars can access the downtown core at one time, and this limits its paying customer base; an LRT line may help alleviate this issue.

Luton also sees the need for a free downtown trolley system, one that would “include a trip to the [Vic West] Roundhouse, that could help make commuter rail more viable on the E&N [rail line].” This would tie together two forms of underutilized alternate transportation, which could alleviate the need for many motor vehicles to enter the busy downtown core.

Luton used Chattanooga, Tenn., as a successful example, with its free pedestrian “circulator” that runs on a short loop through the city core using electric power and smaller, community-sized vehicles.

With a free street trolley system servicing Victoria’s downtown core, the closure of certain non-essential roads would be easy to facilitate, without significant inconvenience to motorists. The Downtown Core Area Plan does not include Government Street in its list of Victoria’s “primary downtown streets.”

If you are depending upon Government Street to get you quickly and efficiently to your destination, then you are likely to turn on the wrong road and get cursed at by sensible people as you weave through tourists, traffic, and tour buses.

With Belleville and Government Street closed, Victoria would be in the enviable position of having a large waterfront pedestrian mall that would surround the scenic and popular working Inner Harbour. Instead of maintaining roads on prime real estate, much of the blacktop and concrete could be removed and replaced with lawns, gardens, trees—and room for people.

Meandering through Victoria’s pedestrian mall would be paths for pedestrians, with separated bike paths to prevent conflicts between these two groups, while providing a safe car-free experience in our lovely city center. The large recreational lawn space created by the Government Street pedestrian mall could be utilized for athletic events, a skateboard park, a bandstand, community celebrations, and daily outdoor activities; a large park where now there is mostly concrete, blacktop, and speeding cars.

Proceeding north up Government Street, into the newly created car-free mall, would be an open air shopping centre. Local merchants and their clientele could spill out onto the former street. Catering to the increased walking and cyclist traffic could be a system of awnings—glass and otherwise—that could make the downtown core more accessible, even during our rainy season. The increased rain cover, the convenient downtown shuttle, and the car-free promenade and park environment would create a much more appealing and safer shopping, recreational, and tourism experience for all.

Striving to be better

Canada’s recent failing grade in the Global status report on road safety 2013 from the World Health Organization (WHO) reveals the depth of our focus upon the needs of the automobile over people—and it shows when we design our cities and develop legislation. When we treat road safety laws as a revenue source instead of a form of strong enforcement we affect no change in driver behaviour. Banning or greatly restricting alternate healthier and more environmentally responsible forms of transportation—instead of accommodating them—reduces options for environmental alternatives to the motor vehicle, which forces people into cars, clogging streets.

The report from WHO reveals that when it comes to road safety, Canada lacks focus on the safety of cyclists and pedestrians. In an attempt to address the 1.24 million road traffic deaths per year worldwide, the report lists three recommendations: increase the pace of legislative change, enforce strong road safety laws, and reduce road traffic deaths and actively address the safety and mobility needs of the more vulnerable road users, and consider how non-motorized forms of transport can be safely integrated into more sustainable and safer transport systems.

Victoria needs to own its talk and walk the walk; it needs to actually give the vulnerable road users priority beyond its triangle-chart promises. The merchants are begging for more customers, but there is already too much traffic downtown and arguably not enough parking. Combine the traffic/parking paradox with British Columbia’s recently reaffirmed high default speed limit, and it seems unlikely that Victoria is willing to provide any real priority and safety to pedestrians and cyclists.

The city’s own survey revealed years ago that people want areas such as Government Street to be a car-free zone—so what are we waiting for?

Picture a safe city

Neighbourhoods where cars don’t speed would be calming, because the kids could play outside. With coffee cup in hand, you could wander down the block to visit neighbours on a quiet and peaceful evening. A car would pass so slow you could actually exchange greetings.

One of your other kids goes downtown with friends to play Frisbee on the Inner Harbour’s massive lawn. They bussed down with their bikes, but again, you’re not worried. The heart of the downtown core has been closed to motor vehicles. The large promenade is now as safe as the quiet street in your neighbourhood has become due to slower traffic, pedestrian priority, and strict enforcement of the motor vehicle laws—just as the World Health Organization is calling upon Canada to do.

Victoria is a harbour city developed before the use of automobiles was commonplace, and since then we have allowed the blacktop to overtake and smother the best parts of our city.

Design a city around cars and provide them with ample parking and roadway, and cars and blacktop is what you will get. Build a city for people, providing them with safety, comfort, green space, and convenient public transportation—and people is what you will get.

Too many cyclists and pedestrians have died for us to keep considering them unavoidable casualties.

Although this may be a battle against the encroachment of blacktop and its domination in our cities, this is not a war against cars; it’s just an adjustment of boundaries, a revisiting of what is considered acceptable behaviour. Nobody is trying to get rid of the motor vehicle—this is merely harm reduction, and an attempt to keep the cars’ anti-social behaviours and destruction to a minimum.

Victoria should embrace the idea of a revitalization of its downtown core, a greening of the asphalt jungle, with a commitment to move beyond triangle chart promises: to actually prioritize pedestrians and other vulnerable road users over the motor vehicle—if they build it, people will come.

A healthy, green city, safe for its citizens—should there be any other kind?