Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Robson Street Closure

with 16 comments

5 Downtown/Robson stays on current route

This is my second attempt at posting about the continued closure of Robson Street between Hornby and Howe. Originally the closure was supposed to be temporary, ending on Labour Day, but has now been extended. My first effort was to have been linked to my pictures of the Viva Vancouver “Pop Rocks” which are posted as a set on flickr. I must admit I got a bit frustrated with the WordPress layout, which did not seem to work the way I wanted it to. I also began to realize that the issues are more complex.

The closure applies to cyclists as well as motorized traffic – but enough cyclists seem to ignore that to create conflict.

Trying to get those two images side by side instead of on top of each other was where I got stuck last time. I also began to realize that this opens a whole new can of worms. Originally I just wanted to celebrate the closure of the street to cars – which happens a lot everywhere else around the world but hardly at all in Vancouver. Not only that but Charles Gauthier of the DVBIA was already pontificating – he is very predictable in his opposition to such ideas – and I felt that there needed to be some response.

This morning, I got a copy of a letter from Transport Action British Columbia that has been sent to the City Council. As I have said here before, I am a member of that organization. I am reproducing the letter here as I think it deserves a wider audience. It raises the issue of how this street closure impacts transit users – which is why I chose the Translink notice as the top picture on this post. Instead of using Granville Street – the main artery and linear exchange for transit in downtown – Route #5 now goes via Burrard Street.

Transport Action British Columbia is NOT against street closures to traffic (like the DVBIA seems to be, on principle) but rather how street closures need to be carefully examined when they impact transit users. Cities are also much better places when they give priority to pedestrians – as the City of Vancouver’s Transport Plan has long recognized but has not implemented very effectively. Some of our pedestrian places – Robson Square and Jack Poole Plaza ( Google doesn’t label it) do not work very well at all. So my initial enthusiasm for this particular closure is waning rapidly.

September 4, 2012

Vancouver City Council

Mayor Robertson and Councillors:

Re: Permanent Closure of Robson Street Between Hornby and Howe

Transport Action BC is concerned with the City’s decision to extend the Robson Street closure between Howe and Hornby Streets for an extended trial that is seems intended to become permanent. The closure has serious implications for transit users that must be considered.

The bus re-route around the closure is circuitous, particularly for those on Robson wishing to use the Canada Line or southbound buses on Granville Mall. TransLink schedules five to seven minutes travel time from Robson & Burrard to Pender & Granville. Transit users wishing to travel south then spend more time getting back to Robson Street. Thus, transit riders are penalised over ten minutes for every one-way trip compared to the direct route on Robson. Walking to Granville Street from Burrard & Robson is quicker for transit connections but this is unattractive for seniors or those with mobility aids, and even less attractive in the wetter, colder months. Additionally, the re-route forces an additional transfer on those who wish to board the Canada Line at City Centre Station.

The net effect of the closure from a transit customer’s perspective is highly unfavourable. Anyone with a choice between transit and driving will find driving relatively more direct and attractive while those without access to a car are taken needlessly out of their way and forced to make additional transfers.

Creating active, pedestrian plazas is laudable. However, it is ironic that in a city aiming to be “green”, the two streets chosen for long-term “activations” are major transit corridors. By routinely diverting transit from these streets the City is reducing the legibility, directness and overall attractiveness of transit. Meanwhile, no effort is spared in providing on-street parking on other streets where corner bulges and wider sidewalks could make permanent improvements in walking conditions throughout the city. Existing plazas, such as those at Robson Square, the Art Gallery and Main Library function far below their potential, presenting off-street opportunities for improving pedestrian amenities.

We suggest that the City take a more holistic view of its transportation priorities before making a final decision on permanently closing the 800 block of Robson to transit. Such considerations must also figure prominently in Viva Vancouver’s seasonal closures.

Buses will play a major role in Vancouver long into the future. It is time surface transit received more respect from City Hall.

CC: Councillor A. Carr; Charles Gauthier – Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association; TransLink Board of Directors


Frederick Jelfs,
Secretary – Transport Action British Columbia


There is now a nice video by Spacing Magazine – they have it on their blog and so does Gordon Price. But I thought I should embed it here – just becuase I can. Worth seeing in HD and fullscreen if you can

Written by Stephen Rees

September 5, 2012 at 9:28 am

16 Responses

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  1. Stephen, you know that many cyclists treat traffic laws like the ‘pirate code’ in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. If you’re not familiar with that, I’ll paraphrase one of the characters in saying the code is more like a list of suggestions than laws.

    I’m certainly of two minds over the Robson street closure because the plaza is a natural pedestrian space, while the bus re-route is a bit circuitous. The little loop up to Smythe and back seems to exist solely to avoid a left turn. Maybe the trolley lines were never set up to enable that turn, but technology exists to give buses priority at intersections should Vancouver ever decide to use it.

    I’m not convinced that moving the #5 is as bad as Mr. Jelfs makes it out to be either. Would he put the 2, 22, 32 and 44 on Granville too? I don’t think so. It wouldn’t be efficient. So moving the 5 to Burrard, while a bit inconvenient for those wishing to make a connection between south Granville and Robson, shortens the connection between Robson and the services at Waterfront. It also moves the Robson bus closer to the five Bentall towers and neighbouring office buildings, a much bigger working population than can be found on Granville.

    David Walker

    September 5, 2012 at 1:31 pm

  2. “More like a set of guidelines, really.”

    The disregard of traffic law by cyclists is the most frequent argument advanced by motorists against extending any further concessions to cycles. Asking the motorists about their attitude to speed limits or roundabouts does not, to them, make any difference at all.

    Stephen Rees

    September 5, 2012 at 2:03 pm

  3. Re: David

    Moving the 5 to Burrard doesn’t make an easier connection to Waterfront. The detour route goes a block farther away from Waterfront than the 5 usually does, and takes longer to get there because of the loop around Smithe and because Burrard is slower than Granville. The former could be fixed with some new trolley wires, but the latter is not going to change anytime soon.

    (And, actually, if/when the 5 goes back to its regular route there’s no reason it couldn’t continue down to Cordova to make the same loop the 6 does, stopping right at Waterfront.)

    The fact that there are buses on Burrard (the 2, 22, etc.) has nothing to do with whether it’s better for the 5 to be there. See any number of Jarrett Walker writings on how grid-shaped transit networks work. Transit lines should travel in straight lines as much as possible, which applies to both Burrard Street and Robson Street.

    South Granville is far from the only connection that’s worse with the current detour. The Canada Line is now much less accessible from the West End.

    That there are more jobs at Bentall than on Granville is a complete red herring. Most people who live in the West End and work Downtown walk to work. But the Robson bus is still busy, because it’s actually being used for much longer trips. Most Robson passengers are going beyond Robson, and need to make good connections.

    So, the detour up Burrard means that transit is competing more with walking. If we want transit to be useful for replacing auto trips then the Robson bus needs to keep going through Robson Square. Sorry to those who really want the space closed, but that’s geometry.


    September 5, 2012 at 4:42 pm

  4. the lack of consideration of surface transit by the current council is appalling
    (we could add the council decision to slowdown the bus on Hasting street).

    As noticed by PM, the Robson bus is expected on Robson, not on Pender, this is a question of “Geomtry” and make Transit more readable and appealing.

    It is certainly possible to have a pedestrian plaza at Robson, and have it still open to surface transit.

    In fact it is the modus operandi of virtually all surface transit in Europe (where usually rerouting option are very limited but pedestrian realm is extesnive). and Redfrog could give you the example of Bordeaux -Be Place de l’Opera, Cours de ‘Intendance or Place des Quinconces, where I think 3 tram lines share the space with pedestrians.

    Here, a single bus, #5, could not share the space with pedestrians? come-on…

    The fact it doesn’t illustrates the disregard the council have for the bus system at large.

    It also illustrates how little thought has been throw at the closure of Robson square: if bike ride here it is because there is no obvious alternative option for East-West route on bike, and Robson is an obvious choice.


    September 5, 2012 at 9:42 pm

  5. Thanks Voony….He is right about Bordeaux tram…I haven’t spend enough time in Strasbourg and other towns with trams to name all their streets and squares shared by transit and pedestrians, but transit and pedestrians work fine together. Not just in France…German towns have a longer experience…

    Vancouver if fast becoming the town that hear about something done in other parts of the words and try to imitate them before thinking why and how it should be done and doesn’t bother to investigate what other places did and why this way / why not that way.
    An example is the parking between a forest of posts on Granville….how come in other parts of the world people manage to park cars on sidewalks (when and where it is legal) without posts?

    As for Mr. Gauthier….the poor man means well but his objections are beyond ridiculous…does he honestly believe that Europe (from France to Finland, Ireland to the former Russian republics) and Japan, for example, are all tropical paradises? even in winter? yet there is hardly a town in those countries without a pedestrian area..

    Bordeaux, in the southwest of France—nearly similar to the location of Vancouver in B.C.–has 150 days of rain a year. Lots o fit in winter. like whole weeks. Their pedestrian streets opened in 1976 and new ones were added when the tramway opened in late 2003. On Saturdays they are crowded, even on rainy days…

    Suburban park and ride lots that cost 3 Euros for the whole day (in addition the car driver and all the passengers each get a free transit return ticket) may be one reason…another one is shops not found in the suburban malls, plus the big city feel…

    Red frog

    September 6, 2012 at 12:59 pm

  6. There are two goals: improving transit access to the West End and improving Robson Square. The quality of Robson Square as a public space is reduced by its transportation function, including transit and possibly even bikes.

    The bus through Robson Square is direct and convenient for going downtown and for connecting to the Canada line and Expo line. The Robson bus functions, however, more as a circulator than as a line of the grid. Its route downtown is circuitous, slow, and duplicates many other frequent lines. If the 5 can be made more like a line of the grid without going through Robson Square and while still connecting well to the Canada line and Expo line, then it may be possible to achieve both goals.

    This map is a collection of ideas on how the pedestrianization of Robson Square and the Granville mall can be accomplished while improving transit downtown.

    Some of these ideas are that:
    – The stretch of Robson between Burrard and Seymour is pedestrianized
    – The 5 is interlined with the 6 downtown in order to:
    a. simplify their routes downtown, removing their loops
    b. allow for cross-downtown trips
    c. connect the Davie bus better to the Canada line
    d. improve transit in Yaletown and the east side of downtown
    – The Granville mall is pedestrianized because:
    a. transit’s faster on Howe/Seymour
    b. the Granville mall is a better public space without transit
    c. transit is not reliably on Granville with its many street closures

    There are many examples of good public spaces with transit. I’ve been to a few. But I think that Robson Square is better without transit. Some larger changes need to be made to transit routes downtown to make it work.


    September 6, 2012 at 7:46 pm

  7. The major problem with the Robson square link at street level between Hornby and Howe is that it is too narrow as it is. Surely there is enough room down below and the steps on either side for pedestrians and “happenings”?
    I don’t like the new Granville mall between Georgia and Robson–the part where they have musical entertainment– because it still looks like a street for vehicles.

    In some parts of Europe they manage to have streets that don’t have sidewalks, traffic lights etc. yet are shared by pedestrians, cars, bikes etc. without problems.
    Most of the residential streets I have seen in Japan do not have sidewalks either…yet pedestrians, bikes and cars use them without problems.
    Average bicycle riders in Europe and Japan do not even think about riding a bike as fast as possible so conflicts with pedestrians and cars are minimal.

    This afternoon I was reading an article in the Straight (in a coffee shop on Main, between Broadway and 12th) about a possible police crack down of bikes riding too fast on sidewalks…

    As I left the coffee shop I noticed a computerized panel in the middle of the street, advertising the closure of that part of Main on Sept 15 and was about to move closer to the road when I felt something coming in my back, stepped back by the buildings, and a bike went by me, without any warning.
    I resumed walking and 1/2 a block later ANOTHER bike went by! no warning either! These bikes weren’t super fast but I could have been hurt!
    Why don’t they have bells and use them?
    The EU doesn’t worry about helmets but make bells, permanently mounted lights in front and back, reflectors on wheels, mud guards etc. sure makes sense.

    That closure of Main street on the 15 is because of some event for families!?. Will buses be unable to use these few blocks?

    my little grey cells went on overdrive…
    The reason transit and pedestrians in other areas of the world share car-free streets is because these streets are plain ordinary shopping streets without cars. There are no musical events necessitating the closure of the streets.
    If there are some festivities–for example for a national holiday– they would take place on squares and sections of streets where there are no transit lines. This is pretty much a given in Europe where major towns have big squares and wide avenues.

    Bordeaux main square (Place des Quinconces) has a central area totally free of trees etc. that is used for pleasure fairs in the spring and fall, travelling circuses with canvas tents, parades, a giant sale of antique and second hand goods etc. Its size is roughly 6 hectares or 15 acres (on each side there are parking between rows of trees. These 2 areas plus the central area = 12 hectares). That square is located at the end of the downtown pedestrian area.

    Lyon has a similar set up..with Place Bellecour (6 hectares) at one end of a major pedestrian shopping street.
    Paris has Place de la Concorde (8.6 hectares), the Champ de Mars by the Eiffel tower, and the Champs Elysees that are a fairly wide avenue (10 lanes of traffic plus sidewalks each wider than Robson).
    London has Trafalgar square and the area in front of Buckingham palace and the Mall…plus Hyde Park.

    In Vancouver we try to do everything for everyone on what are, basically, 2 very ordinary streets size wise (Granville, Robson)

    Red frog

    September 6, 2012 at 9:54 pm

  8. I finally saw the 800 block Robson today, underwhelmed by the pillows. My 2 cents, return the block to ‘bus only’ like it was in the 80s. Granville would be a much better choice for a true ‘pedestrian’ street, with much less disruption to transit… we lived for 3 or 4 years with the trolleys on Howe/Seymour.


    September 6, 2012 at 11:54 pm

  9. Originally the closure was supposed to be temporary, ending on Labour Day, but has now been extended.

    It’s about time we got realistic about cars. Every time I come to town the chaos, the stink, the noise gets worse.

    Start with incremental discouragement . . .

    . . . closing off streets here and there. Keep it up ’til we get the message!

    Roger Kemble

    September 8, 2012 at 12:14 pm

  10. “It is certainly possible to have a pedestrian plaza at Robson, and have it still open to surface transit.”

    Hear, hear. Voony et al have it right. Bus drivers are professionals and can handle the additional responsibilities.

    Robson and Granville are a crossing of sorts for pedestrian activity, although the gap between Burrard and Granville continues to this day to be a bit of a challenge for pedestrians. These are issues that probably originate with the Hamilton Platt for the CPR, where every effort would appear to have been made to make the half-mile CPR lands from Burrard to Cambie to stand apart from the West End on one side, and the Provincial Government townsite of Granville (Gastown) on the other. Never mind that the Provincials turned over all unsold lots to the railway company.

    However, speaking of train companies, the more vexing question is why Translink continues to operate and plan bus routes, rather than organize service delivery within the Vancouver street grid on the ghost paths of tram service on rails?

    It seems to me that the rigidity of the rails-in-the-ground gave transit planning a discipline, and transit service predictability, that we have given up at a certain and quantifiable loss.

    lewis n. villegas

    September 8, 2012 at 1:29 pm

  11. The closure of Robson is inconvenient for all transit users but is a real burden for seniors and disabled individuals. A number of organizations (BC Coalition of Disabled People, West End Seniors Network, etc.) sent letters to the Mayor and Council opposing the closure but their concerns have not moved the Mayor. In fact, even though the closure is supposed to be “temporary”, it was extended into the fall by the Mayor even though there is nothing going on on that block now. I attended a forum on October 26th at Gordon Neighbourhood House where the vast majority of the participants opposed the closure due to the difficulties they now had going to doctor’s appointments, etc. City staff who were present could not explain why the closure was continuing through the fall except to say that the Mayor had ordered it. And the City staffer present who was in favour of the closure’s main reason for the permanent closure was that they had discovered that the architect’s original plan from the 1970s for that area included a pedestrian walkway. What kind of reason is that??

    Kathy Roczkowskyj

    October 27, 2012 at 3:40 pm

  12. The closure of Robson is inconvenient for all transit users but is a real burden for seniors and disabled individuals.

    Kathy Were on earth did you get that idea? I am an eighty-three year old OAP and I suppose I could pass for disabled with my wobbly back causing me to be walking stick dependent.

    I have walked the VAG Robson gauntlet at least twice last summer and many times before. I had no problem. Indeed in the sunshine the carousers on VAG’s steps are briefly entertaining.

    What with the need to show Shakespearian prowess and an inability to recognize a photo-shopped photo when they see it there is becoming a dearth of perceptive contributors on this blog.

    Toronto has Nathan Phillips Square, Victoria has Court House Square and Nanaimo has Diane Krall Plaza etc. So what does Vancouver have? Pigeon Park?

    May I respectfully suggest you take your BC Coalition of Disabled People and West End Seniors Network and shove ’em were the Sun don’t shine!

    Roger Kemble

    October 28, 2012 at 1:39 am

  13. […] Action British Columbia, an organization which has already addressed its concerns about the streets closure impacts on transit users, and more generally on the blatant lack of consideration for surface transit by the current […]

  14. Not sure How Roger landed here to reply to kathy in a timely fashion (Congratulation to him for keeping in good health…)
    well…I was happy enough to find here comments , I have used in my post:


    November 2, 2012 at 12:34 am

  15. […] the Cambie Corridor, the Airport, Richmond and beyond, will now have a 300‑metre gap, or 10 minutes of out‑of‑direction travel for every […]

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