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

Granville Island 2040

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Granville Island

Photo by Alyson Hurt on Flickr 

I went this morning to a workshop called “Getting to and Moving Through Granville Island”. It is part of Granville Island 2040, “a planning initiative that will set out a comprehensive direction and dynamic vision for the island’s future” organised by CMHC and Granville Island. The session, facilitated by Bunt & Associates, collaboratively reviewed current infrastructure, mobility services and travel patterns as well as seeking ideas and opinions on critical transportation elements for the Island’s future. It was a group of about 20 “stakeholders” which included local residents’ associations, City of Vancouver staff, Translink, both of the ferry companies, the local business association, BEST, Modacity and Ocean concrete.

There had been a meeting the previous day dealing with land use, and there will be many more opportunities for people who are interested to get involved. You can even Instagram your idea with the hashtag #GI2040 – which I have already done. But there’s a lot more to this idea that I want to write about.

First of all I think it is very unfortunate that the process separates out transportation and land use, since I am convinced that these must be considered together: they are two sides of the same coin. Secondly the process centres around the vision for what people want to see by in 2040, and then there will be thought about how to achieve that. I think it is immediately apparent that CMHC has its own process for deciding how to replace Emily Carr University when it relocates to False Creek Flats. This long term vision has to assume that it sorted out, and that CMHC has achieved its own objective of seeing increased levels of activity on the Island.

The workshop started with a presentation by Bunt & Associates of some recent transportation data they have collected last month, compared to data collected on the same days in August 2005. I did not take notes, thinking that there might be a handout or perhaps material on the website. So I am forced to summarise the findings without any of the figures in front of me. There has been an increase in the number of people going to the Island, but a drop in the number of cars. The increases come from increased use of the ferries, pedestrians and cycling. They conducted cordon counts between noon and 6pm midweek and a Saturday and a very limited interview survey, to help identify where people came from, how many were in the group and how much they spent. Car occupancy has increased. The Island is now also on the itinerary of the Hop-on/Hop-off service which wasn’t the case ten years ago.

There were some very obvious weaknesses in the data. For instance, transit passengers were only counted at the cordon when they got off the #50 bus. It is my observation that many people walking into Granville Island have come from the bus stops at the southern end of Granville Bridge. While some of that “multi-mode” travel is apparent from the interview survey, it is not like a trip diary. There were also no counts in the evenings, when the use of Granville Island shifts considerably to the theatres and destination restaurants like Bridges and Sandbar.

There were the usual workshop activities of putting sticky notes on maps and talking in breakout groups, and some of the common ground was apparent early on. Reuse of the abandoned Historic Railway to connect to the mostly empty parking lots and Olympic Village station, for instance. By 2040 that may even extend to the tram envisioned for the Arbutus Corridor, and even if that can’t be achieved by then, the Greenway linkage to the Seawall was a favourite too. Currently while pedestrians and bikes have a few options, vehicles have only one, and I am relieved to report that no-one thought there should be more. In fact the traffic count shows that the current four lane access is excessive, and could be replaced by two lanes with the space better utilised by dedicated bike lanes, wider sidewalks and possibly a tram line.

The idea I want to examine in a bit more detail was popular with the transportation people, but might have some resistance from the “Islanders” i.e. the people who work there everyday. But I will get to that later.

Google Earth image

The need for a pedestrian bridge

There is a 50 meter channel between the east end of the island and the separated pedestrian and bike paths of the seawall. There is very little boat traffic into the pocket of False Creek: the main exception being people in kayaks and dragon boats using the docks south of the Community Centre.

My first thought was that the almost useless Canoe Bridge at the other end of False Creek could be relocated.

Canoe Bridge

But it is both too short (only 40 meters) and has that really ugly support in the middle. I also dislike the fact that the entrances onto the bridge are narrower than the middle, which seems to me to be utterly pointless. I also wonder about the flat underside, and whether an arched bridge might be better both operationally – for boats given rising sea levels – and aesthetically. My inspiration is from one of the newest bridges in Venice, Ponte Della Costituzione also known as Calatrava Bridge after its designer.

Ponte Della Costituzione

This is much too big for our location – 80 meter span and up to 17.7 meters wide in places. But you must admit it is very beautiful: in fact it well illustrates my dictum about a lot of architecture – it looks pretty but it doesn’t work very well. It has a lot of steps, some of them very steep, which makes it a barrier to people on bicycles (intentionally) and people with disabilities.

Actually bicycles aren’t permitted anywhere in Venice, but although this bridge might present a challenge, evidently not enough of a challenge, hence the presence of the local plod.

Ponte Della Costituzione

No, I don’t know how often they have to be there, but they did have quite a few folks to talk too while I was there.

The lack of accessibility meant that as an afterthought a suspended gondola was added

Ponte Della Costituzione

and, unsurprisingly, was out of order at the time of our visit. Wikipedia notes “The official budget for the project was €6.7 million, but actual costs have escalated significantly.”

However, I am pretty sure that someone can come up with a better design of a bridge for the 50m gap, and a way of ensuring that it is not a cycle freeway, but a gentle stroll for pedestrians. The reason is not that I am anti-cyclist, merely tired of the constant aggravation of the “shared space” on the seawall, which the City is now dealing with. It is also essential to the mandate of Granville Island 2040 that none of the Island becomes a through route to anywhere. One of the reasons that mixed use and shared space has worked so well here is that the Island is the destination. It is an exercise then in placemaking, not making through movement faster or more convenient. Indeed unlike so many places in Vancouver which now advertise “this site may have an antiloitering device in place” we must come up with lots of ideas to implement loitering devices – things to encourage people to linger. Or as Brent Toderian likes to call them “sticky places”.

There is one such place now at what would become the landing place of the new bridge. Ron Basford Park is one of the few quiet places on the Island, where people who work there seek peace: somewhere to have a picnic lunch or breastfeed their babies. It is the end of the Island and there is a footpath around its perimeter. I think it is quite possible to design the end of the proposed pedestrian bridge to ensure that this peace is preserved. If the bridge is used as way to get people on bicycles on and off the Island more quickly, there will be considerable conflicts at both ends. But Ron Basford park is also home to amphitheatres: there are concerts and all kinds of activities at other times.  So the Granville Island management is going to have to display some pretty nifty consultation expertise here.

Granville Island is a unique place. It seems to defy all reason and logic, but it undeniably is very successful as a destination, and whatever happens will need to preserve as much of the place’s eccentricity as possible. Or even enhance it.

As Dale Bracewell remarked at the end of the session, Granville Island actually needs several transportation plans for different times of day, days of the week and times of the year. In the summer, the Island attracts at least half of its users from the rest of Canada and other countries – people who probably only visit the Island once. In the winter, the Island – and its market in particular – is the place that most people in the vicinity rely on for groceries. As the residents’ association rep pointed out, they are the people who keep the market going in the winter. There will be further traffic counts later on in the year, to measure the different pattern that emerges when tourists are a less significant part of the mix. And, of course, there will need to be some reflection of what happens once the University leaves: there are around a thousand students now, plus staff and support workers.

There were some hints about how the land use will change. The buildings underneath the bridge, currently used as parkades, are likely to be repurposed. The area at the west end of the Island, currently where there is free parking for the Public Market, will likely see reuse that better utilises its location. But all of this depends on getting more viable choices for transit. So the other really important idea is the installation of elevators up to the bridge deck with new bus stops. Sadly, the City is still wedded to the notion of a centre median greenway – which is utterly daft. The reason people walk over the bridge is the view. No-one is going to want to walk a long way across the Island and the creek with no view other than four lanes of fast moving cars!

Written by Stephen Rees

September 9, 2016 at 6:23 pm

6 Responses

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  1. There is another Calatrava bridge in Calgary that may serve this purpose, if modified.

    The beauty of it is that it’s superstructure doesn’t need any additional support except for the abutments at either end. I have used this bridge and was very impressed with its elegance and utility, and the interior program that neatly accommodates bikes and pedestrians separately while also providing shelter from the sky and illumination.

    The bridge wasn’t without controversy over the $25M cost and initial faulty welds, but Calgary is a city widely known for its mediocrity, and its blind and silent acceptance of $6,000M in freeway and ring road projects at the same time the critics were having a feast over an “unneeded” pedestrian bridge.

    I am happy to report that the bridge has drawn thousands of new walkers and cyclists out of their cars only two years after construction, and the new industry of architectural tourism appeared there for the first time.


    September 9, 2016 at 9:45 pm

  2. A view of the interior. The concrete finishing work was also of very high quality.


    September 9, 2016 at 9:48 pm

  3. It is mind-boggling that transportation and land use are not seen as integral one to another when it comes to Granville Island–or anywhere, for that matter. Perhaps as suggested, making parallels with Venice is the sort of reference we really need to make in order to frame that functional interdependence.

    Two points I have made elsewhere is that in the redesign of the Island, it is essential to address the elephant in the room: the addiction to the single occupant motor vehicle. True, it is less of a problem at Granville Island than in some places, but it plays a very significant role in the congestion and in the allocation of space for parking. Note that it matters very little what powers the vehicles in q


    September 10, 2016 at 4:35 am

  4. uestion–whether “green” or not, it still takes up space. The other issue is choice. The preferred method seems to be restriction or some sort of bylaw, which almost invariably means incurring a cost in enforcement. Cars might be restricted on the Island, but the better way is to plan for a transition.

    This is one of the ideas addressed by the “Friends of the Olympic Line / Vancouver Civic Railway” concept to complete the tram connection from Granville Island to Science World. Initially, it would run three days a week, most likely Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with operating times co-ordinated with business hours on the Island.

    Not only would it help facilitate transition to car-free status, but it would offer a choice which would have such obvious advantage to the user that ridership would by choice rather than restriction.

    Considering that a streetcar could be operational inside of two years and at a cost lower than any comparable small system anywhere in North America, it would give ample opportunity for assessing its potential and “growing” the service to fit the need, and long before 2040.


    September 10, 2016 at 4:52 am

  5. You are right Mr Finch and all the various breakout groups put something similar on their maps. To keep the cost down, and to get the thing running as a way to reduce the need for parking spaces on the Island, reinstating the Olympic Line is – I think – much more likely.

    The one thing that was not discussed (much) at the workshop – or in my piece above – is the issue of multiple agencies. CHMC calls the shots on the Island, but for the railway it will be the City and their political orders right now are to concentrate on the Broadway subway. For the bridge it gets even more complicated!

    Stephen Rees

    September 10, 2016 at 12:40 pm

  6. I also dislike the fact that the entrances onto the bridge are narrower than the middle, which seems to me to be utterly pointless. I also wonder about the flat underside, and whether an arched bridge might be better both operationally – for boats given rising sea levels – and aesthetically. My inspiration is from one of the newest bridges in Venice, Ponte Della Costituzione also known as Calatrava Bridge after its designer.

    Agreed. I always though that was odd – plus the deck is slippery in wet/snowy weather.

    For a new span, there does need to be some clearance for the dragon boats (whose steers stand upright), esp. at high tide.

    I have also seen Vancouver Police or Coast Guard vessels occasionally docked at the Alder Bay dock, and it would be good to have continued access for the Fireboat in the event of a fire at the False Creek Community Centre.

    There may also be aboriginal land claims issues to resolve before the Granville Island side bridge abutments could be authorized and built.

    Overall, though, a good idea. It would help distribute pedestrian traffic to the east end of the island.


    September 15, 2016 at 4:01 pm

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