BANFF – Banff council looks set to explore the idea of a permanent pedestrian zone on downtown Banff Avenue.
On Monday (Sept. 26), council voted 4-3 to direct administration to come back at service review with the costs associated with the creation of a conceptual design of a permanent pedestrian zone and hosting community consultation on the future of the pedestrian zone.
“It’s exploratory in nature, and it doesn’t bind us to a path, except to open this up to a broad discussion on the possibilities and on obtaining more information and feedback,” said Mayor Corrie DiManno in her pitch for support of her council colleagues.
“Obviously, the community is eager to discuss the future of the pedestrian zone, whether that means cancelling the commitment on 2023 or asking ourselves what do we do next with this innovative and successful initiative that was borne out of unprecedented circumstances,” she added.
Council received about 40 letters on the controversial pedestrian zone for Monday’s meeting, with many wanting the two blocks reopened to vehicles and others calling for the pedestrian zone to continue, either continuing with the commitment to the pilot next year or permanently.
While many love the vibe the pedestrian zone on the 100 and 200 blocks of Banff Avenue brings to the tourist town, concerns centre on traffic congestion, emergency management, impact on neighbouring residential streets and the costs associated with operating the pedestrian zone.
Others also argued millions of dollars was spent on turning Bear Street into a pedestrian zone.
Coun. Barb Pelham voiced support for the mayor’s idea, but stressed traffic management must be part of any future plan.
“I see this is a non-binding exploration of what might be, and I think it shows due diligence in considering all of our options for our community – and it involves our community in the discussion,” she said.
Councillors Hugh Pettigrew, Kaylee Ram and Ted Christensen voted against researching costs for a conceptual design, believing community consultation on whether or not the pedestrian zone should move ahead at all needs to happen first.
“Consultation is super important about what we hear from different residents from their experiences,” said Coun. Ram.
“I know we don’t have a set commitment to this, but I still see this as the cart before the horse.”
Coun. Pettigrew said council would be better off discussing the concept of a permanent pedestrian zone during 2024 service review following community feedback.
“It feels like we’re pushing for this and we haven’t heard from the people first,” he said.
"The public consultation, the debate about whether or not it becomes one year, no years or permanent, has to come before we get conceptual design."
Pettigrew, who was successful earlier in the day in reopening discussions on the pedestrian zone at service review, said he has heard from many constituents who want to see Banff Avenue reopened to vehicles year-round.
"I think this is going to end up a referendum at some point," he said.
Coun. Chip Olver was open to getting the costs associated with a conceptual design, but was big on the consultation piece.
“We know from the numerous letters we received today and the many pieces of correspondence even previous to today that the community is very interested in this topic,” she said.
“If it helps the community envision what a pedestrian zone could look like, then I am willing to go forward, but I have to state my own hesitation, and I am not sure at this point until I am aware of all the mitigations and all the costs of whether a permanent pedestrian zone is possible.”
Earlier this year, council approved the Banff Avenue pedestrian zone for the summers of 2022 and 2023, running from the May long weekend to the end of Thanksgiving weekend in October. There was no commitment beyond that.
The initial intent of the pedestrian zone was to create increased opportunities for physical distancing and provide local businesses with an opportunity to offset public health restrictions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Allocation of public space for restaurants and retailers in the public realm prioritizes first storey at-grade restaurants and café tenants, but also offered opportunities for second storey and basement tenants.
“We started the Banff Avenue pedestrian zone as a way to increase safety and economic vitality in 2020 and in 2021, and council then committed to 2022 and 2023 as a way to foster economic recovery for our community,” said DiManno.
“As we look to the future, in addition to that economic resiliency, I believe the conversation around the pedestrian zone should evolve the focus on environmental and sustainable tourism leadership as well as creating people-centric public spaces.”
DiManno said she hears residents’ concerns on issues such as emergency management, traffic congestion, negative impacts on residential side streets and the costs associated with the pedestrian zone.
“I believe we can continue to work through those concerns and I think we can also continue to apply solutions that help to make it a more enjoyable experience for everyone,” she said, in part in reference to mass transit from Calgary, additional Roam service and intercept parking.
“If we continue to reduce the amount of personal vehicles travelling across the bridge, it’s a win for everybody, but reopening Banff Avenue to cars will not help achieve less traffic congestion, because cars are what cause traffic,” she added.
“I can tell you the way of the future in Banff, the townsite, and Banff, the national park, will not be that 4.2 million people travel by personal vehicle wherever they want whenever they want, so let’s continue to keep shifting our mindset.”
Town of Banff administrators say there were many successes this year with tactics to help alleviate congestion, even though the daily volume counts were back up to pre-COVID-19 pandemic 2019 numbers.
The data will be presented during an upcoming transportation briefing to council.
“This year, we’ve seen massive success in those endeavours of moving people onto transit, we’ve seen very similar volumes at the entrances but greatly reduced vehicle volume on Mountain Avenue, greatly increased transit ridership and greatly reduced travel time delay despite Banff Avenue being closed,” said Adrian Field, the Town’s director of engineering.
“We’ve demonstrated this year that the tactics that council has been working towards over the last 10 years or more are now working… if we were to accommodate more visitors it is certainly not through moving more vehicles, that cannot be done.”