Idea to turn 102 Avenue over to pedestrians has long pedigree

· The Pulse

Making 102 Avenue a pedestrian corridor, which city council narrowly voted to do last week amid significant opposition, is not a new idea — city planners saw the potential at least as far back as 1988.

Both 102 and 103 Avenues should be "upgraded to major pedestrian routes from the proposed neighbourhoods in the CP Lands and the Warehouse District to the Downtown Core and the Civic Centre," says the Edmonton Downtown Design Improvement Manual, released during Laurence Decore's time as mayor.

"Thirty-four years ago, planners were thinking about turning this into a pedestrian corridor," Speaking Municipally co-host Mack Male said on Episode 183 of the podcast. "We finally did it."

That 1988 vision continued on through subsequent downtown plans, such as the 1997 Capital City Downtown Plan, which sees the avenue as a "major residential and commercial pedestrian route," and the 2010 Capital City Downtown Plan, which refers to it as "a major pedestrian-oriented shopping street" connecting Oliver to the city's cultural core.

The difference is that none of those previous plans seems to have imagined making part of the avenue utterly car-free, as does the motion passed June 13. It instructs administration to draft a bylaw to close the traffic lane from 99 Street to 103 Street for a one-year pilot project once TransEd finishes that stretch of the Valley Line LRT.

In a city whose planning has been so car-oriented, it is perhaps not surprising that previous plans took it for granted that motor vehicle traffic would still be part of the mix, nor that current opponents of the closure would find the change radical.

"Most people can't imagine what it could be without cars," said podcast co-host Troy Pavlek, who was part of the effort to get councillors to reserve the avenue for pedestrians and cyclists. "They imagine that a street without cars is like the street in front of your house when no one's driving by. But when you fully remove traffic, you open up so many more possibilities. And in Edmonton, if people haven't gone outside of North America, it's very possible they have never experienced a city or an urban area like that. They simply cannot imagine how great this place could be."

The view of 102 Avenue looking east from 102 Street, which currently has an under-construction LRT track, one lane of road, a bike lane, and sidewalks on each side

When the Valley Line LRT opens downtown, city council has given the go-ahead to reserve 102 Avenue between 99 Street and 103 Street for active transportation, closing the current eastbound traffic lane to cars for a one-year pilot project. The bylaw to make it so still has to pass. (Mack Male/Flickr)

Paths for People, which led the charge to close part of 102 Avenue to cars, said the objections raised by opponents need to be addressed to ensure the success of the project.

"Concerns from area landowners were raised about departing from the norm, from community organizations worried about programming requirements, and from Downtown residents concerned about how adequately the space would be used in the future," the group wrote after council's vote. "Ultimately, we're all taking a risk on seeing this space a little differently for at least a year. In approaching this risk, we want to work with others to ensure that we make this a space that can be successful for everyone."

Pavlek was hopeful that induced demand — which we usually think of in terms of cars filling all the available lanes on an ever-widening road — applies to infrastructure for people who are on foot or on bicycles as well.

"When you make more space, more people will come to fill it," he said. "When you have fewer islands of activity in the downtown, and instead have created corridors where activity can flow from location to location, that's where you get tourists that leave their car at the hotel and just wander through your space. That's where you get people who say, 'It's Saturday night, I'm just going to go downtown.' ... That's the gold standard for city-building, and that's what hopefully we can achieve with something like this."

The June 17 episode has much more about how this decision was reached, as well as updates on funding for Chinatown infrastructure projects, the police budget, privately owned trees, and a bid to get more Edmontonians to use transit.