Over the last few weeks, there have been conversations about the possibility of having part of Columbia Street be car-free.
This is a conversation worthy of public engagement. I have tried several times to engage the public in conversation about traffic flow through New Westminster, and the response has always been that our mayor is chair of the Mayors’ Council on Transportation. Although I have confidence in the committee’s abilities, I am going to assume that its members do not drive through New Westminster during rush hour.
I drive, walk and cycle through this city and I see streets that have become parking lots - 10th Avenue, 8th Avenue, 6th Avenue, Royal Avenue and Columbia Street, for example.
These streets are flowing through thoroughfares (I believe traffic reporters call them feeder routes) to Burnaby, Surrey, Coquitlam and parts beyond. This makes traffic flow a regional problem, not just an issue for New Westminster.
The other issue is that our streets have become very busy. There are several moving “vehicles” on our streets: cars, buses, bicycles, electric bicycles, push scooters, skateboarders, rollerbladers and mobility scooters, to mention a few. New Westminster is fortunate to have multiple SkyTrain stations and several buses that criss-cross this city throughout the day and night. In spite of the frequency of public transportation, our streets are still very busy because cars are passing through to somewhere else.
Given this reality, the idea of having a car-free street or section of a street is a very complex issue and not to be taken lightly. I should declare myself to say I strongly support car-free streets/pedestrian malls. The following cities have been very successful: Ottawa, Halifax, Vancouver and several across the United States and Europe, so I would welcome a pedestrian mall in New Westminster.
However, let’s take a few streets separately and see what might be possible.
Columbia Street– this a feeder street off Stewardson Way onto Brunette to the highway. The only possible section that is remotely possible is the Brewery District. However, there is a hospital, doctors’ offices off Nelson and of course TransLink’s corporate offices.
6th & 6th – uptown was mentioned. How would this work? A bus has the potential to move more than 80 people at one time, which is a great reduction in greenhouse gas emissions because it removes at least 80 cars off the street. However, 6th and 6th gets the #106, 155, 101 driving through this intersection throughout the day. Of course, the street could be buses only, car-free might run from 5th Ave – 6th Ave or 7th St to 6th Street. This could a problem for shopping at the grocery store or the mall. Many seniors depend on this mall.
At this time, the only street that might be possible is Belmont. There is already the parklet and the farmers market is held there once per month. However, there is an entrance to an underground parking lot off this street. So, car-free but local traffic only.
The other possibility is Front Street. Fridays on Front Street is already there, benches are there, it looks out over the water (until the towers are completed) and it is a short walk up to Columbia Street and the market.
In reality, I think our streets are too narrow and there are many living spaces with underground parking everywhere. However, we might start by creating rush hour HOV lanes on 6th St, 8th St and 12th Street. This would facilitate the buses moving unimpeded during rush hours.
Making Columbia Street “car free” is a decision requiring careful consideration. If we create a car-free/pedestrian mall, it will push cars onto one of the other already congested streets. This defeats the purpose of reducing greenhouse gas emissions because the longer a vehicle sits in traffic, the more emissions enter our environment.
Change is an adventure, but let’s think carefully before we act.
Angela Sealy, New Westminster
Editor’s note: Angela Sealy ran for council in the last New Westminster civic election.