BANFF – The downtown pedestrian zone has been given the green light to go ahead for the next two years.
The controversial project was given the tentative nod of approval by Banff’s governance and finance committee on Wednesday (Dec. 8) on a 6-1 vote following several hours of discussion, but still requires final council approval as part of budget deliberations in January.
The plan is to close downtown Banff Avenue and a portion of Caribou Street to vehicles from the May long weekend to the end of Thanksgiving in October 2022 and 2023. There is no commitment beyond that at this point.
Councillor Chip Olver said two years is a compromise to the two options that were on the discussion table during Wednesday’s service review meeting – a one-year or a three-year commitment.
“This gives us a chance to reach out to the community via our community plan and be sure this vision aligns with their vision,” she said, noting the community plan review gets underway in 2022.
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.
Administration is recommending a similar scope for future pedestrian zones.
However, the 300 block of Banff Avenue would be removed as part of the pedestrian zone to allow for better traffic flow from Banff Avenue onto Wolf Street, while the pedestrian zone on Caribou Street would be limited to a stretch between Banff Avenue and the Bear Street lane.
In addition, the allocation of public space for restaurants and retailers in the public realm would follow 2021’s approach, which prioritized first storey at-grade café tenants, but also offered opportunities for second storey and basement café tenants.
In 2021, 43 restaurants and 19 retail stores participated in the pedestrian zone.
“This is shifting for a pandemic response to a visitor attraction,” said Darren Enns, the director of planning and development for the Town of Banff.
The tourism industry has voiced strong support for continuing the pedestrian zone for the next three years, however, many residents expressed concern about traffic being diverted through residential neighbourhoods on Beaver and Muskrat streets.
There are also ongoing concerns about congestion, especially from the residents on the south side of the Bow River who say it can take 30 minutes to get across the bridge to the downtown on the busiest of days.
Town administrative officials say they are assuming vehicles volumes in 2022 will be the same as 2016 and back to pre-pandemic 2019 vehicle volumes by 2024.
“Of course, increasing vehicle volumes, all other things being equal, will cause congestion to increase with time,” said Adrian Field, the Town of Banff’s director of engineering.
“But we’re not going from zero congestion to more congestion; there is congestion with or without the Banff Avenue pedestrian zone.”
Not factored into congestion modelling provided by administration is the governance and finance committee’s tentative approval of increased bus frequency on routes 1 and 2 and free transit for Banff residents on local routes.
Field said that could lead to significant increases in transit ridership.
He said local Roam ridership dropped from 150,000 riders in August 2019 to 81,000 riders in August 2021.
“If those volumes were to rebound back, and if we saw 30 per cent increase in transit frequency, it could be around 200,000 riders in August, so an increase of 120,000 riders,” he said.
“It could make quite a considerable difference if council’s investment in transit pays off and if folks do return to transit.”
To deal with congestion, flaggers will be put at key intersections such as the CIBC intersection and at Beaver/Buffalo streets and Beaver/Wolf streets intersections. Flaggers will also be used to divert vehicles in the intercept parking lot at the train station.
Councillors questioned other potential solutions to deal with congestion, such as a toll for visitors across the bridge or controlling the times of day RVs could be permitted to cross.
Enns said a solution was first identified as far back as the 1961 Oberlander report and that includes intercept parking, public transit and transit to and from Calgary.
“The reality is we need action and political will – that’s what will solve congestion,” he said. “You might sense some frustration in my voice. It pains me to know that we can’t have the tools that we all know work and were proved to work last year."
“We certainly will be patient and wait for the outcome of Parks Canada’s expert panel,” he said, referring to the task force that is looking at how to move people sustainably around Banff National Park.
Liricon Capital, the personal holding company of Jan and Adam Waterous, has also indicated they are willing to provide an additional 200 intercept parking stalls in the parking lot west of the train station.
When combined with the existing 500 stalls at the train station, as well as 160 stalls at the Fenlands recreation centre, almost 900 stalls would be available along the Mount Norquay road entrance to Banff.
“Mt. Norquay/Liricon have also expressed an interest in extending the current parking agreement at their 500-stall train station lot to cover 2022, 2023, and 2024,” said Enns.
Roam will also have a stronger presence in the downtown moving forward as its customer service will be operating out of the visitor centre along with Parks Canada and Banff & Lake Louise Tourism staff.
Councillor Ted Christensen voiced opposition to the pedestrian zone at this time, noting infrastructure such as enough intercept parking is not yet in place to deal with congestion.
“The certainty is we’re going to have more traffic coming in the following years,” he said.
Mayor Corrie DiManno called for a three-year commitment, noting the pedestrian zone is an opportunity to make real change and make further strides on making transit a priority.
“We roll out the red carpet for it down Banff Avenue and we take the cars off Banff Avenue and suddenly transit becomes the easy and convenient way to move around our town. Visitors will make that mode shift to go by transit to get over the bridge,” she said.
“Tentatively, we have free transit for residents, we have an e-bike rebate program, and we’re going to have a beautiful new bridge, so these are all nudges towards the big mode shift that I think the pedestrian zone can help us make.”
The plan for the pedestrian zone continuing comes with $220,000 in capital costs for 2022, which will be funded through the economic recovery reserve, and $90,000 for a more robust access control system using retractable bollards at the north and south ends of the pedestrian zone.