As COVID-19 restrictions begin to recede into memory in much of the world, two of Alberta’s most popular tourist towns, Banff and Canmore, have decided that one type of pandemic measure is worth keeping, at least for now: summertime road closings that have turned their main thoroughfares into bustling outdoor pedestrian malls.
Initially introduced by the crowded Rocky Mountain towns as temporary measures to encourage distancing between people, the pedestrian-and-cyclist-only streets have become warm-weather amenities beloved by both residents and visitors. Banff’s pedestrian zone, first introduced in 2020, now covers the 100 and 200 blocks of Banff Avenue and a portion of Caribou Street, from the May long weekend until Thanksgiving. The town’s council has decided to extend the closings through next summer.
Banff Mayor Corrie DiManno said the pedestrian zone has become like “one giant outdoor patio in the mountains.” On a recent weekend, she saw people on foot, on skateboards, on bikes and in wheelchairs, all enjoying what she called the roadway’s “European feel.”
“We’ve created spaces for people and it’s amazing,” she said.
The town, she added, decided to extend the closings because visitors and business owners loved the reimagined street, and because the project fits with Banff’s goal of becoming an environmental leader. “Had the pandemic not happened, I think it would have been a real uphill battle to try to even pilot something like this on Banff Avenue, because we are so car-centric.”
She noted that creating the Bear Street Shared Street, a permanent pedestrian-priority street in the town, which predates the pandemic, involved five summers of trials.
Banff Avenue is the town’s main artery. It connects downtown with south-side neighbourhoods and attractions. Buses are allowed to drive slowly on the street to maintain those connections.
The town’s government warns residents and visitors to expect traffic congestion as a result of the road closings, especially on busy summer days. To reduce the number of vehicles downtown, it promotes free parking an eight-minute walk away.
Some residents and business owners have expressed concerns about the closings, and a few have written to council to say that the pedestrian zone inconveniences locals and, in one case, caused distress for hotel guests because a loading area was no longer accessible by vehicle.
Vehicle access is also restricted on a 17-kilometre portion of the nearby Bow Valley Parkway, a scenic highway in Banff National Park that the federal government is now promoting as a “cycling experience” during May, June and September. The project, part of a three-year pilot, also originated with the pandemic. Parks Canada needed to limit visitors to Johnston Canyon, a popular attraction.
Daniella Rubeling, a visitor experience manager for the Banff field unit of Parks Canada, said the highway has long been a popular place for cyclists comfortable riding with motor vehicles. But the pandemic closing created an opportunity for people who are less comfortable in mixed traffic to enjoy the route. “It kind of became this cycling mecca of sorts,” she said.
When Parks Canada surveyed the public about the new vehicle restrictions last summer, most of the feedback was positive. But some was not.
“We heard that vehicle restrictions are discriminatory against people with mobility challenges, the elderly and people with special interests such as photographers, rock climbers, guides, and birders,” a report from the agency said. That type of feedback is what led Parks Canada to keep the road open to vehicles in July and August, Ms. Rubeling said.
Today, improved signage leads visitors from the town of Banff along connector trails to the parkway, where people ride bikes and e-bikes, walk, run and rollerblade in an area that is home to wolves, bears, deer, elk and moose. “It encourages people to see the park in a different way,” Ms. Rubeling said.
In Canmore, about 20 kilometres to Banff’s south, the town council made two blocks of Main Street a pedestrian and cyclist space in June, 2020, initially just for that summer. As in Banff, the vehicle-free street has become a lively spot. The pedestrian zone returned last summer and is back this year, from May 16 to Oct. 14, after the town received positive feedback from businesses and residents.
“We see a lot of people coming down, sitting, having their coffee, looking in the shops and just enjoying the extra space and the positive atmosphere that comes when you have a number of people in the downtown area,” said Sean Krausert, Canmore’s mayor. Restaurants, art galleries and clothing stores expand onto the street, he said, while a large deer sculpture in the middle of the road is a popular photo spot.
When the town begins work on a redevelopment plan for its downtown area later this year, it will consider permanently pedestrianizing a portion of Main Street, he said.
Some Alberta municipalities that introduced pedestrian-friendly road closings early in the pandemic have already scaled them back. In Calgary, lanes and entire streets were closed to traffic in 2020 at 10 locations, under the city’s adaptive roadways program. Now, just four partial road closings remain.
Leaders in Canmore and Banff say the vehicle-free areas fit with a broader push to reconsider how people travel through the mountains. Mr. Krausert said Canmore wants to make walking, biking and public transportation safe and convenient.
Banff encompasses four square kilometres, Ms. DiManno said, and more than four million visitors arrive there annually. Last year, between May and October, more than 2.6 million vehicles entered the town.
“It makes sense to promote walking, cycling and this connectivity with transit, and to also provide that infrastructure to make these the more welcoming and obvious choices,” she said.
“We are small in size, and our limited roads mean that travel in and around Banff by personal vehicle is not sustainable.”
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