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A worker walks past idle trolley buses after parking one of them at the Vancouver Transit Centre bus operations and maintenance facility, in Vancouver, on April 13, 2020.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Businesses on Vancouver’s shopping streets and the region’s transit agency are tussling over road space, as both make a claim for it during their struggle to recover from the effects of the pandemic.

B.C. business groups in a number of areas in Vancouver, Burnaby and North Vancouver are dismayed that, at a time when they feel they have already been knocked to their knees by closings and public hesitation about going out because of COVID-19, there are plans afoot to remove parking spaces in several small commercial districts that function as local high streets.

That’s part of a new TransLink initiative to make bus service more attractive, postpandemic, by making it faster on 20 of its most congested routes. But many businesses are saying that will do little more than speed long-distance commuters through their shopping streets – the last thing they need right now.

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“Our businesses have just gone through three months of little or no sales. We need to do whatever it takes to help them out,” said Patricia Barnes, executive director of the Hastings North Business Improvement Association.

They are concerned because Hastings is one of 20 streets identified as congested, and there have been discussions for more than a year about removing parking all day – not just during the rush-hour periods that exist now.

On South Granville, what people have heard so far about proposed changes has been devastating, said business improvement association executive director Ivy Haisell.

Out of 265 parking spots on Granville in the commercial stretch from 5th to 16th Avenue, city staff have proposed removing 90.

“This is the wrong time for focusing on transit efficiencies. Right now, the businesses that provide our local flavour need support to survive the pandemic,” said Ms. Haisell, whose group had hoped the city might instead remove rush-hour parking restrictions postpandemic to help out businesses.

The argument from TransLink is that the postpandemic period, when there is less traffic and less need for parking, is the best time to try some changes. The agency is also trying to encourage people to get back on transit after seeing big drops in ridership the past four months.

Sarah Ross, the director of system planning, said making transit faster is an equity issue, too, because it helps lower-income people get to their jobs or errands more quickly.

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She said the agency wants to support vibrant urban commercial areas, but, “I’m not convinced that one or two parking spots right outside makes or breaks the business.”

In spite of that, she said, any changes could skip over commercial areas and changes to speed up buses could happen on other parts of the route.

There’s a lot of confusion among business groups, because TransLink has said it has not asked for any specific changes because that’s up to the municipalities, and the groups are getting different communications from city staff about parking spots that are being proposed for removal.

The mayor of at least one municipality, North Vancouver, has said her city won’t be participating in TransLink’s initiative for now because staff are trying to protect its businesses.

Some neighbourhoods and cities are welcoming the initiative. In Delta, Councillor Dylan Kruger said it’s a great idea to speed up transit along Scott Road. There is no parking along there anyway and there are congestion problems.

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In Vancouver, head of engineering Lon LaClaire said the city is making extra efforts to support businesses by approving temporary patios at a rapid clip, allowing street patios on several side streets, and letting non-restaurant businesses expand onto the sidewalks or parking spaces in some areas.

But, he said, council’s direction is to allocate space to uses other than cars to help out, not to keep or add parking spaces.

The battle over how to use precious road space, especially in city centres, is happening in many municipalities around the world, as some shut down main plazas and streets to cars.

But it has also generated some pushback, as people with mobility challenges say the new initiatives to move businesses out onto sidewalks and into the street makes life worse for them.

And, as in Vancouver, the competing demands in many cities for transit, cycling space, room for pedestrians, sidewalk and side-street patios and parking are intense.

For some small businesses on the city’s major streets, already feeling vulnerable, removing parking feels like one more blow. They already make do with far less parking than large malls, knowing many of their shoppers will arrive by bike, bus or walking.

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A mall such as Metrotown, with 450 shops, has more than 6,000 spots that are all free. On Granville, with 367 offices and shops – about the size of the Oakridge mall – there are about 1,000 paid spots.

“TransLink is saying this is a no-cost option for them. But it’s a huge-cost option to the community,” said Ms. Barnes at the Hastings North BIA.

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