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A person carrying an umbrella is silhouetted while walking on the seawall at Stanley Park in Vancouver, on Dec. 9, 2020.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

A proposal to change how people move through Vancouver’s Stanley Park that includes replacing a lane of traffic with a permanent bike lane has sown deep divisions between the park board and opponents who want the patch of urban rain forest left alone.

A recent park board meeting on the issue ended with members of the public shouting and pounding on the chamber door while park rangers escorted commissioners and staff out. The mobility plan is the latest potential change to the 134-year-old park – which is home to beaches, trails and the Vancouver Aquarium – to spark petitions, political recriminations and protests.

Last Monday, the Vancouver Park Board, which is an elected body separate from city council, received an update of the Stanley Park Mobility Study, which aims to improve park access and develop options to reduce private vehicle traffic.

Early in the pandemic, the park was closed to vehicles to give pedestrians and cyclists more space for physical distancing. Later, the board voted to reopen the park to cars with a temporary bike lane on one of the two roadway lanes on Stanley Park Drive, which trace the perimeter of the park.

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However, opponents say having the bike lane discriminates against seniors, people with disabilities and families who use cars to access the park. An online petition urging the board to keep the park easily accessible for all has generated nearly 35,000 signatures. The lane closings and temporary bike lane prompted at least two small protests.

Last week’s meeting was for the board commissioners to discuss initial findings of a report done to help them decide on several principles to guide the next stage of the mobility study. More than 40 members of the public registered to speak, online or in person, but tensions started to escalate when a speaker called the board’s staff “ideological.”

Park Board Commissioner Camil Dumont, who was acting as chair, interrupted, saying such accusations were “outside of boundaries.” After a brief recess, he said some staff and commissioners felt “threatened and do not feel safe with the energy in the room right now.”

The public member interrupted those remarks, and Mr. Dumont eventually ended the meeting.

The board’s general manager, Donnie Rosa, said members of the public yelled at the commissioners and staff, including swearing, and pounded on the doors. She said in a statement that commissioners and staff had to be escorted out by park rangers, who stayed until everyone was out of the building safely.

When the meeting resumed the next day, security staff and park rangers were on-site.

The meeting ended peacefully, with commissioners voting 5-2 to move ahead with the plan to look at the future of bike lanes and vehicle traffic in the park. The board voted to approve seven guiding principles, including safety, accessibility, economic vitality and climate action and environmental protection.

Commissioner Stuart Mackinnon, who voted to go ahead with the plan, said he’s received insulting and threatening e-mails from members of the public because of his stand on this issue.

“Your bullying behaviour will not move me,” he said at the Tuesday meeting. “Your words are a sad reflection on the civil discourse today. But I will not be bound by them.”

Two commissioners who voted against the recommendations said they are concerned the temporary changes could become permanent.

“We have to put the park back to the way it was, and then monitor everything, and then decide how we’re going to move forward,” commissioner Tricia Barker said.

She said instead of spending time on the study, the board should make sure “people with disabilities have access to the park right now.”

Ms. Barker said she didn’t feel unsafe at any moment on Monday night.

Stanley Park has been the focus of heated political debate before.

Protesters scaled trees in 2000 to push back against a plan to cut down dozens of trees to widen the busy three-lane causeway that slices through the park.

After a wind storm damaged the park’s famous hollow tree in 2006, a plan to fell the tree and let it rot prompted a public outcry and forced the park board to come up with a plan to save it.

The latest findings of the mobility report show that more people are coming to Stanley Park than ever before; many of those are walking, rolling or cycling to and through the park, while private vehicle traffic has declined over the past 40 years.

The report also found the transportation network in the park does not support the increasing number of visitors, or the changing ways people get there and move through. The report used a wide variety of data sources, including a 2022 survey that received more than 4,000 responses.

The report shows people with disabilities affecting their mobility use motorized modes to visit the park more than those without mobility issues. And that those who travel to the park in high occupancy vehicles spend more money at businesses than those visiting by other modes.

Peter Whitelaw, a planner with the Renewable Cities organization, said it’s not a cars-versus-bikes issue.

“I think that the question actually should be: How do we get all these people there?”

The final report is to be presented early next year to the next park board, which will be elected on Oct. 15.

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