A Car Free Granville Island?

When you visit your local mall often there will be a vast sea of parking surrounding the main attraction.  Once you get past the parking lot and have made it inside you will see many corridors or “streets” that are lined with various stores, places to sit, and places to eat.  Yet the people inside the mall are all walking.  You would not expect to see cars driving in the mall, that would be absurd.  We all expect that you park your car outside and you walk around inside the mall.  The mall was an idea initially formed by Victor Gruen in an era of mass sub-urbanization and absence of suburban shopping destinations, malls were designed to provide shopping by recreating an indoor “main street.”

When you think about it Granville Island is essentially a outdoor mall, you have a small area with “streets” or corridors that are lined by many different stores.  You have places to eat, places to sit down, patios to have a pint and catch up with old friends.  Yet people do not treat it like a mall, people do not expect to park their car off the island and walk all around the island.  In fact due to the popularity of the island and the fact that parking is allowed on site, the congestion on Granville Island can be so bad sometimes it is very unappealing.  The absence of sidewalks can also make this mixture of traffic, pedestrians and cyclists very confusing and irritating. Why are the expectations of driving in Granville Island different than in a mall?  What can be done to change this?


Congestion at the Entrance of Granville Island


A congested Granville Island

Currently I am finishing up my  SFU Masters of Urban Studies Thesis, more details can be found here, however back in 2012 for the Transportation class I completed a research paper on what it would take to make Granville Island a car-free destination.  My research focused on a literature review and after searching the world for examples where this had already been done I settled on two case studies of car free city centers in Delft, Netherlands and Sihlcity, Zurich which can be boiled down to a few key recommendations.

First a little background on the two case studies.

Delft, Netherlands


Delft, Netherlands


Delft City Center – Green Designates Car-Free Streets

The city of Delft has gradually been making their city center more and more car free since 2000.  As per the map above approximately 68 acres of the city center are now car free. There is a north-south tram line on the west perimeter.

Sihlcity, Zurich, Switzerland

On the other hand the 10 acre Sihlcity is basically a mall with an outdoor courtyard space. Sihlcity has a mix of 75 restaurants, cinema, and retail, complete with a library, and church.


Sihlcity, Zurich


Map of Sihlcity, The green and orange lines show transit services.

delft parking wayfinding

Streetview of Delft outside city core shows blue wayfinding (on right) that points you in the direction of the nearest parkade, with info on walking distance, and real time parking availability.

Both cases have similar but slightly different conditions. Delft is a vibrant mix of residents, retail, restaurants and services.  One 2008 study found approximately 50% of Delft commuting modal share was vehicular. Delft has been able to successfully maintain its car free status with a combination of three 24 hour parkades (1900 total parking stalls) located around the perimeter, with direct, legible, attractive, well lit and safe pedestrian links from the car free city center to the parkades.  A combination of pricing street parking in the surrounding areas set higher than the rate for the parkades ($2 euro/hour), and creating a legible system of wayfinding to the nearest parkade, walking time and real time parking stall availability.  Residents of Delft that want to park a vehicle in the city have to buy an annual $132 euro permit for the first vehicle, $264 euro permit for a second vehicle pass which gives them access to a dedicated spot.  There is no such thing as free parking in Delft, and it is expensive.  People can still choose to drive but it is not treated as a right, but rather a privilege that comes with responsibilities and the fair cost for their infrastructure needs.

Ironically the success of car free zones is not dependent on banning cars outright.  Delft still allows vehicular access to the city center upon obtaining a special permit, however this access is strictly for loading and unloading of critical business supplies.  Parking at the doorstep of your business or residence is not permitted.  Delft has restricted driving in the city center to absolute minimum necessity of moving supplies.

delft tram

delft bike lanes

Examples of (top) high quality tram routes 1 & 19 adjacent to car free zone, and (bottom) separated cycling lanes around the car free zone.

At the same Delft has implemented measures to make parking expensive, and driving overall unattractive, on the other hand strong alternative modes have been made available.  High quality, legible, and separated cycling infrastructure provides a safe, direct and quick environment for people of all ages from 8-80 to safely get around for short trips less than 7 km.  Attractive and dignified pedestrian amenities connect to the city center.  In addition two tram routes operate in their own designated lanes free from traffic north-south adjacent to the west side of the car free zone.  Both of these routes operate at a minimum 15 minute frequency all days including the weekend.  This means that the furthest point in the car free zone is 800m or a 10 minute walk from a high quality, reliable transit service.  So Delft has used a combination of making driving unattractive and costly, while making cycling, walking and transit access convenient and attractive.

Sihlcity is a similar case with a more impressive 30% commuting rate by vehicle. Sihlcity is located in Zurich, Switzerland, renowned for its comprehensive and reliable pulse timed transit network. Sihlcity has its own bus station and a railway stop 250 m or a two minute walk away, resulting in immediate access to services with a minimum frequency of 10 minutes even on weekends. Access to the transit is strengthened with legible traffic free and direct connections, and electronic way finding signs within the car free zone displaying the real time bus or rail arrival times.  Parking requirements in Zurich are maximums and have been reduced 90%. Parking in the vicinity of Sihlcity is restricted to locals, forcing locals to either utilize parkades or other modes.  Employee parking is also highly discouraging with a $21 CAD cost for an 8 hour shift.


granville parking

Parking Land Use Overlay on Granville Island

So why are so many people driving toGranville island?  It could be that there is an abundance of parking, a significant portion of which is available free of charge.  A parking count reveals there are 873 surface parking stalls covering 5 acres or 13% of the islands total land area. 725 or 83% of these surface parking stalls are offered free of charge.  In addition there are also 326 paid indoor parking stalls and using VanMap reveals there are 296 street parking stalls within 800 meters of Granville Island.  Clearly the area is awash in parking.

However it is the free parking that can have disastrous effects, Donald Shoup has dedicated his life’s work to studying how to improve parking management.  He found that in New York congestion 30% of drivers were cruising for parking.  The expectation that people can find free parking will motivate some drivers to drive around forever looking for the “holy grail” of free parking.  If you price parking and at the right price you will eliminate unnecessary driving, motivating them to quickly park their vehicles or find other ways to get to their destinations.  Not only this but free parking is expensive to build and operate, these include the costs of maintenance, lighting, property taxes, insurance, administration, and enforcement.  According the the Victoria Transport Policy Institute the 1998 costs to operate a surface lot are $200 annually or $286 in 2013 when adjusted for inflation.  This amounts to at least $207,350 annual costs to operate the island’s free parking.  The cost would be considerably higher anytime you have to repave the lot which can cost at least $10,000 per stall, or if you consider the lost value in land being used to simply store vehicles (predicted at $6,500,000 using NAI Commercial 2012 numbers of $1,300,000/acre).  So who pays for all this free parking?  Well you do, the cost of free parking is eventually transferred from the Federal CMHC running Granville Island to the tenants through their lease rates who eventually pass this on to their customers by including it in the costs of their products or services.


So what does the solution for a car free Granville Island look like.  Based on the case studies the solution should be a combination of making it unattractive to drive while making it easier for other modes, primarily transit considering the volume of visitors (estimated 10 Million visitors annually).

Parking Demand Management

One of the key ways to address parking management is to adopt changes to existing Vancouver parking policies.  The Vancouver general parking requirements are based parking minimums, however these can be waived on a case by case basis if you can prove that they are not needed.  This should be changed to capping the amount of parking allowed with parking maximum regulations.

In order to transform Granville Island into a car-free zone a series of stages should be implemented by first charging for the 725 free surface parking spaces and gradually replacing them with paid parkades within 800 meters in the surrounding area, and growing the car free zone.  Since the areas surrounding Granville Island is already dispersed with paid street parking, no increase in street parking would be needed.  In order to help facilitate traffic looking for parking, electronic wayfinding should be installed providing information on the real time nearest parking garages availability, and the rates for street parking should be increased above the rates of the parkades to encourage people to avoid circling the block looking for parking and quickly get off the streets and into the parkades.  Rrestricted vehicle access for the businesses must be maintained, possibly by requiring a permit and restricting vehicle access to late night or early morning hours.

High Quality Mobility Alternatives

vancouver cycling plan

Vancouver’s Existing Cycling Infrastructure and Planned Improvements

High quality and strong pedestrian links and wayfinding should connect these parkades and transit stops to the island.  The cycling connections are already strong with the seawall and the recent improvements to the south Burrard bridge connections.  Vancouver has a relatively competitive car sharing market with services like Car2Go, Zipcar, and Carmodo.  Readily available vehicles of different sizes (trucks, vans, small cars) within 400m should be reserved specifically to meet the many needs of the island businesses.

frequent network map

Vancouver TransLink Frequent Network Map

The biggest benefit could be had by improving the public transit connections.  Granville Island is serviced by 15 minute frequency routes within 600 meters of any point on the island.  The 2010 winter Olympics demonstrated the effectiveness of improved transit to the area.  When the Olympic line connected Granville Island to the Canada Line Olympic village station, this line over the course of two weeks handled 500,000 trips. The infrastructure has been paid for and is waiting to be utilized.


 Map of Fase Creek Ferry Stops

Another option to improve transit access to the island is to partner with the two ferry companies (Falsecreek Ferries and Aquabus) to improve ferry capacity (particularly at the Yaletown, Stamps Landing, and Olympic Village due to their proximity to high capacity transit) and integrate the fares, so that a regular TransLink fare is transferable for use on the ferries with no extra charge or penalty as outlined by the Vancouver Transport 2040 plan.


2 thoughts on “A Car Free Granville Island?

  1. Donna

    No free parking on GVI is a disaster for artists. I agree that tourist cars do not belong on GVI, but you need to consider the lives of people who make GVI a place worth visiting. I use two GVI studios and make (sometimes large, always heavy) 3D art, which I do not want to haul from 800 metres away, and which I can’t bring on transit. I also do not have time to unload, move the car, come back to complete work, move the car, load, and leave. There should be a parking tower with a free or very low-cost parking pass section for artists/employees, and hourly parking for tourists. Then GVI could add more studio spaces (rental income) where the flat parking is currently taking up space. Viewing GVI as a place with retail and food is not the whole picture, it is also full of working studios and working artists. Case studies of other kinds of commercial spaces are not necessarily relevant comparisons to artist spaces.

    1. dnproulx Post author

      Hi there Donna, you are absolutely right, there is more to it than you said. I fully agree with you on the point that vehicular access should be maintained for employees and businesses including artists, which I addressed in my article. Removing all traffic except for the required minimum for business and artist deliveries and drop offs would not only make things easier for you and your island colleagues to get on and off the island, but the added attractiveness and foot traffic would benefit your sales as well. I also addressed having parking, or car sharing (and I am not talking smart cars, but rather a full mix of sedans, minivans, trucks, whatever is necessary) nearby. Absolutely more studio space could be added in what is being used as parking currently, unfortunately there was more to my case study which I excluded due to the already lengthy article, suggesting more residential, offices, and other mixed uses to ensure that there a healthy environment on the island. Thanks for your comments!


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