Robson or how to not design a square

April 15, 2016


The cyty released a staff report on April 13th, 2016. Thought one could expect such city staff reports should present an as objective picture as possible of the poos and cons of the different solutions, to guide the council into its decisions, they rather tend to be drafted to support foregone conclusions dictated by the council.

As an example, thought my frequent readers will recognize me as supporting a skytrain solution on Broadway, I will have no difficulty to recognize that the 2012 city staff presentation against a broadway LRT [3] was embarassingly biaised to the point of ludicrousness [4]. After a “privatized” consultation process organized by the VPSN [9], on behalf of the city in October 2012, leaving no doubt on the intention of the later. the latest report concerning Robson square [5] doesn’t escape to this plague [7]. We just summarize its short comings below:

On the transit rerouting aspect

The report fails to recognize the whole implication of the proposed bus 5 Transit re-routing. More particularly it fails to states that

  • it will affect connections to the rest of the transit network ( it  mentions only that it reduces access to major destinations on Granville) [8]
  • It will involves an additional $300,000 operating cost per year [6]

On the shared space concept (bus/bike only going through the square)

The report quickly dismisses this solution on  “the expectation is that events within this block would be more frequent and/or prolonged in nature”.

One will note that the redesign of the North Plaza – today hindered by the centennial fountain- will enable this square to host many events, and this square has been designed flexible enough in this intention…in such a way that the need to close Robson square for specific events could become a rare oddity.

While it is not acceptable to have  months bus rerouting for event which could be located elsewhere such as the Viva Robson redux, it is understandable to see ponctual closures (what is already happening): The city report falls short to identify an example of event which could require the closure of Robson square for longer than a week-end.

Clearly exceptionnal transit rerouting  are not enough of an argument to provide inferior transit on day to day basis. As in most place, it is not either in Nice, France :


Google street capture, Nice France

On the square genesis

We have written a post serie on its history in 2012: The architect, Arthur erickson  clerly stated that:

“The only traffic through the square will be inner city buses, linking the Westend and False Creek. Since buses function as people movers, they are seen as a compliment or enhancement to the pedestrian activity of the civic square,…

That is in obvious contradiction with the report account of the square history, however the above quote (as well as the rest of the history and its context) can be easily verified in the original records held at the Vancouver archives.

Similarly the 2009 VPSN competition identified the North Plaza as the Vancouver focal point, not Robson square: the city reports seems to be purposely confusing on the issue.


Vancouver Red Carpet – Hapa Collaborative – winning entry of the 2009 VSPN Where’s the Square Competition

On the Accessibility issues


Place de la Comédie- Bordeaux : the tram is mingling with pedestrian and bike, in a very natural way, everyone enjoy equal access, and the sqaure is welcoming to people with mobility challenge thanks to its transit

The report briefly refers to the Westend seniors, but doesn’t recognize  any accessibility issues involved with the bus rerouting.

The court house, the VAG, as well as Robson square will be de facto less accessible. Transit could be one block away, but can  already be a lot, even too much, for people with mobility challenge…that de facto tends to make the square less inclusive of people of all abilities.

Ironically, the city report mentions 3 example of inspiring central square:  Trafalgar square in London, Pionner Square in Portland, Yonge and Dundas square in Toronto): all  abundantly serviced by Transit…right on the squares.


Pioneer sqaure in Portland as well as Yonge and Dundas sqaure in Toronto are abundantly serviced by Transit

Why not have taking an example of a sucessful “central square” not serviced by transit? does that even exists in a city comparable in size with Vancouver)?  It be interesting to know?

Beyond Robson square,  the Robson retail strip will be much less accessible by Transit,  both due to a less legible route and poorer connection with rest of the network. As well it will create a gap on this major East/West corridor. all this will potentially affect the retail strip attractivity.  A reason why succesful pedestrian mall flourish is because they are well irrigated by Transit as is the case on 16th street in Denver:


Denver 16th Mall, is seamlessly irrigated by Transit: this allow an extensive pedestrainization scheme, without compromising accessibility

On the competition of both squares (800 Robson and North Plaza)

The report tries to paint it as complementary: this is rather unconving since it ignores the redesign of the North Plaza which will affect its functionning pattern.

Furthermore, the report fails to recognize the changing pattern of focal square in Vancouver. Thought Robson square is an important one, Viva has consummed lot of energy (and $tax payer) with mitigated result on it. With the introduction of the Canada line, it is very possible that the “natural” meeting point has slipped more North: Nowadays Georgia#Granville is a popular focal point, also a location for demonstrations, but it is very possible that a more welcoming North plaza take precedence on both this point and Robson. At the end , if there is lot of pedestrian in down town, there is not necessarily enough of them to activate both place at the time (even if those square are made more “sticky”). Time will tell, but prudence could have suggested to wait the completion of the North Plaza redesign and to be able to evaluate its impacts.


The report is lacking  of metrics, be number of impacted bus riders   (3 million a years), pedestrians count or even car count. the surface of the envisionned square is not even mentioned, but the road surface in question amount to 560sqm (80x7m).

Notice that in a shared space, this surface could have surrendered by pedestrians which could have been slightly disturbed only from time to time. Smart design (like one) way could have reduced the bus footprint to a 3m wide path. However the surface is not the most important, it is its location.


The report doesn’t mention it directly, but HUB, as well as the Committe on Active transportation (involving in fact the same people) have made it clear they expect the square to be still a bike thoroughfare. Whatever the final design, due to the geographic location of the square, it will be on the desire line of cyclists.

So at the end the square will certainly be divided in 2 by a bike path, be a formal one or not. The former will be probably preferred, certainly by ideological biais of the city council, but also because cyclists could become a hazard for blind and other people with limited vision.


The tangible benefits of a square not including transit versus one including the bus are not obvious and the report is failing to mention any. What is more obvious is that the bus rerouting compromise the inclusivenes of the square, its accessbility as well as accessibility of other downtown destination by Transit.

It is  a place making clearly done at the expense of transit, and not so much at the expense of car. on a block level it could looks nice, but globally it is counter productive, since it doesn’t help to reduce the overall reliance on the car in the city. However, it is not integrated in a comprehensive pedestrian strategy able to reduce the car presence in downtown

More importantly, it is a place making excluding citizen based on their ability to walk or cycling.

At some point in the future, the decision on Robson square will be reversed, because it is simply the sense of history: place making is good, but place making done at the expense of accessibility is just bad and should not happen in our century.

…It is just sad that  Vancouver has not matured to this point yet.


What is wrong with this idea of Robson square? answer has still not been provided – credit photo City Of Vancouver

[1] part 1, Erickson 1966 proposal and

part 2, the final Erickson proposal

[2] 51-61-71 Project, block 71 Schematics, Arthur Erickson Architects, 1974

[3] Broadway rapid transit, City of Vancouver Engineering department, November 27, 2012

[4] In fact, the most ludicrous slices have been removed of the official city report, but they are still available on a copy posted by the Vancouver mayor office

[6] Downtown bus review serivice, Phase 2- Technical summary for phase 2 consultation. Translink & City of Vancouver, April 2014

[7] Some blogs following closely the city affairs tend from time to time to end on the same conclusions, on other matter, that is notoriously the case of CityHallWatch

[8] In fact this point has been underlined first by a contributor on Pricetags Thanks to him.

[9] the VPSN raison d’etre has always been the uncompromised pedestrianization of Robson square, this group being hostile to the shared space concept.

3 Responses to “Robson or how to not design a square”

  1. Rico Says:

    Thanks Voony, great points.

  2. Voony Says:

    thanks, sometimes I am feeling like preaching in the desert 😉

  3. Voony Says:

    A short report on the today vote at Vancouver city hall.

    Affleck and DeGenova : nay
    Ball: absent
    All other: Yay

    Representatives of the Senior Westend communities mentioned that the city didn’t consult with them in the last 18 months, and made the points done in this post on accessibility issues.

    The position of those groups (especially the Senior advisory community) has later been misrepresented by a Vision city councillor: the support in principle for a square, being painted as a support for the specific arrangement on the table (hence including the bus re-routing, they were explictly opposed to).

    Councillor George Affleck echoed many of the points raised in this post regarding the report qualified as biaised: noticeabily the lack of numbers, and the impact of the North Plaza redesign.
    He also raised a good point on the cost of the redesign, which is open to air (he could have also extended this point on the on going programming cost, since the city seems to agree that the square will be not self-sustainable, on its own merits)

    Lon Laclaire, answered number was existing and available on the city website: he mentioned 2800 pedestrian peak hour as measured in march 2014…

    We didn’t found any document supporting this assertion on the city website:In fact those numbers seem to be pulled out from a June 2013 survey:

    Interestingly, the document exhibits a reduction of ~30% of the pedestrian traffic on Robson square since 2008 (to be roughly back at 1996 level), what tends to confirm an observation done in this post (the Canada line introduction has shifted a significant share of foot traffic on Georgia).

    Jerry Dobrovolny could have also mis-represented the Translink position on the route choice: Translink preference for a consistent route , being painted as not compatible wiith occasional Robson street closure (what about the firework events?). However, the city staff made it clear enough that the alternative route, product of an extensive Translink consultation, was pretty the only alternative.

    Councillor Adriane Carr, preferred to not believe that: so she voted for the Reimer motion to close the street, expecting a new public consultation could happen after the council decision (sic).

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