News / Vancouver

Vancouver’s Car Free Day festivals growing stronger

What started 11 years ago as a festival to reclaim streets from cars has morphed into a boon for communities and businesses – and it’s spreading to municipalities across B.C.

Vancouver’s hugely popular Car Free Day, which began in 2005 as a response to climate change in general and pricey renovations to the Port Mann Bridge in particular, has transformed into four block parties that attract approximately 250,000 annually and inspired copycat events in North Vancouver, Victoria, the Comox Valley and three local high schools this year.

“It may be kind of random to throw a street festival and tie it to those things, but this has resonated with the citizens,” said Matthew Carrico, chair of the non-profit Car Free Vancouver Society. “The sense of community on display on the streets of all the Car Free Days is really apparent.”

Shutting roads to cars temporarily originally made business associations uneasy, Carrico said, but anecdotal evidence shows the influx of passersby has been exceptionally good for business.

“A lot of restaurants report that it’s their biggest day of the year,” he said of the Main Street festival.

While the citizen-focused festival places a premium on community and public space, Carrico describes it as a “happy byproduct” that it works out for businesses.

The shift in attitude is also apparent with the Viva Vancouver celebrations that close downtown sections of Granville Street on weekends throughout the summer.

“To begin with, the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association was wary of shutting street down, but after the first year they really got onboard with the idea and now are real partners in those events,” Carrico said.

The adoption, however tepid at first, aligns with the society’s goals of promoting a “safer, healthy, more prosperous, connected and pleasant city for everyone.” (North Vancouver’s council apparently want to add “fun” to that list - it approved a 1,000-foot slip and slide for its Car Free Day on Aug. 22.)

Yet the volunteer-run society has had its share of growing pains. Organizers got flack for limited recycling options that clashed with their environmental ideals, but a partnership with VanCity is helping them better manage waste.

Carrico chuckled when asked if it would be possible for the entire city to go car free for a day, but said it would be amazing if not realistic.

Still, the proportion of car use has dropped over the decade of Car Free Days, although it’s impossible to prove the festival’s role. As of 2014, motor vehicle trips make up 50 per cent of trips down from 60 per cent in 2008, according to city data.

Car ownership is decreasing amongst Millennials, although they’re flocking to car sharing memberships with car2go, Evo, Modo and ZipCar.

Car Free Day will take place in the West End on Denman Street on Saturday, June 20 and on Commercial Drive and Main Street on Sunday, June 21. Kitsilano will host a variety of neighbourhood block parties on both June 20 and 21.

Visit carfreevancouver.org for more information.

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