Car-free roads where residents and tourists are free to roam, shop, sip on outdoor patios and easily avoid traffic are steadily gaining popularity across Canada.

In many cases, this pedestrian-only trend took off during the COVID-19 pandemic as cities strived to offer more outdoor activities to their cooped-up citizens.

Experts note there are environmental benefits as well. Pedestrian streets help combat summer heat islands, promote walking and bicycle use, and reduce reliance on cars, thereby cutting planet-heating greenhouse gas emissions.

Now, Montreal, Calgary and Banff are among the cities and towns that continue to see popularity increase for pedestrian-only routes. Even outside urban centres, some spots have experimented with the idea. In Alberta, for example, part of a popular tourist drive through the mountains (Bow Valley Parkway-Highway 1A) is now closed to only bicycles and hikers for part of the year. The tourist town of Banff in Alberta also now bars a section of its main road to cars during summer.

In Montreal, pedestrian-only streets are a proven hit with residents and a tourist magnet.

The city began closing some commercial streets to traffic during the pandemic. The move was so popular, more destinations were added. This summer, 10 streets were closed to vehicle traffic.

While no specific numbers were available, Montreal reports attendance on pedestrian-only streets rose 82 per cent on weekdays and 61 per cent on weekends from 2021 to 2023.

The city is part of a global trend on how it approaches mobility and its relation to tourism, said Avi Friedman, an architecture professor at McGill University in Montreal. The city has introduced several systems to encourage people to move and walk, contributing to commercial success, he explained.

“Closed-off streets host various activities, festivals and music, supporting economic activities,” Friedman noted. The slow pace of walking on car-free streets enables people to notice and purchase more, benefiting commerce, he added.

Montreal began closing some commercial streets to traffic during the pandemic. The move was so popular, more areas were added. This summer, 10 streets were closed to vehicle traffic. #CarFreeStreetsMontreal.

On Avenue Mont-Royal alone, 5.3 million pedestrians were counted in June and July, said Madeleine Bonsma-Fisher, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto who studies active transportation.

Meanwhile, Wellington Street, another of Montreal’s car-free streets, was recognized as the world's coolest street for food, fun, culture and community by Time Out, a magazine that surveyed 20,000 people.

“The photos of Montreal’s car-free streets don’t do them justice,” Bonsma-Fisher said. The streets are pleasant places to spend time, with lots of seating, planters, and little parks, she added. Even lines on the road were repainted in a wavy path more suggestive of a park.

“What surprised me the most was how quiet it was,” said Bonsma-Fisher. The street was full of hundreds of people, with a backdrop of conversation, laughter, birds, and music coming from inside restaurants, she noted. “It really brought home for me that cities aren’t necessarily loud. Cars are loud.”

There are high foot-traffic streets in Toronto that would be ideal car-free spaces, Madeleine Bonsma-Fisher says. Photo submitted by Madeleine Bonsma-Fisher

Bonsma-Fisher noticed people on bikes and scooters were able to seamlessly co-exist with people walking on the street. “I never got that too-close feeling of being passed on a narrow mixed-use path. It was so wonderful to see little kids free to weave around on their bikes without any stress from other people in the space.”

While Montreal’s pedestrian street program isn’t free, it really doesn’t take much to make it happen, said Bonsma-Fisher. “Because you’re not building a lot of physical infrastructure, it can be implemented quickly and at a low cost.”

Montreal budgeted $12 million for street closures for three years (2022-24).

However, a survey commissioned in 2021 found not everyone benefited equally. Of 723 merchants who responded, 29 per cent experienced an increase in sales, while 26 per cent reported a decrease. The remainder stayed relatively even.

Restaurants and bars profited, clothing stores remained stable and other retail businesses offering food, furniture and household goods experienced a drop in business.

The city has worked carefully with commercial developers, business owners and merchant associations, said Sara-Eve Tremblay, public relations and communications manager for the city of Montreal. The result is a friendly, safe, less noisy environment, she believes.

Still, some major centres like Toronto and Vancouver have been slower to follow the trend.

There are high foot-traffic streets in Toronto that would be ideal car-free spaces, Bonsma-Fisher suggested.

City officials do point to a few efforts to create pedestrian areas focused on accessibility, safety and climate resilience while also maintaining access to businesses, services and residences. In early 2012, the City of Toronto permanently closed portions of Gould and Victoria streets and Willcocks Street between St. George and Huron to vehicles. This followed a year-long pilot project with Toronto Metropolitan University and the University of Toronto.

In Vancouver, major commercial streets are closed for festivals and car-free days, but only for a day at a time on weekends. The city has not yet introduced large-scale pedestrian street transformations.

In June 2023, the “Yew Open Street” pilot was launched to transform two blocks between First and Cornwall into a pedestrian-friendly street.

“The pilot was introduced quickly in response to a request from local businesses, and our goal was to support pedestrian movement and comfort within this commercial area,” said Kai-lani Rutland, senior communications specialist for Vancouver’s engineering services. “Approximately 400 visitors per hour were recorded on weekends.”

The pilot concluded in August and staff will be reviewing feedback to assess next steps, Rutland added.

In the end, car-free streets really are a matter of political will, Bonsma-Fisher said. Montreal and other cities decided to act and make them happen. People elsewhere should consider demanding the same from their leaders, she said.

“Anything we can do to reduce the amount of driving in our cities will benefit us by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving air quality, reducing noise and reducing collisions.”

This story was produced in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights for the Afghan Journalists-in-Residence program funded by the Meta Journalism Project.

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If you want to experience a great example of the success achieved by introducing pedestrian only streets visit St. John's, Newfoundland in summer. Water street, the busiest commercial street in the city, is closed to all vehicle traffic and the street is lined with pop up patios and kiosks offering a wide range of food ranging from succulent seafood prepared by celebrity chef, Jeremy Charles, to Caribbean and Indian delicacies.

At risk of sounding contrarian, there is a much deeper urbanism to consider. I believe that pedestrian-only streets are a hopelessly underrated solution to what ails our cities and climate. The central problem is that the highly praised street closures for pedestrians built so far are pathetically inadequate, temporary and do almost nothing to tackle the central problem -- the elephant in the room -- which is car dependency. In Montreal and in every other city in Canada they are token, yet they are treasured and praised. That tells us a very important story about the vitality we could have in Canadian cities if we tried harder ... much, much harder.

All Canadian cities suffered through decades of the mass buildout of car infrastructure, basically draining the coffers of cities while at the same time destroying them. Nothing has damaged cities more than cars and major roads. No one element consumes more urban land than big freeways and wide arterials. Travel just a few blocks away from Montreal's experiment with human scale streets and localism, pedestrians and cyclists are blocked by freeways and 6-lane arterials literally blocking their path. Moreover, the Metro system, though pretty decent, fails when you look at the car-centric urbanism at stations outside of downtown, or is poorly designed with regard to wayfinding to the stations buried deep inside the underground mall network in some downtown locations.

Furthermore, the so-called Car Free days in Vancouver are absolutely NOT car free! Though a major street may be closed to traffic for a day, everyone drives their car to the event and literally floods the neighbourhood streets with gridlocked traffic three or four blocks in either side that does not respect residents in any way. I live a block from one of these streets, and it is a nightmare for residents when visitor's cars block crosswalks and even park on the sidewalks, and literally block access to their homes for a day. The city bylaw enforcement staff operate like an army that day, and the tow truck drivers travel in fleets and enjoy record-breaking business. It's terribly expensive for the city to manage closures of major streets and residents also pay a heavy price, especially seniors and disabled people who cannot get within three blocks of their homes. "Car-free" my ass.

Vancouver killed the planned freeway network for downtown after three elevated roadways were built, two of which are already slated for demolition, and the third (the Granville Bridge) is having two oif its eight lanes removed for a permanent pedestrian and bike roadway. Another vision for Vancouver would be to close down all vehicular traffic, including buses, on three streets that cross great swaths of downtown: N-S Granville Street (already has a subway under, reroute surface buses to Seymour and Howe); E-W Robson Street from Stanley Park to the stadium; and Water Street right through Gastown. Do not propose temporary street furniture, plantings or other transitory treatments. Make the execution permanent and high quality, including accent stone paving, public art, fountains, performance spaces, town squares for gatherings and social space and so forth. Consider large glass canopies over some blocks for year round protection from rain. Accommodate the planned downtown streetcar routing by removing as many conflicts with car traffic as possible.

Canadian cities must start chipping away larger chunks of their car infrastructure to make this happen. One advantage is that existing roads have consumed so much valuable land that some of it can be taken back to support pedestrian infrastructure. The vast land roads occupy are a sunk cost, an advantage for any other non-car use that comes after a conversion.

The fellow that runs the 'Not Just Bikes' YouTube channel is a Canadian urbanist who moved to Amsterdam. He does not hold back his sharp criticism. This recent video is all about Montreal, and while he does praise the temporarily pedestrianized streets, he turns his critical eye to the rest of city just a little ways away ans sees just how token the effort really is so far. It isn't pretty, and some Montrealers may be offended by the truth he exposes with sarcasm. It's a very informative point of view because of his post Canada European urban experience, which gives thousands of very good comparisons. The thing is, Montreal is not alone; similar massive pathologies exist in most North American cities. What are we willing to do about it?

Ignore the sceptics, if closing streets to automobile traffic gets you more business and make for a better environment for families and for those that want to cycle and mingle, have at it. And I support that idea 100% since I am in the market for a adult tricycle to get me to the market and other places.