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VIA Architecture’s Post-Olympic Planning Discussion

Apr 09, 2010

guest post by Jake Tobin Garrett (Beyond Robson)

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from VIA Architecture’s post-Olympic discussion. Like many in the city, I have reached an Olympic saturation point—meaning that discussion, debate, and musing on the Olympics seems to be all I have been doing. Basically: I’m full. But with the Olympics being such a huge event that took years of planning and practically held the city hostage (physically and mentally) for months, it’s kind of difficult to let it slip past.

VIA brought together an interesting and complimentary set of speakers, three of whom spoke from a professional background, and one of whom, a torchbearer, spoke from a more personal background. On the professional side, there was Matthew Roddis, an urban designer with the City of Vancouver; Matt Craig, senior transportation planner and Olympic transportation at TransLink; and Annette O’Shea, the executive director of the Yaletown Business Improvement Association (BIA). On the personal side, was torchbearer Mark Hoag, an accountant who landed the position through a lottery system prior to the games.

I was most interested to hear what Matthew Roddis and Matt Craig had to say, as the planning that both the city and TransLink went through before the Olympics seems to me a monstrous task that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies. The pressure to design and facilitate a smoothly run performance in their respective fields was, I’m sure, immense and complex.

Mr. Roddis spoke mostly of how the city performed during the Olympics, as opposed to the planning leading up to the event. As he pointed out, the city shone its brightest during those 17 days. I was surprised to walk (shuffle?) along Granville to Robson Square and see the place teeming with people, lights, and music. The city rarely comes out like it did during those days, and I hope that some of that activity carries on into the future as it makes the downtown core a more lively place.

Mr. Roddis also brought up Vancouver’s lack of a real central public gathering spot. Robson Square, although recently revamped, has proved over the years insufficient as a real collective spot—probably because it is mainly underground, or hidden from street view. Mr. Roddis asked a question that I wondered about frequently over the years: Is Vancouver a city that lives around its edges—mainly the beaches and seawall?

I would have definitely said yes before the Olympics, but, as Mr. Roddis also said, the Olympic activity showed that Vancouverites have a real longing for a core area, a central spot in the city to gather and celebrate. Is it possible that the Olympics introduced the centre of the city as the place to be for many people? As the slogan for Robson Square put it: You gotta be here. Can this sustain afterwards?

Mr. Craig spoke of TransLink’s push to reduce vehicle traffic into the downtown core by 30%, a number that, while in the lead up to the games looked impossible, was reported to have been achieved. Although the system was in its highest use ever, I never had to wait too long for a train or a bus, and the apocalyptic traffic jams that were prophesied never came to pass. I rode my bike most days into the downtown core from Commercial Drive and enjoyed smooth sailing along the cleared Olympic Lanes on Broadway that gave priority to buses, bikes and Olympic vehicles.

Mr. Craig outlined how TransLink worked with many businesses in the downtown area on how they could reduce traffic by arranging carpooling for their employees, pointing out that just two people sharing a car to work cuts that vehicle use by 50%. Most interestingly was TransLink’s development of a flexible system of transit; this I believe was the biggest feat of Olympic transportation and one of the main reasons why it ran so smoothly. TransLink didn’t release “Olympic schedules” but instead monitored routes closely and added buses or trains when they were needed, rather than when they were scheduled. As he said, most people want their bus or train to be there when they need it, not necessarily when it is scheduled.

There were times when the station I use, Broadway and Commercial, was filled with people, and yet a train had just left, one was already pulling up, and I could see another behind it. It proved TransLink had the ability to provide for higher capacity use—something that I’m sure more people crammed onto trains at rush hour the rest of the year would like to see outside of the Olympics.

Annette O’Shea spoke at length of the Yaletown BIA’s drive and push to create Yaletown as a destination for Olympic activity, rather than simply a conduit from one event to another. They provided hundreds of free acts of entertainment, kept the streets clean of garbage, lobbied for new lighting (which they got), as well as encouraged the many, often out of reach pricewise, restaurants of Yaletown to provide economical street food. I was mostly impressed with the planning and dedication of the BIA, as I assumed that much of the things I saw in Yaletown during the Olympics were planned by the city. As Ms. O’Shea pointed out, it is events and planning like this that will help Vancouver shed its moniker of no fun city.

Graham McGarva, a Founding Principal of VIA holding the torch

Finally, Mark Hoag spoke about his experience as a torchbearer—something I was already a bit familiar with since a friend of mine (a former UBC hockey player) also ran with the torch. He related his feelings of exuberance, pride and historical connection, while carrying the most famous flame in the world. While I myself feel no real bond with the Olympic flame (I did see it go by my house from my living room window), I can understand the immense feeling associated with taking part in an event that links with so many other nations and time periods.

What was conspicuously absent from the discussion, however, was any mention of anti-Olympic protestors and their concerns, or any planning decisions that related to these. The only mention of this was by Ms. O’Shea when she mentioned they had volunteers out there removing anti-Olympic signs and graffiti from Yaletown. Anti-Olympic and poverty activists were quite visible in the run-up and during the Olympics and so I would have enjoyed hearing a bit more about how these alternate views and concerns were addressed in the planning process.