Fate of Banff pedestrian zone to be decided by a public vote later this summer

Mayor Corrie DiManno said the pedestrian zone has divided the Town of Banff. (Helen Pike/CBC - image credit)
Mayor Corrie DiManno said the pedestrian zone has divided the Town of Banff. (Helen Pike/CBC - image credit)

The fate of the Town of Banff's much debated pedestrian zone along its main downtown street will be decided by the public later this summer.

The town's council unanimously passed a motion on Monday to hold a vote of the electorate on August 12.

That day, residents will choose whether or not to support council's decision to close off a section of Banff Avenue to traffic every year from the May long weekend to Thanksgiving long weekend.

Council had initially voted to make the pedestrian corridor an annual feature in December 2023.

Finalizing that decision was then stalled in January 2024, when council received a letter from Parks Canada, questioning the use of patios and other commercial developments along the publicly owned street where the zone would be enacted.

About a month ago, a petition signed by about 11.5 per cent of the population was filed, calling for council to repeal its decision to proceed with the annual summer pedestrian zone.

It has approximately 1,019 signatures, and was deemed valid by administration on April 15th.

The petition triggered council to make a choice at their meeting today to either rescind the decision to move forward with the pedestrian zone, or to hold a vote of the electorate on the issue.

Banff Mayor Corrie DiManno said the outcome of the vote will have a polarizing impact on the community.

"At the end of this exercise, people are likely either going to be extremely happy or very upset," she said during the council meeting.

"We know the community is passionate about the future of the pedestrian zone and that those perspectives vary. I've also heard stories about how this topic causes tension at family dinners, how it causes tension in lifelong friendships, and how it causes arguments between neighbours because people do not share the same views."

Best option on the table

DiManno said while that division worries her, she decided to put forward the motion to hold a vote of the electorate because it seemed — to her — the most fair course of action.

She added that because only around 76 per cent of Banff residents are Canadian citizens, a significant proportion of the population will not be able to vote on the issue.

"This is why it's imperative every resident who is eligible to vote participates in this exercise so that we can move forward as a community," said DiManno.

"And I want us to accept and embrace the outcome."

Members of the public presented arguments both for and against the pedestrian zone to council during the meeting.

Town of Banff resident Harvey Locke, who said he was a signatory of the petition, urged council to rescind the decision to move forward with the pedestrian zone.

He said he has been directly impacted by the diversion of traffic off of Banff Avenue for the past three years the pedestrian zone has been implemented (it was first piloted in 2020, as a pandemic era measure).

"We've spent millions of dollars maintaining the historic streetscape of the first residential street in Banff, which was Beaver Street," he said.

"It has now become an industrial street whenever Banff Avenue is closed. Buses, trucks, our garden is unusable some days because [of] just the sheer volume of noise caused by the traffic displaced."

Laura Banks, a permanent resident of Canada who has lived in Banff for eight years, and currently lives on Banff Avenue, voiced her support for the pedestrian zone.

"I cannot explain the relief that I felt once the decision was made to permanently close Banff Avenue during the summer months," said Banks.

"I hear the traffic of every tour bus, every motorbike, every Dodge Ram, that drives and idles up and down Banff Avenue."

She said that in the years since the pedestrian zone was enacted, she's noticed a dramatic reduction in traffic congestion over the Banff bridge.

"We cannot pretend that Banff Avenue, that Banff, is a small town that just happens to attract tourists. We are built on tourism. We must change the town to benefit both the increasing number of tourists and its long term inhabitants."

Until the vote of the electorate is held, the pedestrian zone along Banff Avenue will go ahead as planned, opening for the season on May long weekend.