By Jessica Lovell
People heading out for a night on the town this weekend won’t find downtown streets closed to cars; taxi stands, meant to whisk revelers away from the downtown in an orderly fashion, will be gone; and portable toilets will not be available for nature’s call.The five-week “Safe Semester” downtown pilot project has come to an end, and in spite of the apparent success of the project, there are no firm plans to continue any part of the project – at least not until the beginning of the next school year.
“I don’t think any of us went in with the idea of extending it,” said city councillor Ian Findlay, who sits on the city’s Downtown Nightlife Task Force.
The pilot project was a police-driven initiative meant to coincide with the new semester. “Typically, the first five weeks of the semester are the peak volume,” said Guelph Police Chief Bryan Larkin, also a task force member.
After Thanksgiving, the activity in the downtown tapers off somewhat, with a couple of key events, including Halloween, attracting some larger crowds, he said.
Closing parts of Macdonell and Wyndham streets between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights was meant to reduce conflict between pedestrians and cars and give police better eyes on the street. Temporary portable toilets in the area were meant to curb public fouling, and monitored taxi stands were meant to help move people out of the downtown more efficiently.
“We’re pretty excited about how it went,” said Larkin, noting that police saw the downtown clear out 45 minutes to an hour earlier than normal during the project.
“We definitely saw less disturbances,” he said.
“It appears as though it was a great success,” said Findlay of the project. Police found it “much easier to monitor street activity,” and “it was a safer environment for both vehicles and pedestrians,” he said.
The task force has plans to meet next week to go over the project in more detail, he said. That’s when police will share statistics about the number and types of charges that were laid during the project.
The task force, which includes members of emergency services and representatives from the downtown business community, the university community and city bylaw staff, will discuss in detail what went well and what should be tweaked. As they discuss, they will be looking ahead to how best to approach the 2013 Safe Semester initiative, said Findlay.
While there are other events such as Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day that draw a large number of people – both students and non-students – into the downtown, the task force does not necessarily have any plans to employ any of the elements of the pilot project on those occasions, Findlay said. But he wouldn’t rule it out either.
“It’s too early to tell what the recommendation will be,” said Larkin, adding “there’s a public engagement and a public feedback part that’s important.”
If there was any element that was a hitch in the pilot plan, it was the cars parked on the closed streets that had to be towed.
“There were some lessons around the towing of the cars,” said Larkin. The number of cars never really declined over the five-week period, so additional communication may have been needed, he said.
It will be important to get all the stakeholders together in one room to discuss the project before plans for future initiatives are made, he said.
One element that Findlay does hope there will be enough support to continue is the portable washrooms.
“I’ve been advocating the need for public washrooms 24/7 for the community,” he said.
The need for the washrooms is there not just late at night, but also during the day, so that will be something that will be looked at as a long-term option – if funding can be found, he said.
“Cost always factors into every discussion,” he said.
Larkin agreed that the financial implications of the pilot would be an important factor in the discussions of whether or not to employ the strategies again, but he believes the expense was worth it, at least for the five-week period.
“From a public safety perspective, there was, we believe, a good return on the investment,” said Larkin.