First impressions of Vancouver (warning, contains urbanism)

by dhdaines

I suppose these are more like second impressions, since after all, I have been to Vancouver before…

…in 1986, when I was, well, quite young. I still remember the “motorcycle revving up” sound that the Skytrain still occasionally makes, and I wonder why they haven’t tried to promote it like the STM does with the “doo-doo-doo” that the Metro makes, but other than that it’s pretty much a blank slate for me.

I don't think we're in Montréal anymore, Toto...

I don’t think we’re in Montréal anymore, Toto…

It’s not quite as I expected!  I haven’t seen all that much of it yet, mostly just a few parts of East Vancouver as well as the ride in from the ferry terminal, so I’m probably totally wrong, but here are a few things I have noticed so far:

Vancouver is not flat. It looks flat on the map because all the streets are in a nice grid, but it is totally not. We were a bit surprised when walking from Strathcona to Commercial Drive that you actually go up a pretty big hill along the way.  I rode out further east and it keeps going up, as it does when heading south from False Creek.

Infrastructure, fuck yeah.

Infrastructure, fuck yeah.

Vancouver is very bike-friendly.  I’m going to just write another blog post about this, in French, because Montréal could really stand to learn a few things in terms of bike infrastructure from Vancouver – it’s really fabulous, and there are a good number of people riding bikes, unlike in, say, Québec City.  It doesn’t seem like as many as Montréal, but it’s hard to judge, because…

Vancouver is not dense. Sure, the downtown and west end are an iconic forest of high-rises backed with soaring mountains, but the vast majority of the city is an endless sea of mostly single-family homes on modestly sized lots.  In Montréal terms, it’s a giant Lachine or Tétraultville (but much fancier, and made out of wood).  More jarring is the total separation of uses. I rode through town on the bikeways, which are all fabulously well-signed and connect to each other to form a coherent network (imagine that), following quiet residential streets.  And by residential, boy, they mean residential!  You can go 5 km on one of these bikeways without seeing a single store, which, among other things, leads me to conclude that…

Typical Vancouver arterial. Nice mountains!

Typical Vancouver arterial. Nice mountains!

Vancouver is not walkable.  In actual fact things are not very far away from each other, but going from point A to point B on foot often involves traversing industrial wasteland C or walking on narrow-to-nonexistent sidewalk D with nothing to shield you from the relentless car traffic.  Within the neighbourhoods, it’s great – I’ve never seen so much traffic calming in my life.  A lot of intersections have had their stop signs removed and replaced with a big circular island, planted with flowers and greenery, that turns the whole thing into a slow traffic circle.  Neighbourhood speed limits are 30 km/h and, driving around in one of the omnipresent car2go cars, I found that this was the “natural” speed encouraged by the design of the streets (which are almost never one-way).  But, the overall impression of the city is that, while it has successfully tamed the automobile, it hasn’t yet offered a better alternative to it, because…

The SkyTrain is not a metro. In the eternally usefulDC Metro versus BART” taxonomy of rail transit systems, SkyTrain is most definitely BART. It even looks like BART, with widely-spaced stations, and relying heavily on elevated (sometimes dizzyingly so, like at the crazy Broadway-Commercial junction) lines running along existing rail right-of-ways.  Actually, though, it’s more like BART++, because it runs very frequently (a necessity, since the trains are tiny, even shorter than the Blue Line ones in Montréal) and there has been a concerted effort to create massive density around all the stations rather than simply plunking them in a sea of park-and-ride spaces like they do in California.  But, nonsensically, the most densely-populated part of the city, the one that invites comparisons to Manhattan, has no SkyTrain service whatsoever.  Small wonder that ridership on the Montréal Métro is about 4 times higher than SkyTrain ridership, despite the two systems having about the same number of kilometers of track. That said…

Vancouver does buses well. The bus system here is a PQ environment minister’s wet dream – électrification des transports? Mets-en! Every major commercial artery is strung with overhead wires, and articulated trolleybuses ply the streets at sensible intervals of less than 10 minutes all day long.  I haven’t ridden the 99 B-Line yet, but as far as I can tell, it achieves everything the Pie-IX BRT is supposed to eventually achieve, without the 15 year delay and the $400 million price tag.  And they will probably have replaced it with a subway before we even start breaking ground for the Blue Line extension.

We're definitely not in Québec anymore. BEURK.

We’re definitely not in Québec anymore. BEURK.

I realize that I have a parti pris here that is, to quote the trick-or-treat chants of my youth, “not too big, not too small, just the size of Montréal”. I have little to say about the human aspects of Vancouver, aside from the fact that service staff here are annoyingly chipper, to the point that one might be tempted to believe that they actually want to be your friends. But actually, everybody else seems very friendly too.  There’s a certain “generic Western North American City ™” quality to the urbanism, such that if I were air-dropped onto any random street corner, I’d have a hard time saying if I were in Portland, Seattle, or even Calgary.  On the other hand, cultural diversity (and specifically the pervasive Chinese and First Nations influence) is much stronger here than in any of those places, so I’d probably figure it out pretty quick.  And now that I’m spending some time to walk around and observe things at a slower pace, I realize that…

Vancouver is relaxed and progressive. All around downtown, there are signposts pointing the way to the something called a “public washroom” and I’m not even sure I know what that is. I realize this is a Tom Friedman moment of the worst kind, but currently, I’m sitting in a coffee shop watching a uniformed police officer having coffee with an elderly aboriginal man, and listening intently to him.  We’re not in Montréal anymore, indeed.  Dogs are playing freely off-leash in the park and nobody is getting a $300 ticket.  Even that irritating bike helmet law seems to be widely disregarded (except insofar as it prevents the city from implementing a bike-share system, which sucks).  Despite the very American feel of the place, and the various negatives I associate with that, like the shocking extremes of poverty and wealth, the conspicuous security culture, and the creeping religiosity (be it evangelical Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or New Age), there’s a nice live-and-let-live attitude that seems to soak through everything.

What else? Well, I’ll spare you the tedious rainfall metaphor with which you might have expected me to finish that last paragraph, but it sure does rain a lot, and anyone who says that it’s a light, pleasant rain unlike the kind we get out East is totally lying.

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