I recently took a trip to Vancouver. It’s a city I’ve been wanting to visit for a while, mainly due to its consistent annual ranking as one of the world’s most livable cities, according to The Economist. It’s not hard to see why. Transportation plays a major role in the livability of a city: it’s part of nearly everyone’s daily life. It impacts land use and the air we breathe. For non-motorized travelers, it can make the difference between an easy vacation (as Vancouver was) and a difficult one (think Los Angeles). Here’s some reasons that I believe lead to Vancouver’s high marks for livability:
From the airport, access to the SkyTrain system was fast and easy. Just after buying a ticket I walked across the platform to a train just arriving. Just as soon as the train pulled in, it turned around and left. The SkyTrain system, run by TransLink, is completely driverless. The front part of the trains I was on (Canada line) were open, letting you see as a driver would. It’s almost trippy in subway tunnels. I think children love this. In Paris, on line 14, children would often run to the front of the train and exclaim, c’est moi, le conducteur !
The interior of the train was fairly spacious:
It is a bit freaky to see a train pull up with no driver:
I didn’t actually use the train system that often. Most of the areas which I saw in Vancouver were accessible by foot, or a short bus ride away. I’m not comfortable saying that the system is fairly flawless, but the trains seemed to come quickly and weren’t delayed the few times I used them.
Much of the network is buses. Some of the routes run trolleybuses, powered by overhead wire. No pollution or loud engines, which is nice. My hotel was on Granville St in downtown Vancouver, right on a bus street. Apparently the reintroduction of trolleybuses to the street is recent (2010); before that, it was a pedestrian-only street.
When buses weren’t running down it, the street almost functioned as a pedestrian street, with people crossing at-will. There were benches placed all around the street, like a good pedestrian street. I forgot how quiet a commercial corridor can be, but with limited traffic and many electric buses, Granville St was rather peaceful.
Vancouver’s bicycle network was pretty decent, from what I saw. Hilly in places, but the official cycle route map actually indicates the location and intensity of hills.
Based on a grid system, it looks fairly easy to navigate. I didn’t ride a bike that much – Vancouver is slated to get a bike share program next year, however, which would be a good way to get around as a tourist and a local, putting it in line with other large Canadian cities like Toronto and Montréal.
There are quite a few protected bike lanes, especially in the downtown area, that seem to cover the downtown peninsula. They’re wide and roomy, too:
The protected lanes had planters as a barrier as well, a great alternative to plastic sticks. It feels more protected. Bike routes are also signed on the street signs:
There are also raised bike lanes, which are level with the sidewalk:
And some good, separated infrastructure to make turns safely:
There are greenways, too! Below is the Comox-Helmcken Greenway, which was recently completed and links False Creek with Stanley Park, the width of the downtown area. In parts, it is completely separated and bi-directional; in others, there is a contraflow protected lane.
Filtered permeability is also exhibited, as pictured above. It prevents through car traffic, but permits through pedestrian and bicycle traffic.
Finally, there is Coal Harbour, which has a pedestrian and bike walkway. Both are separated and only mix at certain points. The distinction is well-signed:
The path is pleasurable and smooth to ride on.
As you may know, British Columbia has a mandatory helmet law. The bike shop from which I rented a bicycle gave me an uncomfortable helmet to wear. I wasn’t too happy with this, especially since I mostly rode the bike around the Stanley Park seawall.
There is obviously a lot of debate about helmet-wearing in general. While research on the effect of the helmet law was carried out, nobody actually measured if it had an effect on the number of cyclists. Therefore it’s hard to say if the dip in cyclist injuries post-helmet law was caused by the helmets, or just lower numbers of cycling (because helmets probably make it less attractive). I saw most people wearing helmets; I was given mixed answers when I asked if the police enforced the law, so I just wore it.
Public Space, the Built Environment, and Density
There is a lot of public space in Vancouver and in the fall much of it is pretty stunning:
Vancouver is a very walkable city; I tend to walk a lot on vacations and Vancouver was very easily navigated on foot. What’s really remarkable, though, is the density and how it works in Vancouver. The third densest city in North America with 13,590 people per square mile, it trails only San Francisco and New York. But it doesn’t feel that way: walking around, so much of the city felt spacious and open. 40-story height limits on most buildings and generous setbacks likely have something to do with this feeling.
There is also ample public space inside buildings. Here, the Vancouver public library has an atrium with shops. At the time, there was a latte art competition going on (yep, I was definitely in Vancouver).
And of course, Stanley Park is a must-see. A huge park (larger than Central Park), it has a seawall path for bicycles and pedestrians that wraps around the perimeter. It’s larger than the downtown area itself.
The likely and oft-cited reason that Vancouver is so dense is its geography. To the region’s south is the US border, the east and north, mountains, and the west, an island and ocean. There is little room for sprawling development even if it wanted to exist.
Freeway? No way
Certainly reflected in its high livability rating, there are no freeways running through most of Vancouver (only one at its eastern edge). Walking along the waterfront, there is not the buzzing rumble of cars running in the near distance (ahem, Chicago). Vancouver was one of the only cities whose residents successfully protest against having a freeway system in the mid-20th century when many other major North American cities were eviscerating neighborhoods to build theirs. The Metro Vancouver region as a whole does have freeways. I never saw one.
Apparently, the region is unfortunately headed toward more bridge and tunnel building, and not as much train line construction. Perhaps someone who has more closely followed the referendum politics can elaborate, as I have not been following too closely.
On the subject of driving: In my experience, Vancouver drivers stopped for pedestrians at crosswalks. Even as I was crossing a bridge onramp, a driver stopped. I was actually surprised; coming from Chicago, it’s just not expected.
Also, there are many streets in the downtown area that had no curbside parking. While I don’t appreciate the effect that cheap curbside parking has had on many cities, sometimes it can be a blessing as a pedestrian. Walking alongside some streets without parking, cars whizzing past in close proximity can be unnerving.
It’s not hard to understand why Vancouverites seemingly enjoy a high quality of life. There are no freeways splitting neighborhoods and polluting with noise and exhaust. There is high density without feeling dense thanks to height limits and setbacks. The transportation system is well-designed and relatively user-friendly. Vancouver is a great city and I enjoyed my visit. I would love to return – when it’s not so foggy!