Vancouver: First Impressions

August 9, 2014 at 11:26 pm

Last weekend I moved to Vancouver, Canada to start a masters program in the fall at UBC. Everything leading up to the move is the reason I’ve been on a bit of a blogging hiatus, but now that things are settling down and I’m in a new city, I’ll certainly have plenty of material coming up.

You can't beat a view of the city set in front of the mountains.

You can’t beat a view of the city set in front of the mountains.

I visited Vancouver last October when I was applying to schools, and I had a pretty good impression of the city. As with most visits, though, I didn’t get to see all of the city, especially the neighborhood I now live in, Marpole. It’s a bit far from the “action,” so to speak, of downtown and its nearby neighborhoods. But the place I found was furnished, close to express buses, and fairly walkable.

I say fairly walkable because I’ve noticed some oddities in Vancouver’s walking infrastructure that make me question the validity of the city’s title of Most Walkable city in Canada, specifically that there are places where sidewalks are entirely missing.

Missing sidewalks.

It even happens that some blocks are missing sidewalks on both sides. Walkability scores usually take into account the number and array of services within a short walk of a certain address, and not always the quality of infrastructure (width of sidewalks, for example), the visual beauty of a walk (which is subjective), the amount of traffic noise nearby, and so on.

Fortunately, the missing sidewalks problem is identified in the neighborhood’s community plan and are specifically outlined in the community profile from 2013.

From page 54 of the Marpole Community Profile, City of Vancouver.

From page 54 of the Marpole Community Profile, City of Vancouver.

It still completely took me by surprise that there are residential streets without any sidewalks. Previously in Chicago, the only time I had ever encountered missing sidewalks was on Damen Ave near a cemetery and an industrial park.

I was not pleased to make a three-cross detour to cross Oak St, either.

Fortunately, the bicycling picture is a little better. I only received my bike from Amtrak a few days ago, so I haven’t had the chance to really explore the city by bike, but so far it has expanded how far I can get without having to pay for a bus. Downtown is only about 40-45 minutes away, as well as the UBC campus. One thing I have noticed so far is that the bike network in the city is mainly on residential streets, a stark contrast from Chicago where bike routes take you on some of the busiest streets.

Some of the streets with bike lanes are on arterials, but most appear to be on calmer residential streets. Image: City of Vancouver bike map.

Some of the streets with bike lanes are on arterials, but most appear to be on calmer residential streets. Image: City of Vancouver bike map.

In Chicago, the city painted bike lanes on the busiest streets that took you through many neighborhoods. In Vancouver, the scene is a bit different: there don’t seem to be a ton of painted bike lanes, but instead a well-signed network of streets that are traffic-calmed with roundabouts, curb extensions, and sinusoidal speed humps, which are much easier to ride over than the more jarring speed humps featured on the streets of Chicago. To cross busier streets, there are buttons that stop cross traffic.

I initially grumbled at the thought of more buttons to push to “ask” to cross a busy street, but realized that I’d remembered seeing the same device in the Netherlands and that it really isn’t that terrible. Plus, the wait is rarely long.

To help people on bikes proceed on the marked bike routes, there seems to be ample infrastructure.

Another nice feature of the bikeways is that they discourage thru traffic, which should go on the busier arterial streets, by implementing traffic diverters. Previously I’ve maintained that these should be an important feature of residential neighborhoods in cities like Chicago, where a more thorough, safer bike network could be built simply by directing car traffic to busier arterial streets. After seeing a few examples in Vancouver, I do believe that one way of building a better bike network is by redirecting most traffic and calming the remaining local traffic. It doesn’t create a network I might feel safe letting my hypothetical children use alone, but it works until momentum builds for something more robust.

Roundabouts as traffic calming help slow down car traffic on Ontario St.

There are of course the protected bike lanes closer to downtown (and some outside the downtown area, too) and the Seawall, which I covered on my last visit.

This traffic-calmed street requires drivers to slow down and pay close attention while providing ample room for bicycles.

One more thing to note: British Columbia has a mandatory helmet law, which appears to be relatively ignored in my neighborhood. It’s only been a week, but most of the people I’ve seen wearing helmets are clad in lycra and riding expensive bikes. About half of everyone else around is sans-casque.

Another aspect of note when comparing cities is the driving culture, or how drivers drive. Frankly, Vancouver drivers are scary. I’ve already seen several red-light running incidents where the driver went through after the signal was red for two or three seconds. Many times drivers turning at an intersection will try to drive out and in front of people crossing so as to avoid a wait, perhaps due to the lack of leading pedestrian signals in my neighborhood. And some people seem to drive way too fast. Frankly, I’d be surprised if I don’t get hit at some point in the next few years.

I used to think Chicago’s major streets were too wide until I saw some of Vancouver’s. It will take some getting used to, but it seems that a trade-off of having a city with no freeways is that the streets composing the Major Road Network are designed to carry a lot of traffic quickly and on to bridges to other cities. Many of these are unfortunately near where I live, so I imagine the majority of Vancouverites don’t encounter how loud they sound and dangerous they feel. However, the interior residential streets are quieter as a result and make for a more pleasant walk – except that one thing I love about walking in neighborhoods is passing local businesses, which happen to be concentrated near these major roads.

Agrandir le plan

Finally, there is the public transportation system. Vancouver is mainly a bus city, and while there are three rail lines, two of them principally serve the inland suburbs. It will take some more riding around on transport to really get a feel for the system, but my first impression is fast. I took the SkyTrain a few times and the wait for a train was never longer than 3 minutes on a weekday. The train also never stopped between stations; although I’m sure it does happen, it’s a welcome change from the stop-and-go “waiting for signal clearance” of the CTA.

Another nice aspect is that the city and developers really appear to take TOD (transit-oriented development) to heart – the first time I got off the Marine Drive Canada Line station, I noticed a large tower going up which will house condos, a movie theatre, grocery store, and other retail right outside the station. Other developments such as malls are similarly situated adjacent to rail stations.

One rendering of Marine Gateway, a complex to be built directly adjacent to the Canada Line. Image: Marine Gateway/PCI.

Adjusting to a new city is fun and simultaneously difficult, and there are so many things to experience and learn about. I’m particularly interested in the history and planning in Vancouver since it seems to be quite different from the Midwestern mindset and planning I’m accustomed to. I look forward to writing about all of the new things I find.