October 31, 2019

Vancouver Impressions: Cascadian Guest Post

In September, Michael Anderson, senior researcher with Sightline Institute (Cascadia’s sustainability think tank), and Kiel Johnson, founder and operator of Portland’s Go By Bike (North America’s largest bike valet) visited Vancouver as part of a two-family touring holiday.

Anderson and Johnson rented a van to get to Vancouver because, well, kids and stuff. Plus, it was much cheaper and faster than the train. Whatever to do about that?

Gord invited the duo to write about their trip, and they did — in dialogue form.

Says Anderson: “I think we could have gone on for pages about things we saw and thought about the city, but Kiel rightly suggested keeping it pretty narrow.”

First impressions about Vancouver? How is Portland doing for cycling? What were the disappointments?

(Canadian spellings added for clarity.)

Michael Andersen: Hey Kiel, thanks for joining this text chat about our visit to Vancouver this fall. Gordon invited us to write something up for Price Tags and we hope this’ll be an interesting way to share a couple outsiders’ quick reactions to the city. We know each other through Portland bike stuff — I used to write for the news site BikePortland.org, you started the Portland bike valet that serves our big research university and is probably the single most popular bike-trip destination in North America. So bike stuff is what we’ll focus on here.

Kiel Johnson: I remember in 2009 telling my parents that I wanted to live in Portland because it was going to be the biggest bicycling city in North America. The next year, Portland passed a bike master plan calling for 25 percent of all trips by bike by 2030 and we had a mayor with a vision of making Portland the capital for sustainable urbanism. This past week, the headline in Portland is that bicycling, which has remained flat for the past 12 years, seems to be on a decline. Portland’s largest transportation project right now is $500 million to widen a freeway in the city centre. Visiting Vancouver made me wonder if I had picked the wrong city.

Michael: Yeah, I’d previously visited Vancouver in 2010 and 2013 and the pace of change on bike infrastructure, at least in the central-ish city, is like nowhere else I’ve seen in the US or Canada. I got to see a lot of cities when I was a staff writer for the U.S. bike advocacy organization PeopleForBikes. Many cities are investing and getting results, but none have invested in a top-quality network like Vancouver has, and none have posted consistent ridership growth like it has, either.

Portland’s Go By Bike valet and shop in Portland.

Kiel: At least once a week Portland’s former mayor Bud Clark cycles by the bike valet. He was a two term mayor from 1985 to 1992 who before being mayor was the owner of a bar. I recently watched his farewell address and was struck by how committed he was to continue participating in city life and also how much of the good urban things we have were because of him. The past four of Portland’s mayors have only been around for one term and never gained enough political capital to do anything big. This is in contrast to Vancouver’s last mayor, who seems like he was able to accomplish quite a lot. I wonder if that has to do with how our different city governments are set up or just luck.

Michael: I don’t know much about Gregor Robertson’s motivation or background, but it seems like the way this sort of thing works in general is that one city does something that works, and (if conditions are right) leaders in other cities notice. I think one reason Portland got famous for bike stuff is that it sort of came out of nowhere — Clark had been elected to lead a fading industrial city with very little biking and a stagnant population. In 1985, everyone would have called Portland “Rust Belt” if it had been a couple thousand miles east. Whatever else happens in Vancouver or Portland, I hope Vancouver becomes a powerful example for other North American cities. We have climate advantages in the Northwest, but changes like these are within the financial reach of any city. It just requires prioritization, year after year.

Kiel: On our trip, the one thing we kept dreaming about was a high speed rail connecting Portland/Seattle/Vancouver and how that would help merge the three cities. That by having faster transportation between our cities we can better share those ideas with each other. Mayors and city leaders would take better notice of those good urban ideas and citizens would demand more. Maybe a high speed rail line would speed up some of the transfers of good ideas? The entire time I was in Vancouver I was making my mental list in my head of people I wanted to show how well the city is working. Just today I was arguing with a neighbour about neighbourhood greenways (that’s what Portland calls side streets with bike priority) and said you gotta go to Vancouver — they work really well. In a recent public forum I was at, someone compared a car diverter to the border wall between Israel and Palestine. I wonder if they had been able to see how they work in Vancouver they would have had the same idea. If it was an easy beautiful relaxing 4 hour train ride it would be a lot easier to experience.

Michael: OK, enough kissing up. This was your first visit to Vancouver. What were you disappointed by?

Kiel: Got to expand the colour palette. A lot of grey conservative boring buildings. Some diversity in architecture would have been welcomed. I’ve been really enjoying the new Dumbbell building in Portland. What about you?

Michael: We took a Skytrain trip to Metrotown in Burnaby, which I’ve been hearing about for years as a model for suburban infill. And I mean, it’s already unlike any other suburban rail station area on the continent. But Kingsway still looks like this. I don’t know what I was expecting, but there’s only so much you can do to purge the poison of auto-oriented development once it’s infected an area. Towers of rich people living in this one little patch of Burnaby because, unlike other parts of Burnaby, it gives them a chance to dart quickly into a human-oriented city, take advantage of its economic and environmental gifts, then dart quickly away. It’s such a tragedy that we spent so many decades casting motordom in stone.

Kiel: It is a really hard stone to crack. But I think by visiting each other more, we all get better tools to crack it.

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  1. Thanks, Michael and Kiel. It’s been many years since our family visited Vancouver. I’m eager to return, and this time explore the city on foot.

    I’d like to see high-speed rail service between Vancouver and Portland (and continuing down to San Diego).

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