Vancouver: An Olympic Urbanist Preview


Over the next two weeks, we’ll see a lot of Vancouver, one of the most remarkable achievements in 20th Century urbanism. If you’re going to promote transit anywhere, especially in North America or Australasia, it’s an important city to know about.

As the Olympic Winter Games run, I’ll do a series of posts on Vancouver transit issues (interspersed with some Sydney news that will break over the weekend).  I’ll rely on my own experience living and working there in 2005-6, my annual visits since then, and the insights of my former colleagues. But my single best source is probably my friend Gordon Price, a former city councilman and frequent speaker on urbanist issues around the world.  His friendly blog Price Tags is my first bookmark for Vancouver’s news on sustainable transport and urban design.  (Just today, for example, he posted a link to a spectacular aerial montage, a bit like Google Street View from an altitude of 500m or so.  It’s a great way to explore the city.)

What’s special about Vancouver?  It’s a new dense city, in North America.

Vancouver is the closest North America has come to building a substantial high-density city — not just employment but residential — pretty much from scratch, entirely since World War II.  I noted in an earlier post that low-car North American cities are usually old cities, because they rely on a development pattern that just didn’t happen after the advent of the car.   In 1945 Vancouver was nothing much: a hard-working port for natural resource exports, with just a few buildings even ten stories high.

But look at it now.

DSCN2055 Towers composed

Such sudden eruptions of residential density are common enough in Asia, but North American cities rarely allow them on such a scale.  There are many explanations for how Vancouver did it, but at its core Vancouver had a fortunate confluence of the three essentials:

  • Natural constraints that limited sprawl even in the pro-sprawl late 20th century.
  • Economic energy, especially in the boom years of the 1990s and early 2000s.
  • Planning and civic leadership.

Depending on your point of view, you can treat any of these terms as dominant.  Planners and civic leaders like to think it was their work that made the difference.  Economists can point to the huge influx of investment made possible by the city’s unique positioning.  Geographers can emphasize how easy it is to avoid sprawl when you have so little buildable land.  I think they’re all right.

Van zoom out The natural constraints jump out at you on the map.  Like many East Asian megacities, greater Vancouver has very little space.  It’s hemmed in by waterways to the west, the US border to the south, and a massive wall of mountains immediately to the north.  Greater Vancouver can only sprawl eastward, into the narrow Fraser Valley, but this valley is also British Columbia’s best agricultural land.

The conflict between sprawl and agriculture, of course, was the impetus of Oregon’s famous 1972 land use laws.  But flat land around Portland is still fairly abundant compared to the tiny ledge where Vancouver lies.  This may be part of why Portland never built to Vancouver densities, nor achieved Vancouver’s intensity of transit and low levels of car dependence.

(Significantly, too, Vancouver has no urban freeways, just a disconnected network linking some of its suburbs.  Traffic in Vancouver is, in my experience, exactly as bad as it is in Los Angeles.  Neither city ever achieves true “gridlock,” because at a certain level of congestion people just stop driving.  In a dense city, there will always be exactly as much congestion as you make room for.  If you want less congestion than that, you want congestion pricing. I expect Vancouver will get there soon.)

Natural constraints also drove economic energy because Vancouver’s site is so unique.  As Canada’s only Pacific city, Vancouver is the natural focus of Canada’s interactions with Asia, as well as the only peer for the West Coast cities of the US.  All that uniqueness can be intimidating. Although its crossroads location and soaring skyline suggest a big city, Greater Vancouver is only 2.1 million people.  Visitors expecting a major city are sometimes surprised that the cultural institutions are not what you’d expect in Toronto or Sydney or Los Angeles, and have to be reminded that Vancouver isn’t a big city — just a very dense city in a unique and spectacular place.

Eng bay bch There’s also the uniqueness of its climate.  Along with parts of adjacent Vancouver Island, Vancouver forms what we might call the Canadian Riviera: the only part of Canada that spends most of winter above the freezing mark.  Vancouver is thus the focal point for all the tropical longings of a frigid nation, a dynamic expressed not just in the absurdly abundant planting of the one palm tree hardy enough to grow there (the furry Chinese WIndmill Palm, Trachycarpus fortunei) but also in styles of beach-front architecture and design that recall Miami or LA.

But it’s not Miami or LA.  Vancouver’s winter is like that of adjacent Seattle, but gloomer and wetter.

DSCF4926 The one Vancouver winter that I’ve endured included not just 29 consecutive days of rain but also a heavy ceiling of gray cloud that lasted for months.  This photo is of a nice winter day; most days the clouds were much lower.

Summer Olympics in Vancouver would have been a safer bet, because summer is three months of perfect sunny days and endless sensuous evenings.  But Vancouver is lucky.   For just the two weeks that the 2006 Winter Olympics were running in Torino, Vancouver’s skies were brilliantly clear and cold, and the same happened just last week.  So I won’t be surprised if the world sees a similar miracle in the weeks to come.

But this is a transit blog …

A city as dense as Vancouver needs a lot of transit.  There are at least four interesting transit-related stories that I hope I have time to explore over the next two weeks:

  • DSCN1552 Skytrain is North America’s most extensive network of driverless metro technology, and a powerful focal point for highrise development along most of its length.  It’s also a huge viaduct, mostly open underneath, and not always pleasant to walk under.  I worked on several projects to improve and redevelop blighted station areas; I’ll talk about some of these.  There’s also an interesting debate about whether to build one more Skytrain corridor across the inner city, or try something else, like light rail.
  • Granville Mall downtown is an important shopping and entertainment street that also tries to function as the main “transit mall” for the trolleybus network that covers most of the inner city.  I worked on a plan for the mall in 2006 as well, at the same time as I was working on the more ambitious downtown transit plans of Minneapolis.  The mall has been torn up for the last two years while the new Canada Line subway was built under it.  It’s just re-opened, though the buses haven’t been put back there yet.  As always with Granville Mall, there are lots of opinions about what should happen next.
  •  The microferries on False Creek are an interesting example of extremely low-cost waterborne transit, probably the lowest unit costs imaginable in the developed world.  They’re fun to ride, and the waterway they use is pretty calm for the most part.  I’ve often wondered why this model didn’t catch on more widely in river cities.
  • Finally, Vancouver is also an example of really good transit geography.  If you were trying to design a city that would not just use transit but also use transit resources efficiently, you couldn’t do much better than the City of Vancouver.  I’ll explore this issue a bit in another post.

I hope you enjoy whatever glimpses of Vancouver you see on television in the next two weeks, if you’re not lucky and hardy enough to be there in person.  Like San Francisco and Seattle, its natural setting is so spectacular that even people who live there sometimes stop and stare as though seeing it for the first time.  The uniqueness of the site is one aspect of Vancouver’s achievement that not all cities can replicate.

Many cities are in places that are different but equally special.  Just around the Pacific, I think of Seattle, San Diego, Honolulu, Auckland, Brisbane, and Sydney as all equally blessed with unique and spectacular sites where people already want to be.   If that specialness is recognized and valued in your culture, then Vancouver outcomes are possible.  All you need is the leadership, the economic activity, and, above all, the relentless aggressive intention to make it happen.  The result can be a great city, and a remarkably sustainable one.

Jazz fest at yaletown

20 Responses to Vancouver: An Olympic Urbanist Preview

  1. David Sucher February 12, 2010 at 10:23 am #

    I agree with you generally and of course praise Vancouver very highly. But I do question one point — Vancouver in fact did have a historical grid. Vancouver did not start from an auto-oriented super-block strip-mall development model. The buildings may not have been tall but they did form an urban grid in the commercial areas and inner-city residential ones too.
    You state Vancouver’s history: “…. low-car North American cities are usually old cities, because they rely on a development pattern that just didn’t happen after the advent of the car. In 1945 Vancouver was nothing much: a hard-working port for natural resource exports, with just a few buildings even ten stories high.”
    I remember Vancouver’s old good bones (and West Vancouver and North Vancouver as well) but of course Gordon Price would know more.

  2. EngineerScotty February 12, 2010 at 10:23 am #

    You mention the Olympics in passing, but you forgot to mention the 1986 Worlds Fair.
    BOTH events–major international happenings which attracted visiters by the hundreds of thousands around the globe (or are expected to–the Olympics doesn’t get underway until tonight), required the city (and the province of British Columbia) to commit to massive expansions of infrastructure. The original SkyTrain line was built in advance of Expo 86; the Canada Line for the Olympics. (In addition to the SkyTrain expansion, another Olympic project was a widening of the Sea-to-Sky highway from 2 to 4 lanes between Horseshoe Bay and Whistler)
    Much of the downtown renewal–the conversion of an industrial zone along False Creek into the Expo grounds into the beautiful urban landscape it is today–is also the direct result of Expo 86.
    (It’s often alleged that the reason Chicago failed to win the 2016 Games is a lack of commitment to upgrade its infrastructure; see Yonah’s comments made prior to the awarding of the games to Brazil here).
    That Vancouver gets to host TWO major world events in the span of twenty-five years is incredible for a city its size.

  3. Corey Burger February 12, 2010 at 12:04 pm #

    The world is not completely great in Vancouver, as while the City of Vancouver itself (and to a certain extent the western suburbs of Burnaby and New Westminister) are fairly transit friendly, the two major southern suburbs of Richmond and Surrey are as sprawl-friendly as you can find anywhere in the world. And the creation of the Agricultural Land Reserve or ALR did slow down some development, the practice of swapping crappier land for better land for development has gone on since day one of the ALR.
    FYI, I live in Victoria, which is on Vancouver Island, just across the strait.

  4. Edmund Carlson February 12, 2010 at 1:52 pm #

    I’d also have to argue that it isn’t necessarily fair to say that Vancouver didn’t amount to much pre war, particularly in terms of laying the base for the city it became. The interurban and streetcar systems were built out by the 1930s, and were the largest in Canada (albeit beating Toronto on the technicality of having a single system).
    The Expo Skytrain’s corridor was being used by interurban by the beginning of the century, only varying the route with street level routes into both Vancouver and New Westminster. Even the current Trolleybus system was being opened by ’47 or ’48.
    It is, to a real extent, an old industrial city that successfully reinvented itself while growing massively since the war, more than a fundamentally post war city.

  5. Corey Burger February 12, 2010 at 3:17 pm #

    A few other things to note:
    1. The Expo Skytrain line runs through an extant rail tunnel downtown, which lowered cost.
    2. Skytrain (either the Bombardier system or the Canada Line’s Hyundai ROTEM) is phenomenally expensive at nearly $200 million/km.
    3. This expense has meant that the Evergreen Line is delayed and there is no rail transit to UBC, the biggest transit destination in the province.
    4. It has also prompted a bit of myopia in terms of technology choice. LRT and other things are not really on the radar. The City of Vancouver ponied up the money for the Olympic Line streetcar.

  6. Alon Levy February 12, 2010 at 4:08 pm #

    Vancouver’s postwar population growth has been barely slower than Los Angeles’s. Between 1941 and 2006, Vancouver proper grew 110%, and Greater Vancouver grew 437%; between 1940 and 2008, LA grew 155%, and the five-county Greater LA region grew 445%. Both LA and Vancouver can be called postwar on account of the importance of their WW2-era ports to their development and on account of their fast postwar growth, but both also had large urban cores before WW2.

  7. Vonny February 12, 2010 at 7:29 pm #

    Allon Levy has very good point to compare Vancouver with LA. both city has been originally developed following very similar pattern: Streetcar and the Vancouver grid date of this time…but development has dramatically diverged afterward (50′), and shared same city garden utopia of the last mid century (compared to east coast city which were following a more traditional urban model inherited of Europe.
    Regarding comment of Corey:
    1.Downtown tunnel section has little account for the skytrain: it is a tiny part section of the line.
    2.Regarding the last transit line: it can looks pricey, but not more than the Seattle LRT or Toronto Sheppard LRT, but more important, it is way less expensive per rider than most of the US LRT system.
    3. Downtown and Central Broadway are the biggest destination in the province, and it is the reason why the last transit line servicing both is so much a success.
    To come back to the original post:
    Some also factor the fact that influx of asian immigration, used to live in dense city, and more noticeably in Highrise, can explain the density of Vancouver. On this account the dismissing sale figure for the Olympic Village adopting a more European urban model could give reason to this explanation.
    and also, the fact everyone want have a piece of view, which is nice in almost all direction can explain the success of the high-rise model in Vancouver.
    At the end, looking forward on the viaduct integration post: I personally believe a great job has been done in Richmond in this regard…

  8. Richard February 12, 2010 at 10:32 pm #

    Richmond is changing rapidly from a sprawling suburb to a real city with a vibrant downtown core. Richmond has been far more proactive than the other suburbs (and even Vancouver) in developing higher density around transit stations. Much has been done even before the opening of the Canada Line.
    And Richmond has done a great job of viaduct integration. From a pedestrian and cyclist point of view, it is better than it would have been if the Canada Line was surface rail. Some photos here:
    In addition to the street looking great, the guideway provides much needed rain protection for pedestrians and even northbound cyclists.

  9. Corey Burger February 12, 2010 at 11:43 pm #

    Reply to Vonny:
    2. No actually, Skytrain and ROTEM were both far more than either Seattle (~100 million/km) or Toronto (~50 million/km). Sources:
    Transit City can’t really be a direct comparison, but Link can, as it is also largely elevated, with some underground bits. It also shares an existing underground tunnel (The Seattle Transit Tunnel).
    3. That information was given to me by a City of Vancouver employee at the Gaining Ground Summit in Vancouver last year and I cannot find a cite for it. However, even if Downtown is bigger, UBC, with the U-Pass, is huge.

  10. Alon Levy February 13, 2010 at 4:55 pm #

    Corey, the Wikipedia article on Skytrain states that the Canada Line cost C$1.9 billion, which is equivalent to C$100 million/km, or US$13,000 per weekday boarding. The original two lines cost (in 2009 US dollars) about $1.5 billion for Expo and $1.3 billion for Millennium, which is equivalent to $10,000 per weekday boarding. All this assumes the ridership numbers given for Expo and Millennium combined and for Canada are reliable; the Translink report on this gives self-contradictory numbers.
    Vancouver’s Skytrain’s cost looks really bad in comparison to the C-Train or Madrid’s subways, but those cases are outliers. Per rider, the Skytrain costs the same as the proposed LRT in Toronto, and more than rapid transit in Europe but not egregiously more.

  11. Vonny February 13, 2010 at 9:23 pm #

    To complete, the Allon Levy post in answer to Corey,
    I have explicitly mentioned the Sheppard LRT, and more generally my source are cited in this post (I try to go with the much reliable one, so if you have more reliable that the one I use let me know)
    to explicit point 3 to Corey:
    City of vancouver states “Central Broadway is the largest trip destination in the region outside the Downtown.” in
    but to be sure UBC is probably the third one 😉

  12. Oregon Sage February 13, 2010 at 9:50 pm #

    I few years ago I spent two wonderful weeks in a hotel on Robson Street while attending a training. This experience put Vancouver on my short list of great cities to live in.
    However, I now work for a subsidiary of a company based in Langley, where I spent a few days last year … which in my experience is as bad an example of suburban sprawl as much of LA. It would appear that the barriers to the low density expansion are not quiet strong enough to prevent the spread of suburbia towards the US border yet.

  13. Aaron M. Renn February 14, 2010 at 7:47 am #

    This is a great great post. I’m only familiar with the very high level basics of Vancouver, so I’m eager to learn more about it in depth. I have heard that the housing prices are among the highest in the world. Also, I read an article that there is a serious gang problem, something a friend of mine who lived there said was true. But if you can afford to live there, it looks wonderful. I’ll await your future posts.

  14. Alon Levy February 14, 2010 at 8:42 pm #

    Aaron, what I’ve read on Vancouver’s crime issue is the exact opposite. Local psychology professor Barry Beyerstein was at a conference about crime and drug issues. At one point, he took the participants on a tour of the city, promising to take them to the city’s worst drug corner. The tour bus stopped, and the other participants asked him what happened. He explained that this was the corner. They looked around and still asked where the actual corner was, it looked so much nicer than what they were used to from the US.
    The crime rate in Western Canada is higher than in Eastern Canada, but it’s still apparently lower than in the US. Murder rates are certainly very low by US standards, though in the US murder rates are out of whack with the rates of other violent crimes; unfortunately Canadian crime surveys are too low-quality to give reliable data, so there’s no direct comparison of other crime rates.

  15. jon February 14, 2010 at 11:16 pm #

    even the suburbs are dense outside vancouver, that said there is a fair amount of easily developable flat farmland south of the fraser river (as seen when coming from the US via I-5), and they have very recently built sprawl inducing freeways/bridges to open up some of this very land to low density development.
    IMO the lack of urban freeways has to be perhaps the top reason (though certainly not the only reason) for the vibrant core.
    the large hong kong population has to be a large factor (and wasnt mentioned yet). if anyone is accustomed to high density living it is they. and it was a hong kong developer (concord pacific) that built most of yaletown.
    corey mentioned victoria. victoria has to be the most urban and vibrant city of its size in the US/Canada. Its population is 78,000 (metro 330,000). nevermind that its on an island and can only be accessed by sea or air.

  16. Aaron M. Renn February 15, 2010 at 7:16 am #

    Alon, if you google for Vancouver gang violence, there are a large number hits, including stories like this one:
    There’s actually a Wikipedia page on the 2009 Vancouver gang war:
    Apparently 20 people were killed last year, which seems like a lot for Canada.

  17. Tyson February 16, 2010 at 4:31 pm #

    It’s nice to read an account of Vancouver life from someone who’s lived there, it certainly seems like something of an urbanist’s paradise.
    You mention that Vancouver doesn’t necessarily have the big city characteristics people would expect from a city with such a dense skyline. However, to follow up on Aaron’s comments above, one area where Vancouver seems to “outperform” many larger cities is in its poor and homeless population. According to an article on “The 10 greenest and brownest things about Vancouver” by Jonathan Hiskes (2/11/10), the Downtown Eastside neighborhood “has been called the worst slum in an affluent city in the world.” I expect defenders of Vancouver’s model will make the claim that every large city “has its problems”, but Vancouver’s seem to be of a different magnitude, especially considering its relatively modest size. It seems to me you can’t separate this social aspect of the city from the physical planning as they both flow from a belief in centralized, ambitiously progressive public policies. I realize this is a transit blog, but I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this. How can we hold this up as a model for urban planning when it seems to go hand in hand with such abject poverty?

  18. Jarrett February 16, 2010 at 7:12 pm #

    I haven’t poked around downtown Eastside in any detail since I lived there in 2006, but the district I remember from that time was certainly not “the worst slum in an affluent city in the world”. Gordon Price would, I expect, have a more nuanced reply.

  19. Paul K McGregor February 17, 2010 at 12:19 pm #

    I spent last winter in Vancouver, alas the wrong time of the year. February 09 was actually quite nice and we had to remind the wheelchair curlers that this weather is not typical. I enjoyed my time there a lot and only regret that it couldn’t have been for a longer time.

  20. mezzanine February 17, 2010 at 2:22 pm #

    @ Tyson,
    There are other perspectives to Vancity’s homelessness issues. (and in all fairness to Jarrett, this is going way beyond transit planning.)
    IMO, one of the reasons poverty in vancouver is so visible is that for the past 10 yrs, it has been city policy to focus services for the homeless in the DTES. In hindsight, this was not a success and Vancouver is moving to bring a more diverse population there (like the new woodward’s development).
    If you look at the stats, like homeless counts in vancouver versus, say, portland, our counts are very comparable bearing mind the methodolgy in each city is different. (chk the link below)
    And very interestingly, drug use and vancouver’s tolerance to drug use is also a factor in homelessness. Sightline did an interesting analysis – jail populations between portland and vancouver are dramatically different – oregon has 14000 people in prison, 1200 in portland alone. BC has 2700 for the whole province. Most of ppl in oregon in jail are for drug crimes, the correlation is ppl who would have homelessness issues are already in jail in other cities.
    Is our relative tolerance for drug use a bad thing for poverty and urbanism? As Jarrett would say – it depends on what you value. 😉
    “The bottom line: including Portland’s large and growing prison population puts the city’s “success” in homeless policy in a different light. Portland’s homeless problem may seem less pressing, but that’s largely because — as is completely typical in the United States — Portland locks a large portion of its homeless problem in jail, where it’s harder to see.”