Why should a growing city with high ambitions for sustainability host a big blockbuster like the Olympics, with all the risk and nuisance that it entails?
So that everyone can see exceptional transit ridership, and exceptional volumes of pedestrians, and exceptional limitations on private car traffic, and can ask: “What if that were normal?”
Here’s how Gordon Price put it yesterday:
“You now have a public that sees the possibility,” said (SFU City Program director Gordon Price). “We just conducted the greatest controlled traffic experiment in North America.”
In a growing city, a big event like the Olympics is an imperfect but vivid glimpse of what “normal” might be like 10, 20, 30 years in the future, when there will be that many people moving every day.
Vancouver’s record transit ridership is a fun fact during the Olympics, but afterward it will be a useful fact. When planning the city of the future, people can say “we’ll have 1.7 million people on transit every day,” and it won’t be just a number. Everyone will remember what that looked like, how it felt, and the effort required to achieve it. Many Olympic statistics will be useful in this way.
Obviously, 1.7 million people commuting every day will feel a lot different from huge masses of people pouring out of stadiums. In many respects, a “routine” daily patronage that size would be easier to handle than the Olympics.
The political challenge of urbanist planning, at its core, is the need to visualize a future city that is bigger, denser, more economically active, more intense in every way than the city citizens know today. Planners know now to visualize that, often with be benefit of other cities’ experience, but too often, all we can do is recite numbers: future populations, future trip generation, future ridership. To the average voter, these numbers are abstractions faintly tinged with fear. Will I want to live in a city that’s that big, or that intense? How can I know?
The memory of the Olympics will bring some of those numbers down to earth. Now, everyone in Vancouver has experienced a day with 1.7 million people on transit, so similar numbers will have some meaning to people who don’t normally deal in abstractions.
The memories of the Olympic crowds on transit will probably include many features that citizens won’t want in their everyday life, but it will be possible to grasp the scale of how different the future might be, how the life and infrastructure of the city will need to change as a result, and how Vancouver may be an even better place to live.
Congratulations to everyone in Vancouver, and at its fine transit agency, TransLink, for a successful Olympic Winter Games.
Photo of street hockey in Robson Street: Price Tags.
Hosting a big event like this also permits–nay, requires–a city to make a substantial commitment to its infrastructure. And Vancouver’s now had two such events in the last 25 years.
Of course, hosting such events requires lots of things–leaders with a strong vision and the credibility to get people to buy into it, and a populace willing to be led. Once again, it’s interesting to compare Vancouver to Portland–a city of roughly the same population (both in the city proper, and metropolitan area)–and Portland isn’t in the same league. Portland does well compared to similar-sized US cities for transit, of course–but in many other indicators of economic and cultural health, Portland is not in the same ballpark.
The idea that Portland might host an event like an Olympics is, at the present time, laughable–nobody in town has the political and economic chops to pull such a thing off. Hell, the city can’t even get an NBA All-Star game due to insufficient hotel space (despite the Rose Garden being a first-class basketball arena and the city having a widely-regarded NBA fanbase). The hospitality industry isn’t interested in building one on their dime; and recent attempts to involve public dollars in such a project were roundly denounced as corruption and corporate welfare. (This despite the existence of a publicly-owned convention center that misses out on a lot of business for the same reason).
Of course, the critics might well have a point. City Hall frequently borders on dysfunctional (the current mayor has been politically weakened due to a sex scandal). There’s a whole lot of people in the metro area who aren’t interested in the trappings (and expense) of a “world-class city”–preferring that their hometown remain as is. A common (cheap) criticism directed towards many urban planners is that they are trying to make Portland like Manhattan or Europe–such comments are not intended as compliments. And it may well be that Portland simply lacks the economic and capital base (and the national and international prestige) to have pretensions of becoming more than it is–whereas Vancouver is Canada’s only mainland Pacific port, and arguably only behind Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal in prestige; Portland plays fifth banana to Seattle, the Bay Area, LA, and San Diego among West Coast metro areas. Many feel that Portland’s “value proposition”, if anything, ought to things like simplicity of life (and natural beauty), not cosmopolitan pretense. And that to the extent that Portland’s land use and transit planning is being done to support explicitly urbanist goals, rather than transit efficiency goals (which certainly do imply higher density), that it–we–are throwing money away.
Or maybe I’m just bummed about the hockey game. 🙂
The thing to remember is that the Winter Olympics really used to be the province of small mountain towns and ski chalets (Lake Placid, Squaw Valley, etc). That’s no longer the case, as all of the recent Winter games have had a big city component (Turin, Salt Lake, Vancouver). Once you go big, you can’t go back – you need the hotel rooms, the airports, etc.
It’s notable that Munich is bidding for the 2018 games, where the city would host the ice events (hockey, figure skating, speed skating – all of the arena events, pretty much) while using the venues at Garmisch-Partenkirchen (home of the 1936 Winter games) for the mountain events – a similar set-up to what Vancouver has used. With all the memories of the Miracle on Ice 30 years ago in Lake Placid, it’s also worth remembering what a disaster that was in terms of transportation…
As I said of Melbourne after the Commonwealth Games in 2006:
For just ten days, no matter how crowded the streets were, or how long it took to get anywhere, everyone seemed to be in a good mood.
and perhaps more relevantly:
For just ten days you could catch a train after 7pm without waiting for half an hour, and a bus home from the station in the evening. Barely a single cancellation in that time, yet this morning the old familiar beep beep of an SMS train cancellation alert was back.
Sadly it seems that in Melbourne, the government didn’t necessarily learn a lot in the transport space — the roads are just as crowded as ever, the trains still have reliability problems, and the old infrequent timetables outside peak hour and poor bus services came back and have stayed.
The silver lining is a small legacy of infrastructure, such as the William Barak pedestrian bridge.
Good post. There is certainly a lot to ponder about the Olympic experience. One that I didn’t expect is transit was lot of fun during the Olympics.
Some additional context would be helpful.
Public transit in Vancouver moved 1.7 million people over many consecutive days in a region with 2.3 million people. That works out to moving the equivalent of over 70% of the regional population on transit alone for two weeks. It was an astounding accomplishment, and it certainly bodes well for planning for the future.
Moreover, the vibe on downtown streets was very happy and full of creative expression. There was a parallel Cultural Olympiad with street art & music, art on display on several blocks of streets that were closed to all but pedestrian traffic, and many ‘houses’ operated by many nations and canadian aboriginal people.
This flash mob with 1,500 people was just a taste of the atmosphere: