Seattle, Vancouver, and Portland by Rail, Bus, Streetcar, and Foot: Part Two

Vancouver, British Columbia

part one of this series was on Seattle

According to The Economist, Mercer, and Monocle, Vancouver is one of the world’s most livable cities. They cite its ecodensity, cosmopolitan population, scenic natural surroundings, progressive governance, general safety and cleanliness. Others, less enthralled, have taken to calling the city Blandcouver, or even Vanshitty. I had visited Vancouver twice before boarding Amtrak’s 510 Cascades Line train out of Seattle, had fallen in love with the city twice, but both trips had been brief, summertime affairs. Everywhere was shimmering blue water, glittering glass and steel, lush green forests and mountains. Vancouver sure knows how to get dolled up for a date, but what does she look like the morning after, in sweat pants and no makeup, during the long, wet, gray winter?

Puget Sound was visible from the train for an hour or more as Seattle crept southward. Sunlight would sporadically break through the clouds and shatter against the water, but mostly the world outside was a series of desaturated still frames. We stopped in small towns, passed industrial outposts, hugged gentle mountains, snuck through patches of rainforest. It is a beautiful three and a half hour trip, inexpensive and much more comfortable and peaceful than driving.

The approach into Vancouver is not inspiring. Industrial sprawl greets me. Soon enough, though, I’m stepping off the train, exiting the station, and boarding Vancouver’s Skytrain light rail. Ticketing is not well explained and signage is poor, but the system is simple enough to figure out and attendants are helpful. A two-hour pass good throughout Vancouver’s local bus and rail network costs less than three bucks. In twenty minutes I’m checking into Hostelling International’s Vancouver Downtown Hostel.


Hostelling International Vancouver Downtown: the sink area in the roomsource

Central Vancouver’s peninsula has two HI hostels. Downtown is a couple blocks west of Burrard at the edge of the West End; the other, Central, is in the heart of the Granville Entertainment District. Both are packed year-round with young travelers, mostly Australian and Western European, and feel (and smell) much like university dorms. American Hotel, the much smaller Seattle HI hostel I stayed in, was new and clean and relaxing, and probably the only thing about Seattle that I liked better. I drop my gear, meet my bunkmates (a cheery Irish teenager, a young German au pair, and a Japanese man who lives nearby but moved into the hostel for a couple weeks so his roommate could have time with his visiting girlfriend), and head out for a walk.

The West End comprises most of the mini-neighborhoods west of Burrard and east of Stanley Park, including large gay and gay-friendly enclaves such as Davie Village. Low and high-rise buildings mix easily, the streets are relatively narrow, and the omnipresence of trees, grass, or some other kind of greenery softens the urban feel. Architects and planners have realized that five stories is not only the “maximum” height for walk-ups, but also about the maximum height that the eye notices as one walks around. Some buildings incorporate setbacks as a means of visual trickery, allowing greater floor counts without the oppressive verticality. I saw some of this in Vancouver, but it never seemed to matter. With setbacks or without, buildings never felt like they loomed, and the scale always seemed somehow human, even suburban, despite the prevalence of fifteen and twenty story residential towers. The whole place is also eminently walkable.

source: google maps

source: google maps

I head west on Davie Street, the length of which is flush with cafes, restaurants, shops, and services. It is cold and raining, but the sidewalks are alive with pedestrians, a mix of locals and tourists. I intend to get a coffee and read awhile at a fantastic coffee shop (I don’t remember the name) I had frequented during my previous trips, only to discover it has been taken over by Starbucks. Ugh. I keep walking. Nearby Stanley Park is absolutely stunning, as good a place as any to spend a day in good weather, but I am tired and getting hungry so I turn up Denman, make a right on Robson, and eventually settle into a booth at a little Chinese joint.


source: google maps

The next day I walk across the Burrard Bridge, over False Creek, to Kitsilano. Supposedly, Kits is about as trendy and desirable a neighborhood as Vancouver boasts, but it lacks any of the ostentatiousness that smothers its counterparts in most American cities. Rents are high here, as in most of downtown Vancouver, though not astronomically so. 4th Ave runs east-west for several miles, and along with parallel Broadway is the retail hub of the area. As on Davie, a plethora of shops and eateries and services line the street, some with residences above. The roads between 4th and Broadway are residential, but what looks at first glance like a single family detached home isn’t always so. Many, if not most, of the houses in Kits are actually duplexes, triplexes, or apartment buildings in disguise. The pervading feel is leafy and suburban, but the density is surprisingly high. It’s the same trick downtown plays. And it seems to all be part of Vancouver’s EcoDensity movement.

The Naamsource

source: google maps

source: google maps

After nearly ten miles of walking I’ve burned off the delicious crepe and vat of espresso I consumed for breakfast. I’m tired, cold, and soaked. I slosh into a chain coffee shop with an unremarkable name, and am surprised to find that the vibe inside is distinctly local, the decor homey. A hot mug of apple cider and a sandwich warm my belly, and before my pants can dry I’m back outside, treading a path atop the seawall near Jericho Beach, in between English Bay and the tony homes that trace its southern coast. Even cold and rainy the place feels almost cheery, and despite a population density twice that of Seattle the city feels open and airy, compact without being stifling.

Vancouver has really only become VANCOUVER in the past couple decades. Hollywood’s migration has helped, as have the natural tourist draws of mountains, forests, and ocean. But it was the 1986 World Exposition that spurred the building of the SkyTrain, an influx of Chinese immigrants and financial capital (in the wake of the UK’s 1997 transfer of Hong Kong to China) that sparked high-rise/high density development, and the work of local academics (UBC professor Bill Rees coined the term “ecological footprint”) that fostered a developing culture of environmental awareness and responsibility. Vancouver feels dynamic, like an experiment; the city is not static, rooted in place, but the feeling is one of intention, not instability.

The outer lanes on the Burrard Bridge were recently converted into bike lanes on a trial basis and buffered by a temporary concrete wall. In pouring rain they were well utilized. A section of abandoned railroad tracks adjacent to Granville Island (itself an incredible reinvention) has been repurposed as community gardens. A number of streets throughout downtown give primacy to bikes and pedestrians by blocking automobile through-traffic. Roundabouts have replaced two or four-way stop signs at many residential intersections. Transit is frequent, logical, affordable, and runs virtually around the clock.


source: google maps

On the other hand, the drug scene on East Hastings, though contained, is as bad as anything I’ve ever seen. Granville Street, like most of Yaletown, is overrun by the bar and club crowds. The cost of living is high, the economy not nearly as diverse as it probably needs to be. Beyond the urban core EcoDensity gives way to typical sprawl. Downtown and its immediate surroundings may be stellar urban creations that simultaneously praise human development and preserve natural wilderness, but those who call it Blandcouver do so for a reason. I have yet to find any sort of real creative scene in Vancouver. The population is extraordinarily diverse, the indigenous people well-represented, yet somehow everyone seems to blend together. Vancouver’s urbanism is a little fuzzy, a little soft. And while safety and cleanliness are positive attributes, I think the same cultural tendencies that create them here also neuter the place a bit. The overwhelming majority of Vancouver is really quite…nice. But where are, in the words of Kerouac, “the ones who are mad to live…the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn?”

I had a conversation about Vancouver with a New Urbanist planner who scoffed at what he called its “fake urbanism.” He laughed at Vancouver’s high-rise residential towers, claiming such development could never yield honest to goodness neighborhoods. I asked residents what they thought, asked them to tell me about their neighborhoods. From all reports, as well as my own experience, I don’t see anything fake about Vancouver’s urbanism. And the neighborhoods there seem as honest as anywhere else. It isn’t a perfect city, of course, and many things can be improved. What I like about Vancouver, though, is that it seems fully aware of that fact. It constantly experiments, and the city as a whole seems engaged in a critical conversation of urbanism and environmental sustainability. If anything, it might be a little too self-critical.

I enjoyed the hell out of my three days in Vancouver. I didn’t have a car and never had the slightest need for one. Shitty weather didn’t dampen the beauty of either the city or the stunning landscape. I never felt unsafe or unwelcome as a pedestrian. I met plenty of friendly, interesting folks, both locals and tourists, some of whom were born and raised in the Fraser Basin and some of whom hailed from the far corners of the globe. All in all, Vancouver was still a good lookin’ gal the morning after. Maybe she isn’t the sort of hot that makes you want to just get naked in the street, but she’d be easy to bring home to Mom.

continue on to part three: Portland


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6 Responses to Seattle, Vancouver, and Portland by Rail, Bus, Streetcar, and Foot: Part Two

  1. Dave Parker says:

    I like that you asked people who lived in the urbanized neighborhoods how they felt about it. It seems like experts everywhere spout off about whether a neighborhood is livable or not, but nobody asks the people who live there. Thanks for adding that bit to the story.

    • Josh Grigsby says:

      You’re very welcome. I think experts are important, in any field. Professional training and years of specialized study shouldn’t be easily dismissed. But neither should the body of knowledge locals develop over years of living in a place. I think the thing to strive for is balance. Consultants hired to draft plans for a city sometimes spend as little as a day or two in that city, a practice I think is absurd. I don’t care if it’s not as economically efficient, no one should be shaping a place they don’t understand. The pendulum can swing too far the other way as well, though. The town I currently live in is dominated by neighborhood groups who mostly want their neighborhoods to stay exactly as they are, who are terrified of any sort of change, and they wield enough political clout to get their way. I’ll admit that part of the reason they refuse to consider change is that they’ve seen the results of poor planning decisions on the part of the experts, but still. Human settlements of any size are dynamic places, or else they’re dead. Cities and towns don’t always need to get bigger (in fact, I think many of them would be better off smaller), but they need to be constantly changing in little ways. Egos and fear can be the biggest obstacles to change, but both can be overcome with honest conversation. Some say conversation and honesty are both passe. I’d be happy to buy them a cup of coffee and have a chat about why they think that.

  2. Pingback: Seattle, Vancouver, and Portland by Rail, Bus, Streetcar, and Foot: Part Three «

  3. Pingback: Planologie Considers Portland

  4. David Godin says:

    Thank you very much for your series. I read all three entries and genuinely appreciate your thoughts and the lens you used as a visitor to the three cities. It certainly seems that you went on your sojourn without a preconceived set of conclusions in mind.

    As a Vancouverite I am thrilled you had such a good time and upon reflection I think your piece is one of the most honest assessments of our city that I have read. Despite your obvious knowledge about cities, the built environment and public realm, I appreciated that you formed your opinions by using your feet, ears and eyes. And that you came to the conclusions you did about Vancouver during our often cold, damp and dreary winter months is all the more remarkable.

    My one additional piece of information for you is that the deceptive density of detached single family homes that you encountered in the Kits neighbourhood is not a rare exception, but rather the norm for the City of Vancouver. While upwards of two-thirds of the land in the City of Vancouver is devoted to detached houses more than three-quarters of the city’s population does not live in unshared detached single family homes. Instead they live in shared detached single family homes, duplexes, large houses that have been converted into apartment buildings, rowhouses, townhouses, low- and medium-rise apartments and high-rise condo towers. Basement or attic suites in detached single family homes are legal anywhere in the city and laneway-oriented housing has recently been approved and there is already good uptake.

    Every year many hundreds of tired single family homes are demolished and duplexs are built in their place, many with purpose-built rental basement suites and sometimes laneway/carriage houses too. This hidden density is one of the city’s great strengths and it allows much of the overall character of the single family home neighbourhoods to remain intact, thereby keeping most the NIMBY forces at bay. Yet this steady rate of infill is allowing great swaths of the city to easily double, if not quadruple or more, the population density and the mortgage helper suites allow the insane cost of non-apartment housing to be slightly more manageable. This type of infill also proceeds without the need to add any new parking and it can be done with the resources of the homeowner or a small home building company instead of requiring the much greater resources of a developer if an apartment building or townhouse complex is pursued since anything other than a detached house requires underground parking.

    Elsewhere in the Metro Vancouver region detached single family homes again take up a great deal of the land area but still represent the minority form of housing for the region’s population. At this point roughly two-thirds of the regional population live in a dwelling other than an unshared detached single family home, an overall rate which is not that far behind the City of Vancouver. Having already passed a crucial tipping point there is a general consensus that the construction of townhouses and apartment buildings of all shapes and sizes is normal and to be expected. Because of this general consensus there is rarely fierce resistance to these types of buildings being proposed, especially along arterial streets, around SkyTrain stations and along busy bus routes.

    Anyway, thanks again for the series!

  5. Yappy Raccoon says:

    The sweet cafe you dearly missed that was devoured by starbucks was called ‘Bojangles’.

    Cows Ice Cream and the bakery on the corner of Davie and Denman were also victims of starbucks. I am happy to see Fat Burger holding out against the odds.

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