What Lies Beneath

Vancouver has, over and over again, been dubbed the world’s most livable city and, according to Silas Archambault, it is definitely one the best North American cities from a carfree perspective. But even in such a place there are many things to do to cure auto dependence, especially by making shorter out of town weekend trips available to carfree dwellers.


Vancouver is, as far as North America goes, a great place to be a pedestrian. Button-activated cross signals can be found at nearly every intersection, and are generally quick to stop automobiles for light-footed travelers. The city is on a grid network with small blocks, making it easy to take a relatively direct route. Recreational walkers can enjoy the seawall which covers most of the waterfront for the entire city. The city is even considering establishing a network of designated pedestrian corridors in the downtown. These pedestrian corridors will feature a combination of dedicated right-of-way, public art, prioritized crossing, and community events.

Unlike many other cities which were built or retrofitted for automobiles, Vancouver took a more democratic approach of toleration. As the birthplace of Greenpeace, sensitivity to environmental impacts has a long tradition in Vancouver. The city is not very old, as it was only incorporated in 1886, beginning development just before the automobile uprising. The arterial commercial pattern found throughout the city is a relic of streetcar lines. Like nearly every North American city (with the exception of Toronto), Vancouver streetcars were replaced with buses as the city embraced rubber-wheeled mobility. However, political action in the Chinatown district also halted the construction of a through-city highway – a victory shared by few cities.

While Vancouver has been planned as an amenable and pleasant city for carfree mobility, it is simultaneously well-built for cars. Wide streets provide on-street parking on both sides. A grid network provides many routes and a high capacity for vehicles. Underground parking is abundant, with some buildings providing two underground parking stalls for every dwelling unit. At an average cost of CAN$40,000 per spot, underground parking is a significant investment. In 2006, 312,070 registered vehicles were shared between 578,041 Vancouverites. Despite this, only 50 percent of trips in Vancouver are made by individuals driving alone. This may seem like an awful lot of cars if you look at the city alone.

But in Vancouver, you can’t help but look at the mountains which loom above the North Shore. In many ways, Vancouver is defined by the outdoor amenities which surround it: Burrard Inlet, the Rocky Mountains, the Fraser Valley to the east, the Salish Sea to the west. Outdoor recreational opportunities abound: hiking, skiing, kayaking, sailing, cycling, backpacking – just to name a few. If you don’t like the great outdoors, this city probably isn’t for you. Everything about Vancouver is in reference to the natural setting. The great outdoors becons. Unfortunately, only those with access to a car can fully enjoy it.

In fact, Vancouver is struck by an interesting transportation problem. Most North American cities contain massive central business districts which draw in commuters from up to two hours away by transit or by driving. These cities, such as Atlanta, Chicago, and Boston, swell during the day, replete with traffic congestion and street vendors. The evening sees a reverse commute where commuters and their cars get stuck trying to get back out of the city before the sun goes down. In Vancouver, people actually live in the city, and they enjoy it to boot. However, just as American suburbanites enjoy their little patch of green at the end of the day, Vancouverites want to throw themselves into the great big green (or blue, or white) outside of the city on the weekends. Friday evening through Sunday is when we get our big traffic problems. This outdoor exodus is precisely why the city contains more than one car for every two Vancouverites. Some people don’t want to share their ride on the way out.

The fact of the matter is that in Vancouver no one needs a car. Unlike Los Angeles or Phoenix, you can easily get around without one. Of course, the problem still remains of how to get out of the city. Nice for recreation, crucial for disaster evacuation, cars consume a pretty sizely space in the city. Last year, the city lowered minimum parking requirements for many areas. They also approved a bylaw that allows laneway housing to replace car parking. Vancouver has also announced itself “the Greenest City in the World” (or at least aspires to be) with a target of 50 percent alternative transportation use by 2020.

For better or for worse, the city has already been built. Cars are a part of the city, and will continue to be until Vancouverites can no longer afford the four-wheeled luxury goods. In the mean time, car sharing organisations such as zipcar and the Cooperative Auto Network are popular and offer a whole new form of automobile access. The city now allows for reduced parking requirements of five to one for every carshare vehicle in a development. What Vancouver needs now is transit that reflects the reverse commute patterns and brings city dwellers to their far-flung recreation destinations. With just a little less money and a little more creativity, Vancouverites could give up their cars. Of course, the question remains: what do we do with all of that vacant underground space?

Silas Archambault is finishing up his Master’s degree in Urban Planning at the University of British Columbia, with a focus on accessibility and community development. He is interested in the role of communication and transportation technology in social justice, and his work centres around advocacy for mobility rights.

One Comment

  1. Agnes
    Posted 3 September, 2010 at 04:50 | Permalink

    Interesting article. One factual error - the Rocky Mountains are about 850 km east of Vancouver. We’re in the Coast Mountains.

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *