Over the Christmas and New Year period my wife and I a few weeks over in Canada. Much of that was up in Whistler but we ended the trip with 3-4 days in Vancouver. Below are some of my observations relevant to what we discuss here. I’m mindful that some of these may be impacted by the time of year and also simply not knowing the city as locals would.
Dense but not intense
Downtown Vancouver is one of the densest areas in North America. The area is dotted with a huge number of skyscrapers and is home to about twice the number of people as Auckland’s City Centre, in a similar size footprint. Yet despite this, I found the streets strangely quiet. Whereas Auckland’s city centre is focused in and around Queen St where there are a huge number of people walking daily, I never really felt that busyness on Vancouver’s streets. The only place that felt busy like that downtown was at the Pacific Centre, a large mostly underground mall that’s also connected to both skytrain lines. Even if there was some level of people volume on a street, it felt like you could just walk a block and it would all change, and visa versa. In other words, lots of little sporadic patches of activity but it never felt consistent.
Interestingly we often found the same thing with restaurants and cafe’s, there would be some around but they’d look empty (and an empty cafe isn’t a great sign), and when we found one that looked decent, it would have an 1.5 hour wait.
While on the topic of density, Vancouver is famous for its podium apartment towers, where there’s a low-rise podium at street level but with a tall, slender tower on top of that. This is to both help break the density up and to allow more light though to the street level. What’s not often mentioned in this is also the role street trees play. They’re not everywhere but street trees seem to be much more common in Vancouver and in many places are further used to break up the bulk of buildings, like below.
The other aspect about this I noticed is that there were a number of service lanes. Auckland is following cities like Melbourne in re-purposing many of those lanes for more urban space, e.g. Fort Lane, however, this isn’t a think in Vancouver. My guess is much of this can be put down to the lack of intensity I felt.
Walking around most of Auckland you often feel like a second class citizen. Traffic lights have strictly regimented phases with normally only a short window for pedestrians in order to accommodate every conceivable vehicle movement. It’s not uncommon for the ‘don’t walk’ symbol will start flashing you’re only halfway across the road and at some intersections you can spend minutes and minutes waiting for your brief turn.
By comparison, walking around downtown Vancouver was a breeze. As an example, after New Years celebrations we decided to walk back to our hotel, a wise decision it turned out given streets were jammed with cars. It was about a 2km back to our hotel, crossing though about 15 light controlled intersections, yet we only had to stop and wait to cross once, and it was only a short wait at that. We had similar experiences other times we walked around.
The key reason it was so much easier than in Auckland was that the traffic signals and rules are designed to make walking easier. By default, traffic signals activate without having to press a beg button, something that only happens in Auckland at a handful of locations. What’s more, walking phases are activated in the same direction as traffic flow and for the same length of time as cars get. Turning cars can still do so but only if people aren’t crossing. Drivers seemed to be more polite and expecting of pedestrians and so it never felt unsafe.
We need to make walking around Auckland, and not just the city centre, as easy as it is in Vancouver.
Even in chilly temperatures, Vancouver is easy to ride a bike, and many were doing just that – I imagine bike numbers really boom in Summer. Its ridability comes thank to a number of bike lanes around the city and the Seawall. It also helps being relatively flat. Some of those bike lanes, like on Hornby St, are fantastic and part of the inspiration behind using planter boxes on Quay St.
One feature I really liked was that in some places, bike parking was incorporated into the protected bike lane design. Some of the other cycleway bays housed a bike share scheme.
We took a tour by bike which was both informative and great fun. Much of it was along the seawall, a walking and biking path around much of the harbour edge. The quality of the path varies but much of it highlights exactly what Tamaki Dr should look like with physically separated and generous walking and cycling paths.
There are also small features which I loved, such as that street signs on roads with bike infrastructure have a bike symbol on them.
There was no way I was passing though Vancouver without using Skytrain at least once. With driverless trains helping to deliver fantastic frequency of a train every few minutes, it really is such an ideal system. It’s what any city starting to build rapid transit from scratch should be aiming for. We caught the expo line a couple of times and even with 6-car trains every few minutes they were fairly busy. That’s also borne out the stats as in the year to the end of October, there were almost 105 million trips on the Expo and Millennium lines. That’s about 15 million more than our entire PT network combined.
Of course, we also used the Canada Line to get to the airport when it came time to leave. The Canada Line was built in 2009, in advance of the 2010 Winter games. The line is also very busy with now over 46 million trips on it annually, well ahead of predictions. Part of its busyness comes from it using quite small trains, they’re only 40m long across two carriages. As well as high frequencies, this suggests good all day usage. What did surprise me though is that there looks to be only limited ability to increase capacity in the future. Much of the route is underground and the stations don’t appear to be designed to allow for any expansion in the future. It did make me wonder if limiting that ability for future expansion is something the city will regret in a few decades time.
One thing that did surprise me was that dwell times across both lines felt slow. The few times I checked, stops took around 35 seconds and almost all of that was sitting with the doors open – I still don’t understand why our doors are so slow to operate.
Vancouver also has a great bus system carrying nearly 250 million trips annually. I didn’t ride a bus there so can’t comment on that aspect but I did notice that a lot of the buses are trolley buses and many are also articulated for extra capacity, allowing for much quicker and easier boarding and alighting than our double deckers.
Overall, Vancouverites make almost 160 trips on PT per person per year, about 3 times what Aucklanders do.
Vancouver today prides itself on the fact it never built any motorways though its downtown area. One was planned but was stopped by locals in the 60’s. However, many of the roads are still quite wide and designed to carry a lot of traffic.
One thing that did surprise me about the streets was just how much parking there was. This was both off street parking buildings but even more so, the huge amount of on-street carparking, much more so than in Auckland. On the flip side, this is something that’s likely to present Vancouver with a huge opportunity in future years if they re-purpose it for other things, like more bike lanes.
I think that’s enough for now. We had a great time in both Whistler and Vancouver, but it’s also nice to be back to some warmth.