I moved to Vancouver last weekend. The slow pace of posting will probably continue for another week, but I do have multiple posts in the pipeline. I am currently at a downtown hotel, commuting to Kitsilano to look at apartments and to UBC to deal with early paperwork.
My appreciation of Translink dropped within a day, after I discovered that discounted books of multiple tickets and monthly passes are only available at 7-11 and other convenience stores, rather than at stations. (The ticket machines offer what appeared to be multiple-ride tickets but turned out to be single-ride tickets, perhaps usable by multiple people at once.) I still think it’s better-run than the other transit agencies of North America, but it has a lot to learn from New York regarding how to make fare media usable by passengers.
The most surprising pedestrian experience I’ve had is about the street width. The streets are wide, which is what I expected, based on Jarrett’s paean to the grid at Human Transit (which is necessarily wide in North America). What I did not expect was that the buildings would be so short away from downtown. Jarrett’s description of Central Broadway, around the Canada Line stop, as the second downtown, made me think Broadway was a continuous corridor of high-intensity development. It is not; it feels more like a secondary retail strip. The commercial buildings are usually one- or two-story, with some clusters of higher density at major street intersections, especially Cambie but also Granville, MacDonald, and others. This development is more spiky than linear, as if there’s already rapid transit on the route, rather than just interlined high-frequency buses.
Away from Broadway, Kitsilano feels very suburban – at least, the part of 11th Avenue I walked on does. The density looks higher than in Providence because a few of the buildings are tall, but most of the buildings have ornamental front lawns, and the sidewalks are narrow paths through the grass, more like a suburb than like the very old New England neighborhoods I had gotten used to over the past year.
There’s a point I made early on in this blog – I can’t remember where – about the relationship between street width and building height. To be pedestrian-friendly, a street needs to have a certain proportion between the height of the street wall – for example, the height of the buildings flanking it if they do not taper toward the top – and the width of the street. The ratio I initially proposed is 1:1, with a favorable range of 1:2 to 2:1; nowadays I’d propose higher ratios – Providence’s East Side’s 1:2 feels a bit too low, while the 2:1-3:1 on old streets in Boston and Providence feels fine – but the principle is similar.
Downtown Vancouver has what feels to me like correct proportions. With the setbacks and the tapering buildings, the height-to-width ratio is kept to average levels, with modernist skyscrapers balancing wide streets. Because there is high density in the core, the streets do not feel desolate, and the major streets are flush with ground-level retail. Buildings that look very similar to Akirov Towers do not make me feel the same revulsion toward their design; Akirov Towers are built like any housing project, but the towers of Downtown Vancouver feel like New York’s towers on a base. Although many of those buildings do not actually have any street wall, enough of them do that I feel like I’m walking in a human city.
Broadway does not have the same feel. From the bus, the trees frame the street, making it feel less like a highway. On foot, it’s different, and it feels more open and less dense. It works well enough for transit – the bus lines on it have extremely high traffic, much of it due to the pull of UBC – but the pedestrian experience is less than perfect. The street is 30 meters wide, the same as a Manhattan avenue or two-way street, and it needs to be framed by buildings about that tall.
UBC is the worst. Granted, it is summertime, so it’s more deserted than it is during the year. But Harvard Square, Kendall Square, College Hill, Morningside Heights, and even Yale are teeming with people at all times of year. UBC clearly has people – they fill the buses to the rest of the city – but the campus is so spread out there aren’t that many of them at one spot (or if there are, I haven’t found it). There is one cluster of restaurants at University Village, and a few cafes and other retail outlets sporadically located elsewhere, but nothing truly mixed-use the way any of the aforementioned Northeastern college neighborhoods are. There is a grid of major campus boulevards, built with landscaped lawns, but they end up feeling like a large urban renewal project. Columbia has some of those, but they have more people using them; the only Northeastern school I know that has similarly lonely throughfares is MIT, but MIT has its livelier parts at the main administration building and near its subway stop.
Somewhat away from the grid is UBC’s bus loop terminal. My first experience at UBC was stepping off the 99-B express bus to a terminal with a few bays for buses, surrounded by parking, and landscaped lawns that are far prettier from a moving vehicle than on foot. According to a presentation about the proposed subway under Broadway, UBC’s mode split among non-Vancouver residents is 71-27 in favor of cars. (Central Broadway’s is 77-21, which surprised me since it looks not particularly dense but not really auto-oriented the way UBC is). For Downtown, the comparable figure is 49-49.
Despite all this, Vancouver is by North American standards a reasonably successful transit city. Its transit usage is okay, and unlike in most North American cities, it is growing, if not as fast as I’d like. Translink believes that a Broadway subway would get 146,000 daily riders, up from 60,000 on the 99-B plus about 50,000 on local buses today; intuitively this feels low to me, though achieving high enough transit mode share to UBC and Central Broadway would probably require more fundamental changes to their urban design than is politically acceptable. For one, local activists would have to stop referring to the few mid-rises amidst the two-story retail at Broadway and Cambie as high-rise or high-intensity development. It’s nothing upzoning won’t fix, but upzoning this intense is unlikely. It’s really too bad, because walking on Broadway I feel insufficient height is the only problem on the street.