Vancouver: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

This morning’s Tribune has a summary of last week’s Metro-sponsored trip to Vancouver, B.C.

The article highlights a lot of Vancouver’s achievements, but there’s one bit of ugly that hasn’t been remarked on.

Traffic speeds.

In the neighborhood business districts we visited the speeds were routinely 50kph (30mph) and the streets were generally engineered so that drivers drove faster than that. Beyond safety issues, one effect of this is that the districts were very noisy. In contrast, Portland’s business districts (e.g., Hawthorne, NW 23rd) would generally be either 25mph or 20mph.

And downtown Vancouver’s one-way traffic grid is also timed for about 30mph. In contrast, Portland’s downtown grid is signalized for 12-18mph.

We didn’t get a chance to discuss this in detail with local planners, but I wonder if it’s a legacy of Vancouver not bringing their freeways into the urban core, perhaps creating pressure to keep arterials and collectors operating at higher speeds?

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13 responses to “Vancouver: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”

  1. I would say that the one residential development we saw over by Granville Island (Portico I believe is the name) had excessively high traffic speeds. People were easily ripping by at 50 mph and it was really loud. I asked Michael Gordon (City Planner) if they planned traffic calming into the development and he said no. The speed didn’t seem to be an issue for him with respect to that particular project.

    I would have to agree that one of Vancouver’s ugly traits is their excessive traffic speed.
    They may not have highways but people sure drive like they do.

  2. Chris Smith Says: Perhaps, but we don’t do nearly as well as much of Western Europe which has managed to tame traffic in city centers.
    JK: Be careful about copying things from countries with a lower standard of living than ours. You just might copy things that hurt our standard of living.

    Wasted time in traffic is wasted money and wasted money is less food on the table, or medicine, or school supplies or a vacation. Oregon and Portland is already a high unemployment state, probably due to government policies that hassle business. We have a housing affordability crisis to the point that many people can not afford to enter the housing market, probably due, in large part, to Metro’s artificial shortage of land. Some evidence indicates that the average renter pays over $100/month of their rent to cover the costs of bad government policy, especially smart growth.

    Remember that Boeing cited traffic congestion as a factor in their moving major parts of their operations out of Seattle. The same applies to Portland.


  3. I don’t accept the implied assertion that Western Europe has a lower standard of living than the U.S.

    And our housing affordability is no worse (indeed better than some) than western cities that have no sprawl controls.

  4. Jim,

    Define standard of living in the context of your comment above.

    Comparing standards of living is subjective – you can back any argument you try to make depending on what you choose to measure. Economical factors like real income, poverty rate, income inequality, or things like access and quality of health care, quality and access of education, or social rights are all possible measures. I would be hard pressed to believe that access to education in the US is the same as it is in most countries in Western Europe. Are you only looking at standard of living in terms of real income per capita?

    Also a high standard of living does not imply a high quality of life. The access of material goods in a society is one factor in determing quality of life – it is NOT the only one. It also does not tell you how those goods are distributed among a population.

    When comparing two countries standard of living or quality of life you are treading into subjective waters. The economic measurements can only tell you so much.

  5. Chris Smith I don’t accept the implied assertion that Western Europe has a lower standard of living than the U.S.
    JK: JK: Here is what the CIA world fact book says for GDP, unemployment and growth. /factbook2006/rankorder/2004rank.txt:

    Rank–Country——— GDP – per capita (PPP)—-Date of Information
    6——- United States———-$ 41,800——- 2005 est.
    30—– European Union—— $ 28,100——- 2005 est.

    Rank—Country———GDP – real growth rate(%)—Date of Information
    124—–United States———-3.50———-2005 est.
    176—–European Union——-1.70———2005 est.

    Rank—-Country——-Unemployment rate(%)——-Date of Information
    48——United States——-5.10———2005 est.
    90——European Union—-9.40———2005 est.
    (Only Luxembourg and Norway beat us, at $55,600 and $42,300 respectively)

    Note the huge differences in income, unemployment and growth rate. The unemployment rate is almost twice ours and growth about ½ of ours. The lower growth rate means they are falling further behind.

    Warning for Portland’s planners:
    Emulating losers can be harmful to our city’s well being.

    Chris Smith And our housing affordability is no worse (indeed better than some) than western cities that have no sprawl controls.
    JK: Most wester cities have had growth controls, green belts, nature preserves or other measures that create an artificial shortage of land.
    See :
    The house on the cover of this report recently sold for $150,000 in Houston. But if it were in Portland, it would cost more than $300,000; in Boulder, nearly $550,000; and in San Jose, well over $1.2 million.

    Real people are being hurt by these schemes. Too bad Portland’s planners are to wrapped up in their planning religion to see the harm they are causing.


  6. I love JKs posts. He always seems to have ready access to some numbers. Concrete stuff. :)

    I’m pro-transit, but I’d rather allow the market to create it, something it can’t do these days, and has not been able to since about 1941.

    Another good measurement of standard of living… which is a VERY relative term, is the fact that America still causes a “brain drain” to occur against Europe, Japan, and other developed nations.

    In order for a “brain drain” to occur there must be something that is more desireable here than over there. For many of them, they end up in places like Texas, where that 150k house is what they want, with that 30k dollar sports car, that in Europe would have cost them 60k+ or it wouldn’t be available, and the house… well it’d be right up there in the million dollar range for sure (or million Euro?)

  7. After reading the Trib article and what has been posted, I see four illustrations that should apply to Portland, and some that don’t.

    The first lesson to apply is the big one. As directly stated in the Trib “In exchange for the rights to build 2,800 condos and apartments, the developer built an elementary school, a sports field complex, a day-care facility and community center. Everything that you see here, including every blade of grass, was paid for by the developer”. This needs to be applied in Portland. Think about it, instead of giving Homer and company property tax abatements for ten years, developers would be required to build streets, parks, and other infrastructure in exchange for building up. Think about how that would have nearly eliminated the taxpayer subsidies for SoWa or The Pearl, and how much more tax dollars would be available for schools and other government services. Development should be paying its own way.

    The second illustration was noted by Metro Counselor Rex Burkholder with his a view of a midrise condo development surrounded by gardens and tastefully set-back porches. Portland continues to build high density side walk to side walk with the park down the street. What is needed in Portland are more setbacks, and more attached green spaces and play areas for children where parents can oversee them. That however is not to say that one size fits all. The single family home with a garage and yard is still what most families want and that must not be ignored.

    The third illustration again comes for the article and the quote from Portland developer Bradley Malsin while in Vancouver ” the Canadian city, with its difficulty keeping jobs downtown, shows that Portland should place more emphasis on supporting jobs-oriented development, especially given the softening of the condo market in Portland.” Portland should place less emphasis on downtown and more on the community as a whole. Family wage jobs within the community and job centers outside downtown need to be developed. Transit needs to be rethought out for it to become a truly regional transit system instead of a to and from downtown system where by the operational costs are 80% subsidized by taxpayers. Transit fares need to better reflect the real costs of operation.

    A fourth lesson that needs to be learned in Portland is to keep traffic moving. Vancouver has no freeways, but the demographic location of the city is far different than Portland. While Vancouver is for the most part at the end of land based transportation corridors, sort of like if Portland was located on the coast where Astoria is, Portland is in the middle many transportation corridors and has trough traffic. The freeways in Portland are absolutely necessary. How would the trucks from Swan Island and other traffic from satellite communities move through Portland without them? By increasing congestion on local neighborhood and residential streets? Portland is already the most congested city in the US. Keeping traffic moving is using common sense and making traffic speeds reasonable. 20 MPH is too slow with the exception of around schools. Keeping traffic moving means the elimination of curb extensions and not having busses stop in travel lanes thereby blocking other vehicles. Keeping traffic moving means not narrowing streets or reducing motor vehicle capacity to accommodate other modes. Furthermore, keeping traffic moving means planners must start meeting demand and increase the vehicle capacity of our roads to alleviate the gridlock crisis on the horizon, not using transportation dollars to tell people to get out of their cars.

    It should be the choices people make, and not controls put forth by the government or the bureaucrats that shape the future of the region. Not all those choices are going to be the same or even be acceptable to everyone, especially those who want to control how and where people live and move about. Government controls not only censor freedom of choice but also stifle diversity. Metro and the City of Portland should be meeting the prerequisites of the people, not the other way around.

  8. Remember that Boeing cited traffic congestion as a factor in their moving major parts of their operations out of Seattle. The same applies to Portland.

    Boeing moved to Chicago right? Have you seen the traffic in Chicago? It’s absolutely horrendous. I wouldn’t put too much faith in corporate press releases or wherever you heard that.

  9. Portland is already the most congested city in the US.

    What??? If you’re going to make an outlandish claim like that you really need to give a source. And by the way Terry, I’m still waiting on the source for your comments about Portland having the 3rd worst air quality….

    Portland continues to build high density side walk to side walk with the park down the street.

    So do the best places in Vancouver.

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