Our car-less family vacation in Vancouver, BC, was a big success. Here’s a full report, for those of you who shared your own car-lessvacation stories and are interested in such things. For the rest of you, you might want to skim the travelogue to find the five lessons I draw.

The only nail-biter (if you can call it that) was the very first leg of the trip, which resembled the old brain teaser about the fox, the goose, and the bag of beans.

We had two parents, two kids (our eldest is currently in Alaska), and four bikes to get to the train station by 6:45 a.m. A bus connects our neighborhood to the train station, and King County Metro buses all have bike racks. Unfortunately, they carry only two bikes each. Furthermoe, there’s no way of knowing in advance whether any given bus will have one space, two spaces, or no spaces free on its rack. Because the kids needed help getting their bikes (loaded with panniers) both on and off the racks and because they didn’t know where to get off the bus, they needed either to be accompanied by a parent or to have one parent at each end of the route to assist.

We left the house before 6:00. The first bus that arrived already had one bike loaded. We let it pass. Fortunately, the next two buses that arrived had no bikes aboard yet, so we all arrived at the train station without having to send kids on buses unaccompanied.

OK, this story wasn’t very interesting. Why bother to tell it?

  • Because it encapsulates one of the key, if subtle, differences about car-less living. (Lesson #1:) Each segment of a multi-leg, car-less outing involves slightly more uncertainty than does a car trip. That means slightly more adventure, which means slightly more fun. It also means slightly more anxiety, especially when there’s a deadline. Will the buses’ racks all be full? Will we miss our train? At 5:45 a.m., such thoughts are either exciting or a nuisance, depending whether you’re a gambler or a worrier.

    In this case, the worrying was all done within 15 minutes, and we could relax for—pretty much—the remainder of the week. We had no other deadlines. Still, the lesson applies, multiplied throughout the days, to our entire car-less life. Car-lessness involves more small adventures and more small worries.

    A few days earlier, I had driven a van-load of Sightline staff and board members up I-5 for a retreat at UBC. The 6-hour gauntlet of inept car-rental agents, summer road construction, “I-need-to-use-the-bathroom” pleas, vacation traffic, and vigilant, war-on-terror border guards made me feel like I was stuck in a Gary Larson cartoon titled “Alan Durning’s personal hell.”

    In comparison, the train ride from Seattle to Vancouver, BC, was smooth and beautiful. I didn’t want it to end. There’s something otherworldly about riding the Amtrak Cascades: floating above the ground, rocking gently, and watching at close range the farms, forests, and Puget Sound shoreline slide by. The kids wandered the train, watched the movie, and made faces at the baby in the next row. Amy napped. I could let my eyes alternate between my book and the landscape just outside the window.

    We stayed at a budget hotel in Vancouver’s West End. The hotel was no great shakes but it had kitchenettes (key for traveling with young teens) and secure parking for our bikes. And it was right on Robson, the main street of Cascadia’s most walkable neighborhood. We were definitely in the heart of things.

    Our week was devoted to biking the city, lounging on beaches, kicking our soccer ball in various parks, attending the theater, and visiting kid-oriented shops. Highlights included kayaking at English Bay; the amazing public swimming pools at Kitsilano Beach, Second Beach in Stanley Park, and at Newton in Surrey (on a direct bus line that connects to Skytrain—a nice wave pool with water slides but if you’re into swimming-pool tourism, Nanaimo, BC, has a nicer one); TheatreSports competitive team comedy improvisation on Granville Island (buy half-price tickets downtown at Canada Place); the great mobs of Canadians (most of them seemingly happy, most of them—statistically speaking—unarmed, and all of them covered by health insurance) on the sidewalks and walkways and bikepaths and roller-blading paths of central Vancouver; and, of course, Stanley Park.

    Stanley Park is surely among the finest urban parks in the world (even if its aquarium was so packed with people when we visited that we envied the space given to the fish). Its formal features have few rivals. Still, its coolest feature, in my opinion, is the spontaneous rock balancing that various artists do near Second Beach. (Check out this photo collection at flickr. Highly recommended!) The whimsical transience of these structures, which seem to make heavy stones lighter than air, fills me with a giddy sense of optimism. The rock towers fascinate me. (Lesson #2: ) Cities should nurture the spontaneous emergence of art. (A more formal sculpture phenomenon we enjoyed is spotlighted in Price Tags.)

    Another thing that fascinates me is that (Lesson #3: ) as the private automobile becomes less dominant in dense urban neighborhoods like central Vancouver, other transportation options proliferate, without public subsidy. There’s enough demand to support a diversity of private transport providers. As a result, you can buy your transportation by the trip, and often at reasonable prices. So, for example, while Seattle has struggled to provide enough public dollars to keep its Elliot Bay water taxi operating at all, two private companies turn a profit (according to one of the skippers) running pedestrians across Vancouver’s False Creek.

    On a trip Amy and I took to that unsung sustainability mecca New York City (where only one quarter of adults even hold drivers licenses) in May, we noticed the same thing: a profusion of travel options that was bewildering to us in its complexity, but must provide great flexibility to residents: walking, blading, cycling, taxis, “car service,” carpools, vanpools, public buses, private buses, subways, commuter rail, shuttles, ferries, even helicopters.

    On the other hand, as Vancouverites take to the streets on foot, the density of pedestrians has created ot
    her kinds of markets as well. Drug dealing and aggressive panhandling are definitely becoming a drag on Vancouver’s walkability, as two recent Vancouver Sunarticles point out.

    Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan, whom I admire immensely, stopped in to see me in Seattle on Friday, just after our return. He sees the scourge of petty crime, drug dealing, and aggressive panhandling as a first-order threat to Vancouver’s urban renaissance. He’s trying to break the link between addiction and public disorder by regulating drug-use differently. The city’s much-noted safe injection site provides clean needles and sanitary conditions, plus a way to offer help to addicts who want it. A newer heroin maintenance program actually gives free doses of the drug to hard-core addicts, as a way to keep them from stealing to get it. Sullivan hopes to expand this program to cocaine and meth soon. To him, such social programs are inseparable from sustainability, not only because they spring from the same moral ground of promoting the common good but also because (Lesson #4: ) we can’t build strong communities when substance abuse, and its concomitants, is rending them apart.

    Sullivan’s ambition, he calls it “Ecodensity,” is breathtaking: he wants to shrink the city’s ecological footprint by doubling the city’s population to 1.2 million. That’s a bold but practical idea. Having watched Vancouver ring its downtown with highrise neighborhoods over the past dozen years, and having both studied and experienced the exceptional quality-of-life and economic success of these neighborhoods, I’m convinced that Vancouver has a chance at even greater things in the years ahead.

    Ecodensity, Sullivan argues, will not only prevent sprawl in the suburbs but will also give Vancouver enough people to achieve the vitality of European walking cities such as Paris, Vienna, and Stockholm. Driving and greenhouse gas emissions will taper off and Vancouver will become not only a regional but also a global model. This ambition could easily become a pipe dream, however, if the actions of a few thousand addicts, and those who sell to them, destroy the sense of safety and wonder that my family felt in the streets and parks of Vancouver on our car-less vacation.

    Oh, and one final point (Lesson #5: ) the Achilles heel of car-less vacationing is not, in my opinion, transportation. It’s toilets or, as Canadians say, wash rooms. Traveling a city in the summer and staying hydrated entails not only filling stomachs but also emptying bladders. And Vancouver, like every other city I know, makes inadequate provision for emptying.

    It’s all well and good to have fabulous parks and swimming pools and sidewalk cafes. But none of that matters very much when you’ve got a twelve year old on a bicycle who has to pee and the closest public wash room is twelve blocks away through rush hour traffic (and there isn’t even a walkshed map  to help you find it). Here’s a case where urban planners and entrepreneurs could learn something (perish the thought) from DisneyWorld, where restrooms are numerous and well marked (if often crowded).