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?
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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).
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.I enjoy riding the train to Vancouver Washington to visit my wife’s family. The trip is almost as interesting as the ride north to the other Vancouver. However, I have been unable to convince my wife to take the train again after enduring a trip where the train was delayed 3 hours and then took another 5 to get us to Seattle. (There were other, less dramatic delays that also helped form her opinion of the train)I can’t blame her since the tracks both north and south of Seattle have occasional problems with washouts. Freeways have their issues too, but for now at least, they seem to be more reliable. We can only hope BNSF upgrades their tracks for better passenger service as they are doing in areas served by Sounder.
Kathryn Moogk Maly
Alan… I’ve never read a blog until I heard you were writing one. Thanks for weaving so many important social issues into one piece. My favorite laugh-out-loud line:”Canadians (most of them seemingly happy, most of them—statistically speaking—unarmed, and all of them covered by health insurance)”
Glad you enjoyed yourself. I enjoyed 10 car-free days in Montreal this summer.Notwithstanding the veracity of your comment re wash rooms in Vancouver, as well as other cities, all the swimming pools, of course, have them, and I know of 3 other public facilities in Stanley Park and 2 in English Bay.
Beautifully written piece. Thank you. I lived in Innsbruck and Vienna Austria for four years and Brno, Czech Republic for two. For five of these six years I did not possess a car. The only time that I thought I needed a vehicle was when I had to move my belongings from one flat to the next. Even then I could simply rent one for the day or borrow a friend’s. I travelled with ease by foot, bike, transit and taxi from all points A to all points B, within the cities and between cities. From sunrise to past midnight I had multiple modes of affordable motorized transportation as well as inspired and safe non-motorized options available to me. The bicycle was often the fastest way around town. During rush hour we took the bike or streetcar, because it was often faster due to dedicated lanes and traffic light timing that favored transit. The Viennese sophisticates dressed on route to the evening ball ride side by side with cooks and janitors on streetcars. In Europe I was often living like a student spending less than a $1000 per year on transportation. Whereas now, living in beautiful, auto-dependent, Monterey, California, I spend over $4000 per year on gas, service, maintenance, parking, insurance and repairs on my only viable transportation option, my car. This does not include the purchase price of my car, which can add another $2000 per year to the equation. Imagine what I could do with that extra $3000? Imagine what the local economy could do if we all had an extra $3000 per year to invest, save or spend. And I was in top shape in Europe just going about my daily activities. My visits to Portland, Oregan and Victoria, BC, gave me that same feeling of transportation freedom. America’s forefathers would be proud of Vancouver’s accomplishments, leadership and understanding of what used to make America great: viable choices, mobility freedom and equity, efficiency, high performance, a transportation system that favors a free market balance among travel modes over the heavily subsidized transportation monopoly that the sprawl lobby has delivered. I also possessed a car for my last year in Europe. It was a happy car. And driving in general was more enjoyable because the transit and pedestrian friendly development pattern was much easier on a traveler’s eyes. Look at Germany. Germans love cars as much as Americans. Germany’s love affair with the automibile goes back as far as America’s, from the first mass production operations to the first national freeway system (Hitler’s autobahn that Eisenhower replicated in America) to all the great race car drivers. The difference is Germany understands that a transportation system strives to achieve a high level of service for all travel modes. It just makes good business, health and national security sense. Wait a minute, weren’t the United States born by water transportation? No, wait, I thought it was built on the national railroads? No, wait then it was the streetcar lines. No, it was the private automobile and the airplane. Oh gosh, I get so confused. What was America really built on? I think America was really built on a combination of lessons learned abroad and homegrown ingenuity. When will we recapture the spirit that we pride ourselve on and get our bunz back in gear?
Gary E Richardson
Nice piece, Alan,I totally agree about the restroom problem. On a recent visit to San Francisco, Diane and I shared entrance to the two-bit mechanized john on Washington Square (like the ones now all over Paris) and found the toilet paper jammed and the hand-washing tap inoperable. Could have been retribution for our ignoring the posted prohibition of having more than one person aboard.I’d be interested in the costs of your carless travel compared with what it would cost with a car.
First, standard bicycles are not designed for multi-modal travel, although folding bikes are. I have used them for 35 years, and just got the best of the lot, the UK Brompton, which is 20″x20″x10″ when folded, and, with 12 seconds of fiddling, is ready to ride to the bus stop. It is as good as any road bike for riding, too. KidsRUs now has a kids model with full front/rear suspension.As to public washrooms, the last time I was in Vancouver, I was suffering from bladder/prostate problems, and experienced your problem in spades. As a confirmed walker, I have memorized the location of washrooms in Ottawa, but as a tourist, I was at the mercy of businesses whoich post signs saying theirs are for patrons only, and to the declining number of public buildings and their shorter business hours. Walkability does, indeed, include access to washrooms. Chris Bradshaw
Lack of free public toilets is a problem in Boston, too. Though I’ve twice asked “can I just pay to use your restroom?” (imagining a dollar rather than buying food) and been waved in. But if one remembers the savings of not owning a car, that would pay for a lot of bathroom-driven coffee…