Over the past couple of weeks, we at Modacity have watched with great pride and amazement as our hometown of Vancouver’s multi-modal success story has spread to viewers around the world via the power of film. Shot by Streetfilms’ Clarence Eckerson Jr. during the Pro Walk Pro Bike Pro Place Conference this past September, the 8-minute documentary features interviews with our friends and colleagues Brent Toderian, Mia Kohout, Dale Bracewell, and Andrew Curran; as well as our own perspective of living, working, and raising a family in an emerging cycling city.
With the help of locals, Eckerson expertly shares how decades-old decisions are now paving the way for Vancouver’s current (and future) successes, including the Strathcona Freeway Fight, the hosting of the 2010 Winter Olympics, and the 1986 World Exposition that claims the origins of the world's longest driverless rapid transit system. Such historical precedents – when combined with a progressive mayor and council elected in 2008 – have recently cemented our city's reputation as a North American leader, with half of all trips now made by foot, bike, or transit, and 10% of all work commutes made by bicycle.
Celebrating the Qualitative Successes
While these quantitative successes should no doubt be celebrated, we maintain the (often-overlooked) qualitative characteristics of a multi-modal city are much more compelling. Through a series of forward-thinking investments, the quality of life for many Vancouverites has improved, from the residents of Yaletown House to our own car-lite family. These are stories we have had the privilege to share over the past few years – through our writing, photography, speaking, and filmmaking – to audiences all over the world, from Auckland, New Zealand to Los Angeles, California.
Amazingly, this Streetfilm is on its way to becoming one of most popular titles Eckerson has produced, receiving coverage on such media outlets as Vox, CityLab, Curbed, NPR, and Treehugger. But it has been somewhat disappointing to see some rather hyperbolic and binary headlines attached to these stories (such as CityLab's “How Vancouver Became North America’s Car-Free Capital”, which was initially titled “How Vancouver Won Its War on the Car”, before being hastily revised). Inferring that City staff are trying to ban cars isn't helpful to the cause, and misses the point of what they are trying to accomplish: providing their customers with a variety of mobility options.
Addressing a Mobility Poverty Problem
Mobility poverty is a concept introduced to us during a talk by Mobycon’s Dick van Veen at the aforementioned Pro Walk Pro Bike Pro Place Conference. While speaking about his company’s work designing shared spaces in the Netherlands, van Veen used the phrase in an off-handed comment, but it was something that really resonated with us. Simply put, mobility poverty exists in a place that lacks a diverse range of transportation opportunities for its residents, particularly in cities that require them to own and operate an automobile in order to exist.
Where mobility poverty prevails, other forms of transport – such as walking, cycling, and transit – are uncomfortable, unavailable, and/or unfeasible. This perfectly describes the car-dependent environment in which we grew up, and still visit from time-to-time, leaving us frustratingly immobile and dependent on others to get around.
Cities invest vast amounts of public money in their road network, and yet that shared resource excludes a growing portion of the population without the physical or economic means to utilize it. Imagine, for a moment, your own government invested hundreds of millions in a new health care facility, and then banned half of its constituents from visiting it. It is that disparity and inequality that breeds a new form of poverty, and one that City of Vancouver officials should be credited in addressing.
Enabling a Car-Lite Lifestyle Through Options
Of all the careful considerations our family made when deciding to move to Vancouver in 2007, the ability to live comfortably with a single car was paramount. The bus and Skytrain options offered in Vancouver, versus surrounding municipalities such Port Moody and Surrey, were what ultimately helped us to settle on an apartment on the city's south side. But within two years, after moving to the more walkable and option-rich area of Commercial Drive, with both of us working closer to home, we found our car collecting dust, and decided to sell it.
It was the availability of car-share (arguably one of the best in the world) that convinced us to take the plunge into car-lite living, with the availability of four different schemes in our neighbourhood, each offering a unique fleet and pricing structure. Since then, we’ve made the most of the multi-modal lifestyle our city affords us, travelling by foot, bicycle, bus, train, boat, and car-share; often connecting several in a single trip. The mode we choose depends on our origin, destination, weather, cargo, mood, and so many other factors. All in all, our family feels richer for the experience, and wouldn’t think of living anywhere else (at least in North America), for fear it would compromise our personal freedom.
Putting Vancouver’s Successes Into Context
With the celebratory light being shined on our hometown, we feel it is important to put its successes into a larger context, and recognize there is still a great deal of work left to be done.
The City of Vancouver, for example, is just a single 115-square kilometre municipality of 600,000 residents in a sprawling, 2,877-square kilometre region of 23 local authorities and over 2.5 million people. The impressive statistics quoted earlier only include trips beginning and ending within city limits, and exclude the hundreds of thousands of cars passing in and out of our city on a daily basis. These vehicles are not travelling on elevated highways, but on residential streets retrofitted into at-grade arterials that bisect our communities, shifting the resulting externalities from the suburbs into the city.
Furthermore, with practically all of the City’s energy focused on the downtown peninsula, it appears many other areas, arguably the ones most in need – due not only to higher cycling numbers, but also lower incomes – are being left out in the cold.
These mounting problems are exacerbated by a provincial government that continues to chronically underfund public transit, while blowing billions on road widenings, bridges, tunnels, and interchanges that encourage exurban development, and undermine the legacy of past decision-makers (a legacy we’ll be exploring in our upcoming podcast series, due in early 2017).
There are signs Vancouver’s leadership is rubbing off on its neighbours, with progressive mayors such as Jonathan Cote and Greg Moore leading the charge; but without a change at the higher levels of government, it remains difficult to see how this region changes its course. As one BC Ministry of Transportation staffer famously declared to a group of Metro agencies a few years ago: “You may think you’re building Vienna. We’re building Houston.”
Let’s Build Cities With Mobility Prosperity
Needless to say, we are immensely proud of Vancouver’s poster child status, which – while it comes with an important disclaimer – contains countless lessons for other cities aspiring to the same multi-modal goals. Here is perhaps the most important: none of these things were accomplished without some kind of pushback. Changing the status quo isn’t an easy process, and will almost always result in outrage from the media and business community. However, the Vancouver experience demonstrates that eventually these players will come around, and see the inherent value in providing choice.
One of the most dramatic turnarounds we've seen has been the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, who – after years of vehemently opposing bike infrastructure projects – are now the new champions of a resilient form of city-building that values walking, biking, transit, and public spaces over the private automobile.
Cities continuing to bank on self-driving electric cars would do well to take a page out of Vancouver’s book, and recognize that – for the health, wealth, vibrancy, and livability of our communities – such modes must be a last resort, and not the default setting. Smart investments in a variety of transportation services will help us all build a future around mobility prosperity, and all of our residents will be richer for it.