Notes on my new town

The following is the essay I wrote for my September Town Crier column. 

How Does Vancouver Do It?

A new school year has brought the expected flood of students back into Pullman and Moscow; but the tide washes both ways, and some, including me, have left town. My wife received an opportunity to continue her graduate studies at WSU-Vancouver, so at the end of July the family packed up and headed west. Before that, though, she and I took a weekend to drive out there to go house-hunting, and I could not help but notice the extensive network of bike lanes and multi-use paths. What a pleasant surprise, on my first proper visit to the city, to find functional bike infrastructure and a live-and-let-go attitude! Right off the bat, I noticed three key elements that make the system work.

First, naturally, are connections. Several arterial bike paths link different sections of this sprawling city together. The various neighborhoods have a scaled-down version of this, with bike lanes and traffic controls incorporated into their design. Detailed maps of both the city and county routes are widely available, and both interstate highway routes across the Columbia River incorporate bicycle access.

The second ingredient is directions. Along the bikeways are actual street signs, clearly marked with distance and direction to key destinations. On a practical level, the benefit here is obvious, but there is a subtle psychological angle too. The subtext of the trail signs, in their classic white-on-green livery, is that riding a bike around Vancouver is a perfectly normal way to get around town, one that the community endorses. These signs are so helpful, in fact, that we have used them for guidance while driving.

The third element is attitude. It may come as a shock to readers, given what a contrast it is to the “dare you” style of street crossing employed in Pullman and Moscow, but pedestrians in Vancouver actually have the right-of-way. More than once we noticed cars backing up off the sidewalk to accommodate people walking past a driveway or business exit. Bicycles and their riders are forgiven their trespass onto public roads, and allowed safe passage.

Now that I live here, I think the fourth element in Vancouver’s alchemy is grass roots. Members of the community have taken an active stance on keeping this city accessible by active transportation. I recently volunteered for such an event, called “Sunday Streets Alive,” which closed off over four miles of roadway to motor vehicle traffic. People got to walk, skate, and ride through the city’s neighborhoods, meeting neighbors and enjoying street fairs at key locations. It was a great way to bring a city of over 100,000 people back to a more approachable scale.

I’m not making this up. Is it something in the water? Could it be the calming effect of the evergreen trees? Some of it must be spillover from Vancouver’s nutty neighbor to the south: Portland. Being located next to one of the most bike-friendly cities in the United States is sure to have an effect on planning and development, if only to stay competitive in the job and housing markets. Beyond that, there must be some cultural cross-over happening as well. The answer will require further research. Here lies the challenge and opportunity of being a transplant: learning not just a new neighborhood, but a new history, geography, and culture. One cannot be fully engaged in the act of citizenship without doing some homework first. My mission to learn what makes Vancouver tick and Portland tock should help me see what other lessons these cities may hold for my former stomping grounds.

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2 thoughts on “Notes on my new town

  1. You are truly a cultural anthropologist, taking advantage of all that is around you, to learn and pass it on.

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