Frances Bula wonders why debate about transit is fiercer in Vancouver than it is in other places, and she thinks it’s because we’re a city that’s “in between” being small and big.  I actually think our debate isn’t any more fierce than lots of other places, but Bula’s still onto the something about why we have the fights we do.

Let me take the first point first.  My experience hanging out for extended periods of time in various cities–here, Toronto, Philadelphia, Boston, Columbus, OH–is that transit and transit oriented development are always extremely contentious issues that people want to shout about.

And it’s not just me and my transit-geek friends, either.  Take a look at the comment sections for newspaper websites whenever there’s an article about transit or transit-oriented development.  Here’s a frothy-mouthed Toronto Star thread on a streetcar issue Toronto was dealing with a few months back.  Or take a look at this typically heated Philadelphia Inky thread about a proposed new bike lane in the city centre.  Or from the New York Times website, this thread about delays for the planned Second Ave. subway, or this thread about Bloomberg’s call to make crosstown buses free.  These comment threads can get vicious.  And we haven’t even started talking about the debates that rage about transit and urbanism in the DC-centric American political blogosphere, on blogs like Ryan Avent’s or Greater Greater Washington.

So, no, I don’t think Vancouver’s debates about transit are any more fierce than they are in other North American cities.  That said, Vancouver does have its own debates.  What makes our debates particular isn’t their ferocity.  It’s the peculiarities of what we end up shouting about.  And here’s where I think Bula’s on to something.

Bula wonders about Vancouver being “in between” a small city and a big one.  Let me try to flesh that out in a particular way.  Also, let me add that this is very speculative.  So take it with a grain of salt.

Think about the major cities in the western part of the US and Canada–San Diego, LA, San Fransisco, Phoenix, Seattle, and Portland and Vancouver as the smallest of the lot.  In at least one respect, these are very unusual cities.  They became major cities in extremely rich countries at a time–the mid-twentieth century–when planning in Canada and the US was most car-centric.  This fact alone puts Vancouver in a weird situation for transit planning, compared to older rich cities like Paris, Berlin and New York and poorer young cities like Rio and Lagos.

But then some of the cities in this small group made the decision to go maximally car-centric.  LA, San Diego, Phoenix, and Seattle invested in freeways as their major transportation infrastructure.  That leaves Portland, Vancouver, and maybe parts of the Bay area as the last rich cities from the middle of the last century that still face the really big questions about building transportation infrastructure.

Let me give one quick example of what I’m talking about.  If Vancouver had–as it might have back in the day–run a freeway west through the entire city all the way out to UBC, then it’d be a snap to figure out how to move people along the east-west corridor of the city.  We’d just run some cheap and effective light rail along the side of the freeway.  Problem solved.  But instead we face the choice of using quick and cheap light rail–and so either making Broadway less pedestrian-friendly or giving up on actual rapid transit along that corridor–or paying an order of magnitude more to put some light-metro underground.  My point’s not that that’s a hard choice–although it is.  My point is that it’s a kind of choice only very few cities face.

Some old guy once said that he’d have written a shorter book if only he’d had the time.  That goes for blog posts too.  Sorry about that.