A Grumpy Riposte to the Orthodoxy of “Vancouver” Magazine

I subscribe to Vancouver magazine. It tells me what’s happening in the arts in my city; it tips me off regarding new restaurants and good BC wines; it introduces me to people who shape our town for better and for worse. I like it, silly as its society pages are and oblivious as it is to all things religious.

I don’t like, however, a certain ideology at Vanmag. So I told them I didn’t in an article I hoped they would find room to print. Astonishingly, they chose not to publish the following screed. (Normally, of course, journalists enjoy being criticized and happily promote the views of those who find fault with their work—as do professors.) So, for your amusement and edification, I set out the following. (But I wish they’d published it instead.)

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You know the main problem with the people who tend to write for Vancouver magazine to tout the “new urbanism,” replete with paeans to “eco-density” and exhortations to mass transit? After years of faithful reading, I have discovered the crucial truth. By and large, they are writers.

These are people who don’t work normal days. They don’t punch in for an eight-hour shift. They don’t show up for early morning meetings and then slog it through until the boss lets them go at day’s (or evening’s) end. They live very different lives than most of the rest of us.

(I know about such people because I am one. As a university professor, I don’t have the same regularity of hours and insistency of routine as most normal people. And, as I shall show, that difference in lifestyle makes a difference when it comes to these subjects.)

The new urbanist types also tend to come from a select group of writers: single writers (either pre- or post-marriage), or writers in a childless relationship, or maybe even writers with a small child who now think they understand all that family life entails.

So these are people who generally do not have what was until very recently standard-brand domestic lives: Mom, Dad, and at least two kids.

(In that respect, I’m not one of them: my wife still manages to live with me and we have raised three sons, the youngest of whom is 19.)

The writers I have in mind nonetheless constantly wonder aloud in the pages of this magazine, as they do in similar media, how so many of their fellow citizens can continue to cling to our gas-guzzling automobiles and live out our quietly desperate lives in detached houses in soulless suburbs.

Well, here’s a flash from us silent infidels who refuse to convert to your ideology: We have no reason to take you seriously regarding your crusade—at least, not yet.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for fresh ideas, even old ideas we’ve forgotten, about city life. I love Paris, and Barcelona, and San Francisco. And I have considerable public transit credibility: You earn that when you spend eight years walking twenty minutes through Winnipeg winters to stand for 10 minutes (or more, if the first bus is full) for public transit, and then do it all again at the end of the workday.

I’m all for better living in our cities. But I can’t take seriously most of the people who write about that subject.

Until you have worked a long day at a job some distance from home and then have to pick up a week’s worth of groceries at quitting time—in the rain, in the dark—then you cannot understand why we don’t take your advice and choose to trip gaily down the boulevard in the twilight, picking up a baguette, perhaps a few slices of prosciutto, a bottle of sauvignon blanc, and the makings of a clever little salad.

Until you have to run Junior to soccer practice and then take Junior Miss to tae kwon do lessons in the opposite direction with deep gratitude for your minivan (the most intelligent vehicle ever invented), you will have no clue why we aren’t opting for happy hopping on and off buses, trams, subways, or Skytrains.

Until you have to live anywhere in this city with a big hill to climb—and some of us have noticed that large inclines are abundant in the GVRD—you will not comprehend why the rest of us, even in pretty good shape, don’t want to bike it every day and so arrive at work flushed and sweaty—when any idiot can appreciate how un-demanding it is to ride from Yaletown to downtown.

As for eco-dunce-ity, let’s freely stipulate that to some extent it is more efficient and therefore in some respects better for the environment. I write this from Shanghai, where I’m lecturing this week, and I appreciate that piling people sixty stories high is more efficient than housing them in detached homes. Indeed, the Chinese figured out long ago that dormitories are more efficient still, and many Chinese still languish in conditions not one of VanMag’s writers would tolerate for longer than it took to gather the notes necessary for his next travel piece.

Why do these writers think so many Chinese have moved to Vancouver? Could it be that such emigrants have experienced the logical result of eco-dense thinking and vastly prefer to own their own home on their own land? And is piling people up in taller buildings really, in every respect, better for the environment? It’s better for insatiable developers, of course, and maybe for certain people in certain situations (say, writers who prize having a cute café staffed near every workplace and condo), but perhaps not better for every other member of the ecosystem.

So may I suggest a little rule for VanMag’s new editor: No one can promote eco-density or public transit—or bike lanes or carbon taxes—until he or she has raised at least two children through their teen years.

If you think because you now have A Kid in A Stroller and understand the demands of parenting that impinge on housing and transportation, you don’t. If you think because you have lived as a single or childless writer in lots of cities in the world and now are an expert on public transit for the masses, you aren’t.

Until you have to transport more grocery bags, or hockey gear, or offspring than you can easily guide onto and off of a city bus, in the rain, in the dark, then I must remind you of the venerable proverb my dear old pappy used to recite to me on many an occasion when I sought to venture an ungrounded opinion:

“Shut up.”

19 Responses to “A Grumpy Riposte to the Orthodoxy of “Vancouver” Magazine”

  1. Ryan

    As one who actually did spend a few rainy, dark winters in Vancouver trying to get kids to activities, pick up groceries, etc with a combination of a small car and public transit, and arriving for a class or a meeting reeking of sweat after dutifully (and virtuously!) attempting to ride my bike as often as possible, I can say little more to this piece than, “amen.”

    And that I laughed very hard as I read portions of this.

  2. Sam M

    Haha great! although not surprised they wouldn’t publish something that tells their editors to ‘shut up.’

  3. Kim

    Well said. We actually lived with 3 kids for 2 years downtown without a vehicle. It can be done, but not easily or without a good deal of frustration. We quickly learned that everyone likes the idea of children, but not the reality. Particularly on a crowded city bus, that all too often wouldn’t even stop to pick us up once the driver saw the stroller & 2 other children.

  4. Linda Wightman

    My daughter lives in Switzerland, where they really do have a fantastic public transit system, and where she is much more comfortable walking, biking, and taking the bus with her two small children than she is when they come to visit us in the U.S. (“How do American parents manage, having to put their kids in and out of car seats whenever they want to go somewhere? At home I just slip Vivienne into the sling, take Joseph by the hand, and we’re on our way. If Vivienne falls asleep, as babies are wont to do, I don’t have to wake her when we arrive.”)

    But the system in Switzerland is very, very well done. Buses, trams, and trains run frequently and are always on time. Without those two features, how can we expect people to trust their lives and livelihoods to public transit? The thirty-minute drive from my home to the Orlando airport requires three hours if I want to ride the bus, taking into account time needed to walk to the bus stop, allowances that must be made in case the bus is late or too full when it gets to my stop, and the frequent stops it makes along the way.

    We can’t have a good public transit system unless the “normal” people buy into the idea. But we can’t expect them to do so if the system is does not meet their needs. Hence my conclusion that we won’t get anywhere without a whole lot of subsidy on the front end.

    And maybe gas prices as high as they are in Switzerland.

  5. Andy Rowell

    Dear Vancouver Magazine,
    I have noticed in the magazine an affinity for high-density housing and public transit that does not take into account family life in articles a __, b ___, and c ___. These articles would benefit from interviews with people knowledgeable about the issue (city planners, activists, politicians, authors, sociologists, historians, business people) and perhaps also sociological data (surveys, etc.) regarding the issue. For example it would be interesting to learn why many people do not embrace public transit and high-density housing. It surely has something to do with affordability, convenience, some people enjoying to live in more space, and the many things in society that still depend on automobile transportation.

  6. KKC

    Some of us would miss our gardens. We grow berries and freeze them for the whole year… Fill the sanctuary with color on Sunday as well as our lives and minds throughout the rest of the year. In our area there are no buses to take us up to the Cascades so we can hike over the summit. Public transportation has it’s place as does our family vehicle. While we bike and walk for exercise one area no one talks about is aging. These things don’t apply very well to those in limited situations brought on by fading health. Youth and articles often go down paths not able to be followed by a large portion of others.

  7. James L

    As someone with a decent paying job who can’t even afford a 2br condo in Vancouver, I’d say it’s elitist/nimby-like to own a house and be against increased density. Chances are those in such a position bought their homes well before prices skyrocketed over the past decade.

    Yes, for now I choose to continue living in a city where housing is far too expensive, so I accept I won’t own and won’t have the luxury of a garden. Maybe in the future I’ll tire of it and find a job in another city where I can own a house or condo and still have a short commute without resorting to driving.

    Speaking of driving… count me in with the group that has children too young for us to realize how difficult life is without a car. Especially now with the car co-op (modo) and car2go — which we rarely use — we do just fine not owning a car. So do some of our neighbours with older children.

    I see tons of cyclists on my commute, and with all the crap I put up with from drivers ignorant of basic road laws on my previous route, I’m very happy to now have designated cycling routes for my commute.

    (Hooray for workplaces with showers to use after cycling!)

    • John

      I’m not merely “against density.” I lived in a downtown Chicago apartment, and thoroughly enjoyed the urban life of Hyde Park. I’m against a self-righteous championing of eco-density as if it is simply, luminously RIGHT.

      And let’s not get started on the cyclist-driver war, shall we? Having to dodge cyclists who think, “Now, I’m a car; now, I’m a pedestrian; now I’m a ghost who doesn’t have to obey stop signs or traffic lights or lane markers” and put up with a giant bike lane across the Burrard Street Bridge when what was there before was perfectly sufficient–well, I’m not disposed to think this is a one-sided problem.

      (As a cyclist also, do I freely grant that some car-drivers are dangerous jackasses? I do, I do.)

      And hooray indeed for workplaces with showers–an enlightened policy, indeed!

      • Mike Aubrey

        Hyde Park isn’t exactly “downtown”…

        I’d also say that urban life “ideal,” in many respects, is far more do-able in Chicago than it is in Vancouver–in terms of cost living, public transit, the lack of hills for biking.

      • James L

        Oh, I don’t disagree about bad cyclists at all! Another reason for more separation between them, cars and pedestrians.

        Burrard Bridge? I hated it before. Unaware pedestrians are yet another good reason for separate bike routes, especially with cars passing by at ridiculous speeds.

        I wish people of all sorts would remember they are interacting with fellow humans with family and friends who would be crushed by their loss, and drive/ride/walk/run in a way that doesn’t put them at risk.

  8. Brian Bertrim

    Thank you for articulating what I’ve been feeling for years! In Toronto we have our own equivalent to your Vanmag writers with their own special flavour of annoyance.

  9. Tym

    Well written John. I agree that eco-density is not for everybody, including people who carry more than a briefcase to work (a van load of tools for instance), and come home stinky and dirty.

  10. Jon

    I agree John. Especially here on the east coast of Canada, though I do enjoy biking to work, it just doesn’t work for public transit for most of our city. Part of it is the lack of service, but even the service we have has restrictions. Limits to the size/type of baby strollers as well as the number of bags you can bring on board (even if they are grocery bags!) are just a few of the reason people choose not to use public transit here.

  11. Preston Pouteaux

    John,
    There’s a new box store complex coming to our little town of Langdon, AB. (pop. 4000, 20 minutes from Calgary). I’ve been engaging the developers to create beautiful, pedestrian friendly space that fits with the 1908 theme that makes Langdon unique. But “beauty” is not a word these developers use and so many neighbours want the services these stores offer, so “beauty” is not a demand. My fear: more drab box store complexes and drive-only shops. But I see the point you make, and feel converted. I care for the moms in my town and if I had to choose between accessible stores for growing families, or aesthetics, maybe the former wins. Thoughts?

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