My wife Monika and I were looking to escape. We wanted to find a couple of cool cities with cool weather for a week’s respite from the dog days of early August in San Antonio. Denver and Salt Lake City were ruled out as recently visited. We wanted a destination where we could get active and stay active.

As the mercury climbed above 100 degrees yet again, we agreed on a visit to the Pacific Northwest cities of Seattle, Vancouver and Victoria. With guide books downloaded and shared on our tablets, we plotted our course. Only one restriction: no rental car. We wanted our vacation to be what life can’t be at home in San Antonio. We wanted to experience life again without a private vehicle.

Our final plan was set: fly to Seattle, hang for a few days, then board the Amtrak Cascades train for the four-hour journey up the Puget Sound to Vancouver, British Columbia. After a few days there we would take the ferry to Victoria, and then at week’s end, board another ferry for the longer passage from Victoria to Seattle and our flight home.

Rains in San Antonio chased away the 100-degree days as we boarded our flight, while Seattle and Vancouver reported record-high temperatures. Just our luck. We still enjoyed what any San Antonian would call mild weather, but at least for me, half the stuff in my suitcase was never worn, not for the first time.

Vancouver’s Multi-Modal Success Story from STREETFILMS on Vimeo.

Over the course of one week, we traveled by light rail, monorail, bus, long walks, rented bicycle, water taxi, ferry, ski lift and Amtrak in and out of Seattle. We hailed Uber on two occasions after late dinners in Seattle. In Vancouver, we walked and walked, rented bikes, rode ferries, boarded buses, hailed cabs, and managed to finish the Grouse Mountain Grinder hike in 95 minutes. Rideshare companies do not currently operate in Vancouver and on several occasions we missed the convenience.

How much difference do such options make? Life without a personal car is freeing, and life in a city with multiple transportation options feels liberating. San Antonio’s drive, no pun intended, to become a more competitive and livable city is seriously hobbled by the lack of a realistic and timely plan to move beyond our existing bus system.

We can study the city’s future population growth by one million people and anticipate a city that already is 500 square miles and continues to sprawl, but without an ambitious multimodal transportation plan and a financial strategy, we really aren’t progressing on all fronts.

Children frolic in a Seattle park fountain. Photo by Robert Rivard.
Children frolic in Seattle’s refurbished International Fountain, built for the 1962 World’s Fair and now the centerpiece of the lawns at SeattleCenter. The water is recycled and treated. Photo by Robert Rivard.

Light rail service from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to downtown Seattle runs every six minutes during peak hours and costs $3 per person for the 14-mile ride. The ticketing service is fully automated. That’s twice the distance of the San Antonio International Airport to a River Walk hotel at a fraction of the price.

Both Seattle and Vancouver offer the kind of big city transportation options that are absent in San Antonio. They are years ahead of us in terms of becoming more sustainable cities, adopting the kinds of changes that appeal to the rising generations of urban dwellers who want to live and work in walkable cities. One big difference: Bike lanes really are bike lanes, not vehicle parking spaces. The result? Many more people on bikes who feel comfortable riding in a clearly designated bike lane who otherwise would not ride in traffic.

Another difference: Dozens of downtown streets in Vancouver have wide white stripes representing pedestrian rights-of-way. Drivers, with very few exceptions, respect the pedestrian-first traffic policies. Synchronized traffic lights employ more sophisticated software and allow traffic to flow more smoothly.

We rented bikes in all three cities. Seattle’s Bicycle Repair Shop wins for best bike shop service and equipment. We were given like-new Giant hybrids, which we pedaled down to the nearby King County Water Taxi to Akli Beach in West Seattle. The ride cost $4 and only took about 15 minutes. We stayed outside on the back deck and savored the spectacular view of the Seattle skyline and the snow-tipped peaks on the Cascade Range.

Akli Beach is a great destination for cyclists who want more miles than can be had riding in and around downtown. We enjoyed leisurely riding along miles and miles of waterfront on protected cycle tracks and bike lanes, maintaining what I call a “real estate pace,” fast enough to see a lot of the neighborhood, slow enough to ogle the architecture and tony residences where every front window faces water, a skyline, and a mountain view.

The transportation choices were not the only big differentiators. Commercial recycling and composting are becoming the norm in both places. Virtually every receptacle we saw on the streets and in businesses allowed users to recycle, compost and trash. There is no public smoking in much of British Columbia. It really makes a difference. Monika and I looked for discarded cigarette butts on a walk from our hotel past the venerable and more expensive Fairmont Empress to Government Street, bustling with shops and restaurants. We didn’t find any.  

We popped into the Old Morris Tobacconist shop, established in 1892, so I could buy a Cuban cigar, but even our hotel balcony carried a warning that smoking would result in a $250 fine. I smoked that cigar in San Antonio.

A mime, working the waterfront in Victoria, the capitol of British Columbia, thanks a visitor for a looney, the Canadian dollar. Photo by Robert Rivard.
A mime, working the waterfront in Victoria, the capitol of British Columbia, thanks a visitor for a looney, the Canadian dollar. Photo by Robert Rivard.

Seattle and Vancouver feature dozens of downtown residential towers and more than a few cranes on the skyline. That kind of residential density allows major retail to thrive downtown where such stores exist only in malls here. Street theater, a tradition that dates at least to medieval times in Europe, enlivens the scene in all three cities we visited, and municipal curation guarantees the quality and diversity of performers.

It’s easy, of course, to see any given city’s best side by dwelling for a few days in the center city, but we ranged far and wide. Bike lanes and wider sidewalks in both cities made urban commuting without a vehicle easier and safer. Many streets are divided among vehicle lanes, bike lanes, and vehicle parking, unlike San Antonio where much of the bike lane network doubles as vehicle parking.

The day before we departed, I drove to the Pearl for a lunch appointment and parked on East Grayson Street. I began scrounging change from my vehicle console, which I hoard for just such occasions. Three quarters bought me a total of 27 minutes, so I started feeding in my cache of dimes and nickels. I exhausted my stash at 17 coins and yet fell short of the 90 minutes I needed to avoid a traffic ticket. Welcome to the 1940s.

In fairness, the City of San Antonio has installed 134 solar-powered stations downtown, but the slow pace of adopting new technology seems to typify the pace of progressive change here. Other cities have eliminated the mid-20th century coin meters, and with them meter minders and roving traffic cops ticketing violators. It’s simply easier to purchase adequate parking time when you can do so with a credit or debit card.

Art in public parks and in public spaces is another measure that distinguishes many cities from San Antonio. I would describe our public art portfolio as mostly safe, seldom bold, often aesthetically pleasing, and hardly ever startling or provoking delight. The exceptions are past and present installations along the Mission Reach, and we hope, future installations in Hemisfair and along San Pedro Creek. San Antonio needs to take more risks.

That’s one reason why so much is riding on the redevelopment of Hemisfair. Done right, it will help reinvent downtown San Antonio, just as HemisFair ’68 redefined the city a half century ago. I stood on the broad green lawn fronting the statehouse in Victoria, and watched yoga practitioners, kite flyers, mothers and babies convening on blankets, children running in the spray of a fountain, and students practicing the art of studying while sunbathing. Civic Park will be about the same size, I would guess. Done on the cheap, our city will be left with a mediocre calling card for locals and visitors. Done right, travel writers will tell the world: Don’t miss Civic Park and Yanaguana Garden when you go to San Antonio.

Granville Island Market in Vancouver. Photo by Robert Rivard.
A woman buys produce at the Granville Island Market in Vancouver. Photo by Robert Rivard.

My intention here is not to lecture our elected leaders and public servants, rather to challenge all of us to think bigger. I am struck by how seldom the conversation in public meetings at City Hall, Bexar County, VIA, and other public agencies turns to best practices in other cities. We compare ourselves to other cities for our population size and financial performance, but less so for place making and sustainability.

It’s fair to say that City staff dedicated to sustainability, cycling, etc. do not have the same size seat as others at the policy table. I would love to be proven wrong on that count. How City engineers and planners redesign major surface streets like Broadway and Roosevelt with 2017 bond funds will demonstrate whether we are building a more sustainable city or continuing business as usual.

It matters more than the reigning Baby Boom generation of local leadership realizes. If San Antonio doesn’t embrace more progressive development policies and do so on an accelerated timetable, we will find ourselves falling further behind more attractive cities – some bigger, some smaller, but all more in tune with the importance of building a great downtown. After all, we are competing with these other cities for brain power, for jobs, and for visitors.

It would make for an interesting exercise to send some of our infill developers, designers, architects, city planners, and artists to visit other cities to experience firsthand what makes destinations like Seattle and Vancouver different. Yes, they are richer economies, yes they are located on the Pacific Rim, but that doesn’t explain their recycling strategies or commitment to mass transit investments, well-maintained sidewalks, or bike lanes.

It’s good to be home, but it was great to travel far and wide for one week without ever thinking about a rental car.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the average cost of a taxi from San Antonio International Airport to a downtown hotel. The cost is significantly higher than the cost os using light rail from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to downtown. 

Top image: Victoria’s Butchart Gardens invite walkers to spend hours meandering. Photo by Robert Rivard. 

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.