Vancouver, Coffee and Comprehensive Walkability

Tiny Coffee Bar, Vancouver

While it’s natural for a traveler to compare a place visited to the place lived, some cities are not comparable. You can’t fairly compare Cedar Rapids, Iowa to New York City.

But how many visitors does Cedar Rapids get from New Yorkers?

You only have so much time in your life, and you can’t spend time in two places simultaneously. In that sense, where you are is always comparable to where you are not. Where you spend most of your time is comparable to where you don’t spend much of your time.

I had the opportunity to spend the past week in Vancouver, British Columbia. Naturally the sights and sounds were taken in from my reference point of Dallas. And while things in Texas may be bigger, Dallas doesn’t stand very tall against Vancouver, at least not as far as general livability is concerned.

There are many measurements of livability, but the ones I tend to use are walkability and the availability of third places. There seem to be many coffee shops in Vancouver, and there is not a drive-thru among them. I have been to at least a dozen, and while prevalent, Starbucks has not been among them. There are some other chains and many smaller independent shops.

Where I live in Dallas, I can walk to two locations of Starbucks. That’s impressive for Dallas, but there are probably a half dozen shops closer to where I am staying in Vancouver than either Starbucks location in Dallas. While the exact location of where I am in Vancouver and where I live in Dallas may not be comparable, I can’t think of anywhere in Dallas that could top it.

So what’s the significance of Vancouver coffee shops?

Tiny Coffee Bar, Vancouver

Sure, it’s a sign that people drink a lot of coffee. But they are also third places to a population that more often than not lives alone. But most of all they are a sign of a lot of foot traffic and a measuring stick for walkability. Then-Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown once noted that the hours at a coffee shop were a sign of the health of a neighborhood. The longer they stay open, the more 24-7 and multiple uses it is. You could also say the number of independent shops and local chains vs. national chains is a measuring stick of entrepreneurial health.

Walkability does not just mean a place has sidewalks. Sure, that can be the first step, but walkability means there are places to walk to. The best areas provide a myriad of destinations in multiple directions from a given point.

All these coffee shops in Vancouver are the result of the intersections of these destinations from multiple points. Longer hours mean people are walking at different times of day, and that the places are multiple-use, meaning home, work, recreation and third places.

While one direction from the place I am staying in Vancouver leads to the harbor, in any of the other direction I could probably walk for up to an hour and not run out of places to walk to. That is probably true for most points or places in Vancouver.

In Dallas, I can walk to West Village or Uptown or Oak Lawn, but then in each case, with the exception of Uptown, I quickly run out of practical destinations. That means there are not walkable areas beyond to make Oaklawn, West Village, and Uptown a pedestrian destination. This limits foot traffic- and coffee shops- or any destination that relies on foot traffic.

I had a conversation with a Canadian visitor to Houston, who was flabbergasted he could not find any coffee shops in the downtown there. It’s not that downtown Houston isn’t walkable, it’s that there are no adjacent areas to make it a possible and practical destination for pedestrians. The coffee shops can’t survive on just high-rise workers during office hours.

For Houston and Dallas streets to be filled with coffee shops, as well as other third places and destinations, there need to be pedestrians moving into and through downtown from other areas.

Sure Houston and Dallas are improving, but there’s a long way to go. And much more to consider when building for the future. The most walkable cities are not just walkable, they comprehensibly walkable. They are built for pedestrians.

About Eric Miller

Rick and I started this web magazine as The New Colonist back in 1999. I was in San Francisco, and he was in Los Angeles. We had a common interest in sustainability and city life. We're still at it. Today I am happy to have lived in both New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh and to now reside in Dallas. Find more at ericmiller.me