When Dick Gill and his wife, Laura, lived in Chicago, they were able to grab groceries, get to work or enjoy the city’s restaurants by walking or taking public transit.

Then they retired and moved to Vancouver, Washington, in 2016.

“We immediately noticed for most things, you have to get in the car,” Gill said. “This is basically a suburban area. It’s built around loads of free parking. It doesn’t make the kind of community where things are close together and you can walk or bike without taking your life in your hands to cross the road.”

That’s something Vancouver leaders are making a concerted effort to change. They envision neighborhoods where people can live, work and shop without always relying on a car. This is necessary not only to maintain livability as the population grows, they say, but also to address rising housing prices and catastrophic climate change.

“As our city continues to grow and evolve, more individuals are looking for transformational neighborhoods where they have easy convenient access to businesses and services they use frequently, along with their jobs. They want to get to the grocery store, a local restaurant, a refreshing park or a transit stop without relying heavily on their car,” Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle said.

Vancouver has already made some changes — for example, trading parking for bike lanes on Columbia Street. Others will take decades to reach fruition, like the vision for redevelopment where Tower Mall, Vancouver’s first shopping mall and its vast parking lot, once stood in the Heights neighborhood.

It’s an ambitious departure for Vancouver. The city may have been incorporated in 1857, but the automobile fueled its expansion into a classic American suburb following World War II.

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“The city of Vancouver is not going to rapidly become an easy place to get around without a car,” said Michael Andersen, a Portland-based senior researcher for Sightline, a regional sustainability think tank in Seattle. “The key is to let people find ways to do so if they want to. The more people who want to, the more they will invest their own time and money in making that possible, and they will pave the way for the next people. And it will snowball.”

Evolving, retrofitting

The city’s goal is to transform neighborhoods so they have stores, restaurants, parks, schools, transit stations and other essential services within a 20-minute walk.

“We can build neighborhoods so people have options for different trips,” said Rebecca Kennedy, Vancouver’s long-range planning manager.

This new idea in city planning is actually quite old-fashioned.

The old part of Vancouver — built before automobile ownership was widespread — is already configured this way, with short blocks, sidewalks and a mix of housing and businesses.

“In the closer-in neighborhoods, we’re still leaning on the architecture of our great-grandparents, because the buildings are still there,” Andersen said. “In the years Clark County was booming in the mid-20th century, the rules for how you design roads locked into this path of adding more and more turn lanes and shallower corners and more and more auto-oriented streets that made it unpleasant to walk.”

Decades of planning zoned swaths of land exclusively for one use or another, forcing people who live in subdivisions to get in their cars and drive several miles to the grocery store.

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“In many cases, the reason things aren’t closer together is that we’ve made it illegal,” said Andersen, a former Columbian reporter who used to live in Vancouver.

The problem is, Vancouver’s neighborhoods are cast in concrete and asphalt; retrofitting them is difficult. That’s why city officials set aside the 205-acre Heights District for redevelopment. Tearing down Tower Mall frees up a big chunk of land to start from scratch.

Yet reorienting neighborhoods for the benefit of future residents doesn’t always sit well with existing ones.

Neighbors objected to density requirements and parking limits. In a letter to the city, leaders in one neighborhood protested, “It is one thing to buy a home in the city; quite another to have a city built next to your home.”

“Change involves loss of the way things used to be or were, and that’s really hard for people,” Kennedy said. “So how do we manage that growth in a way that reflects the values of the community?”

Room for cars or people?

Many Vancouver residents are wary of reducing parking requirements while increasing residential density, because in the past, more people has meant more cars. They want to be sure they can park their cars at their destination because other ways of getting there haven’t been feasible.

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In the Heights District, residential density targets range from 30 to 75 housing units per acre, with between 1 and 1-1/4 parking spaces per unit. By comparison, the minimum parking requirement for multifamily housing outside of downtown and a few other areas like the Heights is 1-1/2 stalls per unit. The idea is that residents in the Heights District won’t be as reliant on cars because they’ll have easy access to the Mill Plain Vine, a new bus-rapid transit corridor C-Tran, Clark County’s transportation agency, is constructing, as well as close-by services.

Vancouver’s transition to a walkable and bikeable environment depends on shifting away from the old parking standards, which commandeered a lot of space to accommodate flocks of cars, said Rick Williams, the city of Vancouver’s parking consultant. To put it simply, big parking lots push businesses farther apart.

Vancouver must look at how all modes of transportation — parking, walking, biking, scooting and so forth — interact to ensure that one doesn’t squeeze out the others, Williams said.

The number of vehicles may grow as the population does but it doesn’t have to grow at the same rate if Vancouver creates options. That might mean building more multimodal lanes or setting parking rates high enough to make transit more appealing, Williams said.

Vancouver’s waterfront is on its way to successfully creating a vibrant downtown, he continued, but hundreds of parking spots take up space that could be better used.

“Eventually, we want all those to come away,” Williams said.

More ways to get around

These 20-minute neighborhoods are a key part of Vancouver’s plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Rates of pollution have jumped more than 10 percent in Vancouver’s transportation sector since 2007, even as they declined in other areas, such as energy and solid waste.

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According to the city’s draft climate-action plan, 62 percent of Vancouver’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 could be traced to transportation — 34 percent from on-road vehicles, 24 percent from air travel, and 4 percent from off-road vehicles and equipment.

Vancouver has set a goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2040. Connected neighborhoods would reduce 2% of the city’s emissions, according to the draft climate-action plan, while about 13% of the city’s goal would be met with a transition to electrified vehicles.

Proposed actions include expanding C-Tran’s fareless programs and improving corridors to allow for bicycle and scooter use.

“A huge number of people are getting around without cars today, just not for every trip,” Andersen said. “The key is more and more of our trips are going to be options between different modes, instead of being one mode.”

Like the Gills, who share one car and try to use it rarely, instead riding C-Tran or walking to accomplish their daily business.

“I like not starting the car and polluting the Earth,” said Dick Gill, a member of C-Tran’s Citizens Advisory Board. “I like walking to the bus stop. It’s good for me.”