Vancouver vs. Seattle: a Vancouverite's Perspective

sfard on May 08 2013


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Seattle

I've lived and worked in a lot of cities: Toronto, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, to name a few. My last real "job", before returning to my hometown of Vancouver to become an independent web developer, was with Expedia in Seattle. I love Vancouver, and I love Seattle. But despite people consistently throwing them into the same boat and saying things like "they're basically the same", they're not. They're not the same. Aside from being Pacific Northwest cities and a populous with a proclivity for yoga, hiking, and not working too hard, they're very, very different. I'd like to describe why.

Seattle has an Economy

People move to Seattle to make money. People move to Vancouver when they've already made it. That about describes it.

Some of the world's largest and most innovative companies call Seattle home. Boeing, Starbucks, Microsoft, Amazon, Nordstrom, Costco, T-Mobile (US) are all companies based in the greater Seattle area. All this commerce creates with it a cascading set of high-end professional service businesses like patent law firms, venture capital, investment banks, and lobbyists. If you're young and have a good college degree, it's not a stretch to be making six-figures with a few years of experience under your belt.

What's the biggest company in Vancouver, on the other hand? BC Hydro - a crown utility. What's the most well-known tech company in Vancouver? Probably Hootsuite - a business that effectively makes a popular Twitter app and employs a few hundred people. Electronic Arts has a gaming studio in Burnaby, but is merely a satellite of a much larger American company. Vancouver's economy is mostly predicated on cyclical real estate bubbles, drugs, and junior mining companies who employ half a dozen engineers and yet don't actually mine anything.

Vancouver is More Beautiful (and its beauty is more accessible)

vancouver

I know it's subjective, but at least to this writer, Vancouver wins in the beauty department. The mountains are closer to the city and more easily accessible. Stanley Park along with the beautiful seawall that surrounds it are literally a part of downtown. With the exception of the occasional port or lumber yard, the entirety of Vancouver's coastline consists of publicly-accessible beaches or parks, whereas Seattle's western coastline (with the exception of overcrowded beaches like Alki and Golden Gardens) largely consists of industrial parks and inaccessible raised platforms, while the eastern coastline around Lake Washington is almost entirely privatized. Great if you are a member of the 0.001% who can afford property there. Not so great if you are not.

Vancouverites Are Nicer, But Seattlites Are More Interesting

Passive aggressive is a word many locals use to describe Seattle. People in Vancouver are less passive agressive and just generally more passive. Meeting people is hard in both cities, no doubt. Neither has the critical mass of transient diaspora, the likes of a New York or Washington, that makes people want to talk to and meet strangers, but I've found that at least in Vancouver, there is a crack in walls of people's exclusion that comes from a Canadian politeness that Seattle doesn't have.

On the other hand, if you do manage to get to know people in either city, Seattlites are generally more interesting. Much more interesting. Every bar tender and barista in Seattle is aspiring to be something. Whether it be a PhD, a musician, a producer, a writer, whatever. In Vancouver, bar-tending is a career. Smoke weed and play video games in the day and bartend at night is the name of the game. Or waiter in the day and snowboard at night. I wont judge these people for choosing to live an unburdened life, but I will judge them for how incredibly vapid most of them are.

Seattle Has a Better Music Scene

Macklemore

Seattle is a city of music in a way that makes it unfair, if not meaningless, to compare it to Vancouver. As the home of grunge, it is one of North America's music capitals. Seattle doesn't just make musicians. It creates groundbreaking musicians: Nirvana, Foo Fighters, and Pearl Jam to name a few. Macklemore is pretty good, too.

Vancouver is More Organized, Seattle is More Chaotic

Vancouver zoning laws are brutally protective of mixing commercial, residential, or industrial area. The outcome is an autistic urban planner's wet dream: highly organized neighbourhood grids, straight lines, pristine hedges, and slow transitions between property types.

Seattle is almost the exact opposite. Breweries next to bike shops next to a stack of townhouses next to a highway next to factory a converted to a coffee shop converted to a yoga studio converted to a beed store.

Lenin Fremont

There is a statue of Lenin in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle. Not something you'd expect in America. Then again, Fremont's unofficial slogan is "De Libertas Quirkas" ("Freedom to be Peculiar")

Vancouver is Centralized

The thing about strict municipal zoning and urban planning is that urban planners really like centralization. They are taught density leads to a bunch of good stuff like better public transit and easier allocation of social services. And that is at least partly to explain why Vancouver is incredibly centralized. Everything happens in downtown Vancouver. People live there, they work there, and they go out there. Look at any list of top restaurants or bars in the city and odds are good that at least half of them are in downtown. The good? Downtown Vancouver is awesome. The bad? The rest of the city sometimes feels like a really big suburb.

Seattle, on the other hand, is all about neighbourhoods. Downtown Seattle kind of sucks. Maybe I could put it more eloquently than that, but "sucks" just fits. Pike Place market is nice and so is Pioneer Square, but the list mostly ends there. But what its downtown lacks, its neighborhoods make up for. The beauty about a city made up of discrete neighborhoods is that it's easier to feel like a member of a community. And when you feel like you want something new, to experience a new vibe or a different type of people, you only need to drive a few miles.

Seattle Has More Highways, Vancouver Has Better Transit

There aren't many bus lines in Seattle, and if you are lucky enough to find a bus that'll get you where you need to go, depending on the time and location, you might not want to get on. I was once on my way from downtown to Fremont when a guy in a blood-soaked wife beater and a fresh stab wound was trying to get on. Needless to say, it's nice if not necessary to have a car in Seattle.

Having a car in Vancouver, conversely, is nice but not necessary. Buses take you everywhere, and dedicated lanes sometimes make it faster to get around on the bus than a car in heavy traffic. On the downside, thanks to zoning (again), and wealthy property owners who don't want noise (or suburban "lessers"... let's be honest) in their neighborhoods, there are no real highways in the city of Vancouver. In rush hour it takes literally one hour to go the 15km from west side Vancouver to neighbouring Burnaby.

Time to Get Racial

When someone lands in Vancouver for the first time, the first thing they notice is how many Asian people there are. According to the 2006 census, almost 40 percent of the city is of East Asian (Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, or Korean) origin. This is why Vancouver has some of the best sushi and Chinese food outside of Asia, as well as perhaps the largest population of second generation Asians who do great accents and impressions of their parents.

It's a stretch to call Vancouver multi-cultural, though. When people from the City visit Seattle for the first time, they're normally shocked by all the black and hispanic people, which is funny because people in Seattle often make fun of how white the city is.

For all the sushi we have in Vancouver, it's impossible to find decent ribs, cajun food, or Mexican food. And while I make this all about food, that's only because that is the most obvious benefit of a pluralistic city. And to that extent, Seattle and Vancouver are kind of a draw. Fuck, I'm hungry.

Concluding Thoughts

I'm not here to say which is better. I love both cities. But they are not the same. If I look at the list above and think to myself, "what is it really that sets the cities apart?", it does come down to the nebulous Canadian/American thing. Seattle, like America is more economically free, more chaotic, more raw, more enterprising, more expressive, and more industrial than Vancouver. Meanwhile Vancouver is more compassionate, more organized, more pleasant, more free-flowing, and more untouched than Seattle. Both are great.

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2
haileypetway | reply
I agree with you on most points, but I have to say that you are a little uninformed when it comes to Seattle's public transportation.

A quick Google search tells me that Seattle has well over 200 bus lines. You are right when you say riding the bus in Seattle can be very sketchy. But now that there is no ride-free zone, the experience of riding the bus is improving. Most people who live in Seattle proper take the bus or some form of public transportation to work every day, myself included. We have the Link light-rail system which can take you from Westlake Shopping in downtown all the way to the Sea Tac Airport, and a new street car as well.

I also would like to point out how bike friendly Seattle is. I also found Vancouver to be pretty bike friendly. I think this could be because people who live in Vancouver are friendly themselves. In Seattle we have dedicated bike lanes throughout the city. I didn't see bike lanes in Vancouver but I could have missed them!

While living in Seattle the past 4 years, I haven't moved my car unless I'm getting a large load of groceries or going on a trip out of Seattle.
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Twt4Fun | reply
I've lived in Seattle for 20 years, and grew up in the suburbs of Vancouver (and frequently visit). There are so many similarities between the cities that it's...almost like they have similar geography and climate. To me, Vancouver has the edge in skiing proximity, (close to my heart) downtown vibe and parks (my God, you forgot QE), while Seattle has the edge in business activity and sports (except hockey, of course).

I must take exception with the Seattleite above, though: Seattle transit is atrocious. As that commenter has intimated, even in 2014 it's for all intents and purposes bus-only (one train to the airport and one trolley to Amazon notwithstanding). With very few dedicated bus lanes, 90% of connections necessitating waiting at the rough bus stops of downtown, and now transit cuts, it's a non-starter for anyone who doesn't live/work downtown. Seattle is not all that "bike friendly" and will never be for the exact same reason it's not transit-friendly: no room for dedicated lanes. (most streets do feature the occasional drawing of a bike on the road, though).

The way Seattle tries to make its citizens use transit is to cause as much pain as possible for drivers: parking is extortionate, major arterials have been placed on what the city calls a "road diet" (imagine if East Hastings or Kingsway were narrowed to one lane each direction, and you get the drift) and businesses are punished for having too many car commuters.

I have the utmost respect for cyclists, but I also am a realist who understands that no matter how many drawings of bikes are painted in the streets ("sharrows"), the number cycling in this city of rain and steep hills will never be more than a very small minority.

Vancouver has some great bike features, including dedicated lanes (and streets) - but the city doesn't try to make every street a bike street, thus setting up its cyclists to fail. Instead, it seems to know that its regular cyclists will find and use the appropriate routes, making the streets easier for all.


2
AlbertMeyburgh | reply
when I was in Seattle I didn't notice a DTES analog
1
Twt4Fun | reply
South Seattle/Central District.
-2
sfard | reply
What is DTES?
2
downtown east side


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excitationz | reply
I do like the fact, and agree with article that Seattle is more enterprising and expressive then Vancouver, I've always been impressed with the design industry and absolute quality of advertising agencies & design firms in the Seattle area, work is always in the top ranks of National/International competitions & showcases. I do love and respect both cities, Vancouver though, to me, feels just a bit closer to an european city vibe then say an American - more organized, a bit stiff, more compassion... strange considering their proximity,


0
excitationz | reply
I do like the fact, and agree with article that Seattle is more enterprising and expressive then Vancouver, I've always been impressed with the design industry and absolute quality of advertising agencies & design firms in the Seattle area, work is always in the top ranks of National/International competitions & showcases. I do love and respect both cities, Vancouver though, to me, feels just a bit closer to an european city vibe then say an American - more organized, a bit stiff, more compassion... strange considering their proximity,


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yelgabs | reply
Filipino*
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sfard | reply
Thanks, edited
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sfard | reply
[deleted]


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jodyrodgers | reply
Loved the article! Why? It is about my two favorite cities. One I live in, Seattle. The other I am a constant cheerleader for, encouraging everyone I meet to visit Vancouver. I totally agree with "Vancouver is More Beautiful" because it just is. It is gorgeous. Seattle is beautiful but Vancouver is just more so. Now having said that, your conclusion that Seattle's parks don't provide access to seeing the local beauty I believe is not really that accurate. You failed to mention the fantastic 534 acre/2.2 km Discovery Park which is Seattle's largest. And there is the other great large parks: Magnuson Park, Seward Park and Lincoln Park. All of those added up are larger than Stanley Park. And as you pointed out, Seattle is a city of neighborhoods. So of course we are going to have smaller, but amazing, parks for the people that live in those neighborhoods.

Oh, and Seattle has better beer.

-Jody


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Cap_Charley | reply
There's a bit of contradiction: first you say people living in Vancouver are those who have "made it", then you go on about them smoking weed and playing video games while working as bartenders at night.
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AlbertMeyburgh | reply
people living in vancouver aren't the same as people living here

different meanings same word
0
I do like the fact, and agree with article that Seattle is more enterprising and expressive then Vancouver, I've always been impressed with the design industry and absolute quality of advertising agencies & design firms in the Seattle area, work is always in the top ranks of National/International competitions & showcases. I do love and respect both cities, Vancouver though, to me, feels just a bit closer to an european city vibe then say an American - more organized, a bit stiff, more compassion... strange considering their proximity,


Responses (5)     + Write a Response

I do not believe that Seattle is more expressive! Vancouver has the secomd largest gay pride in North America behind Toronto!

January 22, 2014

Economy

You missed some major parts about the Vancouver economy like major resource companies, not just junior mines. Vancouver has one of the largest ports in NA. I think Telus, Teck, Finning and Pattison are all quite a bit bigger than B.C Hydro. Many other large companies in various sectors, construction, medical, education etc. But great article, love Vancouver and Seattle, great cities. Are you

October 3, 2013

Brilliant post. I am a native Vancouverite who frequents Seattle because, frankly, I like it better. I can't stress enough how accurate your first point is. For all of Vancouver's constant self-promotion as some sort of incubator of hot economic or business ideas, it is an absolute backwater. You can't "make it" in Vancouver because Vancouver -- as you point out -- is a city for people who have

September 14, 2013

I do not believe that Seattle is more expressive! Vancouver has the secomd largest gay pride in North America behind Toronto!

January 22, 2014

Economy

You missed some major parts about the Vancouver economy like major resource companies, not just junior mines. Vancouver has one of the largest ports in NA. I think Telus, Teck, Finning and Pattison are all quite a bit bigger than B.C Hydro. Many other large companies in various sectors, construction, medical, education etc. But great article, love Vancouver and Seattle, great cities. Are you

October 3, 2013