Reflections on Vancouver, 1907

I shared a video link (embedded below) on Twitter recently that I found to be a remarkable historical record of people interacting with a streetscape in 1907. The footage was recorded from the front of a streetcar as it made its way along a route that took it from Vancouver’s downtown to what was then suburbia. The footage is remarkable not only for what has changed in the intervening hundred-odd years, but also for what has not.

Most striking to me was the way that the streets of the time were not dominated by any one mode of transportation. Pedestrians, lots of them, crowd the wide sidewalks in the downtown areas, and simply cross the street whenever and wherever it suits them. Bicycles, apparently the fastest personal mode of transport, seem comfortable going along the main roadway, weaving around slower vehicles and the crossing pedestrians. Horse drawn carts plod along, the commercial vehicles of their day, seemingly claiming the right of way that comes with being slow and heavy. The streetcar glides along down the centre of the street, oblivious to it all, much as they do today in places that still have them. It’s interesting to note that the traffic convention of the time seems to be to keep to the left, something that didn’t change until 1922, apparently.

Perhaps it’s a foreshortening trick of the camera, but the passage of the streetcar seems like a series of close calls, apparently completely ordinary to the other users of the street. Pedestrians step out of the way at the last possible moment, nobody seemingly thinking much of it . There appears to be no signalization of any intersections, everything pretty much a free-for-all as far as rights of way are concerned.

It’s tempting to say that the users of the roadway could be so unregulated because there were just less people using them than there are today. I’m not sure that’s entirely true though. There are certainly less private vehicles, almost none in fact. Without space being occupied by vehicles beyond the public transit and a few commercial horse carts, it becomes so much easier for pedestrians and cyclists to navigate. There really are a lot of people on those streets, it’s just that each one is taking up a lot less space. Certainly a lot less space than if each one was sitting in a private vehicle.

The footage was filmed on May 7th, 1907, which was a Tuesday, so is representative of a regular working day. So where did all those people come from, and how did they get there? My guess is that they mostly live close to where they work, so that transportation beyond streetcars and bicycles wasn’t really needed. It’s a pedestrian’s place. A place where home, work and shopping were all in the same neighbourhood. In North America, we’ve moved far, far away from this through reliance on personal transportation. So far that this kind of neighbourhood seems almost impossible. The ones that do survive here tend to be in the central areas of cities, and have their roots back in the era depicted in this film. They also tend to be highly prized places to live and are priced accordingly. It always makes me wonder why we aren’t building places like these anymore. People clearly like them, and yet…

One thing I noticed that hasn’t changed much, at least where I live, is the eyesore of wooden utility poles. The wires they’re carrying are probably all different, mostly telegraph wires I expect, but they still dominate the scene. It’s an ugly public blight that we in North America have largely grown used to, or even oblivious to. A visit to the Netherlands is very instructive on this subject. If you’re sensitive to it, you soon realize that there is a certain undefinable something that is nicer about their streetscapes. Then it hits you – there are no overhead wires!

If you’re interested, Vancouver historian John Atkin has put together a site that pairs a few still images from the 1907 film with modern images (2006). It’s definitely worth a look. There is also a DVD that pairs a 2006 recreation of the route with the original footage. The contrast between 1907 and 2006 is amazing, but that one thing endures – the overhead wires.


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