Scenic detours aside, the straight-shot drive from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C., via Interstate 5 and Highway 99 and is long, monotonous and, at times, brutally congested one that involves traversing the third busiest U.S./Canada border crossing.
But as the New York Times recently reported, the “political, academic and tech elite” of Seattle and Vancouver are looking to better link the two cities and, in turn, make the three-or-so-hour journey (not including the requisite border traffic) a bit less painless through the creation of a innovation corridor that would rival that of Silicon Valley.
As the Times details, Seattle and Vancouver have a lot in common. Flanked by mountains and water, both are progressive, preternaturally beautiful cities sporting mild climates and a myriad of opportunities for frolicking in the great outdoors. Both, with their strong economic and cultural links to Asia, are also prohibitively expensive places to live. This is especially true for Vancouver, the third most unaffordable city in the world after Hong Kong and Sydney, although the real estate scene in once-affordable Seattle has reached dizzying San Francisco-level heights. (You can blame Amazon, as many have.)
Most important — at least as it pertains to the so-called Cascadia Innovation Corridor envisioned by governmental leaders and tech honchos — is that both Vancouver and Seattle, particularly the latter, boast strong tech and innovation-driven economies.
"Vancouver has a lot more in common with Seattle than we do with Calgary, Montreal, Toronto, anywhere else in our country,” British Columbia Premier Christy Clark tells the Times. “We should make the most of those cultural commonalities.”
Vancouver's tech scene is smaller and younger than Seattle's, although there are homegrown startups aplenty. Seattle-based tech giants like Microsoft are also establishing satellite hubs in Canada's third most populous city. (Photo: Harshil Shah/flickr)
What is slowing these commonalities between Seattle and Vancouver down, however, is geography — roughly 140 miles to be exact. Whereas the tech hubs of the Silicon Valley are all densely nestled within the San Francisco South Bay, four sizable northwest Washington counties, the southern cities of Metro Vancouver and an international border crossing stand between Seattle and Vancouver. Citing a study conducted by Boston Consulting Group that finds a "remarkably low" level of connectedness between the two cities, a press release goes on to note that the two cities “behave more like cities that are thousands of miles apart."
The Times details several ways the tech muscle of both cities can work together in mutually beneficial harmony. This includes taking a long, hard look at the obscene cost of living in Vancouver. Headquartered just east of Seattle in the city of Redmond, Microsoft is rapidly expanding in Vancouver due in part to Canada’s more relaxed immigration policies and ability to attract foreign-born tech talent. However, as the Times points out, the city’s exorbitant housing costs have proven to be an obstacle. Relatedly, academic leaders are looking to deepen ties between the University of British Columbia and the University of Washington in an effort to produce homegrown tech talent.
At last month’s Emerging Cascadia Innovation Corridor Conference held in Vancouver, Canada's Clark and Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee signed a formal agreement pledging that their two respective governments will work together to "enhance meaningful and results-driven innovation and collaboration."
Goodbye border traffic, hello high-speed rail? One proposal for the envisioned Cascadia Innovation Corridor calls for a lightening-speed train traveling from Seattle to Vancouver in under an hour. (Photo: Greg Dunlap/flickr)
Seaplanes, self-driving cars and super-speed trains
Perhaps the most intriguing element of the Cascadia Innovation corridor discussed at last month's Microsoft-co-sponsored conference was that of transportation: a link that would render travel between Vancouver and Seattle faster and more efficient.
One proposal involves linking the two cities with a high-speed rail line that would travel upwards of 200 miles per hour. The three-plus-hour drive would be slashed to an astonishing 57 minutes. With an estimated price tag of upwards of $30 billion, it’s unclear how this quixotic turbo-speed train would be financed.
More immediately, the Washington State Department of Transportation hopes to achieve a travel time between Seattle and Vancouver along the Pacific Northwest Corridor — a designated high-speed rail corridor — of 2 hours and 37 minutes by the year 2023. This would require trains traveling at 110 miles per hour. Currently, the slow-but-scenic journey from Seattle to Vancouver along the Amtrak Cascades line takes northwards of 4 hours.
Less expensive and slightly less starry-eyed is a proposal for establishing an autonomous vehicles-only lane on Interstate 5 that would stretch from Seattle to the Canadian border. As the Times notes, a dedicated lane for self-driving cars wouldn’t necessarily dramatically reduce travel time like high-speed rail scheme would. However, it would remove disgruntled motorists from the equation and allow drivers to kick back and work or watch a movie during the pleasant-but-boring haul from from Seattle to B.C. and back again.
Outlines the proposal from Seattle-based venture capital firm Madrona Venture Group:
Seattle and Vancouver have a huge opportunity to reduce congestion, improve the travel experience, reclaim productive hours and reduce accidents on the I-5 Cascadia Corridor by implementing a plan over the next decade that accelerates the introduction of autonomous vehicles on the corridor. Committing to this vision would not only benefit all who use this corridor but would also demonstrate to the world our Cascadia region’s status as a leading global center of innovation where governments and private enterprises can work in partnership to solve human problems.
An autonomous vehicle plan for I-5 could initially allow autonomous vehicles to share the HOV lanes. Over time, with more and more autonomous vehicles on the road, this would evolve into HOV lanes being exclusively for autonomous vehicles. The final step as autonomous vehicles largely replace existing vehicles would be to exclude non-autonomous vehicles from I-5 except for certain defined times when highways are not congested such as most of weekends and 8:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. on weekdays. The first phase of this plan could begin to be implemented immediately and the final phase could occur in ten to fifteen years.
Yet another proposal — described by Madrona Venture Group "as worthy but limited" — would establish regular seaplane service between Seattle's biotech-heavy South Lake Union neighborhood and Coal Harbour in Vancouver. Both locations are already active seaplane hubs although there are no regular, non-chartered routes between the two cities. The main issue with seaplane service, no matter how speedy and scenic, is scale: seaplanes can only hold six to seven passengers at a time.
While high-speed trains, regular seaplane service and autonomous vehicle-friendly HOV lanes are all a ways off, it’s nice to see a bit of tech-centric bonhomie established between these two similar yet strikingly different world-class cities separated by more than 100 miles of humdrum freeway.
A report released at the Cascadia Innovation Corridor Conference proposes a dedicated freeway lane for autonomous vehicles stretching from Seattle to the Canadian border. (Illustration: Madrona Venture Group)
However, as a native of the region who has traveled numerous times between Seattle and Vancouver both by car and train, I do wonder what — if any — opportunities are planned for the in-between areas of the corridor. And I'm not just talking about opportunities for bathroom breaks and additional outposts of beloved-in-the-Northwest fast-food eatery Taco Time.
After all, the Cascadia Innovation Corridor, as it stands now, simply consists of two united tech hubs separated by a very long drive — or, in the future, possibly a very fast train. When I think "corridor," I think of some level of related activity also happening within the region between the two bookends. With the exception of Everett and Bellingham and to a lesser extent Marysville and Mount Vernon, the population centers flanking I-5 from Seattle's northern suburbs all the way up to the Canadian border are small, scattered and free of major tech campuses.
Who knows, maybe the lush and largely agricultural Skagit River Valley could wind up an emerging tech center thanks to its central position along the corridor? Perhaps the old logging camp of Alger, population 403, will be the next Palo Alto?
It's doubtful. But as British Columbia and Washington work together to develop what's poised to be the Pacific Northwest's answer to the Silicon Valley, you really never know what you'll find along that 140-mile drive.