Vancouver has a bit of an identity crisis that has long plagued the city. I wrote about this in “The ‘Couv’ Life” some years ago, the article is here. If it is not our name confusion with that other Vancouver, or confusion with Oregon due to our close proximity, or Washington State’s confusion with DC, then it is our interesting position juxtaposed from Portland, nay a suburb nor twin city.
When comparing Vancouver to other mid-sized cities in the USA we may find some interesting contrasts as well as similarities. Right here in Washington State there are three other cities similar to Vancouver in size. Slightly larger; Tacoma and Spokane, then the smaller, Bellevue. Tacoma and Spokane are ‘officially’ larger than Vancouver by as many as 30,000 residents but Vancouver is officially supposed to annex the entire Orchards area of some 70,000 people which makes Vancouver the defacto second largest city in the state. That said Tacoma and Spokane are in many ways “bigger.”
Tacoma looks much bigger than its population. But a large part of that is the fact that it is surrounded by water on three sides and has become land locked by other adjacent incorporated cities. Tacoma has run out of room to grow so it must go up since it can’t go out. Tacoma is also the seat of government for Washington’s second largest county. Pierce County has more people than Multnomah County where Portland OR is. Tacoma’s port is much bigger than ours and the city has a more dense downtown. But Tacoma is some 34 miles from Seattle where as Vancouver is immediately adjacent to Portland. Vancouver can tap into Portland’s network with minimal travel. Tacoma has no such luxury. It has horrific traffic compared to Vancouver. Tacoma has a city proper population of about 212,000 and a “zip code” population of nearly 400,000. Zip code population refers to census data reports for people living inside the zip codes designated for the city and includes those residents in unincorporated neighborhoods. In Tacoma’s case it also includes some 80,000 military personnel at Joint Base Lewis McChord. That compares to Vancouver at 186,000 and 325,000 respectively. Vancouver compares favorably to Tacoma with a much lower crime rate, superior traffic conditions, and a very close proximity to a major city (Portland, OR)
Spokane is the heart of Washington’s Inland Empire. It is the largest city in any direction for hundreds of miles. That makes it the center point of urban development and services for an enormous area. It also means that Spokane is more significant as a local “big city” than Vancouver which sits in the shadow of its larger southern neighbor, Portland. Spokane is served by its own International Airport and punches above its weight due to its remote location and massive service area. Comparatively Spokane’s population in the “city proper” is 216,000 and in the “zip codes” about 342,000. But Spokane is all alone out there in the middle of nowhere. It a suffers against Vancouver with higher crime rate and seriously brutal winter weather. Traffic in Spokane is generally similar to Vancouver.
Bellevue is one of those anomalous cities with a skyline that makes it look 5 times bigger than it is. That my friends is all that crazy tech money in East King County! Bellevue is for all intents a wealthy enclave for the tech giants operating in the shadow of the mighty Microsoft. Aside from the impressive downtown high rises, it is really a very upscale suburb. No real industry, port, rail connections or other “big city” stuff. Just a bunch expensive single family homes and a pretty impressive array of high rises and even a few skyscrapers clumped in the middle. Bellevue has a city population of around 140,000 and the “zip code” population is almost the same. Bellevue is more or less a tech hub and expensive suburb serving Seattle. Outside of the tech industry there is little opportunity in the region. Bellevue is saddled with crushing traffic jams and some of America’s most expensive housing with a median home price more than double that of Vancouver.
What about outside of Washington State? Oregon, California, Idaho? Well California has a lot of cities with a population of 150,000 to 250,000, seriously ALOT of them. Many of them are large suburbs in the Bay Area or LA area. The only cities in California that might compare to Vancouver are the inland mid-sized cities of Modesto, Bakersfield, and Stockton, and well that is no comparison, nobody really “wants” to live there. Santa Rosa, CA is similar in city size with about 185,000 but the zip code size is only 213,000. Santa Rosa has little in the way of heavy industry, no port, and freight rail is nominal. Fremont, California is nestled halfway between Oakland and San Jose and compares to Vancouver with industry, tech, and size. Fremont has 237,000 city and about the same in its zip codes. Fremont draws from an enormous metro area lying inside Alameda County population 1.5 million and adjacent to Santa Clara County population 2 million. Fremont has a solid rail hub but no serious port facilities. Fremont traffic is insidious, home values are expensive.
In Oregon, Eugene and Salem are somewhat comparable. Eugene is driven largely by the University of Oregon and is a bit of a “one trick pony” and Salem is the Capital of Oregon and largely driven by the Government Sector. Eugene has a city pop of 168,000 and zip code pop of 199,000. Eugene is a bit too far from the Portland metro to have a real relationship. Salem comes in at 170,000 and 250,000. Salem has little in the way of industry and no significant rail or port facilities. It is aproximately 40 miles from Portland and has some business symbiosis. Neither is really close to the ‘Couv’ in population, industry or potential business opportunity.
Idaho has its capital city of Boise that is similar in many ways to Vancouver but also has a bit of the Spokane thing going on. Boise is the biggest city for hundreds of miles. It punches above its weight as well. The city population stands at 227,000 with a zip code pop of 265,000. Boise is primarily a truck and rail city with significantly less heavy industry but a nice combination of government sector, university, and tech. Homes are reasonably priced, weather is bit hot in the summer and can be nasty in the winter although not as brutal as Spokane. Crime is low, and traffic is pretty good.
In the Portland Metro Area Vancouver stands out as not only the largest of Portland’s satellites but the largest by an enormous margin. Gresham the next closest is not even a mid sized city per se with just 110,000 peeps. Its zip code population is actually smaller than that! That is because parts of the city of Gresham spill over into zip codes of Portland. Likewise Vancouver has a few thousand residents living in the Camas zip code. The next two cities down are Beaverton and Hillsboro each just shy of 100,000 population. These two cities are anchored by massive single employers, Nike in Beaverton and Intel in Hillsboro.
So where does all this leave America’s Vancouver? Well it is emerging as a bit of a rival to Portland. Almost a Minneapolis and St. Paul kind of thing. Now before I get carried away, St Paul Minnesota is a bit bigger than Vancouver WA but it likely suffers a bit of the same issue being in the shadow of the larger and better known Minneapolis. St. Paul however is about 75% the size of Minneapolis and Vancouver is a bit less than half the size of Portland.
Vancouver is immediately adjacent to Portland and the two cities have some symbiosis sharing the Columbia River and two interstate bridge crossings. Vancouver is also the only other city in the metro area with a large port, significant heavy industry, and a true city style, urban downtown core. It is also the only other city in the metro area on the verge of becoming a proper large city rather than a mid-sized city. Portland, OR has a city population of about 650,000 and a zip code population just shy of 700,000. Vancouver as mentioned before has a zip code population of 320,000 and that is a bit of a counter weight to Portland. For years Vancouver has been punching under our weight. Now is the time for us to start ‘hitting’ like a large city. There’s business to be had, and it should be here!