Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Patrick Condon on Trams and the City

with 12 comments

The following was originally posted to the Livable Region Coalition email list where a parallel discussion of the recent Tyee article had degenerated – but in a rather different direction to the discussion here.

Patrick Condon is Professor of Landscape Architecture at UBC and was the author of the study cited by the Tyee. He has given me permission to reproduce the following. I have taken the liberty in the process of reformatting it to go into this bog of making a few minor textual emendations, but 99.9% of this is what he wrote – not me. But I was a planner long before I was a transport economist and reading this piece made me go “oh yuh” about every paragraph.

To break up the this big block of text I also decided to include some pictures.

Over to you Patrick


The conversation spawned by our report here has been interesting to me, and new ideas generated. I have found it particularly difficult to explain how important I think this issue is because it is multifaceted. The Tram is not explainable in terms of its transportation function alone – and this is the problem.

Discussion quickly moves to how good a system it is or isn’t vs other systems. This separates a transportation question from the fabric of the larger question, which is how do we make sustainable cities. I fear that the complexity of the question makes it difficult to hold in mind when thinking about one or another element of the sustainable city question, be it affordable housing, greenhouse gas,
transportation, or social equity. I know for certain it gives me a permanent headache trying to do so. Nevertheless for some of you the following might be of interest. It is a chapter of a book I am working
on, the chapter that focuses on the sustainable urban design principle of the “streetcar city”. Its my attempt to explain why I think the tram/streetcar question is important enough to keep harping on.


A restored Streetcar City

North American cities built between 1880 and 1945 were streetcar cities. While this fact is mentioned now and then, seldom is it acknowledged how fundamentally the streetcar established the pattern of North American life, and how that pattern still constitutes the very bones of our city, even now that most of the streetcars are gone.

A “day in the life” story will start to reveal this skeleton.

A day in the life

The year is 1922 and Mr. Campbell is house shopping. He has taken a job with Western Britannia Shipping Company in Vancouver. He and his family must relocate from Liverpool England, and he is house hunting. The company put him up in a hotel in downtown Vancouver for the first few weeks. This weekend is his first chance to shop for a family home. He plans to explore a couple of new neighbourhoods presently under development, and to use the new streetcar system to get there. A quick look at the map tells him that the new district of Kitsilano might be a good bet. It’s not too far from downtown and located a five minute walk from the seashore. The Fourth Avenue streetcar line will take him there from downtown in fifteen minutes.

Men excavating street and laying streetcar tracks on Fourth Avenue, looking east from Fir Street

The streetcar enters the district of Kitsilano. Construction is everywhere. Carpenters are busy erecting one story commercial structures next to the streetcar line and very similar bungalow buildings on the blocks immediately behind. As he rides further into the district the busy construction sites become less frequent, replaced by still standing forests. The paved road is replaced by one of gravel – the streetcar line, tiesplaced right on the raw gravel, the only improvement. It looks so odd to have a streetcar line serving what appears to be raw wilderness.

Taken aback by the wildness of the landscape, Mr. Campbell steps off the streetcar where a sign advertises the new Collingwood street development. Here things are more encouraging, as workers are laying fresh concrete to sidewalks and asphalt to the new grid of streets. Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth street are complete for a few blocks before disappearing into the forests of the as yet undeveloped lots to the east and west. For sale signs are tacked on forest trees still standing on as yet undeveloped lots. Stepping into the project show home, he is immediately surrounded by activity. Carpenters and job foremen are using the house as an office, while sales agents occupy the front parlor. They waste no time inviting Mr. Campbell in, offering coffee and dropping him in a seat before the printed display of new homes. All the different styles fit on the same size lots, with the bungalow detached single family home style seeming to predominate.

Shocked a bit by the wildness of the landscape, he asks if this will change. The salesman laughs and says “Oh my, by this time next year all that will be gone and a whole new neighborhood will exist. Buy now while the prices are good because next year they will cost twice as much!” he laughs.

“Well how do I know I can get downtown to my job from here dependably?” asks Campbell.

Again the salesman laughs good naturedly and says “Because we own the streetcar line of course! Naturally we had to put the streetcar in before we built the houses, and a pretty penny it cost too! But nobody will buy a house they can’t get to will they!” he laughs.

“You mean the developers build the streetcar lines before they buildthe neighborhoods? Wow, that’s incredible!”

“Just a fact of life around here Mr. Campbell. The streetcar lines have to be within a five minute walk of the house lots or we can’t sell em! People have to get around don’t they? But we make enough on the houses to pay it off. If we didn’t we’d be out of business. But there have to be enough houses to sell per acre to make it all work, that’s only natural right! We have it down to a formula: eight houses to the acre give us enough profit to pay off the streetcar and enough customers close to the line to make the streetcar profitable too!

That’s why all the lots are the same size even when the houses are so different. You’re a smart business man Mr. Campbell I can tell. I’m sure you understand, eh?” he laughs.

“But what of commercial establishments sir” asks Mr. Campbell with reserved formality, “Where will we buy our food, tools and clothing?”

Again the salesman laughs. “Oh all along Fourth Avenue sir. Don’t worry! By this time next year it will be wall to wall shops. One storey ones to be sure at first but when this neighborhood fully developed we expect Fourth Avenue to be lined with substantial four and five story buildings to be proud of! Liverpool will have nothing on us sir! You’ll always be just a couple of minutes from the corner pub. Anything else you need you can just hop on and off the streetcar to get it in a jiffy!”

Naturally once Mr. Campbell’s understandable reservations had been overcome he was sold, and bought a house in the process. He was overjoyed to be able to buy a freestanding home for him and his family, something only the very rich of Liverpool could afford. All of the promises made came true more quickly than he imagined possible, with the single exception of the four story buildings to be proud of.

Rather than ten years that would take another 80. First, the great depression slowed economic activity then, WWII redirected economic activity to the war effort. By the 1950s the economic pendulum had swung toward suburban development fueled by increasing car ownership. It was not till the 1990s that these streetcar neighborhoods would see the vision of four storey buildings lining both sides of the street realized.

Streetcar City as a unifying principle

The Streetcar City principle is not about the vehicle. It’s about a sustainable relationship between land use, walking, and transportation. Streetcar Cities can exist without steel wheeled transit, but they can’t exist without frequent and convenient transit that serves the local district. The Streetcar City principle gives us a shorthand way to signify a uniquely North American form that met and still meets many of the emerging principles for sustainable communities which we are all struggling to apply. The streetcar city principle orders and includes three others. The streetcar city that Mr. Campbell experiences necessarily has an interconnected streets system, different housing types in the same area, and a five minute walking distance to commercial services and transit.

Basic structure of the Streetcar City

Streetcar cities, like Cleveland, Minneapolis, Seattle, Los Angeles and Vancouver have certain things in common. They are all laid out in a gridiron, with streets orienting to the cardinal axis. The grid is a subdivision of the original 40 acre blocks, commonly subdividing the 40 acre “quarter quarter” sections into 8 equal 5 acre blocks (inclusive of street space). Most homes are located within a quarter mile or five minute walk to the nearest streetcar stop, which means that ideally streetcar arterials were located every one half mile or every eight short blocks. In certain instances the streetcar arterials would form a grid of one half mile squares. More commonly a district might be better served by service in the east west direction on the half mile grid than in the north south. Commercial services occupy the ground floor of street fronting building along the line of the streetcar. This linear commercial oriented public realm is a unique feature of the Streetcar City which will be examined at length below.

Streetcars made detached housing possible.

Much has been made of the American Dream of owning your own home on its own lot. The Dream was presumably realized after WWII when the auto oriented suburb was born. But the dream was realized two generations before in the Streetcar City. With the emergence of the streetcar, the radius within which urban North American’s could operate expanded dramatically. Prior to the streetcar, the radius of the average persons activities were proscribed by walking distance.

Since the time of the Romans the time spent getting to work every day has been about 20 minutes on average. You can walk about a mile in 20 minutes, thus the distance between work and home in cities from the time of Rome to the early development of Boston and Cambridge was one mile. As cities became more and more active, the need to put more and more people within easy compass of work led to cities of higher density. The classic “four storey walk up” city emerged in the time of Rome and persisted till the mid 1800s. This is a city of roughly 30 to 60 dwelling units per acre, with a floor area ratio (FAR) of greater than 2, with a population that could easily exceed 60,000 people a square mile. In such cities single family detached homes were extremely rare. The vast majority of working class and middle class residents in such cities lived in apartment style structures while the rich lived more lavishly but still in high density townhouses – Boston’s Beacon Hill district is a good example.

With the advent of the streetcar twenty minutes got you much further. Using an average speed of ten miles per hour inclusive of stops and intersection waits, the distance traveled in twenty minutes increases from the walking distance one mile to the streetcar distance of 4 miles. This fourfold increase in distance is actually much greater than it seems when you consider that this increases by 16 times the area one can cover in 20 minutes from one square mile to sixteen. Thus the same 60,000 people that were compressed into one square mile could now be spread over 16 (under 4,000 people per square mile) allowing much lower density housing while still maintaining easy access for workers across the service area. For the first time, the urban middle class could buy detached homes. Most streetcar city residential districts were therefore comprised mostly of single family homes, the bungalow style predominating. The Streetcar City form allows detached housing within walking and short transit distance of jobs and services over very large metropolitan scale areas. If our challenge is to reintroduce walking and transit into North American life, while not ignoring the desirability in the minds of most homebuyers for ground oriented detached dwellings, then the Streetcar City form is a proven prototype.

Forty percent still live there

About 40% of North America’s urban residents live in districts once served by streetcar. As such this same population lives in districts where options to the car are still possible. Most of these districts are still pedestrian and transit friendly, although with rare exception the streetcar and interurban lines that once served them have been removed – Toronto a rare exception to the rule. While there is much debate about what precipitated the removal of North America’s streetcar and interurban systems, one thing is beyond debate. The U.S. courts convicted “National City Lines” for conspiring to intentionally destroy streetcar systems for the purpose of eliminating competition with rubber wheeled vehicles. While it seems impossible to us today, Los Angeles once had the largest and most extensive system of streetcars and interurban lines in the world. This system was completely dismantled by National City Lines, a “transit” company owned outright by GM, Firestone, and Phillips Petroleum. In 1949 GM was convicted of anti-trust violations for this practice, but by then it was too late. The streetcar boulevard system was irreparably damaged while an enormous and, in the minds of many, eventually fruitless effort to lace the LA region with freeways was underway. Now no hint of this original fabric can be directly experienced. Only by perusing the old photos can one sense the extent of the destruction.

Linear not nodal

Linear public space is the distinguishing feature of the streetcar city. This is highly unusual and not generally appreciated. Most planning and urban design strategies see cities as places comprised of key places – crucial points in the landscape of the metropolis. The assumption that cities are made up of key centers and destinations deeply informs the planning, urban design, and economic development disciplines. For them, preserving and creating functional nodes is most often the goal. For example, the Vancouver region is justifiably famous for its Liveable Region Strategic Plan (LRSP), the plan to create complete communities linked by transit and protect the green zone. But the plan fails to mention the role of corridors at all. This may not seem like a significant disagreement, except it led to a transportation strategy primarily focused on equipping the widely spaced “Regional Town Centre” nodes with rapid transit connections.

The plan was mute on the role of districts between the regional town centers, certainly more than 80% of the urban landscape. The LRSP set aggressive targets for attracting housing and jobs into the town centers however. Housing targets were generally met for these nodes, and the region is rightfully famous for this achievement. But in its own reports the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD) admits “failure” to meet regional town center job targets. Without both jobs and housing in the nodes only one “trip end” was close to transit, the housing end. The job end was still somewhere else. Thus the strategy to connect the town centers with rapid transit links was compromised. Thus it was assumed the plan had failed in a critical way. The Province now threatens to over invest in freeway expansion to “fix the failed plan”, noting that jobs were highly dispersed and thus not reachable by the new transit system.

But the jobs did not escape. They ended up in the spaces in between the town centres, close to the corridors. A strategy that had acknowledged the corridors as at least as important as the nodes would have likely led to a more balanced transit strategy, with buses and a rebuilt streetcar system (one was briefly proposed in 1995 for the Vancouver region but abandoned for elevated subway Skytrain technology) getting their fair share. Instead billions were invested in a heavy rail system, the Skytrain, while many complained the bus system, which carries 80 of all trips in the system, was drastically under funded.

Web vs Hub and Spoke

Concentric hub and spoke Patterned on New York and London

This discussion of the Streetcar City generates skepticism for many. Most discussions of transit made by environmentalists and their brethren have concerned the need to move people from their cars to transit, and have focused mostly on the car trip from the suburb to the center. The presumption, now quite outdated, is that people live in suburbs and commute to the center city for work. This trip now constitutes a minority of regional work trips. Much more common now are trips to other job locations throughout the metropolitan area.

This more homogeneous distribution of jobs is seen by transit planners as a failure to be corrected through planning policy and transit investments. The supposed “failure” of the Greater Vancouver Regional District’s Livable Region Strategic Plan, discussed above, is one particularly vivid example of this fixation. Metropolitan areas throughout North America have attempted to preserve the job site dominance of center cities against these centrifugal forces. But in most North American cities with the exception of New York the brief post war period where jobs stayed in the center while residential functions moved to very distant suburbs was the exception rather than the rule. This massive region wide separation of activities therefore constitutes the exception rather than the rule.

Unfortunately planners and advocates for both new highways and transit, folks who believe themselves on the opposite sides of a holy divide, both assume this exceptional status is a permanent condition of metropolitan North America. They both promote massive infrastructure investments intended to move people from where they presumably live, at the outside edge of the metropolitan region, to where they presumably work, at the center of the metropolitan region.

Commuting statistics for most regions show that this is false. In the Vancouver region only 19% of trips crossing the Port Mann bridge from Surrey are destined for the center city of Vancouver. The other 80% are commuting generally from the east to the west, toward Vancouver, but occupy job locations in the first and second ring suburbs.

Gradually these first and second ring suburbs are adding jobs to the point where they have nearly as many jobs as workers. At this point are they no longer suburbs but cities in their own right? If so what does that say about the logic of continuing to invest tens of billions of dollars in systems designed for trips that no longer exist?
Streetcar city was more grid

If we accept this organic evolution of metropolitan regions towards a more even distribution of jobs we can look with new interest at the Streetcar City model, and see what it can teach us. Streetcar City transportation systems were grids, not hub and spoke systems. Movement in the system was not to once central location or effectively served by systems where all transfers had to be made at a central hub.

Rather, movement was along parallel north south or east west arterials. You could get anywhere in the system with a two seat ride and a five minute walk at both ends of the trip. In Streetcar Cities each part of the city was more or less equally served and destinations were always by the shortest possible route (given the natural rectilinear constraints of the gridiron city plan of course). Busses that have taken the place of demolished trolley lines in most gridded cities still work this way and still enjoy advantages that are a legacy of the Streetcar City form.

The lesson for older parts of the region with the original Streetcar City fabric still in place should be to re-enforce that structure with transit investments to shore up the function of these arterials, shifting investment here and away from hub and spoke systems. The lesson for the suburbs should be to examine the fabric of the transporation network in those regions against the new evidence of the wide distribution of jobs for clues about how a revived Streetcar City type strategy might be a wiser investment than continued over investment in a obsolete hub and spoke system. This is particularly important if one accepts that “complete communities” should be a feature of any sustainable city. Complete communities are communitieswhere one needs to travel far less during the average day than we do now – cities that reverse dramatically our need to travel by whatever means except possibly by foot. It seems unlikely in the extreme that we can ever achieve the massive reductions in energy use required to bring global warming under control, to cite just one aspect of our linked sustainability crisis, if we accept the inevitability of residents in regions making daily trips half way across the region in thirty minutes or less, and invest in systems that make such trips possible. Both highway and transit advocates fall into this trap.

Trips by transit are not free. A passenger mile in a bus or commuter rail takes less energy than an average car but about the same as in a Prius. It won’t help us to get everyone onto transit unless we can find a way to radically decrease the average daily demand for motorized travel of any kind. Community districts that are complete and favor short trips over long ones seem an obvious part of the solution. Inexpensive short haul transit vehicles, like streetcars and of course busses, are likely features of a low energy solution.

Buses and streetcars.

When National City Lines disassembled streetcar systems in Los Angles they marshaled strong arguments in support, arguments still leveled against streetcar systems when they are proposed. Streetcars are inflexible. They are on rails so if one gets stuck the whole system gets stuck. Streetcar vehicles cost more than busses. Busses don’t need overhead wires to run them. Buses do the same job as streetcars but do a lot more too. These arguments are often sufficient to end the matter. But lets approach the question from a different angle. It’s not a question of busses or streetcar really. It’s a question of what kind of rail transit makes the most sense.

There is general agreement that light rail systems are a good thing, and that they should be a major part of any region’s transportation expenditure. Recent US transportation bills have allowed the use of gas tax for transit lines, resulting in new rail systems for places as unlikely as Dallas. Almost all of this new expenditure for rail systems has been made on systems expected to move riders from the edges of the metropolitan area to the center in thirty minutes or less. To call these systems “light” is a misnomer. They are heavy rapid transit systems that cost many billions to construct. Portland’s MAX system, one of the earliest and according to most one of the most successful of these commuter systems, operates like a large streetcar in the center city, moving at slower speeds on crowded streets. Once out of the downtown it operates as a grade separated system with a dedicated right of way, widely spaced stations and travel speeds of up to 60mph. The system had to be built this way. It was the only way to satisfy the primary performance objective for the system: get riders from the edge of the metropolitan region to the center in a half hour, or at speeds that compete with the car.

Oncoming Max Light Rail

Regional authorities typically assume that the role of rapid transit is to operate at speeds comparable to the car. This is a race that transit can never win before bankrupting the civic purse. Portland style MAX technology costs approximately 100 million dollars per two way mile to build. Fully grade separated systems like the Vancouver Skytrain system cost twice as much: 200 million or more per two way mile. In the mid 1990s, Tri-Country Metropolitan Transportation District (TriMet) planned a north south MAX line to compliment the existing east west line. The new line would have run from Downtown Portland, serve the north side of the city, before connected across the Columbia river to the City of Vancouver, Washington. Voter approval via a referendum was required to authorize the local cost share. The bond measure was narrowly defeated, constituting a major setback for transit in the region. Officials in Portland were initially inclined to give up, but didn’t. They still needed a system to serve the north part of the city so they cast about for more affordable alternatives. What they found was modern streetcar technology. Europe had never abandoned streetcars and many companies still manufactured them. A Czech company (Skoda) was able to provide the components of a system that could be installed, including rolling stock, for 20 million dollars a two way mile – only one fifth the cost per mile compared to MAX technology and one tenth the cost of Skytrain. Why so cheap? Car size was the same as Skytrain so it wasn’t that. The system is cheap because while it can run in dedicated right of ways at speeds of 50 mph it can also very easily run on existing street rights of way. It can either share lane space with cars as it does in Portland or move faster on dedicated lanes in the center of streets as does the Green Line in Boston. The vehicles are so light that streets and bridges do not need reconstruction to accommodate. On regular streets all that is needed is a 12″ concrete pad within which to set rails. Otherwise the street is not disrupted, nor are the businesses that may line it.

Portland Street at the University stop

In Europe streetcar or tram systems are being expanded much faster than heavier rail systems, gradually replacing busses on heavily used urban arterials. They provide a much smoother ride than busses for elderly. With an aging demographic where those over 65 years old will soon constitute over 33% of the population, a 200% increase over today, this is a key factor. Body balance is very compromised as we age. Unsteady rides and buses that are hard to mount and stand in are increasingly difficult after age 55 and almost impossible over 70. Low floor streetcar are mountable at grade and are free of rocking motion. Streetcars are always electric and thus don’t pollute. Finally and most compellingly, they don’t really cost much more than busses.

Vancouver recently purchased a new fleet of trolley busses, electric vehicles that have been used on streetcar streets since the rails were removed in the 1940s and 50s. Vancouver’s rapid bus system cost $4.3 million per mile and features articulated buses with a maximum load of 80 persons per bus. With a maximum load of 156 passengers per vehicle, streetcars can carry nearly twice as many passengers asarticulated buses at a cost of $26 million per 2-way mile. While more expensive it is nothing like the quantum leap in cost between busses and heavier rail systems.

Portland and investment.

Most discussions of streetcar focus solely on transit issues, but the implications are much wider. Streetcars stimulate investment and busses don’t. This has been powerfully demonstrated in Portland where the introduction of a modern streetcar line spurred high density development that helped the City of Portland recoup construction costs through significantly increased tax revenues. Between 1997 and 2005 the density of development immediately adjacent to the new streetcar line increased dramatically. Within two blocks of the streetcar line $2.28 billion was invested, representing over 7,200 new residential units and 4.6 million square feet of additional commercial space; even more impressive, new development within only one block of the streetcar line accounted for 55 percent of all new development within the City’s core. To put this in perspective, prior to construction of the new streetcar line land located within one block of the proposed route captured only 19 percent of all development. Most attribute this impressive increase in investment to the presence of streetcar. Developers for the new South Waterfront development at the other end of the downtown from the Pearl District would not proceed before the city guaranteed to extend the streetcar line to their site.

The developer for the South Waterfront also spearheaded development of the Pearl District. They were quite certain that streetcar was a crucial element for financial success. If the free market is telling us anything at all in this case it is that the economics of streetcar, when the value of new investment is included, is much more cost effective than an investment in rubber tired diesel busses.

Does it have to be streetcar?

There are examples of streets that operate effectively as streetcar streets without the streetcars, demonstrating that the concept is about more than vehicle choice. Broadway in the city of Vancouver is an example. Broadway is the dominant east west corridor in the city, running from its eastern border at Boundary Street to its western border at the campus of the University of British Columbia. Broadway has always been a good street for transit, even after the streetcars were removed. All of the density and access features described above are found there. Residents who live near Broadway can survive without a car. Many of the residents along the corridor are students at UBC, who have always enjoyed a one seat ride to school on busses with three to five minute headways. More than half of all trips on the corridor now are by bus, over 60,000 passenger trips per day.27 Very frequent bus service has re-enforced the function of the Broadway Streetcar Street corridor even without the streetcar in place. Walkable districts, sufficient density, three minute headways, hop-on-hop-off access to commercial services, and five minute walking distance to destinations at both ends of the trip all contribute synergistically.

Gradually restoring the streetcars to Broadway is eminently sensible. This will reduce pollution, better accommodate the infirm and the elderly, add capacity, provide everyone a more comfortable ride, and attract investment where you most want it. For these reasons the City of Vancouver is planning a streetcar line for Broadway. Unfortunately this contradicts the regional transit authority’s preference for heavier “rapid” transit, meaning that Vancouver, like Portland before it, would have to start its own city transit authority to build and finance the project.


The Streetcar City Principle is about more than just the car. It’s about a balance between density, land use, connectivity, transit vehicles, and the public realm. The Streetcar City is compatible with single family homes yet can be served by transit. It assures that walking will be a part of the everyday experience for most residents and eliminates the imprisonment of the suburban cul-de-sac for children and early teens. It has been shown to induce substantial shifts away from auto use to transit use and can conceivably be introduced into suburban contexts.28 It is compatible with the trend to increasingly dispersed job sites and seems to be the form that best achieves “complete community” goals. The Streetcar City principle, whether manifest with or without steel wheeled vehicles, is a viable and amply precedented form for what must by 2050 become dramatically more sustainable urban regions. Other sustainable city concepts that presume extremely high density urban areas linked by rapid regional subway systems seem inconceivably at odds with the existing fabric of both pre war and post war urban landscapes. At the other extreme, assuming that some technological fix like the hydrogen car will allow us to continue sprawling our cities infinite future seems even more delusional. Part of the therapy for the sickness of our cities must be a clear eyed recognition of the status of the physical body of the city as it is, and a physical therapy calibrated to its specific capacity for a healthier future. The Streetcar City principle is intended to both provide simple insight into our condition, and a clear set of strategies that have proven themselves for decades.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 6, 2008 at 3:35 pm

Posted in Urban Planning

12 Responses

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  1. Spend the money on trams for the rest of the region first, and then start replacing the heavily used (Broadway) or opportunistic (Arbutus Corridor) routes in Vancouver with trams. Electric trolley buses may not be as sexy or carry as many people as a tram, but we already have the infrastructure.


    June 6, 2008 at 3:56 pm

  2. Excellent! I really appreciate Patrick’s all-encompassing perspective and reiteration of history.

    “It’s about a sustainable relationship between land use, walking and transit.” I couldn’t agree more in that there are only two ways to build a city: i) with transportation; and ii) with open space. There are historic challenges ahead and sustainable land use needs to be addressed.

    I have few quibbles (eg. expand the definition of “complete community”) and found the research on the location of jobs — hence most commutes — adjacent to corridors (as opposed to ‘dispersed’ without defining to where) in the overal grid illuminating. There are still concentrated (nodal) employment centres (downtown, UBC, the largest hospitals) that have concentrated transportation needs, but the argument about shifting the focus to the grid grid versus the hub & spoke is persuasive from a regional perspective.

    Implementation of any streetcar system must be very well thought out to succeed, in my opinion. Our focus, of course, is on the Lower Mainland, but I’m wondering how cities with brutal winters can adopt a sustainable public transit strategy. Spending more on heated bus stops in Winnipeg may go a long ways to getting people out of their cars and onto cool new trams.


    June 6, 2008 at 4:36 pm

  3. When I traveled and lived in Europe I found the cities that had ‘trams’ were more pleasant and easily traversed. But it was when I lived in Nottingham in 1974, where I first became aware of being an advocate for Light Rail. While waiting for my then g/f to finish a night school course at Nottingham University, I listened to a free lecture about the return of the tram to Notts. Since then I have become a tireless advocate for the mode for I believe modern LRT, in it’s various modes, will give the region and its inhabitants a better quality of life.

    So far, I have not seen or read anything to change my opinion. A light rail network is desperately needed and I see a bleak future for Vancouver if such a network is not built.

    I do recommend Prof. of Urban Transportation Carmen Hass-Klau’s four studies, starting with Bus or Light Rail, Making the right Choice, as the the study certainly gives interesting insight to various to transportation problems and solutions in several European and North American cities.

    I also recommend joining the Light Rail Transit Association and their excellent monthly journal Tramways & Urban Transit as it keeps one up to date on transit issues around the world. The world news section is excellent and certainly I used it with great advantage at public meetings etc.

    Transit mode has levels of hierarchy, starting with bus > LRT/tram > metro, but in Vancouver we have put the horse before the cart, so to speak, by building with metro and trying to fool ourselves that it was a tram and we been paying a heavy penalty ever since.

    I’m glad this study has come out and now in an age of $1.50/litre gas (or more) and dodgy economy, maybe the time for the tram has finally come to Vancouver.

    Post Script:

    On 8 March 2004, Nottingham’s tramway system – called Nottingham Express Transit (NET) – was officially launched and the next day, 9 March, saw the start of public services, with fare-paying passengers boarding trams (streetcars) in the city for the first time in nearly 70 years.

    The people I was living with in Notts. in 1974 said “there would never be a tram in the city in my life time”

    Malcolm J.

    June 6, 2008 at 7:20 pm

  4. I have to quibble, not with the idea of the streetcar city, but with the history of the Portland Streetcar system. Yes a North South Max system was defeated, but it was not a streetcar that was taken up as an alternative. The Yellow Line was actually built as light rail to the North towards Vancouver but it was MAX Light Rail. (It was also around $60 million, not the $100 million named by PC. In fact most recent surface LRT systems have been around $50 M) Now they are looking at building the southern section to Milwaukie as LRT.

    The Portland streetcar was seen as a way to provide circulation in the center city. Recently there have been discussions to extend to a network but the current line serves completely different neighborhoods from MAX. However there is no reason why it can’t act in the manner that PC states serving a grid instead of the hub and spoke.

    Also, I wonder why there is no mention in this discussion of the Interurban systems that complimented the streetcars. There needs to be distance based transit like skytrain and light rail to serve other sections of the city. Else you’re not able to take advantage of the jobs available regionally. While we don’t need to try and compete with the car exactly, there should be ways to get around the region without it in reasonable time.

    The Overhead Wire

    June 6, 2008 at 8:52 pm

  5. I don’t see a whole lot to quibble with in the article. How we get our region there is a different story however. Changing jobs or houses to live close to where you work is not such an easy feat, especially in Greater Vancouver.

    We have a major issue with affordable family housing that will get markedly worse as time goes on. Many families flee to the suburbs simply because it is the only place in Greater Vancouver where affordable family accommodation can be found. The choice is often between a townhouse or house in the burbs or trying to shoe horn your spouse, two children and dog in an 800 sq ft condo in a location that is more “sustainable”. A very poor job has been done in trying to build homes that are in a “streetcar city” scheme that are affordable and practical to families. You don’t need a yard to make a place family friendly….but you need some room, laundry in your suite, the ability to make some noise without making anyone made, and a community that tolerates a pet or two as well….but most of all it has to be affordable to a family with at least 1.5 average incomes.

    Getting to jobs, I may live in Surrey as that is what I can afford, but work in Richmond…but even it may still not affordable for me and yet its not Vancouver. Affordable family housing needs to be everywhere, not just in one corner of the region. Changing your job is often easier said than done. Trying to find work with comparable pay or benefits closer to where one lives may be impossible. Even then, who wants to leave a job to start off somewhere at the bottom again….starting from scratch all over again. Indeed, I’d say that if we could ever get the affordability issue licked, it would be easier for people to move to where there job is than to take a job closer to where they live. I think that is the challenge, finding ways to make sustainable family housing affordable across the region and not just in far flung pockets. That is what matters to most people and would lead to the most change in behaviour and drop in auto use if we can ever achieve it. In most people’s minds, if they can find affordable family housing close to where they work, the 20 minute streetcar ride to work would be a bonus.


    June 7, 2008 at 12:15 am

  6. A tram or streetcar, that operates on a reserved rights-of-way is LRT. English in origin, LRT is a more commonly used in North America as in Europe, tram and tramway is the term of choice. In some countries the term tramway is a legal definition of a rail-guided system that operates on-street.

    In Belgium, LRT is referred as pre-metro and in the UK Light Railway is a legal term from the Light Railways Act.

    In the end, tram, streetcar, interurban, and LRT generally all mean the same thing.

    Malcolm J.

    June 7, 2008 at 9:12 am

  7. They are all subsets of the same technology but they have very different operating characteristics. The Portland streetcar operates in the street with traffic and stops every two blocks. It also cost about 24 million per mile. LRT in the United States operates every mile or so, has its own ROW and faster speeds and cost approximatively 50 million per mile. Obviously you can mix and match characteristics making this tech extremely flexible but LRT is more like the interurban of old. Sure interurbans might have run on the same tracks in the city and be similar tech, there is a difference in how they operate and get people around. Interurbans of old could operate at speeds close to 100 mph. Streetcars these days in street do not.

    The problem I see is that we see this as a trade off rather than a need for all types of transit infrastructure. It’s necessary to have the long haul trips that an interurban or semi-metro or skytrain provide also with streetcars which operate somewhat like buses as multi-stop corridor generating development tools. This is similar to the road system. You can’t just have local streets, you need local, collectors, and arterials. In between major cities you need highways, but not through them.

    The Overhead Wire

    June 7, 2008 at 1:20 pm

  8. A couple disjointed thoughts:

    -Contrary to popular belief TransLink staff are very favourable to LRT, but have seen provincial announcements and municipal ambition to have a ‘shiny train like Burnaby” push SkyTrain to the fore. Reallocating road-space to transit is unpopular, even in so-called progressive Vancouver. Auto capacity on Broadway is almost sacrosanct.

    -Many (though of course not all) of the the benefits of LRT/streetcars could be achieved with buses if we were to provide them with the same priority treatments in our cities. Alas, dedicated right of ways and aggressive transit priority treatment seem only worthwhile investments for trains…

    Most of the big issues relating to transit, transportation, sustainability (heck even life) really come down to priorities and choices. Critically, there is finite $$$ and space. Collectively, let’s have the courage to decide to use for the most important things.

    Inside Source

    June 7, 2008 at 8:01 pm

  9. Ah, but one major problem with buses is that they do not attract much new ridership, where LRT/tram have proven to create a very favourable modal shift. One can only look at the Ottawa, Adelaide and Essen BRT disappointments to see that LRT is much more attractive to the transit customer.

    I also would like to remind everyone that in Karlsruhe Germany, their trams also act as LRT and commuter trains, thus the difference between the three is the quality of rights-of-ways. By creating reserved rights-of-way in city streets (can be as simple as a HOV lane with rails), commercial speed increases dramatically and at very little extra cost. What is forgotten by many that in the downtown, trams would be slower, but lines to the ‘burbs would be faster, just as in Europe. This why light-metros like SkyTrain have been made obsolete by LRT because with light rail, one vehicle does the job as an interurban or a streetcar.

    In North America, transit planners (mostly road builders) design LRT as a cheap metro or railway and build the rights-of-way accordingly. According to the track specialists I communicated with in Europe, North American tram/light rail trackage is grossly and expensively over built. In Vélez-Málaga, Spain new LRT (including cars) is being built for about $6.25 million/km.

    Construction of LRT/tram is very important, for if we can get the per km. cost down to reasonable levels, it will be a much easier sell. Look at Translink; their planners so gold-plate LRT construction that it comes very near the cost of the elevated Skytrain light-metro system!

    Malcolm J.

    June 7, 2008 at 10:31 pm

  10. Looks like we’ll have Montreal to look to for inspiration:

    CBC: Tramway on track in Montreal


    June 12, 2008 at 3:16 pm

  11. […] for Speed. I have seen quite a few references in the news and on Stephen Rees’ Blog on the Patrick Condon report on transit. Light rail vs. trams vs. buses vs. cars vs. hybrids vs. skytrain. I have concerns about […]

  12. […] for quite a while by as credible people as academic Patrick Condon, professor at UBC, as shown in a special post on Stephen Ress’s […]

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