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

Archive for August 30th, 2010

Portland streetcar success has fueled interest elsewhere

with 23 comments

USA Today

Sightline’s daily says this piece appeared yesterday, but there does seem to be something very familiar about it. Anyway, I am just back from San Francisco – which seems to be a place which really understands how to use transit – and there is going to be a UBC symposium on streetcars on September 29th. I have been encouraging people to go to this, but I want to pre-empt some of the debate. Mainly becuase I do not think there is any value at all in once again revisiting the Skytrain vs light rail debate.

My point is that the real battle should be transit vs the car – not which type of transit we should build. Indeed, I do believe that the rail vs bus debate is worthwhile either, since what we need is a lot more transit and very quickly.  The pressing need in this region is to stop the expansion of freeways – the widening of Highway #1 and the new Port Mann Bridge are steps in the wrong direction but arguably too late to stop.  I would like to say the same of the SFPR, but building that is now well advanced too – for instance the earthworks on Highway #17 north of 28th Avenue for the new intersection and railway overpass.  Very simply put, if we actually cared about global warming our first priority would be to reduce the need to use cars for every trip. The quickest way to achieve that is to expand transit service. Instead of that we are stuck with a transit system that is at capacity and cannot grow due to fiscal constraints that are not being applied to the rest of transportation network.

In San Francisco there is one street – Market Street – that is perhaps the best illustration of what we need to aim at. Streetcars, buses and electric trolleybuses (SF has one of the largest fleets in the US and Canada)  share the surface street with cars. But the combined service is so frequent that the centre lanes are almost de facto bus and tram lanes.

SF Muni PCC 1053

This streetcar was built for Philadelphia in 1946: MUNI bought a bunch of them for the new F line service they introduced when the Embarcadero freeway was taken down after the 1989 earthquake. The picture below shows a former Milan streetcar on the reserved right of way that is now the centrepiece of a wide boulevard that actually carries more traffic than the old two level elevated freeway. (There is also a neat video from StreetFilms about that.)

Peter Witt SF Muni 1893 rear

These heritage cars are now a very important tourist attraction in their own right and supplement the historic cable cars linking downtown with Fisherman’s Wharf. The cable cars climb over the top of Russian and Nob Hills, the streetcars run around the bay shore at the level. Travel time is not too different – cable cars being limited to 9 mph. Both see long line ups at peak travel times.

SF Muni Cable Car 1

But to get back to Market Street – not only are there buses (11 routes) and streetcars on the surface there are two levels of railway tunnel. The upper one has light rail service – six routes with a common trunk that fan out across the city outside of the downtown area. This provides a mixture of fast rapid grade separated transit – partly due to terrain but also because surface transit on a very dense grid provides complementary local service – and on street convenience and ease of access in suburban areas, with a significant feeder bus route system.

Breda LRV on N Judah

And at the lower level BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) connects to the neighbouring cities – Oakland, Richmond, Pittsburgh and Fremont across the other side of the Bay as well as the airport and the Caltrain service to San Jose and Gilroy (which also gets in to San Franscisco near Mission Creek).


There does not seem to be the same mindset at Translink, where we still hear the old story about buses must not compete with rapid transit, and passengers must be required to transfer to rail in order to boost the ridership figures. Well, that is the story but the reality is that trolleybus #19 has always paralleled the Expo line and provides a local level of service that the Skytrain can’t. Even though BART and MUNI are separate agencies, there is clear evidence of fare and service co-ordination everywhere. Muni sells two kinds of monthly pass – $60 of Muni or $70 for Muni plus the BART system within San Francisco. BART and CalTrain both have the fare by distance systems that longer distance services need, but are also integrated with Muni. Muni service accepts transfers from Almeda/Oalkand, Golden Gate ands Harbor Bay ferries and BART plus half-monthly passes. Inter-agency monthly passes are available with AC Transit, Golden Gate, SamTrans, Caltrain and so on.  Yes, we have the “golden ticket” because we have one regional transit system – but we get a lot less transit. I would suggest that the geographical constraints on the Bay Area are far greater than ours – and of course their population (approaching 7 million) is also far greater. But the direction they have taken in recent years seems to me to recognize that they understand the limits of what could be done with cars – and have been building and refurbishing their transit systems in ways we can hardly imagine here.

We need to look at what kind of transit is needed to meet travel requirements in different parts of the region. Actually I think cable cars would be kind of neat in North Van and New West – but I know that is a low priority. I also doubt we will see a sunken tube (like the BART Bay crossing) from Waterfront to Lonsdale any time soon. But can you imagine the reaction I would get if I seriously suggested a Market Street approach for Broadway? Yet that is what we need. Local service on the surface and regional service – grade separated and probably in tunnel – as well. Yes we have Canada Line, but that it seems to me does not replace what a streetcar/light rail could still achieve along Arbutus – including the line all the way out to Steveston just like the N Judah. Which could conceivably interwork with a downtown streetcar to Granville Island. Where, by the way there are still rails embedded in the streets, and there are far too many cars!

I am all in favour of incremental low cost expansions that use existing rights of way to keep costs down. Starting off with bus lanes and B Lines is no bad thing at all. But they will be of limited use and life  – and can then be redirected as they are replaced by better rail service as ridership increases. Just as the #98 B-Line did (not that Glen Clark expected that when he authorized it!) But our vision has to be long term, and consistent and has to be geared to reducing the use of fossil fuel for personal transportation. We have to adopt a serious metric – transit mode share must increase, not just ridership rising as population increases, which is about all we have done up to now. And it must not just be about moving students to University, or commuters to downtown, but meeting the travel needs of the whole of the population, all day, every day and every which way!

Written by Stephen Rees

August 30, 2010 at 11:13 am

Posted in transit, Transportation