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

Streetcars: The Missing Link?

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MOST RECENT UPDATE November 17, 2010 ~10am

Yesterday I went to a conference called Streetcars: The Missing Link. They did not have power outlets near where I sat and they had not paid the extortionate fee the Renaissance Hotel wants from users of its wi-fi. My battery went dead after a couple of hours, so I now have a lot of hand written scrawl to transcribe, but I did manage to make electronic notes of the first two presentations. The conference was recorded and will be available as audio for the whole thing and video for the presentations (not the “town hall” at the end) in due course. I would hope that, since they put everyone’s powerpoint slides on one laptop, that these could be uploaded to a website – which might be a lot quicker and easier to get out the main information points.

[email received from the organizers  2010.11.17

Thank you for your attendance at September’s Streetcars: The Missing Link? symposium.

Links to speaker presentations and audio from the town hall meeting forum are now available for viewing and downloading here:

Audio recordings of the speaker presentations will be made available shortly.]

I am not going to try to cover the everything straight away. It is far too nice outside right now and that is not going to last. I have posted summaries after this post.  In this one I just wanted to give a flavour of the day. It started with a review of the Toronto system – which is going to replace its streetcars – and then expand its transit system mainly by using LRT. This got the day revolving around what distinguishes streetcars from LRT. Basically its about speed and distance. “Streetcar” is the term used for the usually quite slow, frequent stop local service within a central place: “downtown circulator” was a term often used. LRT was for faster, longer distance “line haul” or suburb to centre services – larger, longer more powerful trains that do not stop so often and usually have quite a lot of exclusive rights of way.

Encouragingly, much of the discussion was about what sort of land use gets shaped and served by streetcars. Many cities are using streetcar as a way to revitalize old industrial/commercial areas in inner areas by linking them to downtowns and line haul transit services. Streetcars are also seen as a way of attracting investments for redevelopment. This tends to produce a midrise density pattern in “corridors” – the three to four block walk from the streetcar line – rather than the highrise tower clusters to be seen around some rapid transit stations. Much discussion centered around this distinction and the desirability of the different development patterns.

I have to say that I though the day was heavily focussed on the City of Vancouver. I think another conference needs to be held in Surrey to discuss how transit investments may help offset the sprawl creation that is going to follow freeway expansion. There is no doubt that “motordom” got all it wanted from the Gateway program. Some think that this means there is now a window of opportunity for more transit spending (much hope seems to be pinned on the recent MoU). Others, more cynical think motordom can never be satisfied.

There was also a lot about the Olympic Line. I will get to that in due course, but I do want to make a couple of observations. While the line was operated by modern trams from Brussels (where they work in “streetcar” mode, mostly)  the right of way was an old railway. It is now – at least from Granville to Cambie – a modern, heavy duty, single track railway line with a passing loop and overhead power and two stations. It is not a “streetcar line” and there is no intention that it will be used to shape development along its current route. It is hoped that one day it may become part of a downtown streetcar, but it needs to noticed that most of downtown is now “built out”. The development happened without streetcars – although the downtown (and especially the West End) is still recognizable as a “streetcar village”. There are lots of stores and services that have no parking – a pattern that to-day is impermissible. And it seems to work quite nicely with trolleybuses. I also note that while the Olympic Line was an undoubted success, the Downtown Historic Railway has not operated at all since.

There was a lot about how we need to have the complete set of transit services. There is a widespread belief that we have spent too much on regional rapid transit – and that the development pattern that has produced is distinctly different to the old streetcar villages. If more people are to be absorbed on the Burrard Peninsula – and especially in the City of Vancouver – then a low rise set of corridors along arterials would be an easier sell to those who will resist development for whom “high rise” is a red flag ( see for instance the reaction to development proposals adjacent to the Marine Drive Canada line station). If, on the other hand, the political power of those who are in the highest price areas already is preserved – as it seems to be – let alone strengthened – then absorbing more people may well be left to the suburbs, which are already growing faster than Vancouver and with very little transit of any kind.  The next million to arrive will mostly be absorbed south of the Fraser – and if nothing is done that will be in low density suburban sprawl with everyone having to drive everywhere. And we know that does not work. Not for human health and not for a society that intends to ensure its long term survival.


Keynote: Jack Collins Vice President, Project Implementation, Metrolinx

Metrolinx is embarking on a transit expansion program called The Big Move . The authority is similar to Translink and covers the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas: GO Transit (the regional commuter rail and bus operator) is a Metrolinx subsidiary. In 2008 a common supported vision was approved that has a list of 54 projects that will cost $50bn in the next 25 years. Up until now the TTC has been “just keeping up”: there was not much investment in recent years, and the cost of congestion has been steadily increasing.

Currently there are four  LRT lines being built and one busway. It is also desired to expand GO services but Union Station is now a major bottleneck and is being rehabilitated. The Province of Ontario is spending $9.5bn on the “big 5” projects with a  $330m federal contribution.

They have recently placed an order for 182 LRVs with Bombardier, the first 35 of which are for the Sheppard line in 2014. This will be in the  middle of the street on a raised median with signal priority at intersections. [This line was originally intended to be subway from Yonge Street to Scarborough: the tunnel stopped short at Don Mills].

On Eglinton Avenue a cross town service will be established 11km of which will be in tunnel: “it is impossible to build on the road”.  Four Tunnel Boring Machines have recently be acquired at bargain prices. The former Eglinton subway which was filled in will be reopened.

The York VIVA BRT runs on Highway 7 on exclusive bus lanes and the former Pearson link – which was to have been a P3 has now been taken over by Metrolinx. It runs on existing railway lines but requires a 2km length of new build track – as well as the station at the airport. Metrolinx is also in the early stages of replacing the roof of Union station to improve the passenger experience.

TTC 4127 on 501 Queen St at Yonge 2006_0111

The TTC has operated its current streetcars since 1978 when the CLRV was introduced. It is a high floor single ended car  15.4m long that can carry 130 passengers.

TTC 4215 on 501 Queen St at Yonge 2006_0111

In 1987 the articulated CLRV was introduced. It is a high floor, 23m car that can carry 205 passengers at crush load. While many LRT systems have minimum radius curves of  around ~80m, 0n several routes in Toronto there are tight curves of 11m radius. Since the cars are single ended they require turning loops at each end of the line. There is also a requirement to climb  8% grades [most modern systems try to stay under 6%].

Bombardier Flexity car for the TTC

This is an impression of what the new Flexity cars will look like. They will be introduced into service between 2012 – 2018 at a cost of $4.5m each. The first three prototypes are due in 2011. The car is similar to that used on the Olympic Line “but it won’t have leather seats!” It will be able to carry 250 passengers (crush load) and is 30.2m long with 4 doors: it is also single ended. One innovation designed by the TTC is super resilient wheels to reduce ground borne vibration using a “hockey puck” design.

There has recently been a resurgence of interest in streetcars in the US.

  • St Louis MO Loop Trolley – urban circulator
  • Charlotte NC – urban circulator
  • Cincinnati OH – connects CBD to two districts being redeveloped
  • Fort Worth TX – connect commuter rail and transit centre
  • Portland OR – pioneer of streetcars

The theme common to these systems is to tie in to a line haul system . He then discussed what distinguishes light rail from a streetcar (see above) and noted that places like  Phoenix, Seattle, Houston, Edmonton and Calgary all connect their downtown to the suburbs using light rail. This also will be built in the Toronto/Hamilton region.  There has been a heated streetcar debate  but the key for LRT is to “never share lanes” with other traffic.  Sometimes the tracks will be physically segregated. Modern low floor LRT cars with multiple doors allow for faster boarding, with train lengths of  up to 90m with a three car consist can carry over 600 people. These cars will be bi-directional (to eliminate the need for loops at termini) with longer stop spacing – at least 1km apart.

On the St Clair streetcar an average speed of 13km/hr is accomplished. On the new Sheppard line this will be raised to 22 km/hr, Eglinton will manage 30 overall with the subway sections at 32.  “The streetcar is slow and unreliable” because it has to run in mixed traffic. Transit line capacity is a function of train capacity and service frequency. Metrolinx is designing its LRT  for 9 to 12,000 persons per hour per direction (pphpd) compared to the 3,000 pphpd for streetcar. They have the “green light” foe the extension of LRT 57-58 per km on surface, 214 in tunnel.

Costs for LRT vary widely. The Scarborough LRT cost $158/km [same technology as SkyTrain] the VTA in San Jose cost $56m/km with some exclusive row mostly at grade. Streetcars, on the other hand tend to come in the $25m/km range in US systems:  “streetcar is about half the cost of LRT”

He concluded that at these prices it is important to get it right [mode choice] for future generations.

Q & A

In answer to the first question he said that the streetcars run on 600v, will have a trolley pole and will use the existing Toronto (broad) gauge. The LRT cars will run on 750v, have pantographs and run on standard gauge track. The new lines will be owned and operated by the provincial agency but contracted to the TTC for operations and maintenance. This has been a hot button issue.

Asked about “blending” the use of streetcars and light rail he said that due to the different specifications in TO that is not possible.

The conversion of the Scarborough ALRT will allow the operation of 3 car LRT trains: demand currently is over 9,000 pphpd at peak periods which exceeds the capacity of of the mark I “SkyTrain” [note that term is not used in TTC parlance]. The system will be shut down for three years and will be rebuilt, with a review of the structure to ensure that it can cope with lager trains. The Mark I cars are no longer made and it is hard to get parts. The TTC chose not go with a Mark II car.

He was then asked about the consultation of the public and businesses during the building of the Sheppard line.They are only starting construction now but have been actively engaging the business community. Traffic is congested in Don Mills but the City owns a wide right of way, and the LRT will be built in the median. He said that they will not repeat the mistakes made in the construction of the St Clair streetcar right of way.

Asked about Bus Rapid Transit he said that they were building the infrastructure in the expectation of a 20 year life. It could potentially morph into  a guideway for LRT at a later date but that is not presently contemplated.

The next three presentations looked at the Vancouver’s historical development around streetcars and future growth implications.

I am going to limit myself to Gordon Price’s talk – as that one has electronic notes.  The rest was added in the Part 2 post.

In 1887 -the CPR arrived in Vancouver on May 23. In that same year in Richmond, Virginia the trolley was invented. Actually a version was produced in 1882 but that did not get to commercial development. The electric trolley was one of the most rapidly accepted innovations. Quickly the standard flat fare fare dropped to a nickel – and stuck there (which lead to financial problems for the streetcar owners and a lack of cash for renewals and improvements). The streetcar was “the Internet of the 19th century” and there was a cycle of boom and bust speculation. Many North American cities were built around the streetcar: the wilderness was converted to real estate. Walt Disney has turned this into his illusion “Main Street USA”, the idyll of the ideal American place.

In 1890 the BCER opened its new station at Hastings and Carrall (the building is till there) and there is a movie on youtube of a Vancouver streetcar ride in 1907.

The streetcar meant that Vancouver had no inner city tenements for working people who needed to walk to work. The streetcar was a sprawl machine. Transport is about land use: the rapid development of the streetcar drove the price of land down as land subdivision exceeded the pace of development. We went  straight to suburbs and never had the compact urban development seen in older cities. There was no crowded, dangerous polluted city centre. In 1900 Main and Broadway in Mount Pleasant was where the streetcar lines cross – and became a new suburban centre. The streetcar strips deteriorated over time as development took a while but by 1929, 14 out of 15 residents within 400m of the streetcar tracks. There was no zoning back then, so when people got off the streetcar, you could sell them something. So stores sprang up in the front gardens of the houses along the streetcar route. These streetcar villages with everyone walking to the services they needed are still intact today. You can see along Commercial Drive the “DNA of development”. There has been some  evolution – the streetcars have been replaced by trolleybuses. They may not be fast but they’re frequent – you don’t need a schedule.

The shops on Denman Street have no parking that would be illegal now! In the west end 40,000 people now live in a 19th century grid

Kerrisdale (originally Kerry’s Dale) at the intersection of the interurban and the 41st Avenue streetcar, there is still the collection of retail activities arranged to meet the needs of the people getting off the cars and then walking home.

In this city we walk in the centre – elsewhere we put trillions into the car. The real success is the streetcar/trolley city and that will be the model for the post motordom city.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 30, 2010 at 12:51 pm

Posted in land use, transit, Transportation

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11 Responses

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  1. […] Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Half a million riders; but the Olympic streetcar won’t be staying – Fro…From The Infrastructurist – 36 Reasons Streetcars Are Better Than Buses […]

  2. “Streetcars are also seen as a way of attracting investments for redevelopment. This tends to produce a midrise density pattern in “corridors” – the three to four block walk from the streetcar line – rather than the highrise tower clusters to be seen around some rapid transit stations.”

    Local transit is not really a substitute for rapid transit or vice-versa, so comparing their land use implications is maybe not as useful as comparing the implications of different types of local transit or different types of rapid transit.

    In Vancouver, it might be more interesting to look at the implications of a system that falls in between local and rapid transit.

    Vancouver’s local buses are slow. They start and stop frequently, and this often makes them uncomfortable. They get stuck in traffic, especially on some of the arterials outside the downtown.

    What would be the land use implications of speeding up existing buses and trolleybuses by reducing the typical stop spacing to every 400 m (i.e. approximately at each east-west arterial and once in between instead of at every block)? Or of putting them in the centre lanes? What if we treated them like we would likely treat trams? What if taking the local buses was about as fast and reliable as driving?

    In Surrey, it might be more interesting to compare the land use implications of LRT to B-Lines in each of the various corridors.


    September 30, 2010 at 11:00 pm

  3. A technical note:

    Vancouver’s buses are slow because they have more stops per route km. than most other transit operations. In Europe, buses stop every 450 km. or so, tram/LRT every 450m to 600m (Hass/Klau study).

    The B-Line is faster because it is an express bus with fewer stops. A reduction in bus stops in Vancouver would speed up service.


    October 1, 2010 at 8:06 am

  4. Oops.

    I meant 450m or so.



    October 1, 2010 at 8:07 am

  5. […] Mail] Olympic village social housing will proceed despite lack of provincial aid [Vancouver Sun] Streetcars: The Missing Link? [Stephen Rees's Blog] City goes after assets of Games developer [Globe and Mail] Vancouver hungry […]

    re:place Magazine

    October 1, 2010 at 8:36 am

  6. […] Capacity of Toronto’s streetcars: 130 […]

  7. Toronto needs more subway routes.


    October 3, 2010 at 3:38 am

  8. Local service (e.g. buses, trams) with stops spaced out typically every 450 m to 600 m makes a good trade-off between average speed and accessibility.

    In Vancouver and Surrey, arterials that carry buses are spaced out at approximately 800 m. In order to facilitate transfers, there must be a stop at each of the intersecting bus routes. But 800 m is quite a distance between stops on a local bus or tram service, more than the preferred spacing you state. There could be another stop between each arterial, making for typical spacings of 400 m, but this is less than the preferred spacing.

    (For an example of the current situation, the #8 Fraser stops at every other block along Fraser – every 200 m on average (i.e. 28 times over 5.7 km). The average speed is 17 km/h (i.e. 5.7 km in 20 minutes on a Sunday afternoon). There are no timing stops.)

    I would like to see an analysis of how much local buses could be improved through a combination of measures – the measures that would likely be made if trams were built – including pre-payment facilities or on-board payment, increased stop spacing, and providing priority at congested spots. I see this as a way of getting most of the benefits of a tram, but more quickly and with less political resistance. Eventually, the increased ridership generated by these improvements would help to justify tram lines as a way to reduce operating costs.

    By removing every other stop, it becomes half as expensive to provide for pre-payment facilities at each stop. These could be reused for trams. By speeding up local buses by 20% or 50%, the frequency can be increased similarly without additional vehicles and drivers.

    There are other architectural features of the local bus network that prevent an easy switch to trams. Nearly all local bus routes branch out from a common route at some distance from the downtown (e.g. the #3 Main, #8 Fraser, and #19 Kingsway branch at Mount Pleasant; the #10 Granville, #16 Arbutus, #17 Oak, and #17 UBC branch at South Granville). Routes would need to be converted all at once from end to end. It makes more sense to convert a group of routes than just one of the branches – what would happen to the other routes? These factors will make any incremental conversion to trams difficult. Of course, it’s possible to put buses and trams in the same centre-of-the-street ROW but it’s probably more expensive and it’s not going to be a lawn.


    October 3, 2010 at 3:08 pm

  9. […] Now again though I made notes it did seem to me to be very much the same stuff that I heard at the recent streetcar seminar. I did this time get my hands on an Executive Summary of “Neighbourhood Design, Travel and […]

  10. […] Estimated average speed of Sheppard LRT Line: 22km/h […]

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