Stephen Rees's blog

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

Streetcars: The Missing Link – Part 2

with 7 comments

This post follows on from the immediately preceding one. The presentation by Gordon Price is covered there

Vancouver’s historical development around streetcars and future growth implications

Michael J. Shiffer (Vice-President, Planning Strategy & Technology, TransLink) examined the development of mass transit modes and how they fit together. Streetcars are part of a family of modes and it is important to understand where they fit.

Steel wheels and steel rails were added early on in the life of the horse bus, since they needed only one horse and not two. This was an important cost saving measure. In other places, like Winnipeg, wheels were replaced in winter with skates. After electrification, sppeds and distances could both be increased, which saw the growth of the Interurban systems which used cars that were heavier and faster than streetcars [and owed  their design philosophy to railway passenger cars, not horse buses]. Streetcars that operated in a mixed traffic environment were unreliable, so elevated lines were built to avoid the congestion and, later, subways. But all, interurban, els and subways worked as a network in conjunction with streetcars.

While much attention is paid to the National City Lines conspiracy there were other issues that lead to the decline of the streetcar. One was the municipal regulators who maintained the standard nickel fare long past the time when that was reasonable. The private companies could not afford to maintain their systems, let alone upgrade them to meet increasing demand. Both track and power systems needed to be replaced [and exceedingly heavy use during the second world war accelerated the deterioration rate].

While pphpd can be used to separate the roles of the various modes there is no clear delineation and considerable overlap between them. A broader range of criteria is needed to distinguish between them

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) 2-3,000 pphpd: surface – [usually bus lanes but can be own right of way: some have guideways and are essentially rubber tired trains]

Light Rail Transit (LRT) 6-10,000 pphpd – a “little bit faster” than bus [due to better acceleration] in a “broad variety of environments” illustrated by Dublin (“very like a streetcar”) and Melbourne “trams” in the centre of the street

Streetcar is essentially the low end of the LRT usually using lighter vehicles, often these days with the track in the curb lane, not the centre

Rail Rapid Transit (RRT) [formerly widely known as ALRT or Advanced Rapid Transit] SkyTrain and the Canada Line – “almost always segregated, can be automated, high frequency  10-25,000 pphpd  [automated i.e. driverless systems have to be segregated: SkyTrain also must be segregated too due to its use of linear induction motors]

Regional Rail Transit/Commuter Rail 2 to 8,000 pphpd  [I think this reflects a very limited view. So called “heavy rail” systems include operations like the London Underground, the Paris RER  and the extensive suburban rail systems of many major cities around the world including New York and Chicago. Many of these systems offer all day, every day, bidirectional, frequent services to a wide hinterland. At at much greater capacities than 8,000 pphpd]

Mr Shiffer went on to state that Translink uses an alternatives analysis that uses multiple criteria (MAE) . They are currently in Phase 1 of such an MAE for the UBC line, with the second phase starting next year. They will also conduct an MAE including a range of technologies and alignments for Surrey. The Strategic Network also calls for upgrades to the Expo Line and the construction of the Evergreen Line.

Christina DeMarco (Division Manager, Regional Development, Metro Vancouver) made the point – which I inserted above in the interests of clarity – about the impact of the nickel fare and lack of investment on streetcars. She also made the point that the interurban also carried freight trains at night, when there was less need for passenger service. [Many an urban legend revolves around the need to get the milk train home in the early hours]

She wanted to redirect attention away from the transport technology to the critical question: What sort of place do we want to build? There are she said three basic questions

  1. What problem are we trying to solve?
  2. What sort of land use do we want?
  3. What are the costs and benefits of each option?

She showed a regional map based on the 2006 census information on journeys to work. She said that transportation is not an end in itself but  – quoting a precursor to the LRSP – “as a means to a better city” . She had worked on the City of Vancouver Transportation Plan which started with the need to protect neighbourhoods from traffic. Solutions are [nearly always] combinations. For instance the UPass was not just a low price transit ticket but also better transit service, reductions in the supply of parking and an increase in parking prices.

Melbourne was another city which has a very extensive electric train system, with trams in the centre but a severe problem of needing stronger containment of sprawl.  While this region may appear to have done better the LRSP failed to get jobs into the right places. 50% of the job growth in the last 15 years went to places that are hard to serve with transit. 40% of the expected growth between now and 2041 will be south of the Fraser. But 35% goes to the Burrard peninsula. She showed one of the working maps of how this growth needs to be related to transit but said “You won’t find a map like this in the new regional strategy” because the necessary corridors will be locally determined. An essential feature will be the protection of industrial land from office and retail developments (I wondered then if that closing remark was prompted by our conversation before the start of the proceedings).

Q & A

I did not make notes on the first question about curb lanes and the road centre – but obviously pedestrian safety is the reason for preferring the curb, especially if there are no refuges at the streetcar stops.

Allan Herbert raised the potential of the new MoU – but Gordon Price had a great response: yes, it might be alright, but we have to watch out for the “Lucy effect”. The province can whip that ball away at the last second, just like it has before. In response to comments about maximizing the sale of land and the distance people are willing to walk to transit he responded  “it shouldn’t be either/or it should be and and” Land use has to accommodate the car as well as transit so that people can make choices. This was followed by a comment that while the value of bus service had been underestimated it was also necessary to notice the inadequacy of most bus stops – just a pole in the sidewalk, no bench, no shelter and no information.

MIVB 3050 in service on the Olympic Line

Session 2: The Olympic Line Experience
Steve Hall (General Manager, Western Canada, Bombardier Transportation) introduced the session by saying that it was one of the best projects he had experienced, although it was complex and challenging. “We’re local people like you”. The discussion has often been in terms of absolutes – but there is more to the story. It is not about either/or

Dale Bracewell (Director, Olympic Transportation Branch, City of Vancouver)

“We think the streetcar is a missing link. But we don’t think streetcars have a place in Kerrisdale”.

Vancouver faced a real challenge – there was going to be 30% more demand for trips on a system with reduced road capacity due to Olympic constraints. Granville Island reduced parking.  It was decided early on that the Olympic Line would be free to maximise use and it would be available 18 hours a day, 7 days a week for 60 days. [He showed historic pictures which ignored streetcars in Vancouver and showed only the Interurban] We need high quality transit to support density downtown and it has to be fully integrated into the regional system – it is the last leg of a regional trip. Streetcars have a longer life and a lower operating cost than buses. Fleet utilisation [is better ?] They attract people out of cars and attract visitors. They are better than a bus but slower than LRT.

Streetcar Renaissance (link is to pdf file)

Vancouver has determined that 100% operating cost recovery is possible on its three lines of proposed downtown streetcars. Stanley Park and Granville Island are the two anchors for visitors, then Coal Harbour, Gastown and Chinatown. The transit strategy is not one mode for everything but we have made all our decisions to date at the top end of the scale – SkyTrain, West Coast Express and the Canada Line. The next one will be Broadway – but we have to do both Broadway and the downtown streetcar.

Former Milan 1859 passes 1062

The F line in San Francisco uses heritage streetcars and carries 20,000 passengers per day along 8 km of track (2004). Streetcars are not competitors of local buses. Costs are of the order of $10 to 15m per km, and it will cost around $90m to build a line from Granville Island to Science World. We had an engineering consultant look at the Historic Railway (an old industrial freight line acquired from the CP for $8m) and were told that it would cost at least $2m to keep the DHR going safely. The Olympic Line cost the city a total of $8.5m for the section between Cambie Street (Olympic Village Canada Line station) and Granville Island. This included design, construction and operations (Granville Island contributed another $0.5m).

I asked him to provide some explanation of these costs – which was not really answered. They have now 1.8km of new track, plus a passing loop with new overhead and substation. He said that at a cost of around $4m per kilometre this was “way less than the $10-15m per km that is usually quoted for streetcars – and it can be used indefinitely”.

[As I pointed out at the time, it is NOT a streetcar line. It is still a railway – and one built to exceptionally high standards. Nothing lasts indefinitely.]

Silas Archambault was a post graduate student at the School of Community and Regional Planning, University of British Columbia who conducted a user survey as part of his master’s degree work. The survey administered 455 questionnaires in periods taken over the 60 day opdrational period and spread over different times of day and days of the week. It was not proportionate to ridership. Only one questionnaire could be completed during one end to end trip. I was unable to record all the data he presented but i noted that 82% of those questioned live in Greater Vancouver and that many people used the service for utilitarian purposes, 40% were going to work or school at peak periods. He estimated that 27,000 car trips were avoided and 20,277kg of CO2 emissions were avoided.

The address after lunch was by David Goldberg, Communications Director for Transportation for America and Smart Growth America, on the “Resurgence in U.S. Streetcar Systems” – I did not make notes of this session.

Session 3: Urban Design, Modal Integration – Lessons from Other Places
Lawrence D. Frank

A transit trip is an interrupted walk. We understand the connection between physical activity and health. Urban planning originally was intended to make cities healthier places. We also know that transportation shapes land use, and that people make travel choices based on their time [budget]. It takes 350 calories to cycle 10 miles, or walk 3.5 miles – or move an automobile 100 feet.

Municipal remuneration should be tied to performance – we need to have a reward system that produces the sort of results we want to see.   The idea of the 20 minute neighbourhood [adopted by Portland – everything one needs for daily life should be within 20 minutes walk from home] has been successful in showing there is unmet demand for walkable places since the prices have made them  unaffordable for many.

Land Use  –>  Physical Activity  –> BMI —> Chronic Disease

Transportation  –> Travel behaviour –> Vehicle Emissions –> GHG/CO2 AQ –> Respiratory function

Quite simply driving makes you fat. Adult onset diabetes due to lack of physical activity is now a major problem.

Walkable places require a range of transportation investments. We also need before and after studies so that we can demonstrate the causality of these relationships. One possibility he would like to see from the MoU is a vehicle levy that varies with respect to emissions

All of his work can be accessed at

Patrick M. Condon (Professor and James Taylor Chair in Landscape Architect and Liveable Environments, University of British Columbia) provided a summary of his work that has been extensively covered on this blog – for instance the cost of a tunnel to UBC under Broadway would be enough to recreate the Vancouver streetcar system – as well as completing it as needed for complete coverage today plus the recreation of the North Vancouver system. Similarly, the cost of the freeway widening (PM/H1) would provide complete coverage for the populated parts of Surrey and Langley. He also stressed that he was interested in sustainable communities. [You can also find a useful summary of these ideas – with maps – on the Human Transit blog.]

Lon LaClaire Strategic Transportation Planning Engineer, City of Vancouver

The prioritization of modes set out in the City of Vancouver has been accomplished. Cycling increased 180% between 1994 and 2004. Walking increased 44% in the same period. Transit use is up by 50% (1999-2009) at the same time as gas sales have fallen 7% and the number of vehicle trips fell 10% (1995-2005) There has been no growth of the number of vehicles in the city despite population growth.

The number of walk trips is a function of land use so the credit there goes to the planning department. The probability of cycling is based on comfort and perceptions of safety so there credit is due to engineering. The 10 decline in vehicles entering Vancouver is the result of a combination of factors, but note that while ridership on transit has increased by 50%, the mode share has only shifted from 11% to 13%. This is because there are more people and more trips being made. On the transit system demand exceeds capacity: 2,000 people per hour are left at stops by transit on Broadway at peak hours. We carry more people on our SkyTrain than San Francisco does on BART.

Session 4  Town Hall

Bob Ransford facilitated this session

The meeting opened with Colleen Nystedt pointing out the impediment that lack of money for transit poses and wondering how “amenity transfers” might be used to get the private sector to pay for new infrastructure. [Currently developers offer to build things like schools and community centres in return for concessions on planning requirements like density caps or parking provision.]

Patrick Condon observed that streetcars provide “gravitational pull along corridors to transform unlovely places into magnets for investment. In Surrey we could see 3 to 4 storey buildings along Scott Road and King George Highway. As we heard at lunch time, streetcars have provided 110 to 1 investment ratios. [I did not make notes during  the presentation by David Goldberg Communications Director for Transportation for America and Smart Growth America, on the “resurgence in U.S. Streetcar Systems” – but he said that in the cases he cited developers has invested over 100 times the cost of the streetcar in new and refurbished buildings.]

Mike Shiffer said that different modes have different impacts and that the “amount of lift” [increase in property value] is a function of the amount of service. [In other words you get more out of regional transit service than local]

Jack Collins pointed out the importance of city parking requirements and how changing those helped pay for the Sunnyvale LRT in California.

Dale Bracewell pointed to the contribution the city made to preserving the right of way through the Olympic Village for a future streetcar track. While this was not a cash contribution its value is significant.

Chris de Marco said that land use comes first – we can determine how different the fabric of the city is. The present “rich fabric” of streets in Vancouver is due to good bus service. In comparison, the SF BART does not have a supportive bus network. We do not need to have stations surrounded by high rises [because people can still get where they need to go.]

Patrick Condon said that we already have enough permitted density zoned along the arterial corridors. The question is how do we finance that development? he also noted that the price of land goes down when “dcl goes down” [sorry that is what my notes say – what is dcl – how does this work?]

Mike Shiffer said that the catchment [of a transit service] depends on service [quantity] – but Translink has to both shape and serve development.

Larry Frank said that he though developers could do more, and that we should implement regional tax base sharinf and the transfer of development rights for instance from the ALR.

A questioner raised the issue of social equity. He said that rail is used to attract “choice” riders but that has displaced the provision of better service to those dependant on transit – those who do not have a choice.

In the US [someone replied] the TIF increment pays for subsidized housing. [perhaps someone can explain that in a comment – I am not sure we can do this here]

Lon LaClair asked who we are trying to attract to transit when we cannot cope with current demand. Capacity is a function of the length of the vehicle and the amount of right of way.  “Let’s make sure we can build that capacity.”

Chris de Marco observed that in present technical studies of transit we do not include social equity ” and we ought to!”

Patrick Condon asserted that “equity is what streetcars are all about”. he felt that the carefully controlled release of additional housing supply into the city advantages certain developers. The development permit process reinforces [keeping prices high]. He said he agreed with Sam Sullivan who suggested that we “flood the market with new housing” [to bring prices down].

Larry Frank said that we should use the proceeds of congestion pricing and carbon taxes to subsidize housing at rapid transit stations and along streetcar lines.

Richard Campbell said that the MoU is a huge  opportunity. We need ambitious plans for all kinds of transit. Do not underestimate people’s willingness to pay for value. The drinking driving laws have been changed and are increasing the demand for SkyTrain to run all night. People now welcome the opportunity to use transit when they need it.

The “drive until you can afford the mortgage payment advice” still holds true. Why have location efficient mortgages not caught on?

Larry Frank put this down to institutional inertia, but said there is local interest. CMHC do not recognize the impact of transport cost.

Michael Geller said that at SFU they have a “UPass for residents” equivalent to a three zone monthly pass for $28. An incentive like this could work to help sell the condos at false Creek South.

Allan Herbert claimed that he had found five international investors willing to invest in streetcars in Vancouver at least one of which was unconcerned about the risk of not making any money. [I am just reporting what he said, not commenting on its credibility] “Vancouver is a great product.”

At that point I am going to stop transcribing my notes. I hope this makes more sense to you than it does to me right now. Comments – of course – are open.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 1, 2010 at 8:25 pm

7 Responses

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  1. From what you transcript, Michael J. Shiffer have said “Streetcar is essentially the low end of the LRT”

    That is may be problematic, and eventually the vision pphpd first to classify transit system is not right:

    type of market we want to address should come first, and according to the size of the market, different pphpd requirement, hence different technology need to come in play.

    I think Vancouver Skytrain, addresses the same need/market that the Paris RER, or Hong Kong MTR but because market size is different, historic infrastructure too, different technologies with different pphpd potential need to be chosen.
    Paris subway proper in that regard is much closer to a streetcar, than to a “RRT” in term of service.

    Well, in that sense, Streetcar is not the low end of an LRT, but rather the high end of a local service… while that the LRT could be categorized as the low end of a regional service…

    regarding induced investment around streetcar: I could have strong reservation, since streetcar investment are also followed by other policy favoring investment like in Portland. At the end, “streetcar renaissance” has coincided with an “urban renaissance” all around America, streetcar or not, and one could argue that the “streetcar renaissance” is more an off spring of a more general urban renaissance that the reverse.
    And still there is no obvious relation whatsoever between urban revitalization and rail transit, good cherry picked example like Portland are overshadowed by failure, like Buffalo, San Jose, Sacramento…etc…


    October 1, 2010 at 11:44 pm

  2. […] Experts [The Tyee] Metro Vancouver launches iPhone app to attract more visitors [Vancouver Sun] Streetcars: The Missing Link – Part 2 [Stephen Rees's […]

    re:place Magazine

    October 2, 2010 at 7:44 am

  3. Great posts Stephen. Lots of work there.

    A rose by any other name…
    Most of the LRT (as we call them in North America) systems that have been built in Europe since the mid-1990s (when Strasbourg unveiled an amazingly great looking articulated modern tram) are called tramways over there.
    Some are called Metro likely to make them more attractive to public (Manchester, Rouen etc.) but the term LRT isn’t used at all so the distinction made in North America between streetcars and LRT is a bit pointless.
    Like talking about angels dancing the Macarena on the head of a pin.

    Many European trams have relatively frequent stops and a slower speed in downtown streets then have fewer stops and a higher speed between downtown and a suburb. Once in that suburb main street they will, again, slow down and stop more frequently.

    What truly matters is how attractive and practical a transit system is to the public. More about that later. scroll down the page for a tram photo. a tram-train in one of Paris’ suburbs.

    another tram in Paris (within the ring road)

    Many many years ago I did a practicum on bridge building techniques in Turku (Finland). My work place/ home was in the suburbs, right by the water obviously. The buses I used to go to/from downtown after work and on weekends were as comfortable as long distance ones (great seats, soft music).
    Standing wasn’t allowed, the buses stopped wherever passengers wanted to, and an attendant stored your shopping bags etc. in the bus storage compartment then waited until you were seated to check your ticket.

    Best transit service ever! Not the fastest for sure, but the locals obviously enjoyed an easy going, gentle lifestyle. They made the notoriously slow paced people from Southern France, where I come from, look like feverish ants.

    Red frog

    October 2, 2010 at 1:07 pm

  4. @Voony

    Shiffer was wrong to state that streetcar (except for museum and heritage lines) are at the low end of the transit scale. Fact is, SkyTrain has yet to show that it can carry more people than a light rail system. This why very few transit agencies have bought the proprietary metro (and light-metro systems in general) and SkyTrain has been relegated into a niche market for airport people movers.

    As a streetcar (a tram in Europe) is merely LRT operating on-street in mixed traffic, rather than on a reserved R-O-W, the lift achieved by the lowly tram is very high if need be exceeding 20,000 pphpd. That is from the Light Rail Transit Association.

    What Shiffer was/is doing is keeping the door open for the now obsolete SkyTrain mini-metro system for further construction in the region. To admit that a modern streetcar/tram had the potential capacity of 20,000 or more, would lead one to question TransLink’s metro only planning program.

    This where the symposium failed, no one would offer a definitive definition of a streetcar.

    The answer of course is a light rail vehicle operating on-street, in mixed traffic. The vast majority of new LRT lines include on-street operation, thus operating as a streetcar on that portion of line!

    D.M. Johnston

    October 3, 2010 at 5:07 am

  5. From the site:
    ” An F.A.Q. (Frequently Asked Question) – What’s the difference between tramways and light rail?

    Mike Taplin, the LRTA’s Chairman answers: First, when we say tramway we mean streetcar in the American way of using words. For instance, there is a streetcar line in Seattle running from the Waterfront to the train depot*. In Portland they have a light rail line running from the city centre to the Eastside (and now a new line to the Westside). These lines are light rail because they are mostly segregated from other traffic, passengers get on and off at stations rather than in the street, and the cars run faster. However there is no definite border line between streetcar and light rail – they merge gradually from one to another, and as a streetcar system gets upgraded it becomes light rail. A lot of this is to do with planning jargon; streetcars are seen to be old fashioned whereas light rail is trendy!”
    * note by Red frog: that waterfront line is long gone.

    I had an interesting transit experience early this week. A friend of mine phoned to say that he used the 99B line at Broadway/ Commercial the previous week for the first time ever and was shocked that no one monitored tickets. He was sure that 90% of the passengers had no tickets.
    The next day, for the first time ever in all the years I have taken that line, the transit police checked fares at the bus was leaving Broadway/ Commercial. The bus had only a few standees so I could see clearly from one end to the other. Everyone had a pass or ticket.

    My mention in the previous post about the practicum I did in Finland had a relevance with transit. Actually being on a work site for a couple of months is something quite entirely different from years of theoretical learning in a classroom.

    In the same vein many “high level” transit experts know all about various types of transit (no I am not talking about us on this blog) and can cite all sorts of (dubious) statistics, but have seldom actually used buses, trams (by whatever name we call them..) metros, commuter trains etc. in their town and in other countries.
    I know from experience that using transit as a tourist once in the middle of a summer day and using it daily at rush hour to go to work /home in winter with snow all over the place are quite different experiences.

    By the way my friend from Kerrisdale would love to see a tramway on the Arbutus tracks.

    As for the assertion that “We understand the connection between physical activity and health. Urban planning originally was intended to make cities healthier places”

    Really??? having lived in both “planed communities” i.e towns built on a geometric grid in the Middle Ages in Southwestern France AND much older towns that grew up helter-skelter as they were burned and rebuilt again and again, then “modernized” with huge avenues in the 18th and/or 19th century, I can say for sure that no one ever thought about health and exercise.

    People walked around town for thousands of years because that was often the easiest way to go from A to B in a city. Even aristocrats had to walk or use sedan chairs as coaches couldn’t go in many streets.

    In many truly old European cities (including Bordeaux for example) most of the downtown streets are too narrow for buses + cars + pedestrians. Buses can only run in the avenues built in the 18th century and later. So walking, even on rainy days, is actually easier and faster, especially when one knows the shortcuts.

    In Lyon old town it is actually easier to enter the semi-private courtyard of a building, exit it on another street higher up on the hill, enter another building across the street, exit that one on the other side..etc. than to use streets as they aren’t laid out in a geometric grid of blocks.

    Those of you that are familiar with Seattle know that instead of walking up its steep streets it is easier (during the day)to enter an office building, take the elevator or escalator and exit on an upper street, enter another building 1/2 a block away on that upper street, exit it on a 3rd street etc.

    Red frog

    October 3, 2010 at 1:11 pm

  6. Stephen, DCLs or DCCs are Development Cost Levys / Charges placed by cities against developments to help pay for day care centres, fire halls, utilites, roads and a host of other public services that would not otherwise be required.

    Long term maintenance and operating costs are not borne by DCLs but by the public through property taxes (which can be called a subsidy), something usually conveniently forgotten by people like Bob Ransford in his columns decrying the “absorbitant” costs charged to developers when applying for permits. This and the complaints he has about city staff stick in my craw in his otherwise notably positive commentary on sustainability and urbanism.


    October 4, 2010 at 4:43 pm

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