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Vancouver Streetcar: We’ve Missed You

Nov 03, 2009

by Dale Rickard,  MAIBC, Director of Transit Architecture, VIA Architecture

The streetcar is returning to Vancouver’s streets again after the original system was torn up in the 1950’s. This is a city that was organized around the streetcar starting in 1890 with a system that continued to grow as the city expanded creating a network of linked communities like Kitsilano, Marpole, Kerrisdale, Dunbar, and Mt. Pleasant. All of those communities continued to develop and mature but the streetcars that generated them have long disappeared.

I happen to live at 41st and Dunbar a few hundred feet away from a bus terminus loop. The loop was originally occupied by the streetcar turnaround built before the First World War and was built before there were any houses. The area had just been logged and there were acres of stumps where the forest had been. This is the way transit planning should be: first comes the infrastructure which then generates the development. If this is not done proactively, transit planning can become a much more challenging process of developing routes through existing neighborhoods.

The City of Vancouver is now serious about reintroducing the streetcar. Interestingly it is a City initiative proposed to be a project independent of TransLink’s larger regional system but creating connections and linkages that will make at least the inner core of the City very well served by transit choices. And like the original system of 100 years ago, it will be designed to link communities and neighbourhoods primarily in the central area: Granville Island, Southeast False Creek, Downtown Eastside, Chinatown, Gastown, Coal Harbour, and North False Creek.

This is a vision that was articulated in 1999 and approved as a concept by City Council to be developed with a series of consulting reports on ridership, costing, and preliminary engineering. The City had the foresight a few years earlier to buy a stretch of the disused CPR right of way on the south shore of False Creek from Granville Island to Main Street and, combined with this, there have been corridors planned that pass through the Southeast False Creek area, Concord Pacific, Coal Harbour, and Bayshore developments.

This vision of a streetcar system ringing False Creek and the Downtown central area will create connections to virtually the entire TransLink network including the SeaBus, the Expo Line, the Canada Line, the West Coast Express, the major buses, and ultimately even the Millennium Line when it is extended west.

Even though this vision is a few years away, the City included it as a part of the Olympic Bid Book and will be opening a short segment of this full system in January to move people from Granville Island to the Canada Line at a cost of $8.5m from the City with an additional grant from CMHC / Granville Island of $0.5m. This will fund a demonstration line running free trains intended to generate excitement during the Olympics for a couple of months, with 1.8K of single track connecting a platform at the entrance to Granville Island with another platform located behind the Canada Line station at Olympic Village. This will form part of a ring of movement around the Creek planned for the Olympics with streetcars, ferries, and bike paths connecting the seawalks, Granville Island, an Olympic venue at David Lam Park and the Olympic Village.

VIA Architecture has been a part of the planning of the system, working with HMM Engineers to do the preliminary engineering for the first major segment. This is planned to be built from Granville Island to Science World with a works yard under the Georgia Viaduct and a number of stations including the Science World station with connections to the (soon to be upgraded) Main St. Station (also a VIA project). Although a fair amount of conceptual initial thinking took place concerning the platform architecture, this has not been developed further and the 2 Demonstration Line stations will consist of a minimal asphalt platform.

The exciting thing that has been in the news this week is that the 2 cars to be used on the Demonstration Line have started their journey from Brussels, through Germany and the Panama Canal, to Tacoma and then to Vancouver. Bombardier is contributing these borrowed vehicles to showcase Canadian technology and to promote their expertise when a fleet of cars are ultimately chosen. These cars carry 50 seated and 128 standing passengers, are bi-directional, and very low-floor (300/ 350 above the tracks) which allows for full accessibility and 2 bicycles. And they look great!

The 2 stations at the entrance to Granville Island and behind the Olympic Village Canada Line Station, along with the new single track bed have been basically completed, although the station platforms will have some lighting poles and pairs of bus shelters added. The station platforms will be extremely simple and are defined by a concrete curb edge beside the tracks that create a level access into the cars.