Public Transit
May 12, 2020

What happened to train travel after the 1918 Flu?

Michael Gordon writes …

We’re coming across a lot of predictions on how life will change after the current pandemic – such as “The Harsh Future of American Cities: How the pandemic will alter our urban centers, now and maybe forever”.

However, when I read sweeping statements about history, I do like to see some statistical foundation of the statement.  So I thought, let’s have a look at the passenger rail statistics (which admittedly do not account for ‘how people felt about being on a train.’)

In 1920, passenger numbers increased on the Canadian Pacific Railway passenger trains from 14.4 million to 16.9 million*. 

South of the border, the number of rail passengers increased from 1.1 billion in 1918 to 1.27 billion in 1920**.

My grandparents who were in their mid-20’s in 1918 never mentioned the Spanish Flu epidemic or how it changed things. I do recall lots of mentions of having their first car and learning how to drive in the mid-1920’s. But they still traveled and took the train when they were heading back to Ontario from Kamloops.

Travelling on a CPR passenger train in the 1920’s


Cleaning a CPR Passenger Train


*Harold Innes, 1923, History of the CPR, p. 198.

**USA government document (1958) Historical Statistics, Colonial Times to 1957, p. 430.

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Every child is full of questions. And while the science is fuzzy, it seems that children who ask questions about the future — not how things work today, but how they could work better tomorrow — tend to make great planners.

Michael Gordon was one of those children. And his legacy as one of the most important planners of Vancouver’s Golden Age (thank you, Larry Beasley) has been built by finding answers to the most difficult of questions about the growth of inner cities. Namely, is it possible to make exponential leaps in urban densification — doubling or tripling the number of people living in communities — and maintain quality of life, even (or especially) their character?

Growth and stability. Heterogeneity and heritage. They’re almost impossible dynamics to manage, being both deeply personal and matters of public interest. Yet, somehow Michael Gordon has made them work.

Like supporting a doubling of the West End population over the last generation, while allowing its Robson, Davie and Denman ‘village’ communities to remain desirable, even improving by most measures. Or masterminding the slow but sure transformation of Granville Street (especially the 900-block) into a downtown entertainment district extraordinaire, without sacrificing the existing retail mix and transit hub activity.

He also showed his peers — at the City, as well through his extra-curricular dabblings with UBC School of Community and Regional Planning (SCARP), the Canadian Institute of Planners (CIP) and the Planning Institute of BC (PIBC) — that you’re never too old to be an effective planner for new tricks. Like skateboarding, which he took up at age 47, and added to his portfolio of planned placemaking via the Downtown Skateboard Park, tucked under the Dunsmuir Viaduct at Quebec and Union streets.

So…since he now has a lot of the answers, Gord Price and co-host Rob McDowell started asking the questions. Have engineers displaced planners as the creative forces in cities? Will the City-wide Plan solve everything? Did he, along with everyone else, miss affordability as a factor in community planning?

And how do planners plan for the future — plan for change — when the communities themselves seem not to want it?

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