Governance & Politics
September 7, 2016

Streetcars — Toronto's Lessons For NYC

Today’s New York Times discusses how that city is cranking up planning for a proposed streetcar line.  They’ve hired Adam Giambrone, a former chairman of the Toronto Transit Commission, to run the planned $2.5 billion waterfront route.

Lots of thought (this is the Times after all), and anticipation of opposition. But it closes with this terrific quote from Samuel I. Schwartz, a former city traffic commissioner:

“I’ve worked in this city for 45 years,” Mr. Schwartz said, “and frankly, if God came down and proposed the Garden of Eden, people would protest that.”

Sounds like a person clearly in touch with the people.

This REPORT is packed with information on the streetcar biz and this project. The proposed system is 16 miles long with around 30 stops.  Among other planning considerations — on-board Wi-Fi & bikes, effect on bike lanes, and proximity to CitiBike stations. Interestingly, the projected ridership is 45,000 to 50,000 per day; the overall cost $2.5 B.

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Here’s something to keep you commenting while I’m away, based on a  response that Guest, PT’s best balloon-pricker, placed on this post from the Daily Scot: Gentle Density in Portland:

If you zoom out on the Portland map, the continuous line of larger buildings (retail commercial, presumably) on those east–west “smaller” arterials is quite striking.

By comparison, Vancouver has much smaller pockets of retail strips, even along the arterials, and generally not parallel to each other for great length. i.e. Main Street, Cambie Village, and South Granville may be on the same latitude, but Oak is devoid of a commercial strip, and only Main Street’s commercial zone extends any great length.

Dare I say that these east-west Portland streets can afford to remain small because of the existence of the I-84 freeway, so long-distance travellers from the east will not need to traverse the neighbourhood on surface streets. i.e. these roads do not “need” to be stroads because of the existence of the freeway, so they can remain smaller and more neighbourly.


Click to enlarge.


Scot and others decry the heavy traffic on our old streetcar arterials like Main, or the lack of pedestrianized streets like Robson, or the concern about the Viaducts coming down without lessening the impact on Prior.  And the counter argument is that none of that is possible because those streets have to perform the contradictory functions of local street and through arterial, both for car traffic and transit.

In other words, they have to be stroads.

So is Guest’s implication right: would Vancouver have more options if we had built a freeway like I-84 to handle the through traffic so that now we could create more local mixed-use streets like Division?

This is not just an academic exercise.  The Citizens Assembly in Grandview has called for a tunnel under their neighbourhood to handle the volumes currently on East 1st.  If, in a reorganization of TransLink, the Major Road Network was turned over to the Province, then the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure could, for instance, come up with a plan like this:

  • Absorb the median to the east of Nanaimo to widen East 1st
  • Build underpasses under the cross arterials
  • Dig a tunnel from Victoria to Clark
  • Redesign a route across the False Creek Flats to serve downtown and the new hospital.

Voila, a de-facto freeway to handle the cross-city traffic that would connect to and from  Highway 1.

Arterials like Hastings and Prior could then become neighbourhood service streets, narrowed and densified to create more livable, bikeable, mixed-use environments.


Click to enlarge.


And once they’ve got the boring machine going, how about other connectors to the south and north?  Then Main, Cambie, Fraser and others could be our new Division Streets.

So maybe we should build that freeway that never was. After all, we’re not funding new transit.

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The theme today seems to be the disruptive effects on traditional systems, especially large monopoly-like organizations, of new technologies.  Here’s another example that just came in, from David Roberts at Grist:


Rooftop solar is just the beginning; utilities must innovate or go extinct


After nearly a century spent in a zone of limited-to-no competition, utilities are entering a zone of disruptive competition, in which customers can reduce or even eliminate their dependence on utility power and grid services …
By now, most people are aware that solar power — particularly distributed solar power, in the form of rooftop panels — poses a threat to power utilities. And utilities are fighting back, attempting to impose additional fees and restrictions on solar customers. These skirmishes generally center on “net metering,” whereby utilities (forced by state legislation) pay customers with solar panels full retail price for the power they produce, which can often cancel out the customer’s bill entirely. That’s lost revenue for the utility.
… as I explained last year, a utility “makes money not primarily by selling electricity, but by making investments and receiving returns on them. If it builds more power plants and power lines, it makes more money.” All those investments are made on the basis of demand projections. If demand declines unexpectedly, if distributed energy helps consumers become more independent — generate some of their own electricity, store some of it, manage it more intelligently through sensors and automation — then utilities risk having those investments “stranded,” to the detriment of shareholders.
If you think about the situation a little, you will note that it is insane. Socially and environmentally, we want more distributed, clean power; we want more efficiency and lower demand; we want more grid resilience and intelligence; we want to avoid huge, expensive infrastructure investments if possible. But the way the utility business model is set up, all that stuff slashes utility profits. Our power utilities are structured to oppose our social and environmental goals. That is the real problem at the core of all these discussions. …
The longer utilities try to hold back the wave with legal or regulatory roadblocks, the harder it will hit them when it finally comes. Recent history provides an analogue: (the music industry and, historically, the street railways).
… streetcar ridership peaked in 1920, as riders began defecting to alternatives (buses and cars). By the 1930s and ’40s, the utility had entered a period of disruptive competition. It tried to defend itself through cost recovery…
… the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled decisively that even regulated monopolies have no constitutional right to protection from competitors. Meanwhile, Market Street Railway went bankrupt and all those streetcars became “stranded assets.” This is the “death spiral” utilities fear. …
The utility sector is still an old boy’s network, especially in some parts of the country, so one rather despairs in turning to utilities for innovation. But nothing focuses the mind like the threat of bankruptcy.

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Kenneth Chan, in Vancity Buzz, asks a question we’ve all wondered about when standing on a crowded platform in the Canada Line:

Could it become a victim of its own success?

If you have used and compared the Canada Line with the train systems found in other major metropolitan areas around the world, there is no mistaking that it was built with bare bone station designs consisting of jarringly short and narrow platforms for seemingly ‘toy trains.’

The usual answer with respect to capacity is, sure, no problem:

According to TransLink, with 50 metre platforms permitting three-car trains, this means the Canada Line has a ultimate design capacity of 15,000 passengers per hour per direction (pphpd).

“The current capacity offered by the Canada Line is about 6,100 people per hour per direction in the peak periods,” TransLink spokesperson Jiana Ling told Vancity Buzz. “Recent measurements show at the busiest point, the line currently carries around 5,500 pphpd. Thus, the current ridership has not exceeded the maximum capacity in peak periods.”


But Kenneth, with his usual thoroughness, explores the complications and variables:

Even if the Canada Line train system were to have the same ultimate design capacity as the Expo Line’s present peak capacity, therein lies the other major problem of getting higher volumes of passengers in and out of the small station footprints efficiently. …

Service reliability and train frequency is also impaired by the short-sighted decision to single-track the final 640 metres of elevated guideway before both terminuses at Richmond-Brighouse and YVR-Airport Stations.


He explores how the system can be tweaked to handle more ridership, and, most interesting of all, the politics and processes behind the decision-making, concluding that:

The decision makers and planners of the day lacked the foresight needed to ensure the system would be designed with excess buffer capacity to allow for both planned and unplanned growth – or at the very least, be given the capability of significant expansion.


Right at the end (probably further than most readers will get) there’s this topically relevant observation:

In the distant future, when Canada Line capacity is completely maxed out, a secondary north-south light rail or fully grade separated system could be built on the Arbutus Corridor to complement the Canada Line.

However, the availability of the Arbutus Corridor for such a future use is up in the air. The Canadian Pacific Railway wants to utilize the railway for its development potential while the City of Vancouver wants to maintain it as a greenway for purposes that include a future light rail line.


In other words, the Arbutus corridor may well be needed in the future as a relief for the Canada Line, at a time when the city is ready to densify that part of the city.

Unimaginable?  Remember that “Kerrisdale” is a short form for “Kerry’s Dale” – the name of the interurban stop at 41st Avenue, opened in 1905, when the B.C. Electric Railway made the real-estate viable as a whole new neighbourhood.  That’s how cities grow – and redevelop.

No matter how the issue of the Arbutus corridor is bandied around during this election, all parties and candidates should commit to this essential principle: the right-of-way will continue to be maintained for the purpose for which it was built, for which it is zoned and for which it will be needed in the future.  It will be a corridor for trains.

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Once I had my transit chipcard (easily purchased at Schiphol airport after landing), I effectively had a debit card that gave me freedom of movement thoughout the country, whether I was going from block to block or city to city, using any form of transit from bus or tram to heavy rail.
The OV-chipkaart is a swipable smartcard that was the collaborative result of five large public transport operators in the Netherlands – similar to what we will have in the TransLink service area as the Compass card is rolled out this fall.  It is also a metaphor for the Dutch way of doing business: public and private actors, working together to achieve collaboration and coordination.
Now just a hunch: I bet they also disagree, argue and screw up, and I’m sure there are lots of illustrative examples, few of which were shared with me.  But there’s also plenty of evidence of how they’ve institutionalized collaborative processes, particularly in what they call platforms – formalized and neutral grounds where it’s safe to talk without your competitors gaining an unfair advantage, places to develop the trust needed for coordination to occur without losing the imperative to compete.  The platform is funded by the members, it’s separate from government, but the civil servants are around the table. A kind of civic polderization.
I was introduced to two of the coordinators for the Rail Platform, established after the dominant carrier was split up (with not-so successful results) and concessions were allocated to various operators.  I confess that I never did quite understand distinctions among all the carriers, even when it came to Metro systems, trams and buses – but it didn’t matter.  I had my chipcard.  The challenge of the Rail Platform is to make all the different modes as seamless as the method of payment. The rail sector still needs what is referred to as ‘stabilization,’ but rail in the Netherlands seems to being rejuvenated.  (For instance, if a shipper or producer wants new land for moving goods, 40 percent of the freight must go by train or, if appropriate, by sea.)
Most heartening was the deliberative involvement and cultivation of the younger workforce – the Young Changers, under 35, numbering about 500.  They have their own network, reflecting the distributed loyality of that generation: loyal to the company only if it doesn’t obstruct their own development. even changing the structures of the companies in which they work – more independent, more creative.
When discussion turned to the role of ‘light rail,’ it was immediately clear that no one really has a strict definition.  Could be a surface tram in a mixed right-of-way, could be grade-separated, could be urban, could be surburban – or all of the above. Generally, though, it’s seen as suitable for passenger capacity up to a million.  Below that, the bus is good up to 300,000; metro rail for one million-plus.
But it’s clear that once the systems are in place, particularly with underground components in and through the city centres, the car is moved out and the people move in.  Hence the growing, more affluent population in their increasingly expensive centres.  Oh, and a lot more bicycles.  Sound familiar?
It seemed that every major inner-city transportation terminal or station was in the process of being rebuilt or had just been expanded, from the Centraal in Amsterdam to the massive new structure in The Hague.


It’s taking years, costing billions, but it’s reflective of the Dutch commitment to multi-modal transportation in a country-wide network.
On the ground, in the compact, narrow historic centres, where there’s not a lot of room for separation, light rail is integrated in a way that so far seems unacceptable in the North American context, where we’re fearful of any large piece of machinery without its own right-of-way.
So how do they do it in the Netherlands?
Like this:


Or where they do have room, it can look like this:


 David Malcolm Johnston has a favourite shot that expresses the ultimate in integration – “one of Karlsruhe’s famous TramTrains – a tram or streetcar in the city and a passenger train in the country.”


“I wonder if it could be a reality in Vancouver or Surrey.”

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Okay, not the most pressing question on your agenda.  But, nonethess, how come Vancouver’s trolleys need two parallel wires when light-rail lines only need one?

Jarrett Walker explains all, in his review of Transport Revolutions by Anthony Perl and Richard Gilbert First of all, though, Jarrett lays out the basic dilemma:

Petroleum has a very high energy density…   Batteries, by comparison, are just too heavy compared to the amount of energy that they can deliver, so when you put them in a mobile vehicle, they lose a lot of their efficiency to the work of transporting their own weight, and don’t have much left over to transport us or our cargo.

All this is carefully explained, and leads Gilbert and Perl to a striking conclusion:  We will need to shift most of our mechanical transport to “grid-connected vehicles” (GCVs), vehicles — like trolleybuses and electric rail lines – that can draw power from the grid continuously (and increasingly, return surplus energy back to the grid as well). …

But their vision goes further, to a network of “grid connected” roads, and … into something that looks to the authors like Personal Rapid Transit (PRT).

Jarrett is skeptical of anything like a network of personal vehicles that require connection to some sort of wired grid.  And at this point, he explains “one nasty technical detail.”

… grid-connected vehicles on tires need to route both directions of the electric circuit through the overhead catenary.  That’s why trolley buses have two wires, while overhead-powered rail has only one. 

With two wires, you have to connect to them with poles, because the two sides of the circuit have to be kept apart.   Trains, by contrast, are grounded through the rails and therefore need only one wire above.  That means trains can meet this wire with a large horizontal structure —  called a pantograph -– which easily accommodates lateral motion.  

It’s a fine joke, really, by the technology gods:  The power source that offers the most lateral flexibility works only on rails, which have the least need for it. 

And hence the problem.  Anyone who’s been on a Vancouver trolley knows how delicate the double-wire technology of trolleybuses can be when the vehicles have to move laterally.  Even turning a corner can dewire the trolley poles – and this is when all the drivers are trained by the transit agency.  Imagine all of us in our separate vehicles, driving the way we want, with minimal training – and unable to pass.

Once again, the romance of technology confounded by the reality of human behaviour.

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Streetcars: The Missing Link? brings together decisions makers, academics and community leaders to explore, discuss and debate the potential role of streetcars as a critical link within the transportation system and the idea of bring streetcars back to Vancouver.

September 29, 2010

Renaissance Vancouver Hotel Harbourside, Vancouver, BC

Program: 8:30 am – 5:15 pm

Reception: 5:30 pm – 6:30 pm

The Olympic Line – Vancouver’s 2010 Streetcar demonstration project held during the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games  – saw urban streetcars return to Vancouver for the first time in almost half a century.  The project proved extremely popular and has ignited the idea of reinvesting in streetcars as part of a broader sustainable transportation system for the City of Vancouver and the entire Metro Vancouver region.

For information and registration, click here.

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April 19, 2010

Mr. Human Transit, Jarrett Walker, is fast off the mark in commenting on TransLink’s options for the Broadway corridor, just released yesterday.  Notes Jarrett:

The single largest flaw in the whole region’s rapid transit network is the lack of connection between the Millennium and Canada Lines.  …  The gap is unmistakable:

…  it’s important to be clear whether “rail rapid transit” means a SkyTrain Millennium Line extension — the only project that solves this gap problem.

… the most important things to watch out for at this stage of the project are (a) the ever-present danger of light rail deteriorating into a mere streetcar that will be too slow to be useful for UBC trips and (b) the need to focus on the gap in the Millennium Line as a structural problem in the entire region’s network.   

These highlights are meant to entice the reader, rather than trying to summarize all of Jarrett’s insights.  I therefore insist you go to his Human Transit blog for the full meal deal.

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You may have already seen this op-ed ithat I wrote for the Sun.  But if not …

Backsliding aside, here are some ways to make a new casino work for the community

By Gordon Price, Special to the SunApril 13, 2010

I well remember the gambling issue when Steve Wynn’s Vegas-style casino proposal came before City Council in the 1990s, when Philip Owen was Mayor.  My goodness, the outrage!  Countless delegations came before Council, largely from the Left (Connie Fogal, COPE Alderman Harry Rankin’s wife, was leading the charge), adamant that there should be no tainting of Vancouver’s purity.  And the NPA agreed.  It was one of the few truly non-partisan issues: no casinos for Vancouver.  (Bingo halls run by charities? – well, they were okay.)

So I suppose it’s not surprising that it was the Left that first undertook the necessary moral compromise to unleash the gambling scourge it had reviled a few years before.  When the COPE Council under Mayor Larry Campbell authorized slots at Hastings Park in 2004, they sabotaged the opposition.  (Imagine the protest if it was the Right that had reversed course.)  Same at the Provincial level: the NDP expanded gambling over howls of Liberal protest, who then, with voices lowered, acquiesced to even more.

Apparently the filthy lucre is irresistible to whatever party is in power.  Of course, gambling is reframed as an opportunity to do good works, to support charities, to fund the arts.  At least initially.  Then, when budgets are tight, the flow of cash is diverted to higher priorities.  

So, given the likelihood that everyone will hold their noses, we’re going to get a big box next to B.C. Place for the express purpose of removing cash from the pockets of those prepared to depart with it.  And the City will get a cut.

But that’s not enough.  Already the City has seriously compromised itself.  Instead of the basket of public amenities which previous Councils have required as a condition of approval for development along False Creek – parks, community centres, child care – we will get a roof on a provincial stadium.  Presumably the amenities to serve the people actually living there will have to be paid for by other civic taxpayers, or, more likely, forgone.  

That should not be the case with this particular cash machine.  When it comes to the casino, the City should, in fact, have three requirements.  First, no enclosed box, in which people are sucked inside and distracted while a cash appendectomy is performed.  This development has to relate to its neighbourhood.  No blank walls.  Exceptional public art.  Pedestrian connections all around B.C. Place.  

Second, it has to be green, and we’re not talking about an influx of American dollars.  We’re talking the highest level of sustainability ever achieved for a casino in the world. Period.

And finally, and most important, the casino should fund an extension of the streetcar, at least to Pacific Boulevard. It should have been a public embarrassment when the Bombardier streetcars used for the Olympic Line to Granville Island were returned to Brussels.  But there’s no money, at least from TransLink, for funding a streetcar line that would join up every major tourist attraction in the city centre, and provide transit to neighbourhoods that have poor connections.  So, as they did in Portland, Oregon, the businesses which receive a major benefit directly should help pay for a streetcar line – one that in this case will deliver customers directly to the casino’s door.

The people of Vancouver need something tangible and permanent if they are going to forgo other benefits for the Province’s casino. Something more than just the promise of cash in the future – something as easily compromised as the decision to refuse casinos was, back when everyone was pure.

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