Monday, September 26, 2011

Whither the Vancouver Downtown Streetcar?

Despite appearances, Vancouver is no stranger to streetcars. The tracks of the old interurban line that connected it to New Westminster, paralleled now by the SkyTrain, are still visible here and there in various states of decay, and on Frances Street in East Van there's still a lane of cobblestones where, I'm told, the streetcar once went down. Still, the wave of streetcar abandonment didn't break until after it swept across the Lower Mainland, and while the modern trolley system is a spiritual successor of sorts, the city has grown up without them.

As the Vancouver municipal election heats up, Suzanne Anton's Non-Partisan Association is looking to change that. The last time I passed by the NPA's campaign headquarters in the underground mall leading to Granville Station, I stopped dead in my tracks; stopped because I wanted to make sure that what I was seeing, a proposed map of the first stage of the Vancouver Downtown Streetcar, was actually there. Last Wednesday, Anton announced that one of her goals as Mayor of Vancouver would be to bring the streetcar back to Vancouver, extending the heritage line that now runs between Granville Island and Olympic Village via Chinatown, all the way to Waterfront Station.

Though I imagine they'd use modern cars for the extension.

Not that I actually expect it to happen; the city didn't waste much time throwing cold water on the plan, pointing out that transportation planning is properly TransLink's bailiwick, not the City of Vancouver's - and in that respect it's interesting the NPA would want to spend Vancouver city dollars on something that would be handled by the regional agency, when you consider that the NPA campaign office has a sign in the window counting up the debt - I think - accrued by Mayor Gregor Robertson and Vision Vancouver. As TransLink has other things to focus its attention on at the moment - the Evergreen Line, the Millennium Line's Broadway extension, the question of more comprehensive rapid transit in Surrey - the Vancouver Downtown Streetcar would likely fall by the wayside anyway.

As much as I'd like to see steps being made toward the reinstallation of a streetcar system in Vancouver, the fact remains that the area that would be served by it already has fairly comprehensive transit that could, for now, likely be addressed by additional buses. I'd much rather see transportation funds going to establish new, reliable transit links in communities that lack them. If serious work is done on a Vancouver downtown streetcar, it should be because the passenger load is too large for the bus system to adequately move, and not because the government thinks that streetcars are keen.

I'll grant that there's something of a streetcar renaissance going on in the United States now, galvanized by the ten-year success of the Portland Streetcar; Cincinnati, Ohio is building a system meant to help revitalize its downtown core, and I heard today that Indianapolis has recently been investigating the prospect itself. Yet the challenges that many American cities face are not the same ones that Vancouver is staring at. If there's an opportunity and a driving reason to lay the tracks in the ground, I say go ahead - but the most important thing should be that some other part of Metro Vancouver does not go without so we can have another set of rails around False Creek.

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