Streetcars and the Development of South False Creek
by Rob Grant, a retired member of the Architectural Institute of British Columbia, and an out-going Commissioner of the Vancouver City Planning Commission.
Former mayor and urban gadfly Sam Sullivan last year produced a fascinating video about the history of Vancouver through the lens of the BC Electric Streetcar Company. With the thesis is that if you want to understand Vancouver, you have to understand the streetcar.
Before the city government even existed the streetcar company determined which streets would be major and which would remain as strictly residential. Robert Horne Payne the president of the company, made these decisions from his office in England based on the catchment areas opened up by each streetcar line. These lines evolved through market forces to become the retail high streets of today’s neighbourhoods, informing the basic morphology of Vancouver.
BC Electric shifted to buses like many other North American cities, yet those buses generally continued to follow the routes of the original streetcar lines, space which now had to be shared with the automobile.
Buses are considered by many to be among the more prosaic forms of urban transport, while the transport mode today seen as sexy, urban and green is the streetcar. Those who long for the good old days of historic streetcars or the contemporary models cite the examples of many European cities or North American cities such as Toronto or Portland.
In a recent column in the Daily Hive, Kenneth Chan, through a FOI request, retrieved a 2018 study that will quicken the hearts of any streetcar advocate. What is proposed is a 12-km long streetcar network of two routes serving the central core of the city. Eventually one of the routes will connect with proposed Arbutus Greenway LRT.
What seems to be lost by the proponents of these schemes is that they replicate existing bus routes and they often do it badly. For instance, the Arbutus trolley bus which runs parallel to much of the proposed Arbutus LRT, provides much more direct access to the downtown core and rapid transit stations than the proposed convoluted streetcar route that circumnavigates False Creek. The proposed routes around False Creek and to Stanley Park also replicate existing bus routes on congested downtown streets. Changes to these streets to prioritize buses, as well as more buses to address chronic overcrowding would be a wiser transit investment.
While a streetcar is considered to be one of the greenest forms of transportation, a trolley bus is equal if not better. Transportation consultant Jarrett Walker goes further: “Streetcars that replace bus lines are not a mobility or access improvement”. The money spent making improvements to allow for streetcars could just as easily be spent making similar but less expensive improvements to bus routes.
For example bus routes are generally shared with private vehicles with parking in the outside lane, so that buses have to deal with the interference of cars parallel parking. Even worse, many bus stops are pullouts and buses often have difficulty getting back into traffic, not to mention that the lateral motion is uncomfortable for passengers particularly those standing. Streetcars do not have this lateral motion as they are often in the left or inside lane with island platforms. Walker points out that this arrangement could also be made for buses to achieve the same speeds, passenger comfort and reliability at significantly lower costs and with greater flexibility.
In Vancouver we should be concerned about flexibility, as the proposed streetcar routes around False Creek do not follow the commuter desire lines from the various residential neighbourhoods into the city core. Planners say they see a significant ridership, though why a commuter who currently uses bus routes on the Burrard and Granville bridges or rapid transit at Cambie would prefer to take a longer route circumnavigating False Creek is not clear. They say that that a third of prospective trips will be short (less than 800 metres) providing connections to existing routes. Whether this will actually be the case is uncertain given the increasing popularity of active transportation modes, including with tourists who would be among the most anticipated users.
The $1.1 billion (and counting) capital outlay is not the only cost. An annual operating and maintenance cost of $12 million is expected. It is uncertain whether this reflects the additional land costs of a required operations and maintenance facility needed north of Pacific Central Station. What is clear is that once we commit significant funds to this new system it will be difficult to go back if ridership projections do not materialize.
Good bus networks do not have these costs and have better flexibility. Have planners looked at existing and possibly new bus routes upgraded to the standards required by streetcars? For instance, one of the 4th avenue buses could continue along West 6th Avenue to the Olympic Village sky-train station and eventually to the future Millennium Broadway stations on Great Northern Way, giving Kitsilano residents better rapid transit access.
Metro Vancouver transit is largely built around bus routes on high streets based on the original streetcar network, and which also feeds the long distance spines of Sky Train. Off the high streets most land is devoted to single-family houses, a building form that is unaffordable to most Vancouverites. As the pressure grows to densify this housing stock, these high streets will face increased demand as transportation corridors. Upgrades to existing bus routes as suggested by Walker could accommodate this increased demand.
Currently the stretch of West 6th between the Granville and Cambie bridges could at best be charitably described as a “parkway” with the scrub forest on the south and mixture of low end commercial and residential buildings on the north side. Along with the rail right of way, this artery serves as a barrier between South False Creek and the Fairview Slopes. With few traffic lights it also provides an opportunity for motorists to exceed the speed limit, making it dangerous for pedestrians to cross.
In a planning era that values “complete streets”, would not envisioning West 6th as a high street uniting and serving the communities of South False Creek and the Fairview Slopes make sense? Would it not be better planning if the proposed streetcar was actually accommodated on a street, as it will have to be further on in the proposed route? Wouldn’t it be even better and cheaper, if that streetcar were a bus with all the advantages of streetcar improvements?
After years of confusion the City has finally put out a South False Creek Conceptual Plan, which sees the existing 1,849 homes expanded to 3,770 by 2040 and to 6,645 at a point later on. How this will be accommodated is uncertain, especially if there is to be minimum displacement of existing residents. There is room for significant floor space on city owned land by the Olympic Village station, and perhaps some privately owned land along West 6th at Birch Street, but not much else. Except for a significant portion of land that has been slated for the aforementioned streetcar route around False Creek.
The 50’ right of way that currently comprises the old rail line could easily be developed with a building typology of 4-12 storeys with single loaded corridors facing the street. A conceptual plan with buildings mostly at eight storeys along West 6th which could be mirrored by redevelopment on the south side of the street.
West 6th could be reinvented as a “high street” that serves and unites the neighbourhoods of South False Creek and the Fairview Slopes. The lower floors are envisioned as flex space to accommodate either residential or various commercial uses, while the upper floors would be primarily residential, though even that could change. The key is to make buildings that are adaptable to change over time and let the neighbourhood grow organically.
An integral part of this proposal is how we re-envision West 6th to transition from an auto dominated street to one that incorporates thoughtful and economic public transit that supports new development just as Robert Horne Payne did with the BC Electric Streetcar Company.