November 3, 2021

Streetcar City: Rethinking the Route for False Creek South

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.

 

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  1. The development of Senakw and the proposed increase in density of FCS (which will happen one way or anther) is going to dramatically change commuting patterns around False Creek. The proposed streetcar connections at the Canada Line and Millennium Line while accessing quickly developing high-tech areas along both Main Street and Great Northern Way make this route a must, not a poor replacement of existing bus routes. Streetcars, especially on such level grades, are substantially more energy efficient and comfortable than buses.

    Reece Martin might just win as the nerdiest person on YouTube. But he knows his transit. Here’s his take on building busways like we build our rail transit.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2XjWy-gjGAw

    He’s got about a zillion videos that dive into (mostly) rail transit’s best (and worst) practices around the world.

    1. Electric trolley buses are superior in energy efficiency to streetcars and electric buses will be even better. By giving the same infrastructure improvements to buses as are given to streetcars Jarret Walker, who I think has a better understanding of transit issues than Reece Martin, argues you get the same comfort and efficiency. I live in the West End and when I want to get to Pacific National train and bus station, I take #23 bus. This route could be made more like a streetcar route with raised platforms for quick entry/egress and extended to the new Thornton Street sky train station at a fraction of the cost of the proposed Thornton to Granville streetcar route while serving a far greater catchment area.
      As for the streetcar proposed to use the old rail right of way parallel to West 6th Avenue, then which inevitably has to share road space for the rest of it’s proposed route, I see limited demand, given the existing transit routes that provide more direct access to downtown.
      What this city desperately needs is more frequent and better designed buses on dedicated road space and not some expensive new streetcar system where routes with questionable ridership cannot be easily changed when that ridership does not materialize.

      1. Martin and Walker equally make errors in favour of their pet technologies and biases. The statement that trolley buses are superior to streetcars in energy efficiency must be challenged since it defies the laws of physics. Given the high efficiency regenerative braking of either vehicle, the majority of energy demand is in rolling friction. The streetcar wins that in spades. Furthermore, those $1,500(?) tires need to be replaced fairly regularly and add to fine particulate air pollutants. They are likely to eventually end up in tire piles whereas a steel wheel is 100% recyclable. That steel wheel is going to last many times longer in the first place.

        An articulated bus might be half the capacity of a streetcar, meaning you need twice as many drivers. Two reasons now that operational costs are much higher on a bus system. There is no doubt that up-front costs are higher on a streetcar but one major cost may have evaporated. There is no longer a need to string overhead power.

        “Downtown” is quickly spilling outside of the peninsula, which will be further driven by the Broadways subway. Limiting one’s downtown trip mindset to the peninsula is pure folly.

        We may still be five years (or more?) away from autonomous vehicles only because of the hundreds of minute variables that can occur on a city street. That goes for buses too, of course. But AV technology is already well past good enough to run a train on rails. It need only recognize the need to stop for something outside of its automated instructions. Converting streetcars to this tech can save further operational costs. At the rate this project is advancing, AV for trains will old tech.

  2. One important aspect of transit is speed. This interactive transit map you can see the speed of each bus route, based on the colour (green vs red).

    https://tmaps.org/

    For example the 16 bus is slow, but you can see the skytrain is fast. Would a streetcar be faster than a bus?

    1. The slowest buses in the system are the Davie and Robson buses serving the West End. It is often faster to walk these routes than take these buses which are often mired in traffic, much of it non-local. There are two solutions:
      1. Discourage non- local traffic going back and forth from the north shore with traffic diversions.
      2. Provide dedicated or prioritized lanes for buses or streetcars. As Jarret Walker points out, if the bus is given the same infrastructure Improvements as required by the streetcar, it will provide the same service at the same speed at a fraction of the cost.

  3. Do you see the irony in your proposal?

    (1) You’re proposing to do exactly what CP had proposed to do on the Arbutus Corridor – maximize highest and best use with redevelopment of the rail corridor with buildings.
    … and (2) these gymnastics are simply to avoid upsetting the existing False Creek South residents whose buildings would be demolished and redeveloped (akin to the pandering to many Westside SFH owners).

    As to the efficiency of the streetcar itself, I think that it would act as a feeder / distributor system. It would feed and distribute commuters to Canada Line and SkyTrain,
    but it would also hit 3 popular tourist (and local) destinations not currently served by [rapid] transit – Granville Island, eastern end of Gastown and Stanley Park, providing “last mile” access to each of those destinations from SkyTrain and Canada Line.

    1. No irony at all. The streetcar proposal for the Arbutus corridor does not provide as direct an access to downtown and several transit stations as the Arbutus trolley bus does. Better transit service to downtown from Marpole, Kerrisdale and Kitsilano could be provided by upgrading the Arbutus bus to streetcar quality infrastructure on the streets it uses. The Arbutus corridor as many Vancouverites have discovered makes an excellent bike route smoothing out the grade changes. It could very easily be developed as useful commuter route such as I once experienced in Malmo Sweden with a mixture of uses including parks, community gardens, markets and yes bike oriented housing, not just a recreational cycling route that you drive to with your bike on a bike rack.

      I don’t mind “pandering” to the many residents of False Creek South by using an old rail line for development and making West 6th a complete street, while at the same time reducing auto use by dedicating more of that street to sensible bus transit use.

  4. The video was great. Thanks for posting it. But considering it took an FOI request to get a city report from what was a publicly-posted RFP (full disclosure: the firm I was with at the time bid on it) leads me to guess the city came to the same conclusion. This alignment is not cost effective.

    There is probably no story here. The city explored this option in 2018 and decided not to pursue at that time. It seems people are just getting wind of “the streetcar” and assume the city is actively pursuing it in conjunction with Senakw. They aren’t, and there’s no way Translink would touch it with a 10-foot pole.

    1. You are correct, Translink and the City do not need to spend money on a rigid streetcar alignment that had questionable ridership projections.

      Now if the City could just get over their infatuation with an Arbutus corridor LRT that competes with the Arbutus trolley bus and instead focus on improving this and other bus routes with streetcar like infrastructure with more frequent bus service, then we could focus on this corridor becoming a much better long and medium range bike route with a variety of bike oriented development along the way.

  5. 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 ; YOU ARE NOT AWARE OF BUS ROUTE NO. 84 STARTED IN 2006)

    1. Thanks, you get it. Buses have by far the greatest ridership in the Translink system, and there is great potential for improvements especially as the Vancouver Plan will probably be looking for significant density increases in the RS-1 zones which could use improved service.

      Canada also manufactures buses and we are looking at more non-trolley electric buses replacing gas and diesel buses in the near future. This could be an opportunity for better re-designed buses such as Thomas Heatherwick’s new London double decker.

      I didn’t know about the #84 as I moved to the West End from Kitsilano around that time.

  6. I’m happy to see this post. The way in which every streetcar map sees the whole network warped to take advantage of the old industrial spur south of false creek reflects the extent to which the problem that streetcar advocates are trying to solve is not a transportation problem, but a “lack of a streetcar problem”

    One of the achievements of the BC Electric Railway was to take the ad hoc assemblage of branches and belt lines handed down from the early 20th Century and *reshape* it into a high-connectivity everywhere-serving grid. In that respect so many streetcar schemes are step backwards from a rational, orderly, universal system back towards an ad-hoc collection of where there happen to be tracks

    1. Given the projected significant increase in population within the catchment area and the connection to three SkyTrain lines and a growing tech neighbourhood why on earth wouldn’t you want to take advantage of an existing level ROW through the middle of it all?

      There are many abandoned and/or low-use rail ROWs that are not having streetcars proposed for them. It is only because the False Creek ROW is so well placed and useful that this proposal is worth keeping alive despite all the naysayers.

      One thing that should be kept an option, given talk of normalizing the Granville Bridge southwest loop, is to allow for an underground station under the bridge head. This would make for a smoother connection from the the Arbutus corridor to FC by tunneling a mere two blocks from 6th and Fir to the FC ROW. That’s a straight shot rather than the proposed convoluted western end, but one that could be a future upgrade as passenger loads justify. It would provide mass transit options, better networking and resilience through this growing corridor.

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