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City of Vancouver studying routes for potential future downtown streetcar

Kenneth Chan Feb 01, 2019 8:46 am 5,978

A modern streetcar network serving the downtown Vancouver peninsula and False Creek area has been contemplated since the late-1990s, and it remains on the back burner of possibilities for the future.

Planners with the City of Vancouver are currently conducting a planning process that updates the 2004 Downtown Streetcar study to ensure the municipal government’s long-term plans match current streetcar technology.

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In an email to Daily Hive, city staff confirmed that the work involves identifying needed right-of-ways and required space in streets, which will essentially “future proof for a streetcar.”

It would be an extension of the future streetcar line stretching along the nine-km-long Arbutus Greenway from the area of the southern foot of the Granville Street Bridge to the Fraser River. A high-level design concept that incorporates the streetcar onto the Arbutus Greenway was approved by the previous city council last summer.

Olympic Village Vancouver 1st Avenue

Pre-built streetcar median right-of-way on 1st Avenue through the Olympic Village in Southeast False Creek. (Google Maps)

But it will not be happening anytime soon; city staff say future planning for the potential streetcar would be performed by TransLink in their upcoming long-term Regional Transportation Study that identifies projects for the next 30 years. Current work will provide planners with a better understanding of the “value of the streetcar in light of other regional priorities.”

“The Downtown Streetcar study is particularly relevant to be integrated with land use planning happening in the city, such as the Northeast False Creek Area Plan, Broadway area planning, Gastown Complete Streets transportation study and connectivity to the Arbutus Greenway. The study outcomes will be able to feed into the next wave of future transit planning for the city including the City Plan.”

Why this streetcar isn’t a feasible alternative to the UBC SkyTrain extension

During Wednesday’s city council meeting on the UBC SkyTrain extension, Lon LaClaire, the transportation director for the municipality, said that the streetcar option that is currently being examined for the existing South False Creek right-of-way would be a low-capacity service to replace the No. 50 bus route.

This right-of-way runs north of 6th Avenue between the Granville Street Bridge and Cambie Bridge, on 1st Avenue’s pre-built streetcar median through the Olympic Village between Cambie Bridge and Quebec Street, and along the west side of Quebec Street to terminate just outside Main Street-Science World Station.

The span of the South False Creek right-of-way running between Granville Island and the Canada Line’s Olympic Village Station was utilized for the Olympic Line, a temporary demonstration streetcar line during the 2010 Olympics that was funded by the municipal government.

Olympic Line Streetcar Vancouver

An abandoned streetcar stop, located next to the Canada Line’s Olympic Village Station, built for the temporary Olympic Line demonstration streetcar system during the 2010 Winter Olympics. (Kenneth Chan / Daily Hive)

LaClaire went on to describe the streetcar being planned as a “rather small vehicle” that would provide a local service, whereas the subway project a few blocks south on Broadway is a regional-level priority.

Jerry Dobrovolny, the chief engineer and general manager of engineering services for the municipal government, further explained the need for a regional backbone, fast, high-capacity arterial transit system, which is SkyTrain. Modern, high-density cities benefit from a wide range of transit services that provide different levels of service and capacity.

A comparison of the capable speed and capacity of SkyTrain, light rail transit, and streetcar. (City of Vancouver)

“Our [transit] ridership is much higher than other cities our size. We are just behind New York and Toronto in terms of per capita ridership for transit. So we’re punching way above our weight in terms of public support to take transit, but we have much less transit infrastructure than other comparable and bigger cities,” said Dobrovolny.

“Sometimes we compare to Europe. Cities in Europe have streetcar systems and surface system, but many also have major subway systems doing a lot of the heavy lifting below ground and they have a streetcar system at ground level, which is what we’re planning as well.”

He added that “it is still one of the [municipal government’s] goals to complete the Downtown Streetcar.”

Broadway LRT Streetcar

Conceptual 2018 rendering created for evaluating potential street-level LRT concepts on Broadway from Arbutus Street to UBC. In order to meet ridership demand, street-level LRT trains would have to be as long as a city block. (TransLink)

Moreover, the recently released TransLink technical report on rail rapid transit to UBC evaluated the option of running street-level LRT along the South False Creek right-of-way from Main Street-Science World Station to the Millennium Line’s future Arbutus Street subway station.

But it was determined that any street-level LRT option would only be able to carry 25% of SkyTrain’s capacity and attract far less ridership, while still carrying high costs.

Previous plans for downtown streetcar network

Downtown Streetcar concepts from the late-1990s and early-2000s envisioned the route along South False Creek from Main Street-Science World to Granville Island being the first phase of the streetcar network.

Further phases would extend the streetcar to Chinatown, Downtown Eastside, and Gastown via Quebec Street, Powell Street, Water Street, and Cordova Street.

It could also further continue all the way to Coal Harbour and Stanley Park via Water Street, West Hastings Street, Cardero Street, and along the patch of grass reserved for a future streetcar on the north side of West Georgia Street west of Cardero Street.

Vision for the Downtown Vancouver streetcar network, created in the late-1990s. (City of Vancouver)

Another branch would take the streetcar to Northeast False Creek and Yaletown via Pacific Boulevard, Pacific Street, and Drake Street, ending at where Drake Street meets Granville Street, which is also the northern end of the planned Granville Street Bridge bike and walking path.

The concept from the 1990s went even further, outlining possible streetcar routes on the Granville Street Bridge and through Granville Street in downtown, reaching Waterfront Station. Some potential extension options identified even reached Vanier Park in Kitsilano.

The Arbutus Corridor streetcar line will be a part of a future downtown Vancouver streetcar network that will have lines along South False Creek, North False Creek, and between Chinatown, Gastown, Coal Harbour – ending at Stanley Park. Concept created in 2017 for the Arbutus Greenway planning process. (City of Vancouver)

These early concepts also envisioned train maintenance and storage facilities under the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts near Quebec Street, but the recent Arbutus Greenway streetcar planning process identified a potential option of placing such a facility in the False Creek Flats, with the streetcar serving the emerging tech and creative industry district.

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Kenneth Chan
National Features Editor at Daily Hive, the evolution of Vancity Buzz. He covers local architecture, urban issues, politics, business, retail, economic development, transportation and infrastructure, and the travel industry. Kenneth is also a Co-Founder of New Year's Eve Vancouver. Connect with him at kenneth[at]dailyhive.com

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