CITY BRIEFS: On Vancouver’s Legendary Streetcars & Why They Should Be Returned

by Ellen Johnston | When it comes to urban planning, the middle decades of the 20th century have a lot to answer for. From the rise of the automobile to the emptying of downtowns all across North America, it’s safe to say that we truly did a number on our great cities. Some, of course, fared better than others. Vancouver, with its post-war densification of the West End and active opposition to downtown highways, was one of the luckiest. However, we still, like so many places, did damage that can only be reversed by many years of concerted effort and the unfortunate (but almost always necessary) application of funds. And this is especially clear now, more than ever, as we consider the future of our aging viaducts, and we ask ourselves whether it is possible, or even worth the exertion, to revitalize our old streetcar networks.

The legacy of electric streetcars in Vancouver is almost as old as the city itself. They began running on June 28th, 1890 and shaped the neighbourhoods of our city for decades to come. Until 1955, they ran from Downtown to the West End, Stanley Park, Gastown, Chinatown, Commercial Drive, Point Grey, Dunbar, Kitsilano, Kerrisdale, Kingsway, Granville St, Main St, Victoria Dr, East Hastings, and all the way out to Burnaby. They also ran along several streets in South Vancouver (Oak, Ontario, and Fraser), all the way to the Fraser River. The high street neighbourhood model that so many of us enjoy can be directly linked to the streetcar, since they allowed for the creation of villages within the city that could be connected to – yet also be distinct from – downtown. There were also three streetcar lines in North Vancouver, and three Interurban routes that connected the city to outlying suburbs like New Westminster and Richmond (with routes very similar to today’s Skytrain lines). One need only follow these old transit lines to realise their profound effect on the building of Metro Vancouver, since the neighbourhoods they were once a part of are the most “urban” areas outside the downtown core, built as they were on a human rather than a highway scale. The North Vancouver streetcars stopped running in 1947, and the Interurban trams shut in 1958.

The question as to why these routes stopped running is difficult to answer. In the United States, a theory known as the General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy claims that GM subsidized the dismantling of streetcar systems all across the nation in order to replace them with bus services, and eventually personal automobiles. It appears, in actuality, that this theory is based on some real fact, as a 1974 US Senate inquiry discovered when looking into the decline of transit systems across the US. According to Joseph Alioto, then Mayor of San Francisco, “General Motors and the automobile industry generally exhibit a kind of monopoly evil… on a deliberate concerted action with the oil companies and tire companies…for the purpose of destroying a vital form of competition; namely, electric rapid transit.” Whether or not this can be linked directly to the decline of streetcar systems in Canada is harder to tell, but it is known that GM, which was very active in Canada at the time, had no qualms about using bribes to persuade officials to convert transit vehicles from rail to rubber.

Besides these disturbing (though not entirely surprising) assertions, there were also several basic factors that led to the decline of streetcars in Vancouver. For one, car culture was simply on the rise. In the post-war era, consumerism took off like it never had before, and owning a car represented the fulfilment of the American/Canadian dream. This meant, as it did in all cities across North America, that transit in general inevitably declined. Cost was also a factor, as it always is. Buses operate on roads which are built at the expense of the public, and streetcars depend upon track built and maintained by the transit system. This means that running buses can be cheaper, since maintenance is only on the vehicle, rather than on the surface it runs along. Similarly, the popularization of articulated cars (like the UBC B-line) in the 70s and 80s meant that the much larger capacity of heavier rapid transit vehicles could be mimicked at a much lower cost.

And so here we are today, with nothing but a memory and little bit of rail to remind us of this bygone era in Vancouver’s transit history. And while electric trolley buses maintain many of the same routes  and the Skytrain lines that run to New Westminster and Richmond have provided even faster alternatives than their interurban predecessors, there are many Vancouverites who still ask why we can’t bring streetcar networks back to our city. It is a reasonable question.

For one, streetcars still run successfully in Toronto, San Francisco, and a few other North American cities. There are also claims that, in the long, run streetcars are actually more affordable than buses, since they have higher passenger capacities and sturdier frames, meaning they need to be replaced less often. They are also more comfortable (because they ride smoothly on a rail), have routes that are easier to understand, attract more riders than buses, and are considerably quieter. And, most importantly, we in Vancouver already have rail (with right of way already built in) that is sitting unused; rail which the city has been promising for many years to turn into the first phase of a larger, brand new streetcar project.

The City of Vancouver still maintains a website for this initiative, describing it as “a key element of the City’s continuing transition to more sustainable transportation modes”. This is a strange description, considering that they have largely derailed (please mind the pun) the project, or at least pushed it into the same distant future netherworld as the much needed UBC Skytrain line. The Olympic Line, which ran during the 2010 Olympics as a demonstration project for the streetcar initiative, was not quite as “quiet and smooth” a ride as the city claims (thanks to the poor quality of the aging tracks), but it did highlight how useful a streetcar line along that route could, indeed, be. Granville Island is one of the most notoriously inaccessible spots in Vancouver if you don’t have a car, and if you do, it’s a nightmare to both drive around and park in. The Aquabuses are great, but they are not part of the public transit network, and the neighbourhood of False Creek, with the exception of a skytrain station at its eastern edge, is poorly connected to the rest of city in general. A streetcar line that goes between the Olympic village and Granville Island would solve all of these problems. It would provide a quick connection to the Canada Line, and therefore all of Downtown, Yaletown, Gastown, the West Side, Richmond, and to all those who are funnelled through central stations from the West Coast Express and the Millenium and Expo Skytrain Lines. The city’s website proposes several future routes (along Pacific Boulevard, through Gastown, from Coal Harbour to Stanley Park), all of which would aid travel in and around downtown Vancouver, which – as you likely have experienced – can be shockingly slow in comparison to the rapid transit funnelling people in and out.

In 1998, the City inaugurated the Downtown Historic Railway (remember that train that used to run between Granville Island and Science World every summer?) as the first step in bringing streetcar awareness back to Vancouver. Fourteen years have now passed, and nothing except for another demonstration project has so far been achieved. If Vancouver truly wants to be the Greenest City in the World by 2020 (a noble, though slightly unrealistic aim for a city built mostly in the automobile era), we need to put our money where our mouth is and at the very least reopen the debate, especially when we have track just sitting there, waiting to be used. If there is any lesson we should have learned from the middle decades of the 20th century, it is that if we don’t take action to increase our transit infrastructure now, we will only pay more for it later.

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Ellen Johnston considers herself a wanderer, whether tramping through the rain-soaked streets of Vancouver and attempting to pry loose the layers of our urban fabric, couch-surfing across America, or getting lost in the souks of Marrakech. Since that is not a full time gig, she fills her days with the study of African dance and drumming, writing, piano, and running her own cookie company, Cookie Elf. She grew up in Vancouver, studied in Philly and London, and hopes to see even more of this great big world in the future.

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There are 10 comments

  1. I didn’t even read this article, just the headline. Come to Toronto to find out why cities should NOT have street cars.

  2. Lana and Ellen skirt the most important issue: transit technology is irrelevant, it’s the dedicated right of way that’s important. The call shoudl not be “bring back streetcars” but “rededicate two lanes to transit”, and transit only. The middle or outside two lanes, whichever you prefer.

    Toronto’s problem is the streetcars are mixed with traffic, which is bad enough for buses, but moronic for something trapped on rails.

    Vancouver’s arterials were designed for two transit lanes. The streets and buildings around them were often built by the same company laying the tracks. They are too wide to be all car: if they’re all-car, then they are highway width, and a highway with stores and homes and intersections along it is a very bad highway, frustrating for drivers and deadly for everyone else. Marohn calls them Stroads.

    They need to be turned back into transit boulevards: two transit lanes, two car lanes and two parking lanes. Better yet, bump parking into the sidestreets and use the sidewalk-abutting lane for popup parks, cafe seating or a bike lane.

  3. Some people like streetcar technology for the smoothness of the ride.

    Google’s car has already driven 200 000 miles.

    By the end of this decade, 360-degree-seeing bus-driving robots will offer a smooth ride.

  4. Neil21, I agree that right of way is important. However, I suggest you reread the article, as the author mentions this when discussing the Granville Island sections. Also, just so you know, there HAVE been proposals for the Pacific Boulevard section of the proposed streetcar project to be turned into a Transit Boulevard.

  5. I have spent the last 6 weeks in Mannheim and typically head out on DB to nearby city for a Sunday outing. I am struck that any city with a 6-figure population has a streetcar system, and some are effectively interurban. Of course, densities are globally higher here than in Canada but the areas I have in mind do not overwhelm one with their density. And it is clear, as the other commentators note, that right of way is critical. Streetcars here do not get stuck in traffic, as it were, even if the arterial is shared.

  6. Good article and a good discussion. I, too, was recently in Mannheim and Heidelberg (as it happens), and spent a good deal of time on their streetcar/interurban system. In urban areas there’s very little demarcation of space between cars and trams: they just share and, remarkably, civilization does not crumble. A “dedicated right of way” seems less important than behavioural adaptation and adjustment.

    I live on what was once a streetcar route and the evidence is all around. On almost every corner you’ll find a little grocery store (some still working, most now turned into housing of some kind). Even if it’s not the Drive or some other town-like node, these intersections of transit, foot traffic, and commerce are enormous factors in creating liveability. Much moreso than a multi-screen cinema in a cavernous mall topped by a 500-unit condo tower above a skytrain station. But there’s the rub. Transit dollars are often used to leverage real estate market changes, and streetcars won’t deliver that.

    So what are the first principles? Moving people effectively? Greening transit? Reducing the costs of both transit and the subsidizing of automobilism? Creating safe and sustainable neighbourhoods? If we want to move the discussion forward, it will need to move quickly beyond smoothness of ride and nostalgia, no?

  7. Re: GM Conspiracy. If anyone wanted the streetcars gone, it would have been the City. After WW2, BC Electric Railway envisaged some conversions, but not total abandonment. The City on the other hand wanted a modern transit system (i.e. not streetcars). It commissioned a report by a former employee of NCL –the GM subsidiary that bought up bus lines. Too, the people of Vancouver wanted their streets paved, and often this would mean the BCER would be liable. And, the new Granville Bridge would mean extensive retracking, again at BCER expense. So the decision was made, total conversion by 1954.
    Librarian
    Transit Museum

  8. Ellen, any time you want more information on the old streetcar and interurban system in the Lower Mainland and Victoria, contact me as I was a researcher for Henry Ewert who wrote the book on “The Story of the British Columbia Electric Railway Company” while I was at BC Hydro in the early 1980s; was a founding director of the Fraser Valley Heritage Railway Society; and, have 35mm slide shows now converted to TV format and PowerPoint as well as a 90 minute television program (now on a DVD and Memory Stick) completed in 1983 interviewing Henry Ewert and showing 1948-50 film footage of the Fraser Valley (interurban) line as well as the 1948 film (on DVD now) on “Going To Town”, the 1948 film by Lew Perry for the BC Electric introducing the trolley busses to Vancouver. And I helped former Vancouver Councillor and active member of Vancouver’s gay community, Allan Herbert on getting the Downtown Historic Railway going back in the 1993-1999 period. Graham Evan MacDonell (Fraser Valley Heritage Research Services….. fraservalleyheritageresearch@gmail.com)