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Streetcars the missing link in Vancouver transportation infrastructure?

 At the September 29 symposium entitled “Streetcars: The Missing Link,” when Patrick Condon claimed that everyone loves streetcars, not a single person demurred. In fact, the 100 or so planners, professors, engineers and transportation activists listened and talked about streetcars for nine hours in a windowless room on a spectacularly sunny day. The conference, convened by Lawrence D. Frank, Associate Professor and J. Armand Bombardier Chair in Sustainable Transportation, convinced this choir that streetcars have enough allure and practicality to charm comfy drivers out of the car and into regional transit.

How does a streetcar differ from other forms of light rail? Streetcars cost less to build because they travel on the street, not in a tunnel, on elevated tracks or along a separate right of way. On the down side, they can be slowed down by traffic unless they have designated lanes. Streetcars generally require lower power line capacity than other forms of light rail because they travel more slowly and make more stops. They support corridors of development rather than development in station nodes. They perform best as circulators that link local buses and regional light rail in high density areas, especially areas attractive to tourists and other pleasure seekers who, like most people, love to ride streetcars.

The Right Choice?
That’s not to say that streetcars are the right choice for Vancouver. Jack Collins of Metrolinx Toronto relies on 35 years of experience in light rail implementation when he cautions that such large infrastructure expenditures will impact the of Vancouver for generations. It’s crucial to get it right.

Conference sponsor Bombardier builds streetcars like the ones borrowed from Brussels for the Olympic Line. Collins noted that Bombardier cars builds streetcars that can move 6-10,000 persons per hour, while the competition can move 20,000 per hour. Curve radius, ability for bidirectional use, grade limitations, overhead wire capacity, ground vibration and ability to link cars all affect the flexibility of a system.

Keeping Up With The Joneses
Collins’ agency links 20 municipalities in the Toronto area. Its ambitious 25 year plan has over 50 new projects to meet this goal. It’s not the only city moving aggressively moving forward with light rail. St. Louis Missouri ($44 billion), Charlotte North Carolina ($37 billion), Cincinnati Ohio ($128 billion), Fort Worth Texas($70-139 billion) and transit poster child Portland Oregon ($128 million) are all implementing new light rail plans. Even Dallas is building light rail.

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