Should the Olympic Line Streetcar Be Named Desire and Not a Transportation Vehicle?
Vancouver’s Olympic Line streetcar has a demonstration run between Granville Island and the Olympic Village station during the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Many who had taken advantage of the free ride were smitten. So when the trail ended its 60-day run on Mar 21, 2010, many were left with a sense of nostalgia and yearned for the Olympic Line to return. But the two Bombardier Flexity streetcars were promptly returned to Belgium where they came from. Although streetcars are much less expensive than a Skytrain system, the Olympic Line even with its short distance of just 1.8 km still requires a capital cost of $90 million to operate. At a time when Translink is diligently looking for $400 million to cover the cost of building the expected Evergreen Line, spending any extra dollar in maintaining the Olympic Line which may not see much passengers when the line may no longer be free as during the trial is not a very convincing proposition. However, there might be some other ways to make it work.
So what is so good about the Bombardier Flexity Olympic Line Streetcar?
Urban railcar system is one of the world’s most sustainable mode of transportation. It enables lower energy consumption, decrease land usage, less congestion, fewer accidents and greater accessibility for all passengers. Modern electric streetcar or a magnetic levitation railcar system like Vancouver’s Skytrain are sustainable forms of transportation. Bombardier Transportation claimed its rail car systems, such as the Flexity line used in the Vancouver trail “actively maximizing the environmental benefits of rail travel”. They are built on four “cornerstones: energy, efficiency, economy, ecology.” That is why the company had the message “The Climate is Right For Trains” printed on the sides of the two Olympic Line streetcars for use in Vancouver. Physical and functional attractive features of the streetcar are low floor entry (even wheelchair riders or small children could easily get on with a minimal effort) and large windows which invite riders to look out the window to not only enjoy the view but also check out the street scene and the shops that are along the streets. Sure beats driving in which your mainly concentration is on the road. That is why it is well-known that streetcars promote street life and stimulate commercial development of the areas where they serve. The Olympic Line streetcar also traveled at a slow and leisurely speed which was intentionally way under what the streetcar was capable of. For a fast and efficient way of getting from one place to another, there is the Skytrain system which Bombardier also manufactures. The system was built to coincide with Expo 86. The Vancouver’s World’s Fair which has two major themes, transportation and communication.
The Olympic Line Streetcar Has Heritage Values in Vancouver
The city of Vancouver was incorporated in 1886 and the first electric streetcar came into service in 1890, according to Heather Conn’s book Vancouver’s glory years: public transit, 1890-1915. The Vancouver streetcar played a critical role in helping the city to expand and grow. In the beginning, there was only a single line of service for Main St., Chinatown, Gastown and what is now downtown Vancouver on Granville Street. Then came the Interurban lines in the early 1900s which connected the city core to outlaying areas in Steveston, Burnaby, Surrey, Abbortsford etc. Two of these Interurban trains were preserved and restored which The Downtown Historic Railway used as a tourist streetcar service between Granville Island and Science World every summer. The 2010 Olympic Line streetcar also used this same line after the city spent $8 million improving the tracks. One of the original trams, the Interurban bus #1207 was actually built for use in 1905 connecting Marpole and Steveston. Two months after the 2010 Olympic Line finished its run, currently there is no word on when The Downtown Historic Railway will return to service again. That brings us the interesting question of heritage values of streetcars. It is not just the Good Old Days way of thinking. As mentioned earlier, streetcars were almost as old as the city of Vancouver itself. These electric trams not only enabled commerce by moving people from their homes to their place of work, especially the line that had daily runs from Marpole to Steveston where the BC fishery industry was. But for those who could afford to have a more leisurely lifestyle, the streetcar was also a convenient way to get shoppers from one specialty store to another. For those reasons and some intangible ones, streetcars have become a symbol of city development and community building. That is where its heritage value comes in and rightfully earned plenty of nostalgia in the hearts of many who had the streetcar as part of their lives growing up in Vancouver. The last of the Vancouver streetcars ceased their operation in when the rubber tires hit the road literally in the late 1950s.
Vancouver’s Granville Island Could be San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf
Much like San Francisco’s Nob Hill and Fisherman’s Wharf, Vancouver’s downtown core is where a streetcar system like the Olympic Line could really shine. A run from the Granville Island to Olympic Village then to Science World, Chinatown, Gastown, Coal Harbor and finally ending at Chilco St. in Stanley Park with a possible sideway track to Yaletown truly make sense. Streetcars for the Arbutus Corridor would someday become a reality too pending on more commercial and residential real estate development. Although right now, there is a great deal of sentiments regarding the return of the streetcar to the Kitsilano, Arbutus, Marpole and Kerrisdale areas.
So what is the official line?
Recently, Gregor Robertson, the Mayor of Vancouver, indicated that the city’s transportation priority should be on the Broadway Corridor. It s hard to argue with that as that is a much more heavily trafficed route. Furthermore, he said, funding opportunities for the Olympic Line simply do not exist at the present time. Mr. Robertson also stated that “it will take years to bring back” the Olympic Line, likely after the Evergreen Line is operational in 2014.
Alternative ways to support the Olympic Line
Some have suggested that to make the Olympic Line sustainable, corporate sponsorship, naming rights and other creative ways to fund the project could be worked out. As a transportation service line, it might have limited use. But as a tourist attraction, corporate marketing tool, or a nostalgic object of desire, this streetcar could have a much bigger role to play for the community. I think in the long run, the streetcar in Vancouver would become a reality, or at least it should, especially the Granville Island to Stanley Park route. The extension to UBC would possibly be better served via a faster light rail mode of transportation. If the Olympic Line were to become a more immediate reality, some creative thinking and partnership and marketing skills could make that happen. Personally, I do like to see that as a quicker fact, instead of waiting for some other factors like the Evergreen Line or the Broadway Corridor transit to determine its fate. Of course, the Olympic Line would be fully integrated into the overall transit network but it could stand on its own as it has enough potentials that can be exploited by those who know how. Ultimately, whichever way the streetcar line may end up, to be successful, this sleek guided-by-rail and on-the-street transit vehicle would have to focus more on being a streetcar named desire than merely a transportation vehicle. In other words, the Olympic Line could have a greater value in serving a different clientele than those who are looking for a quick way to go from A to B.
Olympic Village station Vancouver BC
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