Saturday, October 31, 2009

Sixth Street Streetcar

When you think of San Francisco, what do you see?  For most people who haven’t lived there, it’s probably two things – The Golden Gate Bridge, and F Market Streetcar running up and down Market Street

While New West and San Francisco don’t share a lot of similarities, a significant one is the steep hilly terrain.  Anyone from New West can testify getting up or down the hill along 6th, 8th, or even 12th street gives you your thirty minutes recommended exercise for the day. 

This means people coming into or out of New West using the Skytrain are either limited to walking the Downtown and Quayside areas, or getting a bus or taxi to get up the hill.  Cabs are a limited option due to the expense.  The bus service up the hills is generally decent.  Busses generally operate 10 to 15 minutes or apart or faster on 6th street, and 15 – 20 minutes apart on 8th and 12th.  The 6th Street bus is particularly well used and often crowded.  It is also part of Translink’s Frequent Transit Network, dictating service at least every 15 minutes 15 hours a day. 

Partially due to that crowding, along with many other well know reasons, many people are reluctant to ride the bus.  New West needs a frequent, reliable, attractive public transit option for getting up and down the hill.  To that end, I believe New West should restore a streetcar route along 6th Street.  Just picture it – image the red and green car sitting in the Old Spaghetti Factory passing by City Hall, the Royal Westminster Regiment, dropping commuters off at uptown and with tourists checking out other parts of the city they may not have seen before. 

Historically, two streetcars ran up the hill; 6th Street, which then went along Edmonds, and 12th Street.  The two then joined near Kingsway and connected with the interurban.  6th Street is a major commercial corridor all the way to Edmonds, and Edmonds is developed all the way to Kingsway, so matching that part of the route makes a good starting point.  However, there is no major anchor at Kingsway and Edmonds, so it would probably make sense to run the line right out to Edmonds Skytrain, matching that portion of the current 106 bus route. 

You can find a map of the old streetcar routes at Matthew Laird's History of the BC Electric Railway page. Matthew also writes regularly on Tenth to the Fraser.  

The benefits of a streetcar, particularly in New West are plentiful. 
-          Environmentally friendly: the streetcar is electrically powered, thus getting powered from BC’s relatively clean hydro power. 
-          Attractiveness:  Rails has consistently been shown to be more attractive to users than a bus.  Witness the recent change to the Canada Line from the 98 B-Line.
-          Historic: Fits with historical character of New West, particularly the downtown area.
-          Touristy:  As San Francisco has shown, a heritage streetcar in the right place can be very attractive to tourists.  This would also open more of the city up to tourism opportunities. 
-          Reliability: Rail service tends to meet service schedules better than busses do
-          Quieter:  Streetcars will fit into neighbourhoods better, and be less disruptive
-          Capacity:  higher capacity than busses as demand on the corridor increases

-          Overhead wires restrict some tall traffic.  6th street doesn’t carry a large amount of truck traffic, but there are major crossings (Royal, 8th Ave, 10th Ave) that would be affected. 
-          Accessibility issues – I’ve only ridden historical streetcars which are not accessible at all.  Modern ones, like the new streetcars going to Toronto are accessible.  I would presume modern designed cars, even those with an historical bent, are made friendly for those with wheelchairs, strollers, et al.  Worst case, modern accessible cars could be mixed with heritage types. 
-          Traffic flow – currently, buses on 6th pull out of the main travel lane allowing vehicles to pass while passengers embark/disembark.  Streetcars would block the lane while loading passengers.  Pedestrian bumps currently on the road are just for crossing, but maybe they could be modified for use by a streetcar.

Naturally, some study needs to be done to implement a project like this.  Specific routing at the southern terminus, traffic impact studies, where to locate the northern terminus, who will pay for what – these and more questions will need to be answered.  However, lets not get so lost amongst the questions that it takes a decade to move forward at all (a la Vancouver’s downtown streetcar project).  Do the studies.  Look at the results – I believe they will be strongly in favour.  Then get it going.  As my son would say, “Ding Ding!”

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