One of the greenest ways of getting around is electric streetcars. These elegant, comfortable rail vehicles use far less energy than cars, can draw their power from sources other than fossil fuels, are much more attractive than buses and can shape development.
Once the primary means of getting around, streetcars were targeted for elimination by a combination of an apathetic public sold on the vision of unlimited mobility, not realizing that the dark side of congestion and environmental destruction lay just around the corner and by the beneficiary car and tire makers and petroleum companies. Now streetcars have been making a comeback in cities throughout North America. People and communities are once again finding them desirable.
The latest city to witness their return, if only for a short time, is Vancouver, B.C., Canada. The City of Vancouver and Bombardier have launched the Olympic Line, a 1.2 mile demonstration route from the Canada Line rapid transit near the Olympic Village to Granville Island, a popular shopping and entertainment hub long notorious for terrible parking. A pair of state-of-the-art 100 percent low-floor Bombardier streetcars, borrowed from Brussels, Belgium began operating last Thursday and will continue to do so until March 21, with the close of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics and Paralympic Games. The service, which will be provided every six to 10 minutes from 6:30am to 12:30am, is free.
The tracks the streetcars use a rebuilt freight spur operated on by restored heritage streetcars in summer months. Vancouver lost its local streetcar system in 1955; its longer-distance electric interurbans in 1958. Rail transit, in the form of automated rapid transit, first returned in 1986 and has been expanded since.
Vancouver hopes to keep the streetcars going after March 21; it is planning a network that will connect offices, retail, transportation hubs, sports venues and parks in the downtown. City officials are keeping their fingers crossed that strong public demand and support will enable them to convince provincial and federal governments especially, for operating and capital financing.
Vancouuver is eyeing The City of Seattle, some 2-1/2 hours to the south, which has greenlighted a second new streetcar line that will connect its King Street/International District Amtrak/commuter rail/LINK light rail hub with First Hill and Capitol Hill. The first streetcar line, connecting Lake Union with the Westlake Center, a retail/transportation center that joins LINK with the Seattle Center monorail, opened in 2007. They will be part of a network that Vancouver hopes to replicate.
The Seattle system could be receiving added funding thanks to Obama Administration transit financing rule changes. The Wall Street Journal reported it was revamping them "to funnel more of the money to streetcars, bus routes and other projects that promote 'livability.'
"Transit-industry officials said many projects had been stymied by a Bush administration policy requiring the government to evaluate projects based largely on reducing commuting times at the lowest possible expense," said the paper.