Downtown Streetcar: symbolic transit?

Jarrett Walker’s lecture the other night got me thinking about the concept of “symbolic transit” as opposed to transit that serves a functional role in the network. He gave examples of symbolic transit such as monorails (Seattle monorail?) or the San Francisco cable cars, which were so expensive to operate and didn’t fit into an existing network, that they became symbols of transit. Walker said the San Francisco cable cars are now more of a tourist attraction, and operate  financially outside of the transit agency.

A downtown streetcar has been proposed for Vancouver for over a decade, and a right-of-way has already been established by the City through Southeast False Creek. But to get this project into the first phase of construction, much more funding will be required (approximately $100 million according a 2005 study). Last November, the NPA promised to build the streetcar as part of their party’s election platform. The idea was pushed strongly, with Mayoral candidate Suzanne Anton saying how great a streetcar would be. But was this plan just an example of symbolic transit? Was the City prepared to fund a streetcar network that would be fun to ride, and great for tourists? Why hasn’t Translink got on board with the idea?

The same 2005 study referenced above projected that annual revenue and ridership from Phase 1 of the streetcar  (in red in the above image) would come primarily from tourist and recreational use – in 2021, $3.0 million in revenue for tourist riders out of a total of $4.8 ($0.6 was expected from commuters).  This same pattern is repeated through all phases of the network.

I think a streetcar system in Vancouver does have the potential to play a functional role, but it must be planned within the needs of the existing transit network. Otherwise the Downtown Streetcar might just become an expensive tourist attraction.

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2 responses to “Downtown Streetcar: symbolic transit?

  1. Unfortunately I missed Jarrett’s talk, but the idea of ‘symbolic transit’ strikes a chord right away for me. I agree that the proposed streetcar network is at high risk of being merely symbolic, as it doesn’t seem to really go anywhere that is not already served by bus and skytrain (or false creek ferries, for that matter). I’m sure it will look great in promotional material, though! I suppose the idea of ‘symbolic transit’ could also be extended to include intercity transportation. Via rail’s cross-country train, “The Canadian,” would surely fall under this category as well, symbolizing national unity but not really offering realistic transportation option for most of us.

    -Darcy

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