Understanding an oft-misunderstood city-shaping tool.

A desire named streetcar

I should start by coming clean: I didn’t come up with that clever title (though I wish I had). It’s from a 1992 paper [PDF] titled A Desire Named Streetcar: Fantasy and Fact in Rail Transit Planning, discussing a topic (US transit grant funding policy) that is only tangential to our discussion today.

In 2014, the City looked at the feasibility of streetcars in Calgary, decided the cost was too high, and suggested dedicated bus lanes as an alternative solution to improving core mobility. As of today, though, there are no dedicated bus lanes in the downtown or the surrounding core area, and no apparent discussion of implementing them in the future. My goal today is to discuss some aspects of streetcars that are often overlooked both in analysis by city planners, and in discussions in general. Modern streetcars are a city building tool that can be feasible in the right situations.

Not Your Grandpa’s Streetcar

Streetcars have come a long way since their conspiratorial demise at the hands of “Big Tire” in the late 1940s. Because of their quick decline in that period, many people have a frozen picture in their head of a streetcar that looks something like this:

Streetcar at Heritage Park [By Manfred Kopka - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44228468]

Streetcar at Heritage Park [Manfred Kopka/Wikipedia]

When these days, they look more like this:

A modern streetcar. [By Robert Taylor from Stirling, ON, Canada - TTC Flexity Streetcar_1799, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35539729]

A modern streetcar in Toronto [Robert Taylor/Wikipedia]

Streetcars now very closely resemble low floor LRTs like the ones planned for the Green Line here in Calgary. In fact, other than train length, there is little difference in the technology. The important difference is in their main purpose.

To understand their main purpose, we should look at places where streetcars have done well, such as Toronto and Portland. In Toronto, four of the TTC’s five most heavily used surface routes are streetcars. In Portland, a $54.5 million streetcar line has resulted in over $3.5 billion of new investment around the line. This is an economic boost that in my view buses simply cannot provide. These kinds of high ridership and improved property values are evidence that streetcars can work well, if done right.

So what makes a streetcar work? I have pulled some ideas from Jeff Speck’s Walkable Cities, and supplemented them with my own thoughts and ideas. In my view, for a streetcar to be successful it must have at least two of these three key ingredients, and preferably all three.

  1. Benefit from extended walkability: Walkable streets are great, but we are only willing to walk so far on even the best of days. A streetcar can really shine when there is a long stretch of walkable space, where transit can be thought of as enhanced walking. Streets pedestrians already frequent are good places to start.
  2. Connection to longer-range transit: A streetcar service needs to connect to more high-volume service to be viable. In Calgary’s case, this means a connection to the LRT system is probably a must for any streetcar service to draw riders from all over the city.
  3. Benefit from permanence: Putting rails down and wires up is a signal to developers, business owners, and residents that the service is going to stay for a long time. This confidence lowers risk and can lead to more earnest and thoughtful development. If there is room for the corridor to grow, it’s worth looking at streetcars to help out.

These three points are far from exhaustive, but they indicate an a very important concept that is relatively new to Calgary: streetcars are not a commuter service. They are a tool for enhancing and improving corridors where people can benefit from short trips. Because in dense areas a short trip can bring you to a large variety of new stores, restaurants, and residences, an existing or planned dense area is vital to the success of a streetcar.

Can it be Done in Calgary?

Let’s look at streetcars in Calgary. We’ll start with a historical map (below), where orange lines are former streetcar lines, and the yellow is the current LRT:

Take some time to zoom in on the historic alignments. There is evidence of the network’s existence all over the city, from Marda Loop’s name to the streetcars featured in the flags that adorn Bowness’ town centre. There’s even some leftover street loops and parks, like 7 Ave and 5 St NW (below). Historic transit-oriented development is at least partly responsible for the ceation of many of Calgary’s trendy, desirable neighbourhoods.

Former streetcar loop, now used by buses [Google Earth]

Former streetcar loop, now used by buses [Google Earth]

Of course it’s easy to dwell on former, faded glory. The important question is where would a streetcar do best in Calgary? Some of the old lines have been replaced by the LRT routes: McLeod Trail south, through Sunnyside and up the hill to SAIT, and over to Bridgeland. The new Green Line LRT will run along Centre Street N and connect the downtown with Inglewood. Given today’s existing network, what would be the best place for a streetcar line?

The 17 Avenue Streetcar

Arguably, the best location for a streetcar line is 17 Avenue SW. This probably does not come as a surprise; there has been a simmering desire to restore the 17 Avenue streetcar in some capacity. A potential line would run from inside the Stampede grounds and, heading west, follow 17 Ave. On the west end, the possibilities are many: A jog over to 12 Ave S to connect with Sunalta Station, a left at 14 Street up to Marda Loop, a right on 8 St to downtown reminiscent of the “beltline loop” from days past.

As far as meeting the three criteria above, it does the best job of any location. The avenue is already heavily trafficked by pedestrians, and the Stampede grounds provide an extra source of pedestrian traffic for the steady stream of events that happen there. It is a long corridor, so a streetcar would allow residents and visitors alike to visit more of the abundant shops, restaurants, and parks offered along the way. Ingredient #1 is certainly met.

Connection with the LRT would be simple at Victoria Park Station on the east end. On the west end, Sunalta, Kerby, or even Westbrook station are possible candidates to connect the line with the rest of the city. There is even existing work being done looking at re-aligning both of the Stampede stations on the Red Line, allowing a better interface of 17 Avenue with the Stampede grounds. #2 is met.

Ingredient #3 is a little bit less certain, since the area is already developed. One could argue that streetcars developed the area decades back, and so adding a streetcar back in would simply be returning what was already there and should have remained. The Beltline is already quite dense, but a streetcar line could provide the permanence needed to convince developers and future city governments that urban mobility is as important and beneficial to the city as suburban mobility.

There’s plenty to be said about streetcars; I have touched on only a few things. For now, it’s important that we get over the stigma of streetcars being a slow, dated technology that was easily replaced by buses. Streetcars, like any permanent transit infrastructure, are tools that shape cities as much as they move people. In Calgary, they have shaped our city in the past, and it’s time we take a serious look at how they shape our city in the future.

Willem Klumpenhouwer

Willem is a PhD student in transportation planning and engineering at the University of Calgary, working on improving transit schedule design. In his spare time, Willem does programming projects and is a volunteer and improviser at the Loose Moose Theatre.

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  • Jeff Binks

    Good article. I would argue that you got the number right but the quadrant wrong in terms of Calgary’s best street car route. In my mind the best bet for a future street car is 17th Ave SE. The 17th Ave SE transitway that is currently under construction will make for an easy transition to a streetcar service. The service could be extended west over the Deerfoot and along 9th Ave in Inglewood and terminate at the future Highspeed rail and Green Line stations proposed for 4th Street SE. One important element missing from the Beltline is a place to store the vehicles (long term plans have Vic Park garage being turned into park space) where as 17th Ave SE has plenty of land to the east that could serve as a storage/maintenance facility.

    • Yeah, that’s a great option too. The only problem I see is that there isn’t an existing pedestrian base, partly because of the street’s design to put parking lots between the sidewalk and the stores. That whole area could benefit from a re-think.


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