Streetcar desires

We used to have trams in Halifax. We used to make them here, too. Who wouldn't want to ride the rails again?

"We can't do the same things and use the same excuses that cars and roads work well," says Patrick Klassen, a graduate student at Dalhousie's School of Planning. He's one of several students making an old idea new again: a Halifax Tram system.

"We haven't considered streetcars here per se," HRM transit planning specialist Brian Taylor acknowledges. Trams, or streetcars, are outside Halifax's box. It wasn't always so.

"We had trams here until the 1960s," notes Larry Hughes, an engineering professor at Dal. "They were fairly extensive; they went all the way to West End Mall."

Kathy Yeats, a Haligonian studying planning in Vancouver, offers another explanation for the streetcar's demise. "We used to make them locally, but General Motors muscled their way onto the scene in the '50s." She is referring to the Great American streetcar scandal, in which National Lines bought out transit systems across the continent, replacing streetcars with General Motors' buses and paving the way for car dependency.

We've relied on petroleum-powered buses and cars ever since. They have major disadvantages to the electric trolley. Yeats observes, "In Vancouver I can predict where the streetcars go by way of the wires overhead. There's a sense of permanence that comes with this level of built infrastructure. It encourages people to rely on it." The streetcars themselves last twice as long as buses.

Their permanence makes trams a starting point for sound urban development. In an independent research report, Klassen writes, "By providing an efficient, high capacity and reliable form of transit, with a sense of permanence, a streetcar system has the potential to attract residents and investment, increase transit ridership and stimulate core area business and pedestrian activity."

He examined modern streetcar systems in mid-sized cities in France, Germany and the United States, and concludes that the peninsula's population can support a tram, and that such a system would encourage the kind of development city planners are aiming for.

"The benefits are mostly economic," he argues. "A tram system catalyzes development along routes. It targets investment downtown." This combats sprawl and reinvigorates urban cores. Klassen notes that Portland's tram system has spun-off more than $3 billion in private investment.

A permanent, predictable streetcar infrastructure replaces complicated destination-based bus routes with a hub-and-spoke model. The hub is where streetcars begin their routes. In every city where this is the case, development is focused on the hub. In the process, bus congestion and emissions are eliminated.

"The buses themselves cause congestion," says Troy Scott, a Dartmouth architect, but once a starry-eyed Dalhousie grad student himself. His thesis focused on using existing and new rail infrastructure in and around Halifax. His study indicates that creating a streetcar loop on the peninsula could "reduce the number of buses from 33 to 11, alleviate congestion, and increase ridership."

Scott adds heritage to the list of streetcar advantages. "Why not bring back a historic aspect of Halifax right in Historic Properties?" he wonders. "I worked out what all the old routing was. The tracks are still in the road, paved over." New routes could also be added using ultra-light tracks, which don't require overhead wires and avoid disturbing pipes.

"Streetcars the world over are celebrated icons of city life," Yeats adds. "They are the town clocks and cathedrals of the transportation world and evoke warm feelings of community and home."

Despite the arguments for a Halifax tram system, it may be an idea ahead of its time, for two reasons: power and size.

"Streetcars aren't much good if Nova Scotia has to burn coal from South America to power them," Yeats says. "This technology would have to come with more renewable---and ethical---energy sources." Yet, she argues, electric vehicles allow a greater flexibility for power sources. In time, the power can come from wind, hydro, maybe even tidal or geothermal. "Buses only take petrol. If that fails us we're screwed," she says.

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