Prior to the Second World War, trams — also called streetcars — were the mainstay of public transportation systems in cities around the world. And for good reason: trams provided reliable, predictable, accessible, human-scaled transportation serving the needs of working folk and the wealthy alike. Savvy investors, entrepreneurs and property developers quickly realized the profit potential along tram lines and businesses that provided service and value to local communities were soon flourishing. This powerful mixture of social and economic energy fuelled the emergence of the streets that have become some of our best-loved places.
Calgary once had an extensive tram network. The first tracks were laid in the early 1900s and at its height, in 1945, the system had 15 routes serving all parts of the city, including Parkdale, Hillhurst, Kensington, Rosedale, Capitol Hill, Tuxedo, Riverside (Bridgeland), Inglewood, Ogden, Manchester, Elbow Park, South Calgary (Marda) and Killarney.
Calgary’s tram network was dismantled in 1950 when the private automobile took over as the city’s dominant transportation choice. Although the trams were replaced, at first with electric trolleys and later with diesel buses, their place-making power could not be replicated.
Portland, Ore. is also a city with tram origins dating back more than a century. Like most North American cities following the war, Portland tore out its tram network and began building roads and expressways. And, as elsewhere, Portland’s core soon deteriorated as wealth, jobs and commerce migrated to the suburbs.
In contrast to almost everywhere, however, Portland began reinvesting in public transit early on. By the early 1970s, three proposed freeways had been successfully resisted through public opposition. One of them, Harbor Drive, was actually ripped out and converted to a riverfront park. The money originally intended for freeways was instead invested in a light rail system similar to Calgary’s LRT.
Yet development in the core lagged. As if finally realizing the place-making power of trams, a downtown line was reimagined in the early 1990s and in 2001 Portland’s downtown streetcar, the first to be built anywhere in North America in almost a century, was inaugurated. The results have been spectacular.
Portland’s Pearl District, once a deteriorating downtown industrial and warehouse zone, has been transformed into a flourishing mixed residential and commercial inner-city neighbourhood. Because trams provide certainty, investors responded by sinking $3.5 billion in private money along the line. Now, instead of underused buildings and fearful streets, the area is festooned with parks, stores, restaurants, kitschy boutiques, food kiosks, museums, theatres, microbreweries, hotels and one of the nation’s liveliest coffee cultures. Oh, and people. Young and old, singles and families; people are reclaiming the inner-city.
Melbourne, Australia is another city with tram heritage akin to ours. But unlike Calgary and Portland, trams were never abandoned there. Today, Melbourne has the largest tram system in the world and, because of it, some of the best streets in the world.
Chapel Street in south Melbourne is a four-kilometre collage of shops, markets, restaurants and entertainment that is adjacent to nearby high-density neighbourhoods. Here is persuasive evidence of the place-shaping power of trams. Small shops catering to local needs are interspersed with boutiques to provide a high-quality pedestrian realm. Pubs and eateries with abundant inside-outside seating thrive year-round. Recent high-rise development is offset from the street, which retains its original character and charm.
It is a tale of three cities. Melbourne embraced and maintained its tram identity. Portland lost it, but then reclaimed it. In Calgary, trams are not even part of the conversation. This needs to change.
Apart from the social, economic and environmental benefits of trams, perhaps the most compelling reason why we need them back is that they are a truly effective counterforce to urban sprawl. Calgary has the right idea by wanting to increase density around LRT stations, but the strategy as currently conceived does precious little to contain Calgary’s relentless outward ooze.
A truly effective transit strategy makes the whole city transit-oriented, not just selected, ultra-high density nodes. Only trams can make that happen. Unlike the standard LRT redevelopment model, tram-inspired TOD has a much gentler effect on local communities because the density is absorbed horizontally along corridors rather than vertically in towers. Progressive changes to zoning bylaws will permit mixed uses and moderate intensity near the line, while ensuring adjacent neighbourhoods remain intact.
If this strategy were implemented, a significant fraction of Calgary’s future growth would be absorbed within its existing footprint to the benefit of our health, wealth and the environment. The really great news is that having once been a tram city, the street pattern to be one again is already in place. It will take enlightened citizens to demand it and fearless leaders at city hall to make it happen.
Melbourne and Portland have harnessed the power of trams to shape their cities for the better. We should too.
Next article: Counting down Calgary’s six best tram streets.
Geoff Ghitter teaches Urban Studies at the University of Calgary. Links to the research used in this article can be found on his blog: geeessgee.blogspot.com. Noel Keough is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary and is cofounder of Sustainable Calgary Society.