Death of the Streetcar

Below is a 1941 newspaper ad from the BC Electric Railway Company making the case that streetcars are far superior to the private automobile in terms of delivering shoppers to downtown stores. BCER lost the contest, and the streetcar system was dismantled in the mid-1950s to better support the proliferation of cars, buses, and suburbs, marking the beginning of a long decline for the Downtown Eastside as the preeminent retail district in the region. The images aren’t great quality, so I’m posting the text below. Note that “sale Mondays” refers to the one-price sale days at the Bay, Spencer’s, and Woodward’s (only 95¢ in 1941).

BCER street car ad, Province, 29 May 1941

BCER street car ad, Province, 29 May 1941


MR. MERCHANT, want to know how your customers travel to your store?

We made an analysis of street car and bus passengers in Vancouver for last November, January and February. We took the ordinary weekdays, eliminating holidays and special sale days.

This was the result:
Mondays …170,757
Tuesdays … 167,673
Wednesdays … 160,777
Thursdays … 173,716
Fridays … 172,704
Saturdays … 205,749

It will be seen that Wednesday the half-holiday and therefore the day when there is least shopping, has the lowest traffic and Saturday, the acknowledged best shopping day has the highest traffic.

Is any further proof necessary that shoppers travel by street car? If so, here it is:

On ordinary Mondays, street cars and buses carry an average 116,751 passengers; on sale Mondays, we carry an average of 193,207 passengers, nearly 23,000 more, all of whom must be shoppers.

The number of workers using street cars and buses to go to work is practically constant. Authorities estimate that one-quarter of any city’s population goes to work each day. On this basis, about 70,000 persons in Vancouver got to work daily. As most of these travel by street car twice, this accounts for a daily travel of 140,000, indicating that all in excess are shoppers or other casual travellers.

It is obvious that the fluctuation of daily travel must be mostly shoppers, the number being only slightly affected by special shows, gatherings and attractions.

The significance of these figures needs hardly be pointed out to the downtown retail merchant. It is that it would be in his own interests to help the mass transportation service in every way possible because it brings customers to his store.

The private automobile undoubtedly brings some customers downtown, but the numbers are insignificant compared with those who travel by street car. One street car, for example, carries as many persons as thirty automobiles. Two automobiles take up as much space as one street car, although the former carry only 3.4 persons (by national average) compared with 50 to 90 for the street car.

The street car is the anchor which keeps the downtown business and shopping section where it is. Only the street car can carry the tens of thousands of workers and shoppers in and out of the business section. Without the street car, there would be intolerable congestion of traffic and inevitable decentralization of shopping.

Here, then, are some of the ways retail merchants can assist the street railway system to serve them:

Press for recognition of the street car as the vehicle best suited for mass transportation and see that it receives fair treatment accordingly.

Promote faster street car service by getting for the street car the right-of-way, better loading zones, less restricting legislation.

Eliminate curb parking on downtown car-line streets. Streets were made for moving traffic and it is much more important that the 170,000 to 200,000 street car passengers a day be accommodated than the few automobile owners who can park at the curb.

Help the street railway to serve you better by seeing that it receives an adequate return for its service and that it be not put to unnecessary expense in rendering that service.

Make the street car service your business because the street car rider is your customer.

Here’s another ad – this time for buses – from 1965, twenty years after the death of the streetcar and four years after BCER became a crown corporation called BC Hydro. This time, they had the more modest ambition of helping to connect lonely housewives with dreamboats on the big screen.

BC Hydro bus ad, Province, 14 June 1965

BC Hydro bus ad, Province, 14 June 1965

“Hurry up, Mary – Richard Burton is waiting downtown!”
(Every day is ladies’ day, downtown at the movies!)

Is your husband one of those difficult types? The kind that simply won’t take his wife out to an evening movie? Well don’t miss those great new shows on his account. Crowds are smaller in the daytime, and bus service is fast and convenient from every part of the city. So when the housework’s in hand and the fresh air invites getting out, take a break from the pots, pans and dishwasher. Hop a bus between rush hours for a date with Burton, O’Toole or Brando – downtown at the movies.

One thought on “Death of the Streetcar

  1. Vancouver could have streetcars again if the government and Translink, particularly its CEO, weren’t so damned focused on the automated Skytrain type of semi-rapid transit. The advantage to the automated system is primarily labour: there aren’t any drivers to strike or ask for higher wages, which of course keeps costs down. However, it is hugely expensive compared to an at-grade streetcar system. For more information, I highly recommend reading the various reports Professor Condon and his students have prepared at UBC: is a Tyee story about his report, while the report itself can be found at (scroll down to reports 6 and 7, both pdf files)

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