While the transportation component of Vancouver’s Winter Olympics is being watched closely by planners of the 2012 summer Olympics in London, Vancouverites saw the event also as an opportunity to reframe the city’s long-range transport picture, particularly in the context of a greener future.

The most pressing issue facing planners of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver was how to fashion a framework to manage unprecedented crowds during a 60-day timeline. Accommodations were required for 5,500 athletes and officials, an Olympics workforce of 55,000, as many as 10,000 media personnel, and an estimated 60,000 to 135,000 spectators per day, including those attending events at Whistler Mountain venues some 75 miles (120 km) away. Vancouver’s status as a dense, efficient, and resilient environment is a key reason why Canada’s third-largest city was chosen for the bulk of the venues, including BC Place Stadium, GM Place, Canada Place, and Nat Bailey Stadium, as well as for the main media center in the Canada Place complex and convention center.

Taking maximal advantage of the existing transportation infrastructure, reducing private-vehicle traffic during event times, and decreasing—instead of increasing—the number of parking space allotments were key components of the overall planning strategy, according to representatives of the Vancouver Olympic Committee (VANOC), the chief coordinating entity. Planners closed nine major routes to and from the downtown core while converting almost 170 lanes on city streets to handle bus traffic. Some 32 blocks were set aside as pedestrian-only corridors from noon to midnight, and curbside parking restrictions were enforced along 600 city blocks.

Operations during the Olympic Games were intended to reduce the capacity of the local road network leading into downtown by 50 percent from the east, and from all other directions by 20 percent; the goal for the metropolitan region was a 30 percent reduction in private-vehicle use. The pre-event estimate for daily mass-transit trips was for a 33 percent increase in ridership. Spectators with event tickets were given unlimited use of public transit on the day of the events, and souvenir two-month passes were sold. No parking was available at venues, including at Whistler, where outdoor competition took place. Free, secure bicycle parking was provided at most venues, along the lines of a valet-service concept deployed at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. However, a program for a public fleet of shared bikes, also a feature in Denver, was not offered.

On January 21, a modern version of the streetcar was reintroduced to Vancouver’s downtown peninsula district. The original trolley network, operated by the British Columbia Electric Railway Co., functioned for 70 years before ending operations in 1958, leaving the 1.1-mile (1.8-km) track lying idle. Dubbed the Olympic Line, the new version connects the Canada Line’s Cambie Street station at the Olympia Village to the public market, galleries, and boutiques of Granville Island. During the Olympic Games, passengers could board buses, cycle, or use the newly opened Canada Line rapid transit to travel the short distance to the downtown venues. If deemed successful as a demonstration project, the streetcar will connect to the TransLink system’s Expo Line and the Seabus station on the waterfront.

Manufactured by Bombardier of Canada, it deploys essentially the same electric-powered technology as the popular Portland, Oregon, model, “with the added benefit of 100 percent low-floor accessibility instead of 50 percent—better to suit the needs of the elderly, the disabled, and bicyclists,” says Larry Frank, associate professor at the University of British Columbia. Bombardier brought two Flexity Outlook trams on loan from Brussels, Belgium, and they ran every six to ten minutes, free of charge, throughout the 60-day trial period of the Games.

Vancouver’s tilt away from automobile dominance first gained traction in the 1960s when a grass-roots rebellion defeated plans for a Robert Moses–style freeway through the heart of the city. Not only did that much-heralded victory place Vancouver in the spotlight as the only large North American city without a major freeway incursion, but it also forged a new era of public policy to promote other modes of travel, especially within the center city peninsula districts.

“Compared to most other mindsets, Vancouver’s transportation thinking has been counterintuitive because we rank walking at the top of the list, followed by bicycling, transit, and goods movement,” says Brent Toderian, Vancouver’s director of planning. “The auto is last.”

The decade following Vancouver’s Expo ’86 world’s fair marked the resuscitation of underused and ill-defined neighborhoods and the conversion of brownfield sites to a level of residential densities and street life comparable to what one takes for granted in older North American cities like Chicago or New York City. Today, it is no happenstance that there are only two gas stations in the center city, compared with the 46 that were there in the early 1960s. In his 2003 book The Vancouver Achievement: Urban Planning and Design, John Punter, a professor of urban density at Cardiff University in Wales, documented the historical shift to a density-based framework within the center city peninsula, attributable to an exceptional level of collaboration between private developer/architect teams and their counterparts on the city staff. Together, they capitalized on the major surge in market demand for the center city lifestyle.

Under a government-conceived program called Living First, density levels of the center city peninsula in 1996 had doubled to 61 persons per acre (151 per ha) from 30 persons per acre (74 per ha) a decade earlier, and total residential population also doubled to an impressive 87,000. Almost 50 percent of the people who live in the center city peninsula, which includes downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods, now work downtown, and 75 percent walk to work. Living First developer guidelines spurred the creation of community and children’s play spaces, neighborhood miniparks, gradations in building scale from elevator towers to walkups, underground parking instead of decks or surface parking, and an animated pedestrian-focused public realm sprinkled with public art.

The 1997 downtown plan stipulated a freeze on road capacity and capped commuter parking at 34,000 spaces. In neighborhoods, leeway was given for a reduction in the number of parking stalls from two per unit to whatever level was warranted by the marketplace; earlier studies had discovered that demand was actually less than one car per living unit.

Changes beyond the center city peninsula have not been nearly as dramatic. Despite completion of SkyTrain Expo Line in 1985, the Millennium Line in 1992, and construction of several high-density transit-oriented developments (TODs), auto-based trips still dominate. Doubts persist about how much that situation can change, even as more transit corridors and TODs are constructed. “The startling reality is that 50 percent of Vancouver’s land area is still devoted to single-family housing,” says Toderian.

In 2006, then-mayor Sam Sullivan coined the term ecodensity—his way of reframing the housing debate. The sustainable Vancouver Olympic Village, located across False Creek from the peninsula, is put forward as the latest and most significant example of ecodensity: it was designed to temporarily house 2,800 athletes, coaches, and officials, but will permanently house up to 16,000 residents when built out in future years.

Last August, the $2 billion Canada Line, the newest leg of Greater Vancouver’s mass-transit SkyTrain rail system, began service despite considerable local resistance triggered by a daunting price tag and the perception of heavy-handed planning. The original plans in 1990 called for the line to connect southward to Richmond, a Vancouver edge city of 180,000. Those plans were altered in 1998 to include a spur to the Vancouver International Airport, a move attributed to the need to strengthen the city’s bid for the Olympic Games. From the airport, the rapid-rail service extends 11.8 miles (19.2 km) to the downtown waterfront— a 25-minute ride. The most dramatic stretch is the 2,021-foot (616-m) bridge over the Fraser River—exceptionally long for a transit-only link; the bridge budget included a $10 million cantilevered bicycle/pedestrian structure with its own scaled-down version of freeway ramps connecting to ground level at each end.

Last year, three consecutive efforts to reorient Vancouver’s mission in greener terms were undertaken as a prelude to arrival of the Olympic Games. In February, Mayor Gregor Robertson launched the ambitious Greenest City Initiative to have Vancouver achieve the status of world’s number-one green city by 2020. This was followed a few months later by the “Greenest City Quick Start” report. In October, Robertson unveiled his action plan for 2020 at the Resilient Cities Gaining Ground conference in Vancouver. It calls for a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to 30 percent below 2007 levels by 2020 and elimination of all fossil fuel use within the city proper by 2040. It also proposes that 50 percent of all trips by 2020 be consigned to walking, bicycling, or transit, an increase of 23 percent over 2007, and reaffirms the priority of raising residential density levels outside the center city core, a necessary corollary to travel choice.

Also suggested is a comprehensively integrated on-road bicycle system to dramatically increase the share of commuter trips made by bike, a share that currently hovers at a modest 3 percent, a level especially embarrassing to the mayor, who is an avid cyclist. The plan even calls for “zero-emission mobility” for motor vehicles by 2020, setting forth a series of strategies geared toward use of hydrogen fuel cells and electric-powered transport, coupled with dedicated public charging points in the center city.

Notwithstanding such high aspirations, the three initiatives fail to provide metrics to measure what it really means to be the world’s greenest city—a drawback the program seems to share with 2020 plans put forth by other cities vying for the top spot. However, it is clear that Vancouver no longer finds its reputation as the greenest city in North America to be good enough in its quest to raise the transportation bar even higher while addressing the constraints and expectations implicit in an age of sustainability.