Canada, a pioneer in modern Light Rail, could now be ready for its own “Back to the Future” moment!  

Many may be unaware of Canada’s historic relationship with Light Rail in North America.  

Modern light rail, as we know it, was actually first introduced to North America in 1978 in Edmonton! Calgary was next to follow suit and our friends across the border started to take notice. After this, San Diego became the first US city to embrace modern light rail in 1981. (All of these projects were supplied by Siemens Mobility, by the way.)  


This marked the beginning of a renaissance of public transportation, with new, modern light rail taking the place of old-fashioned street cars (i.e. San Francisco’s fabled cable cars.)  This modern streetcar concept was a good fit for the changes and high growth happening in smaller or mid-size cities during this time -- offering increased capacity and a faster, quieter operation. For cities that were growing but with populations not yet in the millions, it was a smart answer to the growing congestion of highways and city streets.


Fast-forward to 2021:  The world is just beginning to crawl out of a global pandemic.  The toll has been tremendous, and public transportation ridership dipped to all-time lows. Small businesses have been decimated. Remote working scenarios have altered the way people now work – and commute – perhaps forever. 


But some things haven’t changed.  Our environment is not getting better and climate change has not abated.  Cars might be getting “cleaner” – but an electric car still causes the same amount of congestion.  People might not need to go into their offices every day now, but they still need to live their everyday lives. 


I believe Light Rail’s time has come again and deserves to be reevaluated as a great solution for Canadian cities right now. 


Hindsight is 20/20, and besides the obvious sustainability and traffic benefits, we now know other important benefits that arose from the light rail investment of the last century.  Given the past year, these are now more timely than ever: the development of strong communities, higher economic impact and property values.  Not to mention the economic impetus – specifically local jobs -- that comes with investing in new infrastructure.   


Investing in infrastructure is good for the economy.  Just ask our neighbour Joe Biden, who is currently asking the US government for a two trillion dollar infrastructure development package. 


But this is Canada. And our great country is ahead of the game in many ways:  our kinder, gentler rising sea-level approach to education and healthcare has bred a more equitable access to life’s levers and we share a stronger shared reality that is characterized by a higher level of tolerance and acceptance. 


There is a great quote that I love: “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars.  It’s where the rich use public transportation.”  (Mayor of Bogota, Colombia) 


I like to use this as a measure of “development” for cities. It shows the importance of providing good, secure, safe transportation across all economic abilities. Importantly, it shows an awareness for sustainability and our future generations.  And communities. 


The good thing is that we’ve all been able to learn from our past experience.  When a city looks at a new transit system like Light Rail, it is no longer a stand-alone solution.  It has now become part of a complex ecosystem of road, rail and air, utilizing the best of technology to coordinate the different modes into a cohesive, flexible system that can  accommodate the density spread happening around every major city in the world.  It now looks beyond connecting into and out of one major terminus, and instead looks more closely at communities and how to link them and their economies . . . made up again of small, thriving businesses feeding off of more passenger traffic.  


Cities will not go away, but with density patterns changing, we will be looking into ways to open up our Canadian cities within -- and between -- our cities and neighboring suburbs.  Canadians want this.  This is at the very core of Canadians: the survival of the everyday interaction, the exchange of decency, celebrating differences while sharing, propping each other up.  


And the best way to open up our Canadian cities and their communities is through safe, clean and modern public transit linking us more closely together. 


Like light rail. 


Written by:
Yves Desjardins Siciliano, CEO
Siemens Mobility Limited