Of all the arguments frequently used to support the $2-billion Canada Line, improving the lives of night-school students at the Alliance Française on Cambie Street wasn't one of them. Nevertheless, that's one of the perks, and the students aren't complaining.
For years, students at the cultural centre suffered through waits for buses home after conjugating their verbs and fine-tuning their tenses at the centre's Vancouver headquarters at 45th Avenue, opened in 1968.
"It was a bit of a drag at 9:30 in the evening, waiting for a bus in the rain," said programs director Sabine Allain. "Now it's going to change because they [students]are going to be able to go by the Canada Line, and it's going to be quicker and they are going to be dry."
Transit to the centre has previously been an issue, but as of Monday, clients will have a choice of using the Oakridge-41st Avenue station to the north or the Langara-49th Avenue station to the south. Alliance celebrations are planned Monday.
"We're very excited. We did see the number of students going down because of the construction," says Ms. Allain, referring to years post-2005 in which Cambie Street was gouged up to insert tunnels, tracks and stations. Now, the operation is hoping to regain lost students, and even more.
The Canada Line runs 19 kilometres between downtown Vancouver and Richmond, and it seems there are similar anticipations along every stretch of that line about the expected impact of the transit system - the first such system in Canada to link a city to its airport.
Work on the line has been a nightmare for businesses - particularly in the Cambie Street Village area, where merchant Susan Heyes won $600,000 in court-ordered damages for the impact of the same disruptive construction methods that drove away Alliance students. Lingering questions remain about cuts in bus service as a result of the line, and its impact on the bottom line of regional transit provider TransLink, which will effectively have to subsidize the system through at least 2013 before it breaks even.
"If it becomes a big sucking hole of revenue that requires other services to be cut, that would be a very unfortunate situation," says Gordon Price, a six-term Vancouver city councillor who left municipal politics in 2002 and is now director of the city program at Simon Fraser University.
But Mr. Price, who will be prowling the line Monday taking photos for his blog and soaking up the atmosphere of the new system, also speaks to something more hopeful about the Canada Line, suggesting it will essentially expand his "mental map" of the city.
By that, Mr. Price - who does not regularly drive - means that his routine will come to include a larger area of the city, much as the Expo Line brought Metrotown mall in Burnaby into his turf years ago. He jokes about being able to reliably go to Richmond's Aberdeen Centre - described on its website as "an alternative to Chinatown in Vancouver" - for lunchtime dim sum, and easily get back to commitments in central Vancouver in 21 minutes.
"It's not so much the speed, but I'll know exactly how much time it's going to take. I will know exactly where I have to do. It's this sense of having a mental map - the absolute security of how to get there and how long it will take is really what will transform people's perceptions of the utility of getting to a place like Richmond," he says.
And Mr. Price, along with others, suggests that will also work in reverse, opening the rest of Vancouver to passengers coming north from Richmond.
Canada Line stands out among the SkyTrain systems that have previously opened in the Lower Mainland because, as of opening Monday, it will bring instant light-rail access to a number of entrenched institutions along its route where the thought would, years ago, have been an interesting far-off concept.
So, all of a sudden, there are stations and access to Yaletown, Vancouver City Hall, the Oakridge Centre - Vancouver's first shopping centre, opened in 1959 - Langara College, the airport and Richmond. And also, of course, to the Alliance Française, and to destinations too varied to count because they are of particular value to the tens of thousands of pending users of the system.
"If a SkyTrain or the Canada Line is going to where you want to go, there's no better way to get there," observes Geoff Meggs, a current Vancouver city councillor.
Mindful of the line's impact on development, city council last month approved a streamlined planning process for the Cambie Street corridor. "We have a $2-billion piece of infrastructure there with all of the development opportunities opened up by it," Mr. Meggs says. "Hopefully, we'll see a good, strong mix of development - residential and job-supporting development - right down the line."
Jane Bird, CEO of Canada Line Rapid Transit Inc., says the impact of construction proves the line was built in the right place.
"We have certainly caused disruption for folks, and inconvenience for some people. In some respects, you want to say, 'If you're not causing inconvenience, you're building it in the wrong place.'"
The corridor, she says, "is where people want to be. It's where they want to go."
Meanwhile, mall operators along the line, from Richmond to Burrard Inlet in Vancouver, are eager for the Canada Line to funnel more customers to their doors.
"Our sales have been decreasing since the construction started, and more so this year," says Marianne Moodie, marketing co-ordinator at the City Square Shopping Centre, which spent years dealing with the Cambie Street construction. Centre operators are hoping for a "positive benefit" from the station at Cambie Street and Broadway a few blocks north. "We could use it."
John Pallis, managing administrator of Yellow Cab, which has 250 cars on Lower Mainland streets, is taking a wait-and-see approach on the whole thing.
He expects business travellers on expense accounts, as well as older cruise ship passengers, will be less receptive to the Canada Line because they'd prefer the door-to-door service of a cab to lugging their luggage to take the train from the airport. He does, however, see a prospect of more business acting as a feeder to the Canada Line.
Marion Harper Treskin, chair of the Hotel Association of Vancouver and general manager of the Westin Grand hotel on Robson, says her industry sees the Canada Line as a welcome addition to transportation options for customers though she's not sure about how or if travellers will buy in.
"Are [travellers]going to be willing to walk the distance carrying their luggage? A business traveller who has the one small bag he's carried on? I think he would. A family travelling with five pieces of luggage? I would question that."
Leonard Schein, operator of the Park theatre on Cambie and a member of the board of directors of the Cambie Village Business Association, says his associates are hoping for increased business though they would have liked a station in the heart of the village on 16th Avenue.
"Where you do have subways and metros and underground systems, businesses near the shops do better," he says. "We do expect people to use the system."