A long-awaited and controversial rail expansion that makes Vancouver the first Canadian city linked to its airport by rapid transit should serve as an example for the rest of the country, says an expert in urban development.

In Pictures: Canada Line opening day

The $2-billion Canada Line SkyTrain expansion between Vancouver, suburban Richmond and Vancouver International Airport opened Monday when thousands of people lined up to take advantage of free rides along the 25-minute, 19-kilometre run.

The line took four years to build and drew the ire of merchants whose businesses were disrupted during its construction, eventually resulting in a lawsuit against the developer that awarded one shop owner $600,000.

But supporters and politicians, including B.C.'s premier, are heralding the line's opening by predicting it will reduce commute times, ferry tourists throughout the region and boost business around the stations.

Setting the stage

There's no question the expansion will change the neighbourhoods along the line for the better, says the director of Simon Fraser University's urban studies program.

Anthony Perl said he hopes it sets an example for the rest of the country.

"It's a major milestone, not just for the city, but for the country -- it's not every day that this country opens up a major piece of rail infrastructure," he said in an interview.

"Maybe once or twice someone from Ontario will come through Vancouver and get on the Canada Line, and when they get back this example will encourage some of the laggards back east to get serious about this."

But Perl cautioned British Columbia's policy makers not to pat themselves on the back too hard.

"For a country of this level of economic development to not have figured out that it's intelligent and sustainable to allow people to get to airports on trains is ludicrous in my view," says Perl.

B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell was on the first train on Monday to leave the airport, heading to Vancouver.

"This new line will carry millions of visitors and residents each year, reducing commute times and carrying tourists and business travellers quickly and efficiently into our communities," he said.

The 2010 connection

The Canada Line has become synonymous with the 2010 Winter Olympics in a region where complaining about Games-related construction have become almost a cliche ahead of next year's event.

However, Gordon Price, an expert in land use and transportation who was on Vancouver city council in the early days of Canada Line planning, said the impact of the Canada Line will be far greater than the Olympics.

Price said rail transit can fundamentally change the character of a community, which he said is already apparent in Richmond with newly constructed condo developments surrounded by narrow streets, elaborate landscaping and public art.

"You'd think you were in downtown Vancouver," said Price, who notes that Richmond expects 80,000 people to move along the Canada Line.

"Richmond can't be downtown Vancouver, but they're siblings. You just want to give people another way of living, another way of moving, and in doing so you really change the character of your region, and you certainly change the character of your station areas."

That's the sort of change that motivated the Canada Line -- not the Olympics, a sporting event that lasts a couple of weeks.

"These big events always give government a good reason to spend lots of money, but there is no way that you would justify a $2-billion expenditure just for the Olympics," he said.