Changing How We Separate Streetcars and Light Rail

Ever since the Portland Streetcar opened in 2001, becoming the United States’s first modern streetcar system, there has been a lively debate on what is the difference between streetcars and light rail.  Often, I hear experts say that the only difference is streetcars run in mixed-traffic lanes and light rail lines don’t and streetcar lines have a maximum length.  I feel that this separation is rather limiting for both planners and the government when designing and funding systems.  My thinking on how we should define these rail systems should be strictly density based.

Streetcars should be defined as systems in medium to high density urban areas. There is a tremendous need for quality transit in American cities while still promoting walkablity and development.  This need will only grow in the coming years.  There is a place for quality streetcar systems in urban transit networks.   Streetcar systems should usually operate in the urban street infrastructure, either in dedicated lanes or mixed lanes, and not in private right of way.  Streetcars can and should have dedicated lanes and signal priority on city streets but they should be confined to moderately dense or denser urban areas. Streetcar systems can be relativity big and should have many connections with other transit modes.  Defining streetcar as “urban only” will give transit planners more flexibility with how they design streetcar systems.

Rail systems that connect the low density outer regions and suburbs of a city to the core should be known as light rail.  There is still a need for light rail systems to service commuters from low density areas to the city for work and play.  Light rail systems are able to utilize different types of alignments because of where they are operating but typically they run on private right of way or in dedicated lanes on major suburban roads.  Light rail systems should not only be defined by the fact that they run in dedicated lanes, they should be defined as commuter systems from low density areas.

Separating light rail and streetcar systems up by where they run will improve the planning of both kinds of systems.  Seattle already has both a streetcar system and a light rail system that function on the guidelines I have set up above and they are planning expansions and improvements for both.  Going a density-based binary should also with the elimination of the FTA’s method of determining how much federal funding a project gets based on its line length.  This new method of separation of electric rail transit systems will improve how these systems are planned and how they function.

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2016 Openings: Kansas City and Cincinnati

Two of the most well known new streetcar lines that opened in 2016 were the lines in Kansas City and Cincinnati.  Lets look at both of these lines in companion and what they can tell us about the American streetcar.

The Kansas City Streetcar (KC Streetcar) has been the biggest streetcar success of 2016.  Its free 2 mile line runs through the downtown then it encircles a residential area.  As of last count, 1,690,873 rides had been taken on the KC Streetcar averaging about 6,000 per day.  The city government has been very supportive of this line since before it started service and they are already planning a 3 mile extension to the UMKC campus.  They hope to open the extension by 2021 and citizens hope for more lines after that.  Kansas City, like many other cities, is dreaming of a large streetcar network that will provide much of the city with high quality transit and not just the downtown.  The most common criticism of the line is that most riders ride it for pleasure and not to and from work but doesn’t that beg the question, isn’t transit about getting anywhere at any time?

Cincinnati is a different story.  Although transit critics were expecting the DC Streetcar to be 2016’s streetcar flop, it ended up being Cincinnati.  Like KC, the Cincinnati streetcar (named the Cincinnati Bell Connector)  connects the downtown business district to a close-by residential area.  The difference comes in the attitudes of city leaders.  The city shuts down the streetcar during major events, they charge a $1 fare, and the mayor refuses to pursue federal grants for it’s extension to the University Of Cincinnati.  All of this has led to only 410,000 rides since September.  That is not horrible, but not great.  The extension would undeniably help the streetcar in every respect and streetcar advocates in Cincinnati continue to fight for it but it won’t be coming soon.

Some of the major takeaways from both cities are city governments must support their streetcar systems in any way they can and cities have to remember that initial short streetcar lines can and must be extended for it to be succeed.  Get people excited with the starter lines then plan for big systems!

Some Quick Thoughts

Hi everybody, it’s me.  I thought I would share some streetcar planning thoughts real quick.

1. Build Streetcars for Transit, Not for Development.  Don’t put a streetcar in just to spur development.  Streetcars are transit vehicles so the best streetcar systems will typically be the ones that transport people the best.  Lets not obsess about development.  Multiple studies from the Mineta Transportation Institute and Florida State University show that streetcars underpreform when they are planned for development and not transit.  This was especially true in Little Rock and Tampa’s systems.  The study authors in the FSU case blame the streetcars themselves and not the planners who designed them.  To get a successful streetcar system, plan it as a transit line and with maximum ridership.

2. Lets Redefine “Mixed Traffic”.    Streetcar proponents like to use the phrase “mixed traffic” to describe how well streetcars work in walkable urban areas.  Streetcar opponents rightly assume that means “mixed traffic lanes” with the streetcar intermingling with automobiles and buses.  I think the best solution is a “Mixed Traffic Street” with the streetcars (and sometimes buses) in dedicated lanes that take up 1/3 to 1/4 of the available lanes.  This is similar to what they have in some areas of Seattle and New Orleans.  These are called rapid streetcar systems.  That would preserve the walkabilty of the area while speeding up the streetcars.  Another way to do rapid streetcar systems is to leave streetcars in mixed use lanes in the downtown portions of the line then switch to dedicated medium running (e.g. the St. Charles Line in New Orleans)

That’s all for now, hopefully I’ll post again soon, thanks for reading!

In Defense of Vicinal Design Streetcar Systems

Lately, American developments in electric traction have been focused on two kinds of systems.  Those two kinds of systems are major commuter light rail systems and small streetcar systems in the downtown core of major cities.  Planners and the Federal Transit Administration have been focused on planning and funding these types of systems, but there is another type of streetcar system that smaller cities should consider.

In the early 20th century, the northeastern United States was full of these what would be considered a hybrid of our present two system types.  These systems did have some full in-street running, but mostly they had dedicated lanes or totally separated private right of way.  These systems had some double track sections, but they were primarily single track systems.  A few historical examples are the Bay State Street Railway, the Connecticut Company, the Lehigh Valley Transit, the Reading Street Railway of Pennsylvania, and the Wilkes-Barre Railway also of Pennsylvania.  These all closed down before 1960.  Some more recent examples of European variants are the Charleroi Vicinal in Belgium which closed in the 1980’s and some systems in Switzerland that are still operating.  I am going to term this suburban streetcar system design the Vicinal Design.  The only existing American system that is even close to this design is the Media Sharon Hill lines outside of Philadelphia but not exactly.

It is my belief that these systems still have a place in American transit thinking.  I think these systems would be classified under the modern American term “rapid streetcar”.  If a city were to propose a Vicinal Design system, critics would likely it is unlikely these systems would be able to maintain the necessary headways to be useful.  I counter this by saying with enough passing sidings, I think the headways would be low enough to work.  What’s more, because of the single track nature of the Vicinal Design, it would be relatively cheap to build.  The closest American proposal to a Vicinal Design system that I know of was a 2008 proposal in Reading Pennsylvania that never materialized.

America’s suburban cities and towns need high quality transit too, I think One of the ways forward is Vicinal Design streetcar systems.

Success in DC!!!!

Lionel set no more!  At 10am this morning DC had it’s first streetcar passengers in 54 years!  After 5 years of delays, I wasn’t sure how big of a turnout it would get.  I am amazed by what I am seeing!  The opening ceremony had a giant crowd and the cars were packed all day!  From the little ridership I have at this time, today was a big success!  I only hope ridership grows and the line gets extended as soon as possible!

Milwaukee’s Streetcar

In 2018, the city of Milwaukee will open its first streetcar line in over fifty years.  The effort to bring back streetcars to Milwaukee has been spearheaded by Mayor Tom Barrett.  Although no rails have been laid yet and Barrett is up for reelection this year, the proposed system is already a rarity in the streetcar world.  Like only a handful of other cities, Barrett proposed an extensive city-wide system when he proposed the starter line.  The first extension of the line is already funded and planned for 2019.  Unlike most cities with grand plans for a streetcar system, Barrett seems to have the political will of the people of Milwaukee with him on the streetcar.  Grand plans for streetcar systems from the outset will become extremely important as anti-streetcar transit planners question the feasibility of systems that are under 5 miles long.  Milwaukee’s streetcar and Tom Barrett have a lot to prove if they want the first totally new city-wide streetcar in the United States.