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, not in private right of way, and typically run in single car trains. 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.