Seattle Streetcar

The Appeal of Modern Streetcars Continues to Mount, But There Are Obstacles to It Bringing Mobility Gains

» Streetcar projects are advancing seriously in cities across the nation, but their quick rise to the top of municipal transportation priority lists may not be matched by sound thinking in terms of project design.

If the Obama Administration’s push to construct high-speed rail lines has suffered numerous delays as a result of Congressional inaction and state-level criticism, its decision to allow numerous streetcar projects to move forward through the federal funding pipeline has produced a veritable explosion of project proposals across the country. Yet the manner in which cities are pushing these schemes smacks of poor policy making and suggests that a better use of limited transportation dollars is possible.

The recent promotion of streetcars in the United States is something of an aberration — at least in terms of recent history. Generally ignoring the successes of the locally funded vintage 2001 Portland Streetcar, the Bush Administration repeatedly informed municipalities across the country that their transportation policies should emphasize bus improvements over road-running rail lines. Though the SAFETEA-LU transportation authorization bill passed in 2005 specifically included a provision for limited-cost projects such as streetcars (called Small Starts), the Department of Transportation under Bush refused to fund them either in 2006 or 2007 (fiscal years 2007 and 2008), picking BRT projects instead — despite significant local demand for rail.

In early 2008, though, the Bush Administration seemed to relent, agreeing to recommend the funding of the Portland Streetcar Loop — and then beginning in 2009, the Department of Transportation under President Obama pressed forward with TIGER and Urban Circulator grants, encouraging cities from Dallas to Seattle to apply for federal funds and more recently allowing project development to move towards construction in cities such as AtlantaCharlotte, and Tucson.

Over the past few months, the interest of cities in streetcars has seemingly exploded even further. Providence has proposed a two-mile route for $126 million; San Antonio wants a line that will spur real estate development; Milwaukee envisions a $64 million corridor through downtown; Kansas City plans $101 million worth of tracks between City Market and Union Station; and Arlington and Fairfax Counties in Northern Virginia are moving forward with a streetcar down the Columbia Pike. Each plan’s proponents will apply for — and expect to win — federal funds to cover most costs.

These are not isolated examples of cities suddenly interested in a new transit mode. Rather, the relatively sudden availability of dollars from Washington, D.C. has encouraged new thinking about what kinds of transit are possible. The fact that streetcars can be built with lower per-mile costs than other forms of rail transit, their ability to attract denser development in some cases, and the possibility of farming off most of their costs to another government entity has made them incredibly appealing. Washington, seeking transit projects that are visible and reinforce dense communities, has been a willing partner in this effort.

For the most part, this has been beneficial policy, since it has encouraged more cities to think seriously about how to invest in high-quality transit. In addition, it has spread rail transit beyond the nation’s biggest metropolitan regions, a trend that arguably will be helpful in encouraging choice riders onto transit systems and simultaneously improve the daily commutes of regular riders.

But the difficult side of the story is that many of the projects are planned to be constructed in a manner that provides an inferior quality of service than the bus lines they replace. In one city, the transit agency proposed building a line with only one track, making it impossible to increase the frequency of service (the situation was fortunately resolved in a second grant); in others, the streetcar lane would be located in a section of the street vulnerable to considerable delays from backed-up and turning cars — because streetcars, unlike buses, are not able to navigate around sources of delay. Vehicles proposed for services have universally been of limited capacity, meaning they offer little improvement in terms of passenger space over articulated buses.

Most importantly, almost every one of the major streetcar projects proposed has refused to separate trains from automobile traffic for the majority of the routes, despite the fact that doing so usually requires little more than different types of paint, camera enforcement, and a few barriers, all of which can be installed at minimal cost.

This means that streetcars will be stuck in the same traffic as everyone else, making speed improvements impossible. The lack of dedicated street right-of-way for streetcars likely stems from a sense that it would be politically difficult to promote removing lanes from automobilists and providing them to transit users. Yet the vast majority of traffic lanes, after all, are off-limits to trains; why is it so crazy to imagine a few dedicated to streetcars?

These should not be considered nit-picky complaints, since the cities promoting streetcars are investing millions of public dollars in their lines — often at an expense of $50 million per mile and up. At those costs, an effective quality of service should be standard.

Fortunately, at least one city seems to have seen the light. Seattle’s recently released Transportation Master Plan recognizes the fundamental difference between what it calls local and rapid streetcars, noting that most of such projects in the U.S. so far (including Seattle’s own South Lake Union Streetcar) have skewed towards the former type, which I have described above.

The Plan notes two major possible rapid streetcar lines for Seattle, extending from the downtown core to the Ballard and University Districts that would “Achieve faster operating speed and greater reliability through longer spacing between stops and more extensive use of exclusive right of way.” Trains would be either larger or coupled “to accommodate high passenger loads.” Though significant sections of these rapid lines as currently planned would remain in shared lanes with automobiles, these proposals are the closest U.S. transit agencies have yet come to the ideal of developing cheaper light rail by effectively running it in street rights-of-way (like a European tramway), which is what the rapid streetcar concept is advocating.

Simply suggesting moving streetcars into their own dedicated lanes, however, is not always a universally appealing solution: Cities like Sacramento and Buffalo, for instance, have chosen to study reintegration of formerly transit-only streets into their downtown automobile circulation networks because they were concerned that restricting rights-of-way to trains was limiting business activity. Whether or not this is an accurate assessment of the effect of these transit malls, they were perceived as negative enough to the community that attempting to replicate their forms today cannot always be the right answer. Every city must decide for itself the best way to integrate new train systems into their streetscapes.

And yet the Bush Administration’s bias against streetcars was logical from the standpoint of encouraging pure mobility; for the same cost, rapid buses provide faster and more reliable service in dedicated lanes. In order to justify the continued enthusiasm of municipalities for streetcars, we should push for guidelines that ensure that services must be designed to operate as quickly and efficiently as possible. Streetcars may be less expensive than comparative types of light rail, but at the cost we are spending for them we should expect more out of them.

Image above: A simulation of a streetcar line in Atlanta, from Georgia Transit Connector

125 replies on “The Appeal of Modern Streetcars Continues to Mount, But There Are Obstacles to It Bringing Mobility Gains”

You build cheap, you get cheap.

There was a reason the country moved away from streetcar towards buses, yes, besides the GM and oil company “push”.

Streetcars, sharing lanes with cars, simply have too many disadvantages, and are slower than buses.

Some idiot double-parks on the track? The streetcar is stuck until the tow truck arrives. The bus would go around it.

Pipe bursts, street floods? Streetcar service cancelled…replaced by buses that can use a parallel street.

The trains have bunched together? The 2nd train must wait, and wait, can’t express to the next stop. A bus could leap ahead, and suddenly both buses experience faster skip-stop service.

If you want cleaner transit, get trolleybuses. They can detour around objects as their pantographs are long enough (and the wire is usually placed between two lanes) and a simple battery can allow up to 10 miles of detouring (and passing of other trolleybuses).

Streetcars sure look nice, but they offer worse service than a bus can.

Now, true light rail, with it’s own ROW? Much better. Although still not guaranteed to be faster than the bus. Compare the Boston B line on Comm Ave and the 57 bus that runs right next to it. With the exception of an ongoing blizzard, the bus wins every time.

I fully agree with your final point. Streetcar is like buying ebay knockoffs and a $1,000 car. You sure save money at first, but once you start factoring in all the hassles, added costs and lost performance, you realize it would have been cheaper (in the long run) to start off with the real deal. Spend now, save later. Shame that’s such an impossible concept in todays government.

Interesting, if one would follow this logic, all the European cities which did not dump the streetcars in the 50s and 60s last century must be wrong.

Double-parking… yes, that happens. Handled right, that guy will never double-park on thracks again, as the fine is steep, and the transit operator sends in an bill too.

Bursting pipes… yes, that happens … once in a while; so what.

Trains catching up… happens often, mainly when the vehicles are too small. Operators know what to do in such cases, and passengers too.

What can be done to relieve some of the issues? Think network. One line is indeed a mess; a network allowing detours around crucial points makes those arguments above almost moot. Combine the network with good action plans and communication to stops and vehicles, and it will need really big shit to happen to get the network down.

Mixed traffic dows work. It requires some smart planning (including working priority at signals), and decently trained automobilists.

But what about the cities that DID get rid of streetcars? The UK got rid of most of their remaining trams then and Sweden got rid of a lot of their systems in Malmö, Stockholm, etc (it was a bit more complicated in Sweden, since it coincided with a switch in traffic from left hand to right hand – the buses also had to be replaced, and in Stockholm the Metro was expanding rapidly then). Bergen and Trondheim have also reduced their systems dramatically (and Oslo tried) in more recent years.

Isn’t this the era, in Germany especially, when modern light rail emerged and many systems were put into tunnels as pre-metro’s? It’s more everybody took different paths at that time and found that some worked better than others. The problem I have with a lot of these streetcar systems is that they seem to be just downtown collector/tourist systems rather than something more.

Mainly in the German-speaking areas (Germany, Austria, Switzerland), many streetcar systems survived, and they are nowadays very successful. Indeed some cities banned them underground in the city center (the most recent changeover was Stuttgart). Some cities were about to replace the whole network with subways, such as München, but München stopped and restored and expanded the streetcar network. Other cities kept on, and got the system growing, such as Freiburg, or the Mannheim/Ludwigshafen(/Heidelberg) complex.

In Switzerland, the big network in Genève was slashed to one single line, but now, the network has been expanded considerably; Bern is growing, and Zürich has had new line constructions going on for several years now; as soon as one extension got finished, the next one started, and plans are to go on for at least the next 20 years.

And trust me, the streetcar networks I mentioned are the core transit system of the cities, and not limited to tourists. (and in Zürich, only people with a low ego or IQ do refuse to take the streetcar.)

Oh, I realize that. But so far the American networks aren’t getting to that point – if they are serious transit networks, they should be modeled more on the German networks, which are often in comparably sized cities (or smaller).

Max, I take offense you this part of your quote:

and in Zürich, only people with a low ego or IQ do refuse to take the streetcar

My IQ is definitively not on the “low” side, but when I lived with my boyfriend there (Zürich) for 2 years, we’d mostly drive anyway.

We didn’t live near downtown, and didn’t work downtown, and the cross trip would take longer by trams.

I think to name-calling and cursing has no place in a transportation debate.

At the end of the day, it’s something functional with which people should have no emotional attachments when discussing. Just a bunch of steel, iron, welds, concrete, pavement, electronics, that is it.

Nobody is “stupid” or “idiot” by preferring for whatever reason transportation option A, B or C.


Back to the underground design: for medium cities, the most contemporaneous design seems to be mixed networks that run underground near the core area (heavy traffic of cars, pedestrians and trams themselves) and go overground outside it.

It can be tram-train combos or merely light rail that is run partially underground.

Let’s remember that most surface streetcars suffers from severe limitation in terms of operational design because they are operated like buses: the conductor is responsible for, visually, driving his/her vehicle, not a set of blocks and signals on the tracks.

Alone, this reliance on visual sight (like having pedestrians crossings over streetcar lines that do not operate on traffic lights) – a 19th century method – and lack of automated control restricts speeds and degrade performance.

Na, na, na, Marcella, no need to take offense. The sentence was shorter than it could have been. It actually implies “… refuse categorically”, and it implies also “… when you can chose, and when there are no other reasons against”.

Now, about driving in Zürich… well… it is your decision, and you have to live with that. Until not long ago, I lived in Oerlikon, and had regular business in Zumikon. I drove about half of the time, hoping that when coming back, I could find a parking space again, and most of the time, I did not drive through the city, and for other driving, I definitely avoided the Hardbrücke mess (you may have left Zürich before they started refurbishing the bridge, but you may know what I am talking about…)

About underground networks… actually, I see a slight trend of getting away from underground, because, besides of cost, the percieved security issues, as well as a general reluctance to get people underground.

If you look at the cities with new systems, you find barely any extended underground sections (of the French cities, I can’t remember one creating underground sections for the trams. We may say that the cities going for “underground” went directly for “metro”, because the capacity requirements asked for it.

I do not understand the fascination of certain US cities in trying to resuscitate, at great expense, a mode of transport that was considered obsolescent even in 1930. There may be a case for segregated light rail, in cities of intermediate population size or density where full metro systems are unaffordable, as such systems give the flexibility of street-running for short segments to avoid massive infrastructure costs at pinch points. However, traditional streetcars, with little reserved track and passengers boarding in the middle of streets open to all vehicles, contribute to traffic congestion and are very slow and inefficient. I note that the popular new mayor of Toronto, a city only a short distance from the USA with the largest legacy streetcar network in North America, intends to scrap this antiquated system.

@ David Oleesky: ” I note that the popular new mayor of Toronto, a city only a short distance from the USA with the largest legacy streetcar network in North America, intends to scrap this antiquated system.”

Toronto’s new mayor, Rob Ford, leaves a lot to be desired. That’s putting his legacy politely. There is mounting evidence that Toronto is in big trouble from several standpoints, be they fiscal, transport-related or managerial.

Here is a link to an excellent article in The Walrus magazine on this issue:

The liberal elite in Toronto despise Ford.

He won the election anyway.

If Toronto is in “big trouble”, it’s hardly Ford’s fault. He’s been stuck with Miller’s mess.

Alon says – “The majority of the city voted against Ford.”


Ford received 47% of the vote. Over 93,000 votes ahead of the next person who got 35%.

If he got 47% of the vote that means 53% of the people voted for someone else – against him.

Ultra-conservative Premier Harris forced the amalgamation of several municipalities into one gigantic, unwieldly bureaucracy several years ago. That distorted the 47% support Rob Ford received, which came from the outer suburban ring of municipalities, not from the city itself. Suburbanites wanted to stick it to the city slickers, even though the city subsidizes the suburbs and carries most of the load.

Please read the Walrus article (linked above). It addresses this issue and is a lesson in how not to run a city, or how senior governments treating cities badly (e.g. downloading social and infrastructure costs) can turn around and bite them in future.

If the Greater Toronto situation continues as it has been under conservative red neck administrations, it will achieve deficits in the order of $1 billion a year by the 2020’s, and will go bankrupt. This is very unusual to me, because I live in BC where it is illegal for cities to run deficits (exception: the city of Vancouver which got special permission to finance the faltering Olympic Village project — without the suppoert of any other gocvernment, I may add)

How very unfortunate for Canada if its largest city was allowed to go bust. Canada’s most resilient economy does not pertain merely to the extraction and exportation of remote natural resources. Most of the economic activity occurs in its cities.

@ Robert in Calgary: “The liberal elite in Toronto despise Ford.”

I wonder if the conservative elite in Calgary despise Naheed Nenshi, your new liberal Muslim mayor? There has never been a liberal-minded administration there since Rod Sykes in the late 60s.

I have to add that no other mayoral candidate in my 54-year experience with Calgary expressed such a deep understanding on how cities actually work, and the direction they need to take to become more resilient to meet unique 21st Century challenges as Nenshi has.

I wish him well.

I don’t know if it was under Nenshi’s leadership, but the very successful LRTs in Calgary are, so I’ve been told, run very much like subways &/or commuter rail: separated from traffic AND pedestrians by fencing, very high speeds, widely-spaced stops (similar to subways), commuter-rail like signals and barriers at street crossings. They are truly RAPID transit. The Transit City LRT design was nothing like that – it was more like streetcars (frequent stops, smaller trains due to requirements of contending with traffic signals, contention with traffic at intersections, no separation from pedestrians, etc…) and appears to use Patrick Condons ‘slow transit’ philosphy (I’m not kidding here – look it up).

So in terms of an emphasis on intercity transit being RAPID – I don’t see that Nenshi and Ford are really all that far apart.

The anti-Ford posters are being disingenuos when they say that only 43% of voters elected Ford. First, there were over 30 candidates on the election ballot – so 43% of *that* is significant. In fact, Ford had more votes than the next 4 major Transit-City supporting candidates put together. More importantly, Toronto had a record-breaking voter turnout – citizens turned out in droves and droves, particularly in poorly serviced areas, specifically to vote for Ford.

But, in my opinion, the comment of the day goes to Marcella_D:
“At the end of the day, it’s something functional with which people should have no emotional attachments when discussing. Just a bunch of steel, iron, welds, concrete, pavement, electronics, that is it.”

And, if I might add: performance & service criteria, which was woefully inadequate in the Transit City plans. Reducing the commute from NE Scarborough to the downtown core from 2.5 hours to 2.25 hours (or even 2 hours) isn’t such a good transit investment in my opinion, and is hardly going to increase transit’s mode share. I suggest that the downtown councillors bucking for the TC plan should have some skin in the game by guaranteeing to make that commute – say once a week for a year? If once a week council was required to hold meetings in the far reaches of the City, and all councillors required to take public transit, I bet these arguments would go away faster than you could blink.

With streetcars the ride is superior to buses. Streetcar capacity is greater. Most of these cities are not only looking at an enhanced transit system, they are looking to spur growth and development. It has been repeatedly proven that new streetcar and light-rail projects spur development and increase density, where BRT provides only a fraction, and traditional buses hardly any. Many of the proposed projects are limited within central business districts (CBD) and relatively short in length. In midsized cities streetcars act as a “walk extender” reducing dependence on cars to travel within a CBD. Besides people prefer rail to bus transit.

The reason why streetcars are coming back so strong is that the human population has grown by 70% in the last 60 years in that when most of the 1900’s streetcar lines where built in the towns and cities back in the day there was very little numbers of people in the areas they went though.A example would be Richmond VA the streetcar system went from Ashland VA to Hopewell VA a good 60 to 80 miles from one another in the 1920’s at it’s peak of power by way of a system of interurban streetcars and local streetcar lines. If you went back in time you woud find the area very empety and full of farms but if you go there now in the year 2011 you will be shocked at how it is wall to wall houses and five story condos between the two cities. Back then you would think the idea of a vast streetcar network was insane and this was what made it weak in fighting off buses and the autobiles and their vast road systems built for them. But now there are so many people moving into some of these areas a streetcar makes fully logical sense in that it is a level above a bushy bus line but a few levels below a full scale heavy rail subway which is what the suburbs really need right now.

There is even a streetcar legend that you could ride the streetcars from Northern Vriginia all the way to Baltomore and Gettysburg Pennsyvinia any everywhere between that. Think of how much traffic this legendery vast system would take off of all the highways and Interstates.

Huh? Transit’s job is to move people. Streetcars aren’t an accessory in Zurich, or Toronto, or Melbourne. You shut down the streetcars in any of those cities, you wouldn’t be able to drive, at least not in the center city at rush hour.

Toronto’s current mayor, Rob Ford, began his deep, fast slide to citizen hatred by making serious noises about getting rid of streetcars. He suggested replacing them with buses. If you know anything about Toronto, you know that Toronto has neither the buses nor the street space to even consider getting rid of streetcars, and that’s with only two core lines (Spadina and Queen’s Quay) operating in separate r/w. He backed off.

Zurich has an extremely high rate of transit usage, and a lot of that is down to the trams. They don’t want tunnel operation in the city core–trams are for city traffic, they intersect with the S-Bahn for longer trips, and the S-Bahn corridors connecting with trams typically have a minimum daytime headway of 15 minutes, some more like 3. Zurich is more than rich enough to pay for a subway system, but they specifically voted it down. Incidentally, even with street running on most lines, Zurich’s ridership is so high that the operating cost per passenger and per km is by far the cheapest transportation option.

There are plenty of other examples; Turin, Milan, Amsterdam, and Vienna all come to mind. In all of those cities, it would cost at least $10 billion apiece to create enough road space and bus lanes to replace streetcars–massive road tunnel projects, demolition for parking, demolition for access to the new road tunnels, not to mention the factorial increase in operating costs (labor, maintenance), the loss of property tax revenue (from demolition and from reduced property values), and major degradation of the urban environment.

Something seems to give you the idea that the auto is the rightful and default form of transportation. There are plenty of conservative capitalists who would ask you why you would replace something that functions very well with something which would destroy the quality of life all of these cities enjoy, and do so with minimal market benefit or opportunity, immense cost to the taxpayer, and a laundry list of externalities.


Zürich has a peculiar distribution of its population and job centers.

None of Swiss cities, indeed, have massive high-density business centers right at the core of their cities.

In that respect, they resemble Italian cities that, for most of modern era, haven’t ever been massively bombed or razed by wars that, indirectly, cleared the way for the transplantation of the American-style downtown into Europe in Frankfurt, München, Lyon, Brussels…

Because their tram network is dense and the flows are sprawled, I doubt a heavy subway would be very efficient there.

Other cities you cited all have heavy subway. Turin, Milan (80km of heavy subway, 2 new lines u/c), Vienna, Amsterdam (massive cross-city subway u/c)…

In North America, the problem with most streetcar projects is that they are conceived more as a “cool joyride to attract people” than as transportation.

Those other Swiss cities have the same mode share as Zurich.

But those Swiss cities have a decent S-Bahn (no FRA, no park-and-ride hell), urban development that doesn’t look like 2-ton robots on tires invaded Earth and destroyed its cities, and trams that serve actual destinations rather than speculative development. So American cities aren’t really comparable to any of them.

Alon, while it is true many passenger rail systems were implemented to justify “speculative development” (e.g. in Calgary where it perversely stimulated the development of sprawling subdivisions and massive park-and-ride garages) some of us believe transit can be linked to specific land use policies that foster greater density with human-scaled urbanism, be it speculative or not. Say, like that which eveolved in great cities like Zurich.

However, that will require intelligent leadership, something that is becoming a rare commodity.

Calgary is actually a good example of how transit can get high ridership; the outer edges sprawl, but downtown has parking restrictions and has been recently built at higher density than in the American Sunbelt.

Do you actually live in Calgary?

The LRT didn’t create sprawling subdivisions.

Where are these “massive park and ride garages” located?

@ Robert in Calgary, I grew up in Calgary (22 years) and visit family many times a year. I have lived in Vancouver for the past 32 years. The difference between them is very revealing.

I am also an urban designer who takes a keen interest in urban and agricultural land use issues. I can tell you that there is very little evidence that Calgary initially tied SUSTAINABLE land use to transit. Over about 20 years after the advent of urban passenger rail the land within five kilometres of LRT lines exploded in thousands of hectares of primarily single-family large lot subdivisions. People drive to rapid transit stations.

Only in recent years has the administration started to realize the potential of applying greater density to land / development near transit lines, but the execution so far has been anemic and marked by placing a few high-rise towers at a some LRT stations.

The higher density developments I’ve seen at stations have little representative human-scaled urbanism and are still dominated by car infrastructure. The pedestrian scale is found mostly in Calgary’s superb 19th Century inner city neighbourhoods. We can learn much from them.

According to Calgary Transit there are 16,090 park and ride parking stalls in the system. A good portion of them (half?) are in parkades near stations. If you built them all at grade, they would occupy 22 hectares (55 acres) of land, with about 7.3 hectares (18 acres) additional space for drive aisles.

That’s 30 ha. (74 ac.) of prime urban space directly adjacent to major transit facilities devoted to dead space for car storage. Perhaps there is a better use for this space, like low or mid-rise housing with the attendant shops and services and even village squares.

Car-addiction still plays a huge role in Calgary’s urban form, energy consumption and finances, and that’s despite artificially high transit ridership.

@ Alon, it’s true that Calgary’s downtown is a high-rise mecca, and it is delightful that developments like the East Village (with a significant residential component) are finally arising from land that was largely derelict for 30 years.

However, the bigger picture is that Calgary has abused the agricultural land endowment at its edges by the development of LRT and major arterial-stimulated low density subdivisions. I haven’t seen that cycle change in decades.

This is an unfortunate and all-too-common paradigm in western North America.

Perhaps you are confusing Calgary with some other city.

There’s only one parkade. Canyon Meadows.

69th Street will be the second. It will be shared with the new high school.

Everything else is surface.

“According to Calgary Transit there are 16,090 park and ride parking stalls in the system.”

That’s about one eighth the one-way ridership on the C-Train (250,000/2). By the standards of American commuter rail systems, in which practically everyone drives to the station and the number of parking spots often exceeds ridership at the suburban stations, this is amazing.

It bears repeating, car-addiction still plays a huge role in Calgary’s urban form, energy consumption and finances, and that’s despite artificially high transit ridership.

Yes, 16,000 parking stalls add up to 1/8 of the one-way LRT ridership figures, but I believe more than half the cars park with two or more occupants, and there is also a “kiss and ride”. These are not bad things, but when the park and ride infrastructure occupies a vast acreage, when several stations outside of downtown are located in windswept road allowances, or industrial areas several blocks from where the concentrated employment centres are located, when about 85% of Calgary’s transportation budget is devoted to asphalt, and when the physical evidence beholden in the urban form of the city (e.g. segregated arterials with hundreds of km of sound attenuation barriers, sprawl to the horizon), one can conclude that Calgary is still highly car addicted.

The solution? Like I said earlier, tie land use to transit, and route transit into the heart of your residential areas and employment centres. Consider putting an iron band around the current city limits until the city triples in population to three million, and agricultural land at the periphery is valued a lot higher than a cheap commodity.

Higher LRT ridership says very little about land use efficacy or quality of urban life.

Just a follow up on overall transit share in Calgary compared o other cities:

Calgary: 16% with 1 million population
Vancouver: 17% with 2.4 million
Ottawa: 22% with 0.9 million
Montreal: 22% with 3.6 million
Toronto: 23% with 5 million.

Calgary may have artificially high LRT ridership (driven up by very generous car access from low density subdivisions and widely dispersed employment centres outside of downtown served by outlying stations, as well as high parking rates in downtown), but its overall transit mode share remains the lowest of the five largest Canadian cities.

Vancouver is a titch higher in transit share, but with over twice the population it moves far more people than Calgary’s system I assume because of high bus ridership. Moreover, its driverless SkyTrain system, though far from complete (the second most dense Metro Vancouver CBD — Broadway — has yet to be served by rapid rail transit), has fantastic frequency and lower per capita operating costs than Calgary’s C-Train. And no one has been killed at surface crossings because there are none.

Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa are distinguished as having the highest overall transit mode share. But even at almost 1/4 of the total being transit mode share I would argue that isn’t good enough in the face of petroleum depletion and the climate ramifications of higher emissions from the non-transit using majority.


A final note on the issue of land use. Vancouver nearly doubled its downtown population over the last 15 years or so, but it’s traffic to/from the downtown penninsula decreased by between 12% and 20% (depending on the source).

A very large part of the downtown population walks. In fact, about 40% of the residents in the older West End do not own cars. Moreover, many thousands of visitors and workers take one of two rapid transit lines or the ubiquitous electric trolley and avoid driving. Manhattan set precedents like this centuries ago, but this is a remarkable and very unique fact of life for a young Western city.

This is more meaningful to me as the mark of a successful city than just the recitation of artificially high light rail ridership numbers. Transit alone does not make for a city built on efficacy, but transit coupled with smart growth land use decisions can be magic.

The last I knew about Toronto, there was still plenty of concern that he might succeed in eliminating streetcars there. People there who wish to keep the network there had best stay as vigilant as humanly possible at least until the next city elections and afterwards if he gets reelected. It seems to me that those who oppose any kind of rail passenger transportation have a certain psychosis about their opposition to it. Cinncinati is a classic case in point. The opposition to the streetcar line has been defeated once and now the opponents are trying again. As it is, the initial line is going to be shorter than originally planned due to the dogmatism of our illustrious Governor who can be charitably called The Transportation Nazi.

You see, this type of comment is exactly the kind of influence that contributes to making Toronto’s transit system, in terms of commute times, one of the worst in the entire developed world, thanks to the inflammatory debates that stymy reasonable transit planning.

People who live within 10 to 20 blocks of Yonge St. where there is frequent service, and for whom the option to walk is feasible during the all-too-frequent streetcar backups due to traffic, weather, accidents, stalled cars, cars parked too far away from the curb due to snow, etc…, seem to be the ones fiercely defending them, and in effect forcing them on the rest of the city.

For those of us who live further out and are entirely dependant on them (there being no other transit options), and who routinely encounter short-turns, all manner of delays, not even a semblance of scheduling, and an excruciatingly slow commute, who basically are justified in complaining about the level of service WE encounter (as opposed to the level of service encountered by those in the City core), when we make *legitimate* complaints about abysmal service, many downtowners who aren’t impacted feel entitled and justified to bandy about such clearly inflammatory terms as “psychosis” and “Transportation Nazi”. In my experience this is not an isolated example, by any means.

Perhaps when those TC supporters in the downtown core show as much concern about the quality of transit and commute times in other parts of the city as they do for defending the transit designs that make sense for *them*, we might actually make some progress.

Until then we are stuck with the worst commute times in the western world, and a populace seemingly more intent on whacking each other based on ideology than getting down to business and designing sensible transit that gets people where they’re going.

Eh? Who said that the role of transit was simply in mitigating increases in car traffic? I don’t know quite what led you to that conclusion.

I don’t actually thing transit is there simply for either role. It is wrong to view transit purely through a lens of its impact on car traffic.

For one thing, many users cannot or do not wish to own a car or have use of a shared car at all times, and an analysis in these terms pretends such people don’t exist. In fact, the presence of transit is beneficial to all where the economy is improved by those users being able to be economically active.

For another, the impact of transit upon car traffic is unclear, and is certainly indirect and interacts with other policies like whether to reduce, maintain or increase road space, and what to charge for parking. Its two definite related impacts are:

– To increase people’s mobility within a given level of road capacity (and consequently a given level of congestion), thus allowing, for example, more people to go to a downtown area than the road capacity would permit.
– To retain people’s levels of mobility where measures to restrain cars are put in place.

You’ll notice that even when I try to relate transit to car traffic, I end up talking about people’s mobility – because mobility is what transit exists to provide. How much mobility is provided by private car, and how decision makers might want to increase or reduce that, doesn’t affect the position of that as transit’s reason for being.

“There is even a streetcar legend that you could ride the streetcars from Northern Vriginia all the way to Baltomore and Gettysburg Pennsyvinia any everywhere between that. Think of how much traffic this legendery vast system would take off of all the highways and Interstates.”

Off highways and interstates? Not very much. Those streetcars would have been vastly slower than today’s highways. Very slow, in fact – they made local stops (often at every corner of densely spaced street grids), with limited-stop service of course impossible as streetcars can’t overtake each other.

That said, if one well, a large streetcar network, distant as such a prospect is, could well prove more attractive than buses, and thus be a good competitor to local car traffic in cities.

But as for longer highway trips, It’s possible for transit to be a meaningful alternative for some car users on the highways of the East Coast. But for that purpose we’d be talking about getting a continuous network of regular commuter rail by improving off-peak service on the main north-east corridor and branches, and bridging the gaps in commuter rail service (Perryville, MD to Newark, DE; Old Saybrook, CT to Providence, RI); and about improving the quantity of Amtrak service on the corridor.

These old streetcar systems did have gaps in them of five to ten miles on them such as the one that went from Maryland to Baltmore did go several miles none stop and did reach speeds of 50 miles on hour. The great Richmond streetcar system streetcars on the interurbans did go on sections of five or ten miles none stop and at speeds between 40 and 50 miles on hour which was very fast for the time. The streetcars also had less stops back then than did the bus lines today in that they did not stop at every block but every four or five blocks.

A Stanford student recently made a surprisingly coherent proposal for a streetcar in and near Downtown Oakland. The student, Daniel Jacobson, acknowledged at the very beginning of this proposal, that the primary motivation for creating a streetcar in Oakland should not be transit improvements. Jacobson stated that the streetcar was too expensive and difficult for the incremental transit improvement it would make. Rather, the reason to do the streetcar is that it would serve to attract residential and commercial development along the line, as Oakland had sought to do.

I think this is a reasonable argument. Developers and cities do perceive rails as more permanent than buses. They’re often wrong–thousands of miles of rails have disappeared from the streets of American cities. At the same time, major bus routes served in the 1930’s are often still served today. What keeps transit in place is demand. But developers think that rail equals permanence, which is almost more important than the reality.

I also think there’s nothing wrong with a development-oriented approach.

That said, I am intrigued by the Seattle idea of rapid streetcars and making key operational improvements to speed up service.

So you think it’s a good idea to put expensive pieces of infrastructure where developers and local politicians think people might go in the future, as opposed to orienting it towards transportation needs ill-served right now?

I think it’s a better idea to put transit where there will be passengers, whether that is a demand that is created through a development-oriented approach or transportation in areas that are ill-served. I think transit oriented developments are good in the long run though because it is more sustainable than many other areas, although that’s not too say an “ill-served area” can’t be sustainable either. I guess you would need more info in order to answer that question

The Pacific Electric lines formed the transportation skeleton of the Southland–not just LA city, but South Bay, the Westside, the San Gabriel Valley, San Fernando Valley, Foothills, Inland Empire, and the OC. They built the lines first, then recouped cost by developing railway-owned lineside land. For a time, the traffic generated by development generated operating profits.

I understand your point, but it doesn’t hurt to remember how much of the urban landscape gained its shape. Here in Cleveland, two parts of the urban area (western Cleveland Heights, along Euclid Heights and Coventry; and the entire city of Shaker Heights) are still spatially defined by the streetcar lines around which they were built. In Cleveland, ridership on Cleveland Transit peaked at something over 400 million (during WW2), in a service area with just under 1 million residents. From the early 1900s, the system was restricted to a profit of 5%. You don’t question the validity of sprawling real estate development, predicated entirely on coercing the public sector to build new roads to handle an anticipated traffic increase. Why not take that premise and examine it? Why not view a new, fixed transit investment as a trigger for development, where the speculative line determines the nature of development and thereby limits demands on the public purse because the transit line establishes the parameters for required public infrastructure investment?

Drewski, I’m not talking about city vs. suburb—my qualm is that many of the streetcar systems proposed over the past couple of years aren’t about finding corridors with high ridership potential and improving them (as Seattle and Minneapolis are doing), but rather about spending money in areas developers and their political allies have declared to have potential.

Although it’s not a streetcar project, the Second Avenue Subway vs. the 7 extension comes to mind as an illustration of this dynamic—the 7 is favored by developers and being extended via value-capture, so its moving along more quickly than the Second Avenue Subway, which has higher projected ridership and is probably more important to New York’s network as a whole.

The Number 7 line is a good analogy for the proposed streetcar systems in American cities. More than the developers, it has been the New York – City Planning Department’s strategy that the Hudson Yards area, where the Number 7 is being extended to, become the district for the expansion of the Midtown CBD to the west. This is partly because Midtown is running out of development sites for large office buildings. The highest density in Manhattan is proposed to be in Hudson Yards.

The single new subway station at Eleventh Avenue and 34th Street will enable development of commercial buildings in the area. Without the subway the district would continue to be dominated by single story industrial buildings and parking lots.

In Providence, the state DOT just relocated an elevated highway I-195 exposing 40 acres, of which 20 acres are developable and within the CBD. Also recently the city’s employment areas have geographically expanded to north and south of the traditional core. The I-195 land is in between the south side of the traditional core and the southern expanded employment zone focused on the medical and biotech industry. Providence’s CBD is no longer walkable.

Without a major transit improvement, such as the streetcar proposal, Providence would continue to become more car-dependent and the development of the I-195 land as an expanded medical biotech district, as well as other parts of the CBD might not be built.

These two examples more than likely apply the other cities proposing streetcar systems, whether infilling underutilized land within a CBD or opening development opportunities in new areas for high density. Streetcars or other rail transit improvements are the best way to insure successful new development.

You realize I was using the 7 as an example of a development-oriented investment impeding the completion of a mobility-oriented investment, right?

Also, a streetcar isn’t a prerequisite for a pleasant pedestrian development—it needs things like good street design and timing traffic lights to work for pedestrians rather than against them.

And please read something by Robert Cervero—the rail/development relationship has a pretty mixed history, and ensuring dense, successful TOD has to do is much more complicated than plopping expensive infrastructure in developers’ preferred direction.

Beta Magellan is right, at least as far as Providence is concerned. The reason the Providence CBD is unwalkable is not that it has no streetcar. College Hill has no streetcar, either, but is walkable.

Instead, the problem with the CBD is that it’s designed for cars. Retail is all locked in the mall, so the CBD is single-use office space and the streets are dead after hours; Downcity at 9 looks like Thayer Street at midnight. Memorial is too fast, and has a pedestrian-hostile signal timing, narrow sidewalks that are inadequately shoveled in winter, and setbacks that make the place feel out of scale. North Main and Canal have parking lots separating Downcity from the East Side. The train station has nothing near it on the street except condos, and the layout of the streets and parking is such that the place feels out of scale again. If you want to fix it, then let’s fix those issues; no need for a bonanza for speculators and developers.

Finally, in New York, they may be planning to build densely at Hudson Yards, but the blocks on Second Avenue on the Upper East Side are the densest part of the city, today. That’s the difference between transportation and a handout to Bloomberg’s friends.

That’s not really what I said.

To the extent that streetcar investments can also leverage infill development (upzonings, additional density, etc), then yes, those projects can be beneficial. Transit-as-real-estate-play isn’t anything new, nor does it need to be bad.

That said, whether it’s worth prioritizing over other parts of the city depends on the financing mechanism. If you’ve got some sort of value-capture system in place to take that additional development and use it to pay for the infrastructure, then yes – that’s a good investment (generally speaking) because that’s a revenue stream you’re presumably not going to get on another investment.

The point is, completely divorcing these transportation decisions from any sort of land use and development decision is a bad idea. There’s nothing wrong with explicitly endorsing that connection. Now, I can quibble over various details of the investments itself (do you re-route a block away to hit a key development site?) but the basic nexus of transportation and development is far to often lacking, even within the context of TOD discussions where the development isn’t directly tied to the financing.

Devil’s in the details, of course.

They didn’t disappear, they are still there in many cases, just under a layer of asphalt. You can see them in places, spring in the North especially, when the potholes uncover them……

In the City of Richmond VA 90% of the city buses run over former streetcar lines and you can see this in that the streetcar lines had cement streetcar poles run along their bath. If a rare mega pot hole opens up that is deep enough you will get to see streetcar track coming up out of the pavement along some of the bus lines. Also the city’s bus repair building used to be the city’s main streetcar repair building.

Ditto with Chicago. Development isn’t always evil if it brings public “amenities” (how I hate that word) such as transit developments.

The sudden faddishness of streetcars looks like nothing more that Light Rail Redux. A “new” mode emerges in a few splashy projects; everyone wants one; said mode begins to be implemented in locations and ways that are not effective (either cost or service).

It seems that it just should not be that hard to implement the right mode/technology for each location and to do it in the right way. Yet time and time again, transit agencies, city leaders, and/or funding measure backers push for the wrong mode/technology or for implementation in the wrong way. Rather than debating the merits of particular transit projects or modes, I’d much rather see a dialog about what would it take to — in practical, specific terms, not fuzzy generalities — to promote smarter decision making by project sponsors.

Get rid of the “cars ueber alles” lobby, that’s what it will take.

One of the problems is that every time any sort of mass transportation system is proposed, a pile of cars-ueber-alles people come out of the woodwork to irrationally attack it.

Therefore transit agencies, city leaders, and/or funding measure backers have been choosing their pitches based on what will have the most backing — so as to fight off NIMBYs and cars-ueber-alles types — and whatever the current fad is will inevitably have more backing than the ideal system choice.

Given less absurd, irrational opposition, it would be easier to propose a less faddish option and have enough support to overcome the opposition.

I don’t disagree with you, Nathanael, but “get rid of the cars uber alles lobby” isn’t a practical solution.

If the continued existence of the car lobby means that transit backers will need to embrace that latest fad in order to garner enough public support to overcome the car lobby, then it’s going to be necessary to make “smart transit decision-making” faddish. This could either be a pro-active marketing campaign (I’ll nominate APTA and the Ford Foundation to fund it), or a more quasi-organic attempt to recreate the mechanism by which other transit fads (light rail, BRT, streetcar) took hold.

Worth a try to make sensible planning faddish. :-) Except fads come and go, and it’s hard to *keep* it faddish.

I suppose if the generational theories are right — and I think they are — the cars-uber-alles lobby will die out. The car companies have pretty much dropped attempts to attack trains or airplanes or bicycles or walking, as this is a turnoff to younger buyers. The oil companies will probably give up shortly after all cars go electric. :-) That just leaves the people who are doing this from an irrational culture war view, and they may just die out.

The permanence of rail really depends on how it’s importance is appreciated and prioritized. If there is a concerted effort from the city planners and developers to get rid of it, like so many of them did to our cities’ network of streetcars, then it is no more permanent than any bus line. All things equal however, bus lines can way more easily be changed, as has been done in my city of Tallahassee recently. All that was required beyond the planning, debate and other administrative red-tape was putting in new sign posts at new stops. Not a single thing was done to the road itself. It’s way more expensive to change or destroy routes of rail systems. But again, if it’s made a priority to do so, it will be done regardless of the cost or consequences.

I admit that I’m biased towards rail transport because, when well maintained, it is much more comfortable than buses. They do also have some advantages that are significant if planning is well done and integrates every aspect of traffic. And when they run on electricity, they are not a local source of pollution; similarly with the advancements of renewable energy, this electricity would not necessary have to come from coal, nuclear, etc. Since they are fixed in position, they also pose less risk to drivers, cyclists and pedestrians, compared to buses pulling in and out of bus stops or lanes. I feel that streetcars are also more appealing to a wider demographic, which is not something to overlook. For whatever reason, some people will never use a bus but would consider rail transit. The rails are also stronger and require less maintenance, and so this comes down to short-term vs. long-term cost-benefit analysis.

The streetcar itself is just one tool for transport of people. And it can be a great tool if properly designed and planned. A great example is Prague, where only streetcars (called trams there) are found in the central areas of the city. Where necessary, they have their own ROW and cars are physically excluded from the streetcar lane. Head ways are frequent, lots of people use them and the whole network is just well-maintained and integrated into the traffic. It is far from being a city with few cars these days, but the whole transportation network between cars and public transit is well integrated.

A great example is Prague, where only streetcars (called trams there) are found in the central areas of the city

Not really… Sure, there are many streets reserved for streetcars, others are good for traffic in the same very areas. I personally went there with my boyfriend, I’m neutral to and he dislikes public transportation, so we used to drive to underground parking areas in Central Praha while travelling there.

I hope tallycyclist didn’t forget the cool subway system in Prague. I remember Prague having streetcars running through buildings (with traffic lanes too) – I seem to have just seen a picture of that, course I could be ranting since things have probably changed with more cars. The difference is that medieval cities cannot take modern motor traffic without major structural changes. I agree with the basic premise, but a better example might be cities rebuilt after WWII which have wider roads, but also streetcar/light rail incorporated into them.

As I wrote before, it puzzles me how people develop emotional attachments to a bunch of steel, concrete, wires, iron, plastics, electronics, axles, mechanisms, engines – which is what transportation is about.

There is no problem with someone liking or disliking a given form of transportation, whatever it might be.

I disagree. That is not what transportation is about. Transport is about delivering mobility, at varying levels of efficiency.

I am emotionally attached to refusing to contribute to further destructive development of automobile infrastructure, the undermining of service to those without an option but transit, localised air pollution causing respiratory problems for those living near roads, global air pollution leading to all sorts of dire environmental degradation, and the deaths of other road users, particularly pedestrians who have to navigate an autocentric environment.

For all of these reasons, I am emotionally attached to transportation that does its job more efficiently than private cars do.

That is why there is so much public (negative) reaction to transit projects seen as a work of activists aiming to socially engineer people, instead of offering options (emphasis on options) for people who can’t/don’t want to drive.

As long as the public perceive transit as a sort of “crusade against” anything (car, detached houses, the family lifestyle, privacy, choice etc.), the public will easily buy into hysteria, and the results will be not the best.

I’m all in favor of multiple redundant transportation systems and infrastructure that allow people and business to choose how they will move themselves or their goods/packages/supplies.

So let’s build streectar systems that are rational, that brings increased mobility to North American cities and options for people to choose from.

Usually, I even favor underground/elevated solutions because then you can accommodate cars, subways, elevated rail etc. without making the compete for ROW. But there are some cost limitations.

What I’m not in favor, anyway, is to think of transit in North America as a “war on cars” as if cars were the new tobacco.

If so, I’ll be the first to vote down and send email for all my friend to vote down transit project which I perceive to be hijacked by activists instead of ushered by neutral, unattached technicians.

So I have a tripled beware of transit project managers that come with talks about “passion” or similar fuss. Their job, like those of road engineers, is to deliver mobility, not to campaign as they were garage enthusiasts.

I love engineering, even if it is a field with few women present. But I think engineers must be un-emotional or else they are made “useful fools” by people who have hidden agendas on social engineering (the only harmful engineering by the way).

Sure, providing options is great. There’s also a need to talk about the efficiency of those options, and in almost all cases, driving is incredibly inefficient.

Stating that fact isn’t social engineering.

In fact, I hate the term social engineering. Any infrastructure investment will change behavior – so why are some projects labeled as ‘social engineering’ yet others are simply ‘what the people want?’ I’ve never heard someone truly articulate this distinction, and that’s why the charge that a project will be ‘social engineering’ falls flat to me. It’s similar to the decrying of ‘activist judges,’ which really means ‘judges who I don’t agree with.’

<me.ushered by neutral, unattached technicians.

We tried that with Robert Moses and his acolytes. The results tend to be ugly, in many ways.

is to think of transit in North America as a “war on cars”

The people who wouldn’t be caught dead on mass transit in any form, even an elevator, phrase it that way. Advocates tend to couch it in terms of increased mobility, efficiency, etc.

It is indeed puzzling how much people do relate to “their” tram system. Again, I take Zürich as an example (because I know it best, after having more or less daily used that system for almost 40 years.

It kind of sounds amazing how much people show their interest, for example when there were those three guest visits of other vehicles, as demonstrations by their manufacturers. People were actually skipping one or two trams, in order to get onto the “visitor”, and they were very eager filling out the questionnaire handed to them. There were hot discussions in the papers, and I am sure these discussions will become even hotter when the VBZ reveals the preferred bidder for the next tram generation.

Or, when the lines got reorganized, some years ago, the VBZ had to switch the end stop of the two lines serving the Zürichberg (that’s the area where the “old money” lives), because the ladies from the Zürichberg would have lost their one-seat ride to the Paradeplatz (not for the banks, but for reaching the Sprüngli tea room (note: this is quite a bit of insider stuff, but whoever knows a bit about Zürich, can understand the importance of that place…).

Don’t ask me why that relationship and passion exists. It simply does.

And that is the reason why the city of Zürich voters have been approving all projects for the VBZ in the last 50 years or so, even if they were rather expensive. And for many people from Zürich, getting on the tram after a long trip away, even if the Cobra proves to be a real rattlesnake, it is a sign that they are now at home.

I don’t know how passionate people of other cities are about their tram. Well, in Basel, you may find it; no matter how bad or important changes with the bus network are, there is not that much noise, but if something happens with the “Drämli”…

Speaking of how people relate fondly to *their* transit systems, the Toronto Star newspaper has published a special section on the 501 Queen Streetcar. As they put it: “It’s one of the longest streetcar routes in North America, and arguably the coolest public-transit ride on the continent.” Nice mix of history, reportage and even some poetry…

To some extent, this does seem to be a fad. Back in the 60s and 70s, the Feds promised every major city a subway, or so it seemed. Then in the 80s, subways were considered too expensive, so “light rail” was the order of the day. The 90s brought BRT of various stripes, as a cheaper version of light rail.

And now the Feds are spending money on all of these two- and three-mile-long streetcar projects. At *best* these might serve as downtown circulators, but for the most part, these projects are too short to be of much interest to anyone but a few shoppers, railfans, other joyriders–and real estate developers who

“Streetcars are better than buses, they’re more comfortable, yada yada…” That may be true, but few if any of these proposed streetcars are replacing existing bus service in any substantial, meaningful way.

I’m not saying they shouldn’t be built. I’m saying that the limited public funding we have for transportation in general, and transit in particular, needs to be directed to projects that will serve the greatest number of people, or attract a significant number of commuters out of cars, or mitigate air pollution–in short, give us the most “bang for our buck.” I’m not sure spending Federal money on a bunch of tiny little rail projects is what we need to do right now.

I’d say a better comparison would be the downtown circulator program, which spent a lot of money on technological development before finally coming to fruition in the mid-to-late eighties. These were short, grade-separated connectors between downtown destinations, intended as tools to aide downtown revitalization, and competition for federal construction funds was fiercely competitive. In the end, we got two out mostly useless systems in Jacksonville and Detroit and a more useful one in Miami. Ultimately, short transit trips between major attractions in weak, auto-oriented downtowns is not a big enough market to justify heavy, grade-separated infrastructure (ironic for a downtown-revitalization tool) carrying vehicles too slow to be effectively extended beyond the core, and Miami’s is only useful because if connects a somewhat out-of-the-way Metrorail station with the rest of downtown for free.

I see a lot of similairities with the current streetcar push—although the infrastructure’s much lighter and a lot of these plans include neighborhoods outside of downtown, the emphasis remains on slow (but fashionable) vehicles routed between prominent destinations (or perhaps it’s better to say destinations prominent to boosters).

You bring up something that is more worthy of debate.

How did this country go from funding BART, DC metro, MARTA, Miami Metrorail, Boston New Orange Line etc in one decade….

…to squabbling over 3 mile long streetcar routes today?

Something has gone terribly wrong.

A key point you seem to be missing is that a lot of those rail systems you mentioned are suburban-downtown connectors. The kind of streetcar projects we’ve seen suddenly become popular are meant to encourage development in the inner city and actually having people move there which is possibly more important than providing suburban service. Ideally, they should have the characteristics Yonah outlines. But even without them, we can’t dismiss their development potential for being petty little tourist lines.

The streetcar systems are being funded by Small Starts, which is a different program. Although I’m sure the amount of money for rail has gone down (and I’m also pretty sure the cost of building it has risen faster than inflation), New Starts is still funding big, expensive pieces of infrastructure like the central subway in San Francisco and Milwaukie MAX (both of which have heavy-rail prices).

These artificial divisions in self-contained categories of rail transport hurts more than helps understanding and designing proper networks.

Hybrid systems that relay on short-spaced stops downtown or other major catchment area, sharing ROW; combined with segregated and fast-running tracks elsewhere are increasingly common.

Many cities, most in Europe, have developed such systems with success, such as Frankfurt, Rotterdam, Denver (to a point) etc.

The problem with most streetcar systems is that they are meant to please everyone as an ‘installation’ more than a transportation infrastructure.

Some projects look more like public beautification initiatives than anything else!

As others have pointed, with proper levels of investment is possible to implement good streetcar (or trams, whatever one calls is) that are effective as transportation.

I even don’t see a problem with a “downtown connector”-style project that aims to have drivers parked at the edge of downtown and then riding the train. But one meandering line, utterly slow, stopping every other block, is not going to be an answer.

I should point out that they already do something similar with the streetcars in Toronto on Spadina and St. Clair Avenues — dedicated lanes in the center of the streets. With the introduction of the new Flexity trams, the line capacity will be higher than anything even BRT could offer.

I really agree with the points you’ve put forward Yonah. Streetcars should serve in a tramway-like light rail role like they do in Europe. This is opposed to the current model in North America where light rail systems follow a “metro lite” model and streetcars are just buses on rails.

Federal guidelines such as the cost-effectiveness index have generally favored LRT lines heading from the relatively sparse suburbs into major business districts. While they help reduce travel times for commuters, they generally don’t reward the people who have been living in city cores and have always provided the bulk of ridership for transit agencies. The landscape has changed a bit in recent years, but the balance of power still generally tilts toward the suburbs.

In Minneapolis, the planned streetcar lines would really reinforce the core of the transit network, converting existing high-usage bus lines back into rail services (and routes that historically had high frequency of streetcar service before rails were ripped out or paved over). This seems like the most logical place to add rail lines to me — places with strong transit demand which would be most likely to generate high ridership and good operating ratios.

Since the federal government had historically been unwilling to fund this sort of effort (the lines wouldn’t generate much in the way of time savings — partly because trips are already short in these spots!), the city had to investigate other ways of doing it. LRT is simply too expensive for a city to fund itself, but streetcars are much less costly (at least in theory). A city can just barely find the funding on its own to build short streetcar routes.

So, yes, it’s a bit of a fad, but it also reflects how central cities have been getting the short end of the stick for decades. The recent cluster of is partly due to latent demand becoming apparent as funding sources loosen up their rules.

Although I’m not terribly familiar with Minneapolis’s plans, based on what I’ve seen they are much more transportation-oriented than redevelopment-oriented, which definitely sets them apart from many of the other streetcar proposals that have propped up over the past couple of years (Seattle’s plans seem to be in much the same vein—especially at LINK prices they can hardly afford to build light rail in some heavily-trafficked urban corridors, so they’re looking into expanding their municipal streetcar network as well).

The Twin Cities governments, in recent decades, tend to be unusually sensible, as governments go. :-) Not perfect, but projects generally seem to end up functional and useful.

I have a longstanding fondness for Minnesota… though not the parts which elected Michele Bachmann (ick).

The big problem I see with a lot of streetcar projects in the US is that it steals money from bus expansion. There are a lot of US cities with a few streetcar/light rail lines but really lousy bus service elsewhere, which not surprisingly have low transit ridership. San Diego and San Jose are obvious examples here. Streetcars only make sense in cities which already have a good bus system, and they only make sense when the extra capacity of the streetcar is needed.

Agreed. I feel very worried by talk of streetcars as if they’re doing something profoundly different from what buses are – I prefer to think of them as what you build when you want to put, say, 300 people on a single bus.

The problem with bus expansion is that most of the costs it imposes are operational. Those have to be funded primarily locally and at the state level.

There was no money to steal because localities have to shoulder the burden of operating costs.

Zoltan’s right about the functional aspect of a streetcar. This is the thinking of European transit systems, looking at them as a high-capacity carriage, rather than the romantic aspects of streetcars.

Even then, streetcars’ capacity would be limited to cities that already run extremely frequent (single-digit headway) service.

So the operations point brings the discussion back to why cities and transit agencies are proposing two- or three-mile streetcar “circulators” in their downtowns. It’s great to talk about expanding existing bus systems before considering the expensive infrastructure of streetcars, but if there isn’t the money to increase system-wide headway times to shorter intervals or expand or create routes, as an alternative it does make sense to introduce an internal downtown circulator to improve transit within a city’s core.

It is true that the same kind of service could be provided by enhanced bus service, avoiding the majority of infrastructure costs of streetcars. But the operational bottom-line would remain the same. Whether headway times for a proposed circulator are five-, seven-, or ten-minutes, the costs would basically be the same for both streetcars and buses. The federal government doesn’t pay for operational cost.

Alon Levy is part right about Providence. The city’s CBD has been effectively gutted over the last 60-years in favor of automotive infrastructure. Besides highways, 40 to 45% of the downtown core has been demolished mostly for surface parking lots and some garages. This is in a city built for streetcars. With the exception of the highway-ish Memorial Blvd., most of the city’s streets are extremely narrow and don’t work well for cars. It takes well over 45 minutes to walk for the train station at Capital Center to the Hospital District where roughly 10,000 people work—the city is not walkable for working commuters and distance have become impractical for only walking.

It’s popular to vilify developers and real estate development, but how is Providence supposed to provide internal downtown transit and encourage real estate development to infill some its parking lots and newly exposed vacant land? The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) and the Providence Planning Dept. have seriously looked at a bus alternative and found that there would be far less development with a bus. They realize they may have to sacrifice streetcar-generated development in favor of a bus, if funding can’t be found. The operational costs would be the same $6.5 million annually for 2.5 miles for either.

So if streetcars offer a better transit experience and can potentially encourage development, why settle for an inferior bus?

Most American cities don’t have the conditions in place (money, density, potential short-term ridership) to provide city-wide frequent service.

Circulators are not necessarily problematic, but they need to be carefully planned. They can be useful if one of their terminus is at a massive park-and-ride facility on some major Interstate exit, for instance.

However, the best approach, in my opinion, is to build a combination of a circulator and a least one line that goes deep into somewhere in the city where TOD can be pursued.

Then, you can think of shuttle bus service to feed that line from places along that axis.

You will end not with a comprehensive network, but at least a vector growth for (more) dense development – which can be used to value capture sometimes.

For examples of actually-successful frequent lines, you’ll find they don’t rely on park-and-rides. In Providence, which is on the Northeast Corridor, connecting any major center of population or employment to *the train station* (with its frequent service to Boston & NY) is going to be highly effective.

If you can “anchor” the line on both ends, you’ve got something which will perform well. Only rarely is a park-and-ride a decent anchor, even if it is on an Interstate exit; Alewife is such an example in Boston, but Harvard a few stations down is still a bigger draw.

Airports are a fairly good anchor, but city centers are better. Some examples: Minneapolis-St. Paul. Minneapolis-MSP airport. LA downtown to Long Beach. LA downtown to Santa Monica. Seattle to SeaTac airport. San Diego to Tijuana.

Why does building high speed rail and streetcar lines in the U.S. spur so much heated debate and big discussion? It angers me that we’ve allowed ourselves to become a “third world” country in terms of mass transit (especially rail) in this country as China, Brazil, Spain, Portugal and hosts of other countries that are less wealthy continue to build and expand these systems. Rightly or wrongly, I blame Republicans!!!! I know this is oversimplified, but there it is!!!!

It is a convenient scapegoat… for a starter, streetcars projects in US are usually thin, utterly slow, limited reach and incapable of providing meaningful service.

3-mile partially single track streetcar projects are close to a joke, so people react accordingly.

Pretty much true. The Democrats are lukewarm, at best, on public transit and most Republicans hate it with a passion both because it serves urban areas (that tend not to support them in elections) and is seen as some type of collectivist, Soviet plot to undermine freedom (as exemplified by the auto/suburb paradigm).

I think streetcars are not the best solution in most cases (maybe for small towns, but not for cities with populations 250,000 and greater); we need to look toward grade-separated Light rail, or better yet Heavy rail like we did back in the 60’s. I think by aiming too low we’re not inspiring people’s imaginations. “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.” —Daniel Hudson Burnham

As a small town person, I would like a streetcar line. It would be possible to have shorter individual vehicles forming a train, which would turn corners a lot better than the current buses. (We have old, 19th century sharp corners.) Electrically powered, it would be faster on hills, and environmentally better of course. The town had streetcar routes in the 19th century so the development was built around them. Et cetera.

Of course, even more than that I’d like to get an intercity rail station back.

You want another train station? Ya got a perfectly good one on W. Buffalo St. near the Lehigh Valley tracks.

Milwaukee’s line definitely is due to a fad, and more of an installation as a couple other commenters have mentioned. The line is a sort of Dept. of City Development powerpoint gone wild. Milwaukee is one of the most segregated cities in the country, whose transit riders are largely poor minorities. Yet this line doesn’t meet any of the goals of any of our many many regional transit plans, is being done by the mayor against the wishes of the county (which operates the transit system), and is only planned to serve wealthy white neighborhoods and the downtown office core. It will end up being slower and less frequent than the bus that currently serves the majority of the route. Despite this, the mayor’s office just keeps shouting “Portland!” and the city elite hop on board.

For a transit advocate who knows that Portland didn’t just develop overnight because they built the world’s slowest streetcar line, this project is making it very difficult to fight for actual improvements to the actual transit system. And it’ll make it even harder to fight for faster streetcar or light rail on routes where it would actually improve mobility outcomes once this thing flops in terms of ridership.

I always assumed that the Milwaukee MAX would be one of these projects of marginal improvement, being segregated and therefore somewhat faster that the current bus service on McLoughlin, and also quite possibly being more reliable, permitting better timed transfers with the local buses that you presently have to transfer to off-peak.

But if you feel I’m being naive here, I’d very much like to hear more detail on the deficiencies on the prospect.

I haven’t been paying attention to Milwaukee. Scott Walker decided to let it go to hell as mayor, and then proceeded to kick it harder as governor, so I kind of assumed it was dead.

So who is this new mayor with his pet streetcar project? Any chance of it actually happening?

Scott Walker was County Exec, not Mayor. He’s let the county bus system go to hell, and refused to compromise on any transit projects (even with the left-leaning County Board, which stopped even basic improvements to the bus service from occuring.

The situation led to the feds dividing the $91 mil that was originally planned to be used for light rail into two parts which the state doesn’t control: ~$54 mil for the city for a downtown circulator (the streetcar), and $36 to the county for buses.

The current mayor, Tom Barrett (who’s been in office for 7 years) wants to use the money for a in-traffic streetcar that will run in the wealthier Easttown part of Downtown, from the edge of the Lower East Side to the 3rd Ward and Amtrak station. The original idea was that it would serve as the final circulator once the high-speed rail line to Madison was done, and that the presence of all of these travellers would cause a new boom in the building market in the area.

Now that the high-speed rail line is indefinitely on hold, there’s no real reason to have a line that connects the Greyhound/Amtrak station (with 10 trains a day) every 15 min with expensive condos and office buildings. But, since the mayor has convinced the council (which wanted light rail in the 90s) that this has to be built for light rail to ever come, the project is moving full speed ahead.

At the same time, Walker has cut state aid to the bus system by 10%, leaving an approximately $10 mil hole in its budget. Because the new millionaire county exec refuses to raise taxes, he’s betting on getting that amount in CMAQ funding to replace regular service with “express” service that stops at almost all of the same stops (~ every 1/4 mile). That’s not what CMAQ funding is actually meant for, and if it doesn’t pull through, who knows what cuts will happen.

Thank you very much for the clarification. I was confused about County of Milwaukee / City of Milwaukee politics.

I think a streetcar’s not actually a bad idea when you describe it that way. 10 trains a day to Chicago is something where you *could* use a local circulator, and people will ride between the fancy office buildings and condos and the Amtrak station. But in-traffic? Why in-traffic?

The only reason for in-traffic is if the roads it runs on have only one traffic lane in each direction (aka “there isn’t room”). Milwaukee is far enough west that it would surprise me if its main roads were that narrow.

As for the light rail, I’m guessing it died because it leaves the city limits (& so needed county approval)? Was there no consideration of a light rail entirely inside the city limits?

What concerns me, more than anything, about the interest in streetcars is that inevitably they go a short distance, and therefore do little to function as part of a network.

Consider where cities run a grid-like network – it’s possible to go about anywhere with one transfer providing routes all go in a straight line for the full width of the grid. Where a streetcar starts occupying part of the grid, but doesn’t go all the way, you have two options:

a) Run bus service that wastefully duplicates the streetcar, meaning each has a lower frequency than ought to be possible.
b) Truncate bus service to where the streetcar begins, meaning some people may have to transfer more than once.

Neither is very desirable. Good bus priorities, on the other hand, allow buses to freely flow in and out of the zone where priorities have been put in place.

Actually, though, option a) can work – if a very dense segment of a corridor requires the highest frequency, then the streetcar can successfully provide that. To make that successful, it’s necessary to make the bus and streetcar seem like they’re equivalent parts of the same network – so they turn up at the same stop, charge the same fare, and share the same priorities so they maintain the same speed.

Though the question then is this: Is anyone going to wait for a streetcar instead of taking a bus to the same place that comes sooner? And if no one is doing that, then what did the money spent on the streetcar tracks pay for?

Most of these streetcar proposals are “toy” systems. They won’t have the quantity or quality of service to really be an enhancement of a transit network. Even an effort to become a gateway service, to entice people on the regular network as well, may not work. The newly gained riders would fixate on the streetcar.

“Is anyone going to wait for a streetcar instead of taking a bus to the same place that comes sooner? ”

Yes, in a word. You may be surprised, but I’m far from the only person who’s done it. The usual explanation given is “buses are confusing”. Others are “buses are unpleasant” and “I don’t know where that bus is going, but I know the streetcar is staying on its tracks”.

To take my previous comment out of the abstract, consider Portland, OR’s 6-MLK bus route, which from the north follows a long, straight north-south line along MLK, before finally at Hawthorne heading over the river and into the south end of downtown. Along the route, it intersects more or less every east-west route at some point, getting you from anywhere on MLK to anywhere downtown or in the East pretty directly.

Portland’s new streetcar loop will cross Broadway Bridge from the north end of downtown, then take the 6’s route before entering the south end of downtown on a new rail-only bridge just south of Hawthorne – thus most of the new track will do what the 6 does.

So, this puts the route of the 6 into question. By scheduling it well alongside the streetcar, a headway of 10 minutes or less would be possible on the shared segment, which would be very convenient. But this is undermined by the fact the light rail will use a new bridge that the bus can’t – preventing that frequent service taking you all the way downtown.

Alternatively, it could be routed into downtown further north; on Broadway bridge where the streetcar meets it, or on Steel bridge just after. That would get some riders downtown slightly quicker than transferring to the MAX, but would make journeys to the East significantly slower, requiring travel in and out of downtown.

One correction:

The new transit bridge, now under construction and part of the Milwaukie MAX project, will support crossing of the Willamette River by streetcars, bus, and MAX. (And bikes and peds and the occasional emergency vehicle–no private autos, however). Whether the #6 will switch to this new bridge from the Hawthorne Bridge, I’m not sure–the new bridge is further south than the current terminus of the 6, in Goose Hollow.

Lets see how this resonates with the current problems we have in this country. Pollution should be a concern for are future America let alone are planet almost 800 million gas powered vehicles on the planet and almost half of them reside in the US…. were killing our Earth.We need more mass transit in this country.Instead of importing goods lets use the huge parking facilities for are gas guzzling autos to grow some food for the people in the states we live in instead of importing it from other countries…it just makes sense.Another factor is our depressing economy. We as Americans need to ban together and create jobs that do not revolve around the auto industries of this country.How about concentrating on things like recycling (a devout plan),new energy’s that do not rely on foreign oil,and a national mass transit plan just to mention a few.These ideas could and would create new life for this country including putting back to work the almost 42 million Americans not making a descent living because whoever pushed all the jobs to other countries.I know this comment area is for talking about public transportation issues which I have touched on but to be blatantly honest all the things I have commented about are all connected in some way or another.

I view the ability share lanes as one of the key benefits of streetcars over BRT. Of course it’s context dependent. In heavily pedestrian trafficked downtowns dedicated lanes might make sense but in our medium sized city they implemented a very ineffective “BRT” circulator that utterly confuses the circulation downtown and negatively influences retail performance and bike circulation. There may be other flaws in the system design but I dread the idea that they might block out many of the best bike routes and destroy robust pedestrian oriented retail if they expand the system and eliminate lanes and/or on-street parking.

As you note they can always be striped as dedicated later when the political will and the need exists.

BRT also shares lanes. A segment of the Orange Line in Los Angeles is on a normal street, a section of the Emx line in Eugene in on a normal street, and Ottawa’s dedicated busway lines are on normal streets downtown and in the suburbs.

My big question is: if streetcar lines are good for development why aren’t more developers paying for them? What if a city agreed to lower the minimum parking requirements if a developer contributed to a new streetcar line instead? (Maybe American cities are already doing this).

The big threat caused by streetcars is that in exchange for operating a tourist-oriented little line downtown bus service where the majority of people live has to be cut to pay for it. This is certainly a possibility with Detroit’s new line, and given the sorry state of the Milwaukee County Transit System a possibility there as well. In all the excitement over Salt Lake City’s new light rail lines was there ever any expressed concern about UTA’s reduction of non-duplicative bus service in order to pay for the operational costs of the new lines?

Remember, reduction of “nonduplicative” bus service can also be a case of driving housing closer together.

Rural bus routes are generally unsustainable affairs, period. Salt Lake is a remarkably undeveloped area for a major city and anything to concentrate development would be desirable. If Salt Lake is actually killing *downtown* bus service in the already-dense area, then I apologize and that would be a bad thing.

As for Detroit… they absolutely have to reduce the area covered by the bus system. Hell, they have to reduce the area covered by the road system, the water system, the sewer system, the lot. This is a city which is doing demolitions to prevent vacant buildings from becoming firetraps. Shut down half of the bus system (and the roads it runs on!), build one good light rail line, and pack development around it, and you’ve made a major improvement in a shrinking city like Detroit.

Most of y’all are really missing the point.

In the USA, streetcars really aren’t threatening bus service. They’re threatening better RAIL service – i.e. they’re displacing the “mini-metro” light rail lines that actually DO provide some benefits over buses.

Streetcars running in shared lanes are even worse than buses in all ways that matter to daily users. I used to be a big believer in the “permanence” argument but after noting that the same buses have been running on the same big streets here in Austin for 50 years, it’s hard to give even that argument much credence anymore.

In short: streetcars are rail advocates settling for something they desperately want to convince themselves drivers will flock to (like they do to US “light rail”) because it’s all they think they can get – they’re willfully blinding themselves to its obvious flaws. And, no, examples from Europe and even Canada are not remotely relevant – we’re talking here about what to build in cities where most people don’t have to pay to park, and where $3/gallon gas is ‘expensive’.

I’m amazed at the weird permutations of rail that we get in the U.S. in lieu of true Metro service. Austin’s Diesel-engined “Capital MetroRail” service, for example (with its 1,600 daily passengers and ability to avoid servicing most of the densest part of the city).

We tend to build service it areas where it’s cheap to do so (just a part of our wish to do anything transit-related on the cheap) rather than where it would actually be useful so we end up with routings that don’t maximize community benefit. See “Dallas” for a good example of this phenomenon at work.

I think that we need to re-examine the streercar boom and take another look at providing our major cities with true Metro service, whether light or heavy-rail. This isn’t to say streetcars are always unwarranted, but putting so much investment in them is robbing us of our ability to invest in higher-capacity rail transit.

It has been brought up on this blog several times… There is not much of a difference between “Light Rail” and “Streetcar”. In fact both “systems” are compatible (if done right). There might be limitations with train length, but many cities prove that trains up to 45 m in length can be operated as “streetcars” (and uncer certain circumstances, even longer ones).

So, the little streetcar lines can be the cristallization point for something bigger (again, if done right).

Wether “true” metro service is adequate depends really on the particular city. In fact, the type of system used should be according to the transportation needs. And transportation should be built where it is needed, and not “where it is cheap” (something I fully agree with you, although it may become needed … eventually).

Light rail was a marketing term to get away from the old-fashioned burden of “streetcar” or “trolley,” which were still fresh in the minds of many when the first routes were planned in the 1970s.

People now mistake the “light” for a lightweight vehicle. The “light” and “heavy” referred to expected passenger volume, where “heavy” rail designed a fully enclosed system to handle high volumes at high speeds and high frequencies. Light rail allowed for lower speeds and lower volumes, and permitted at-grade service to reduce costs.

Terminology is always difficult, particularly if the concepts leading to the terminology are missing. “streetcar” and “trolley” indeed have/had the old-fashioned “smell”. Well, understandable, because there was not really much progress since the 1930. As successful the PCC car was, it was (unfortunately) only a half-step (at best) to the “modern streetcar”, as found in the late 40s/early 50s in Europe (which led towards longer trains, be it with trailers or articulated vehicles, and to conductor-less operation in the 60s). That is the reason why “streetcar” (in German “Strassenbahn”) does not have that stigma in Europe. Also, there was not a big visual distinctino between a PCC car and a bus. I wonder if things had been more sustainable if the PCC cars looked like the ones in Brussels. But, of course, there is also the infrastructure issue…

Actually, the weight argument still counts, because it is there. If you look at the vehicle weights in the US, “light rail” is indeed lighter than “heavy rail”. Looking at passenger capacity, a triple-unit of Siemens S-70 or S-100 has more capacity than many “heavy rail” train sets, or to make it a bit ridicule… a single RDC.

In some ways, I always have to chuckle a bit when a Stadler GTW is called “light rail vehicle”… Where it was developed first, it is considered a regular heavy rail vehicle. (although, in a parallel universe, the Stadler GTW, could be the “new” Interurban).

Oh yes, routing is important. Austin, TX is worse than Nashville in terms of choosing a routing “because there were tracks there” rather than because there were people there.

I wonder what you think is wrong with Dallas’s schemes. They seem to hit a fair number of decent-population areas. They aren’t *ideal* routes, but they aren’t dreadful like Austin.

This is a second problem, indeed: people vowing to put some train service, any service, just because there are tracks there.

One of my complaints would be that one of the densest residential and commercials parts of Dallas (McKinney Avenue) has no rail service.

That, and Dallas’s corridors tend to be built along ROWs that aren’t adjacent to areas where transit would be most useful.

I’ll second M1EK’s points, having seen the same process happen in Milwaukee—an earmark intended to start ambitious regional system saw its value decline over years of political squabbling (and, I’d argue, poor decision-making—IMO, Milwaukee’s decision in the nineties to push for commuter service to hostile suburbs instead of a shorter, urban starter line was a big mistake), but instead of looking towards something that would better address the mobility issues highlighted by Sam Jensen above (open BRT along Wisconsin or Fond-du-Lac Avenue, for instance), they decided to stick with rail, deciding on a streetcar line that’s basically a much-scaled-down husk of the old LRT plans.

I’ll also agree that permanence isn’t guaranteed by infrastructure—Chicago’s main bus routes are essentially the same as the old trolley routes, and one can look at an early-twentieth century streetcar map and see basically the same thing as a contemporary bus map. It’s successful service that’s permanent, not nice infrastructure: note that Cleveland extended its light rail to the waterfront in 1996, and service along that branch is all-but-canceled today.

The Cleveland situation is odd. There’s plenty of *stuff* on the Waterfront, such as stadiums… but they’re not well linked by walkway to the rail line. It connects to the intercity train station… but all the trains arrive when the urban rail is closed. There’s probably other problems with it. Perhaps the workers on the Waterfront all live in areas which aren’t connected to the urban rail, or some such. But fundamentally it makes sense to have service there and I still feel like it’s just missing some key element which will make it work.

It’s also that stuff such as stadiums don’t necessarily generate regular local trips like boring old office buildings do—although it’s highly visible, it’s a worse version of the problem that Market Urbanism identified with airport transit—it’s something people can imagine themselves occasionally using, so they’re willing to support it, but don’t necessarily use the service often enough to justify the investment.

I also feel like Cleveland’s had to go through more attraction-oriented redevelopment schemes than most cities of its size, which generally doesn’t end up well (or at least didn’t seem to be ending up well when I was last there in 2005).

Having looked at it again, one problem in Cleveland is that the Waterfront rail line is separated from everything in the waterfront area by an expressway — with few pedestrian crossings — while being on the wrong side of the freight tracks from everything south of the waterfront area.

Nice, *real* nice. Not an attractive way to get to work or play. Would you locate your mass transportation stations between an expresssway and a freight line? Because I wouldn’t.

There was a proposal to convert the expressway to a boulevard — making it possible to cross it easily — but of course that was cancelled because it would “slow down traffic”. Car worship.

From Google Earth (not always the best source, but the best I have at the moment) it doesn’t look too much worse than Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive—certainly the station approaches are comparable to those of the Metrsa Electric line. The big issue isn’t one of urban design—though that could certainly be better—but one of volume. Chicago’s museum campus and Soldier Field are served well by buses and Metra, but that’s because they are much bigger attractions and, even more crucially in Metra’s case, intermediate stops on a line heading into the heart of an area with high employment density. Even with good airport design, entertainment/museum districts like Cleveland’s waterfront are often problematic for transit because they too often are expected to anchor a line, when in truth they don’t generate the demand necessary to do so.

Lake Shore Drive isn’t a true expressway, limited to 40/45 MPH and with stoplights and pedestrian crossings through Grant Park. At the 11th Street station there is a huge underpass into the Museum campus – this replaced a pedestrian crossing with a light and an old overpass (and tunnel under the north bound lanes which were once separate) when the entire roadway was moved west of FMNH and Soldier Field. The city is big on those underpasses for pedestrians rather than bridges. There are also a fair amount of commuters connecting to the el and Roosevelt Road bus lines here (and reverse commuters heading south as well).

18th Street is rarely used but might be more similar to Cleveland (it’s an ugly station), but does offer direct, crossing free connections under Lake Shore to Soldier Field and to the South Loop.

27th Street only connects west to King Drive and used to service Michael Reese Hospital and has a bit of traffic from commuters in the high rises nearby as well as Mercy Hospital and a local HS. It really should be relocated to 31st Street, but I suspect Mercy would have a fit.

It looks (from Google, as you say a bad judge) the stations in Cleveland don’t have direct access to anything and it looks like there is a lot of vacant land (in fact, even a “ghost station” just before the line turns south – perfect for office/residential development). Though you’d think City Hall might have been a draw – lots of unrealized potential there. I think your premise is spot on about intermediate stops on a higher volume line.

Melbourne has one of the world’s busiest streetcar systems. Much of its useage is as a downtown circulator from downtown train stations to inner city destinations just beyond walking distance of the stations, such as the University and inner city hospitals. The tram system and heavy rail are therefore synergistic, and extend the area that can offer downtown functions. Adelaide recently extended its tramway system through downtown area for similar reasons. Most passengers use it to connect to the heavy rail network, or continue on the tram into the suburbs.

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