Categories
Streetcar Toronto

In a simple move, Toronto transforms a streetcar line into something far more useful

» The city’s King Street Transit Pilot is preventing cars from using the street as a throughway. In doing so, it’s showing how other cities might prioritize transit on their busiest streets.

With almost 300,000 daily riders, Toronto’s streetcar system is the most-used light rail network in North America. Unfortunately, for many of its riders, it’s not a particularly pleasant experience.

That’s because most of its streetcar lines operate in a right-of-way shared with automobiles, slowing the system to a crawl. It’s a misery unfortunately shared with most of the new streetcar lines now existing, under construction, and planned in the U.S.—and, perhaps more importantly, with virtually all bus routes.

This week, Toronto has begun piloting one solution.

It has substantially improved streetcar service on a portion of King Street, which runs roughly east-west through the densest portion of the city’s downtown. On the 1.6 miles between Bathurst and Jarvis Streets, King Street has been temporarily transformed through the city’s intervention.

This pilot has significantly reduced space for cars along the street, eliminating parking spaces, adding public art, installing planters, creating small new public plazas, and—perhaps most importantly—prevented people from driving on the street for more than one block or taking left turns.

It’s therefore not a full car ban; some vehicles will still travel in the streetcar right-of-way, a less-than-optimal situation. But it is an effort to ensure that drivers are only using the portion of the street they need. As a result, most of the street is reserved for trains, bikers, and pedestrians.

We’ve yet to see the long-term results of the project, but initial public reaction suggests that the changes have significantly sped up what was once a very slow streetcar line. Riders are saving five to 13 minutes per trip, a massive improvement for such a short trip. Streetcars are running more quickly and less likely to get stuck at lights. Cyclists are riding more safely. And traffic doesn’t seem to have been pushed onto surrounding streets.

It’s too early to know the full impact of the changes, but Toronto will be monitoring transit and street performance over the next year, at which point the pilot may be made permanent. What is clear, however, is that at a cost of $1.5 million, the pilot is a very cheap way to test how to dramatically improve transit service.

It’s also targeted to the right area. Streetcars on King Street carry about 65,000 daily riders, more than any other surface transit route in the city. At the same time, only about 20,000 cars travel on the street on a typical day. In other words, the large majority of people moving on the street are on transit, not in personal automobiles. The city has intervened to prioritize people, not cars.

King Street has not been transformed into a full-scale light rail corridor, and it could certainly use an aesthetic upgrade. It does not go nearly as far as the creation of dedicated streetcar rights-of-way, as was done on other major streets in Toronto, such as Spadina and St. Clair. Yet these improvements are likely to grow ridership, much as those routes experienced.

What’s most exciting about Toronto’s project is that it suggests how other cities with major street-running transit lines might engage to improve the quality of service their riders experience. It suggests a mechanism for cities like Atlanta or Kansas City—which recently opened new, slow streetcar routes that share lanes with cars—to transition to faster, more reliable operations. It shows what is possible to achieve in situations where there simply isn’t adequate support to fully ban cars from streets.

It also is a demonstration of what could be done to improve bus service in the immediate term, at a very low cost, in cities everywhere. Places that lack the funds or interest to roll out a full-scale bus rapid transit route with expensive street upgrades and special streetscapes might, in the meantime, experiment with streets that limit car circulation much as Toronto has done. Executed through a pilot, cities could test options with very limited financial commitment but, in the process, potentially dramatically improve the performance and speed of transit trips.

Implementing this streetcar pilot was no foregone conclusion; just a few years back, Toronto’s then-mayor Rob Ford suggested that he wanted to eliminate the entire streetcars system. Street investments that truly prioritize people over cars require political initiative and will.

Image at top: Traffic on Queen King Street, from City of Toronto.

Categories
Seattle Streetcar

Does Seattle offer the path forward for the national streetcar movement?

» The city will begin studying dedicated lanes for its streetcar. Will it be the first among many to do so?

During its first four years of operation, Seattle’s South Lake Union streetcar—the nation’s second modern streetcar (after Portland’s)—recorded rapidly growing ridership. Annual passenger counts on the 1.3-mile line increased from 413,000 in 2008 to 750,000 in 2012 (about 3,000 riders on a peak summer day). The figures reflected the blossoming of the South Lake Union neighborhood into an extension of the downtown business district, as well as the region’s growth as a whole (Seattle is one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities) and the strong performance of transit there. The share of people taking public transportation to work in Seattle increased from 17.6 percent in 2000 to 19.3 percent in 2013—a remarkable growth spurt brought on in part by the opening of the streetcar and the Central Link light rail line.

Yet in 2013, ridership on the streetcar plateaued, barely growing at all. And last year, it declined by seven percent, below 2011 numbers, putting rider revenues below expectations, even as light rail and bus trips across the region continued to increase. What gives?

The problem may have something to do with the way the streetcar runs: In the street, sharing lanes with cars. The results have been slow vehicles—the line’s scheduled service averages less than eight miles per hour—often held back by traffic and a lack of reliability. This can produce horror stories of streetcars getting stuck for half an hour or more behind other vehicles and, combined with infrequent service, it certainly reinforces the sense that streetcars are too slow and unreliable to provide any serious transportation benefit.

This is a problem shared by every existing and planned modern streetcar line in the country,* suggesting that the streetcar designed to run in the street with cars may, over the long term, simply fail to attract riders who grow increasingly frustrated with the quality of service provided.

Seattle may offer a solution, however. CityLab‘s Nate Berg reported last year that the city is planning a new streetcar line—the 1.1-mile Center City Connector that in 2018 would run along dedicated downtown lanes as it links the South Lake Union line with another service, the 2.5-mile First Hill line, which is currently under construction. That’s great news, but even more interesting is the fact that the city is considering giving dedicated lanes to the existing South Lake Union line.

As far as I know, this would be the first time in the U.S. that a modern streetcar line has been converted to dedicated lanes, and it could significantly improve the line’s speed and reliability. Can other cities follow in its example?

As part of the contract for the Center City Connector, the Seattle Department of Transportation asked a consultant to study designated lanes for streetcars and buses as well as right-turn restrictions along Westlake Avenue, the primary right-of-way for the South Lake Union line. The lanes, which the city refers to endearingly as “Business Access and Transit” (BAT) lanes, are being analyzed to determine if they would improve reliability and service for the system. The lanes could also be used by the RapidRide C line, a bus rapid transit route that could continue north into the South Lake Union neighborhood via Westlake. The lane would have to handle up to 20 trains or BRT vehicles per hour per direction, far too many for transit service operating in a shared right-of-way.

The study, which could be completed this summer, aligns with Mayor Ed Murray and Transportation Director Scott Kubly’s Move Seattle proposal, which, if approved by voters in November, would add $900 million in transportation investment across the city to respond to its rapid growth in both population and employment.** Move Seattle specifically includes investment in seven new BRT corridors throughout the city, including a new Roosevelt to Downtown “complete street” that would include higher-capacity service along Westlake.

Dedicated lanes for the South Lake Union streetcar would undoubtedly improve the reliability of the service and could result in faster trip times. These lanes would likely encourage increased ridership over time, and relieve one of the major problems with too many American streetcar systems, demonstrating that it is possible to transform a route with disappointing features into one that can legitimately serve as useful transit.

Of course, Seattle’s experiment in providing streetcars dedicated lanes along the street right-of-way is hardly revolutionary for transit in general—though it has become standard to assume that new streetcar projects will be built without dedicated lanes. Seattle, like many cities, already has dedicated bus lanes, such as along Aurora Avenue. And back in 2010, previous Mayor Mike McGinn advocated for the use of dedicated lanes for fast streetcars connecting neighborhoods at a far lower cost than full-feature light rail.

It’s worth noting that streetcar service often fails to offer adequate reliability and speed for reasons other than dedicated lanes—and these problems are shared with many light rail and bus rapid transit lines too. Indeed, too many of the new transit lines put into service in the U.S. recently lack adequate frequencies, particularly off-peak. A wait of fifteen minutes for the next streetcar on a 1.3-mile line could last longer than a brisk walk along the entire route. Many of the streetcar systems as designed have too many stops—the short South Lake Union line has seven stops, each of which require the vehicle to slow down, dwell as passengers alight and board, and accelerate. Meanwhile, traffic signal priority—an essential feature for transit lines that run with traffic—is too often avoided, even for light rail.

Providing exclusive lanes won’t fix any of those problems, which isn’t to say that they’re not important, just that they’re one piece of an overall equation for better transit service.

Another question is whether Westlake Avenue can be reconfigured with any ease to offer space for the streetcars. Since the tracks are currently slotted in a lane between a line of parking to the right and a traffic lane to the left, how would the city be able to successfully keep cars off the tracks, even if the lane were painted another color, for example? Cities like New York that have invested in painted lanes for buses have seen those lanes frequently intruded by parked or turning cars, reducing service speed.

If the streetcar had been designed from the beginning to be adapted for dedicated lanes, it likely would be running either in the median or along the curb. In either case, cars could be easily excluded from the lane with a cheap-to-install buffer. But it’s difficult to see how such a buffer could be added given the location of the existing tracks. In this case as in virtually every transit investment, planning ahead for a time when higher-capacity or more reliable vehicles might be needed would have likely saved money in the long term.

Nonetheless, if Seattle is able to provide its South Lake Union line dedicated lanes, it will be demonstrating that one of the fundamental problems with today’s modern streetcar movement can, in fact, be addressed, albeit a few years late. If it shows that those dedicated lanes can reduce disruptions and speed up service, it hopefully won’t be long until we see them in cities across the country, from Atlanta to Portland.

* Save Salt Lake City’s S-Line, which operates in its own right-of-way.

** Move Seattle specifies a laudable goal of bringing more than 70 percent of the city’s population within a 10-minute walk of 10-minute all-day transit service. That’s something few cities are able to offer.

Image at top: From Flickr user Matt’ Johnson (cc).

Categories
Bus Finance New Orleans Streetcar

When transit service is substandard, can we plan for capital expansion?

» New Orleans fantasizes about new streetcar routes as its buses barely make the grade.

Public transportation expenditures are typically divided into two buckets: One for operations expenditures — the money that goes primarily to pay the costs of gas, electricity, and driver labor — and the other for capital investments, which sometimes means maintenance but often means new vehicles and system expansions. Because of the way in which these two buckets are funded, a transit agency that may be in dire straights in terms of paying for system expansions may be providing excellent, well-funded daily services. Or the opposite could be true. This is a consequence of the fact that federal transportation grant support, and also often local system revenues, are required to be spent in one of the two areas, with little ability to transfer funds between them. The division between capital and operations funding produces some strange dynamics and perverse incentives for transit agencies, and the results are not always ideal for the typical rider.

Take the example of New Orleans. Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was one of the most transit-reliant cities in the country, with more daily rides per capita on its transit system than Philadelphia, Seattle, Baltimore, or Portland. Of commuters, 14% took transit to work on an average weekday in 2000. By 2010, the figures had been slashed; just 7.5% of commuters took transit to work, according to the Census. The following map shows that this change occurred across the city.

Drag vertical line from left to right to see before and after (if this does not work for you, view the article in a web browser). “Before” image is from 2000, “after” from 2010. Images from Social Explorer.

The change in transit use has a lot to do with the changes in the city’s demographics before and after the storm; it has become slightly whiter and wealthier. But it also has a lot to do with the terrible transit service that the city has provided. A recent report from local transit advocacy group Ride New Orleans notes that only 36% of the transit trips offered in 2005 were available in 2012, despite a population that was 86% as large as it was in 2005. While in 2005, 80% of routes had scheduled headways of 30 minutes or less during peak hours (and 28% had peak headways of 15 minutes or less), in 2012, only 24% of routes were offered every at least 30 minutes and just 9 percent at least every fifteen minutes.

The result is the following map of service levels, from Ride New Orleans, which demonstrates clearly that service is simply unacceptable. The red routes in the map illustrate routes that serve customers with headways of more than 30 minutes. Only the green routes — which are the Canal-Cemetery and St. Charles Streetcar routes — come at least every fifteen minutes. Most of the city has truly insufficient transit options. Non-white neighborhoods have been particularly hard hit.

But people are streaming back into the buses and streetcars nonetheless. Trips per revenue hour, which measures service efficiency, are now almost as high as they were in the early 2000s and continue to rise. In fact, the New Orleans system now beats out what are considered respectable transit agencies in Miami, Minneapolis, and St. Louis on that count. And ridership continues to grow. Fortunately, Veolia — a private-sector* transport provider that runs New Orleans’ transit system under contract — has been expanding service to meet demand. In January, it added some new routes; in September, it is restoring service to an additional 13 routes. Things are looking up on the operational front, but the system will still be far less effective than it was before Katrina. Yet the city’s transport planners are also laying out plans for a different type of improvement: Many more streetcar lines running throughout the city, as illustrated in the map at the top of this article.

Last month, local planners revealed a $3.5 billion expansion plan that is contingent on securing funding from a number of sources. The proposal suggests 34 track-miles of new streetcar service by 2030, going far beyond the “Desire” streetcar that is currently partially under development along Rampart Street north of the French Quarter. A new line would extend north to the University of New Orleans; another east through the Lower Ninth Ward; a couple would flow through the central business district; and a connection would be made between the Canal and St. Charles Streetcars. It’s an appealing vision, particularly when combined with three new bus rapid transit and two light rail lines planners have also envisioned. And, like most U.S. regions, New Orleans’ transit investments so far have been substandard, so planning for the future is reasonable.

But it’s also a plan that comes across as incongruous with the rather disappointing state of the day-to-day bus services that most people rely upon. New Orleans’ plans for new transit expansions are in many ways the consequence of federal guidelines that guarantee that capital expansions will be pushed through whatever the state of regular operations. Because transit support from Washington, D.C. explicitly prevents spending on operations for most cities, it would be a mistake for New Orleans to pass up on the funds available for new construction.

Indeed, from a budgetary perspective, there is nothing about plans for new transit expansions that either prevent better operations or encourage it; operations and capital budgets might as well be coming from different agencies altogether. The Canal Street Streetcar is only ten years old, but its City Park/Museum branch only has trains operating every half hour, even at peak. The Loyola-UPT Streetcar, which opened last year, only provides service every 20 minutes, including at peak, not enough to allow people to rely on transit without having to consult a schedule, which should be a goal of transit operations planning.

What is the point of making the substantial investments in these capital projects if the city cannot guarantee that service on those lines will be offered acceptably? How can we be sure that all these new lines being proposed won’t receive similar mistreatment for the day-to-day user? New Orleans’ situation is not unique. Because local and state governments are expected to fund transit operations, the provision of service throughout the U.S. is highly inequitable; indeed, evidence suggests that poorer regions like New Orleans are simply unable to pay for the kinds of excellent day-to-day transit services that wealthier regions can. But both rich and poor regions are able to invest new lines, because the federal government commits to those projects. Whether these lines are funded to actually serve the people nearby, though, is another question.

One appropriate federal policy response might be to require that transit agencies receiving funds for major capital expansions guarantee that service on those new lines meets some minimum, such as headways of ten minutes or less during peak hours and fifteen minutes or less off-peak, as long as other system operations are not negatively affected. If transit agencies respond by suggesting that projected ridership doesn’t justify such service levels, perhaps such lines shouldn’t be funded at all.

* Confusingly, Veolia is a subsidiary of the French company Transdev, which is 50% owned by the French Caisse des Dépôts and 50% owned by Veolia Environnement. The Caisse is effectively a public bank controlled by the French government, and Veolia Environnement, which has some private investors, is also owned in part by the French state and in part by… the Caisse (9.3%). Which means that New Orleans’ public transit, oddly enough, is operated by a company whose primary owner is the French state. Globalization is confusing.

Categories
Portland St. Louis Streetcar Urbanism

Don’t Forget the Zoning

» Streetcar projects promise new development along their rights-of-way. But cities must allow new transit-oriented buildings to be built nearby. A look at St. Louis and Portland.

In the United States, streetcars have assumed a dramatic new prominence, in part because of increasing federal support. In dozens of cities, new lines are under construction, funded, or in planning thanks to local political leadership that recognizes the benefits of such investments in relatively cheap new rail lines. While streetcars are typically not the most efficient mobility providers — compared to light rail lines and often even buses, they are slower and more likely to be caught in traffic — they are promoted as development tools. Streetcars, it is said, will bring new construction and the densification of districts that are served by the new rail lines.

But streetcars alone aren’t enough to spur construction of residential and commercial buildings in neighborhoods with transit service. Just as important are the municipal regulations guiding new development. If zoning prevents large buildings around streetcar corridors, how exactly will streetcars lead to new construction?

A comparison of two streetcar projects — one soon to enter construction in St. Louis and the other about to open for service in Portland — shows that there are very different rules guiding what can be built in the two cities. The result may be that one city sees significant new growth along its corridor and the other sees very little, despite both projects being new streetcar lines. Other cities looking to extract value from their transportation investments should consider how their land use regulations may affect new construction.

St. Louis

Unlike most cities building new streetcar lines, St. Louis’ federally funded project will be constructed outside of downtown, in the Loop District four miles from the city center. The Loop Trolley will extend two miles from the Missouri History Museum at Forest Park, along DeBaliviere Avenue, and west along Delmar Boulevard into the independent municipality of University City. The route, which will be partially double tracked, will serve ten stops and is expected to attract about 800 riders per weekday (and 2,000 per weekend day) in the opening year, rising eventually to 2,600 riders a day by 2025.

The project suffers from many of the flaws of other streetcar lines throughout the country — it will have limited frequencies, a non-exclusive right-of-way, and a route that doesn’t directly serve the biggest destination in the area: Washington University.

More important, however, is the fact that zoning in both St. Louis and University City is not adequate to produce “urban infill and transit-oriented development along the route,” as project proponents claim the Trolley will encourage.

In the City of St. Louis, the blocks directly facing the streetcar route are mostly zoned for neighborhood commercial, commercial district, and multiple family dwelling areas. In these districts, buildings cannot exceed three stories or 45 to 50 feet. Non-residential buildings are limited to a floor area ratio (FAR) of just 1.5*. Meanwhile, non-pedestrian-oriented uses, such as drive-through restaurants, are allowed to be constructed. For residential buildings, developers are required to provide parking for one car per unit, and commercial structures over a size limit must provide parking as well.

In University City on the western section of the route, zoning is similarly restrictive. Half a block off the Delmar Loop, where the line runs, “core commercial” zoning is used. In these areas, residential units, bars, hotels, and more are allowed, but they require a conditional use permit from city hall to be installed — a needless complication for uses that are more than appropriate for this kind of area. Buildings are limited to just 35 feet in height, with the exception of certain buildings with large setbacks. But in a walkable area like this, it is more than appropriate to build taller structures right up to the sidewalk line. North of the streetcar corridor, high density residential zoning is in effect, but there no mixing of uses is allowed at all, and FAR is limited to 1 unless buildings are built on one acre or larger lots.

Just a block or two south of the route, in both St. Louis and University City, surrounding land is mostly zoned for single-family homes in “neighborhood preservation areas” that make a mix of land uses and increased building sizes almost impossible to construct.

In sum, even if developers are intrigued by the idea of building along the streetcar corridor, St. Louis’ project is likely to attract little actual construction because of city regulations that limit new construction. Developers wanting to build large structures will be limited by low height limits and requirements to get special permits to provide a mix of land uses. That should put a big question mark over how valuable the project will be from a land use perspective.

Portland

Portland’s streetcar, which has been in operation since 2001, has been the national model for such projects; combined with the city’s large MAX light rail network, it has offered this region a transit-friendly image. Thanks to an infusion of $75 million in federal funds, the city has built a $148 million, 3.3-mile extension that will open for service on September 22. The project is expected to roughly double existing ridership (now about 12,000 on a weekday) and attract 2.4 million square feet of development by serving the Lloyd District and Central Eastside neighborhoods, which are across the Willamette river from downtown. In these areas, there is currently a paucity of urban development and plenty of space for new construction. The project connects to the north end of the existing streetcar, runs across the river, runs south on Grand Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard to the Oregon Museum of Science and Indutry, and will eventually form a loop around the city center when it is connected with the south end of the existing streetcar in 2015.

Portland Streetcar Loop map, from Portland Streetcar

Like St. Louis’ line, Portland’s also has some transportation deficiencies. Rather than offering direct access into downtown, the route requires riders to take a circuitous journey to get there. Trains will run in a right-of-way shared with automobiles. Based on the schedule, trains will run through the area at just 7 mph, an absurdly slow pace even for a streetcar. Compounding the problem is that the service will only be provided into the Eastside at headways of 18 minutes (which is far worse than the 12-minute headways promised in 2008 for the project). If you miss a train, there is little point in waiting for the next one at those frequencies.

Nevertheless, Portland’s project offers far more opportunity for new development around the line than the St. Louis program. As shown in the images below, very high densities — up to an FAR of 12 in the Lloyd District but at least 5 everywhere — are allowed in the blocks directly surrounding the new streetcar extension, and very little has been built there so far, so there are many opportunities for growth. The top image should make us question whether some areas along the existing streetcar loop, such as the Pearl District, deserve to see a serious up-zoning to allow for increasing new development.

Above: The degree to which blocks surrounding Portland Streetcar and extension have been developed. Below: Allowed floor-area ratios by block. Source: City of Portland

With the densities allowed in Portland, significant new construction in the Eastside areas will be possible. Based on previous trends in the city, such development seems likely. In downtown Census tracts (on the west side of the river), the total population has increased massively since 1980, going from 8,671 then to 17,789 in 2010; about half of that increase was between 2000 and 2010 alone. That kind of growth would have been impossible without the increase in transportation options made possible through the construction of the city’s streetcar and light rail systems.

Meanwhile, though the percentage of people living in those areas using private cars to get to work has increased since 1980, when just 26% did (following the national trend), it has declined from 38.3% in 1990 to 36.9% in 2010, indicating that the new development is attracting people who want to live without cars on a daily basis. That’s a success that seems likely to be continued with the streetcar extension.

———

Transportation engineers are loath to support new streetcar lines because they cannot understand why it makes sense to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in a rail line when a far cheaper bus service would provide similar, or even more, mobility benefits. From the pure perspective of moving people from one place to another, streetcars are irrational investments.

Some Portland residents have expressed concerns that the streetcar has been excessively subsidized even as bus routes have faced service cuts and increasing fares because of declining revenue. If transportation spending were simply about helping people move around, these would be entirely legitimate claims.

But we can overlook the technical deficiencies of these two streetcar projects by emphasizing their development impacts. The point of the St. Louis and Portland projects is not necessarily to attract many users (though the latter line likely will), but rather to develop a culture of transit use in dense neighborhoods where dependence upon the automobile is not a necessity. Portland has demonstrated that a fixed-route streetcar can encourage development around stops quite effectively, and thus if it is the goal of a city to increase the density of its core areas, streetcars can be a useful tool.

Without appropriate zoning, however, the value of a streetcar project declines tremendously. In places where regulations make building large, mixed-use buildings difficult, transportation projects that will not do much to improve mobility will be incapable of encouraging much construction either.

* A FAR of 2, for example, means if you have a lot of 10,000 square feet, you can build 20,000 square feet of building on site. In an urban district, a building with a FAR of 2 might have 3 to 4 stories, depending on setbacks and surrounding yard areas.

Image at top: Portland Streetcar and MAX light rail line cross path, from Portland Streetcar

Categories
Fort Lauderdale France Light Rail Metz Streetcar

Commitment to Tramways Makes France a World Model for New Urban Rail

» Over the past twelve years, the total route mileage of tramways systems in France has multiplied by five — at a cost reasonable even for small cities.

Last weekend, the city of Brest, on the far western coast of France, opened its new tramway, a 14.3-km (8.9-mile) line that connects the center city to the west and northeast. 50,000 daily riders are expected in a city of about 140,000 inhabitants. This Friday, Orléans, an even smaller city in central France, will open its second, 11.3-km tramway line. The first already attracts about 40,000 daily users.

These two cities are far from alone in France. Across the country, cities large and small have adopted the construction of modern tramways* to bring their citizens a modern form of public transportation that has led to improved circulation, more convenient networks, and renovated downtowns. Like American streetcars, these tramways operate at the ground level, usually without grade separation from automobile traffic, making them relatively cheap to build; on the other hand, like American light rail, tramways operate within their own rights-of-way and they feature long trainsets that can carry the equivalent of four busloads or more — in other words, they actually improve transit capacity and performance.

The appeal of tramways is easy to understand. The electric vehicles are silent, modern-looking, and entirely flat-floor. Their tracks can be nestled in a lawn, creating a grass median through which trains run; if done right, they can be used as a tool to restore the beauty of an urban boulevard, rather than deface it, as do some light rail lines traveling on grade-separated track. In some cities, like Nice, Bordeaux, and Orléans, vehicles have been designed with batteries that allow them to travel some distance (such as across a historic square) without the need for overhead catenary wire. In virtually every case, tramways in France have been specifically located on major bus corridors, in order to replace overcrowded routes with higher capacity services.

France is not alone in using trams, of course; Germany, notably, has dozens of such systems across the country, as do Switzerland, the Netherlands, and others. But as of late, France’s cities have made an unparalleled investment in the mode. While France had virtually no historic tramways left by the 1980s outside of short routes in Marseille, Lille, and St. Etienne, by the end of this year, 25 cities will have such networks and 29 will by 2016, as the map above shows. And most of this construction has occurred since 2000, with an increase from 124.7 km nationwide to 624.1 km (388 miles) by the end of this year, a 400% increase. In 2010, 2011, and 2012 alone, 160.2 km will have been built.

As shown in the chart below, seven cities account for about half of all tramway route kilometers in the country. Lyon and Montpellier have expanded most quickly, each adding more than 56 km since 2000, with Bordeaux and the Paris region adding 40 km each in the same period. Paris and its suburbs will add another 54.3 km to the network by 2014.

In France as a whole, these tramways currently carry about 2.8 million riders a day, compared to about 1.6 million daily riders on all U.S. light rail and streetcar systems. These riders appear to be attracted to trams above and beyond what had previously been offered through bus service. In Lyon, four tram lines opened since 2000 have brought in a considerable numbers of users; the rail system attracted 58 million riders in 2010. But the city’s transit network as a whole grew by 86 million riders between 2000 and 2010 (an increase of 30%), meaning that the new trams were not simply moving people from buses into trains. In other words, the investment in rail appears to be paying off in terms of moving people into public transportation who used to be using some other mode of travel. That, again, is not a surprise: It is not only enjoyable to travel by tramway, but such service is also usually faster and more comfortable than equivalent bus service.

The focus in France has been on urban tramway networks, especially compared to the previously fashionable automated metro networks. Though those systems — built using VAL technology in Toulouse, Lille, and Rennes — were seen as the future of French rail systems in the 1980s, their high construction costs caused by the complete grade separations they require makes them less them adaptable to the needs of less populous urban areas that may be able to instead afford a tramway line. Indeed, this is the point: Through the widespread use of tramways, France is providing new urban rail systems to dozens of cities that in another context would not be able to afford the costs of trains. In the process, cities across the country are experiencing significantly improved transit that is attracting more and more riders.

Trams are not always cheap; the Brest line, for instance, cost about €40 million per mile to build, or $50 million per mile. Some cities, like Besançon in eastern France, have been able to limit costs to about $35 million per mile. Even that may be more than one might hope for steel implanted in concrete.

But in the American context, those costs come across as reasonable. The U.S. Department of Transportation revealed its latest TIGER discretionary grants last week. The one streetcar project that got the nod was the Wave in Fort Lauderdale, which will cost $83.2 million (of which the federal government will pay $18 million) for 1.4 miles of track — that’s $59 million per mile. In exchange, the Florida city will get a rail line that attracts an estimated 2,800 riders a day thanks mostly to the short, tourist-oriented route where virtually no bus ridership currently exists. The streetcar will have to share its right-of-way with cars and the vehicles themselves will be around 66 feet long, just a bit longer than an articulated bus. Stations are likely to be slightly improved bus shelters.

The other streetcar systems currently being built in the U.S. have all the same limitations — and many of them are very expensive, too: Cincinnati’s line will cost $50 million per mile to build, Seattle’s $53 million per mile, and Atlanta’s $72 million per mile. At these costs, American cities should be pushing for their streetcars to work a bit more like French tramways.

… Or even French buses. In Metz, in eastern France, the city is investing in a very innovative bus system called Mettis that is currently under construction and expected to open in September next year at a cost of €170 million for 17.8 kilometers of service — or about $19 million per mile. That would be expensive for a bus line if the system was bus rapid transit in the non-rapid form BRT too often takes. But Mettis will be a new breed, so much like a tramway that it will be hard to differentiate its vehicles and alignment from that of a rail service.

Metz Mettis Busway Rendering

Bus or tramway?

Mettis’ two lines will use 79-foot hybrid buses (that, I remind you, is quite a bit longer than an American streetcar) specially constructed by Van Hool. They will feature four large doors and provide complete low-floor service to the platforms being planned for the large stations, as rendered above. The system is being built to accomodate future electrification through energy transfer at stops, though that technology is not yet fully developed.

86% of the Mettis corridor will operate within its own right-of-way and vehicles will get transit signal priority. Certain journeys are expected to see reduced travel times of about 40%. No wonder 36,000 riders are eventually expected to use the service daily.

We could take these examples of successful French investments in modern transit systems to lament the high costs and limited utility of too many American rail and even BRT projects (if we need another reminder, Maryland has been discussing spending upwards of $60 million a mile on a BRT line). But there are more positive lessons to learn. If we are planning to spend tens of millions of dollars on a new rail line, is it too much to ask that it be placed in its own right-of-way and be given high quality amenities? Is it reasonable to suggest that an investment in a 1.5-mile line is simply not long enough in itself to actually attract a significant number of commuters? Are there ways to make bus services as appealing as rail lines, at a lower price?

* Note that in this post, I have defined trams on tire as tramways. (These are located in Caen, Clermont, Nancy, and, by the end of this year, outside of Paris). This does not include significantly improved bus systems, such as Metz’s, but does include systems with electric catenary and a fixed guideway.