Cities across the country are going retro with transportation by launching streetcars. However, streetcars are generating lots of controversy about their relative value to serve public transit needs.
Streetcars have been around for some 200 years, beginning with horse-drawn cars ("horsecars"), evolving to steam power, pulled by cables in the ground (San Francisco cable cars), and eventually powered by electricity from overhead lines. They've been called trams and trolleys, and sometimes disparaged for being slow and noisy.
But there's also something romantic about them streetcars, and they've been featured in movies and songs. When I was a wee lad in New York, I might have ridden a streetcar in Manhattan or Brooklyn, and I've ridden them in New Orleans and San Francisco as well as the trams in Europe. Although my heartstrings didn't go zing, zing, zing, the rides in San Francisco provided a pleasant enough tourist experience, while the New Orleans and European streetcars were and remain useful transit options.
A few years ago, the Obama Administration began providing funds , such as TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grants, for new public transportation systems, including streetcars. That's why many US cities are now rolling out new lines.
The new streetcars are often a far cry from the handful of vintage lines in a few US cities and many in Europe. They look closer to traditional light rail cars, which are sleek and sport large windows. In fact, streetcars are often considered a light rail form of transportation.
Like light rail, they typically provide a smoother, quieter, more comfortable ride for passengers than buses. But unlike light rail, streetcars are often a lot less expensive to install, and many times less expensive than subways. That's some of the good news.
Some of the bad news is streetcar systems are much more expensive to implement than just adding additional buses. Also, streetcars run on tracks, so they can't travel on the regular surfaces if there's an accident or traffic backup. They just have to wait until the problem is resolved. Buses can switch lanes to avoid tie-ups.
In addition, streetcars often share the same road as vehicles, so there's no fast track (sorry, pun) to avoid heavy traffic. Sometimes streetcars move along a separate vehicle-free lane, like traditional light rail. At least one report illustrates that streetcars are a slow form of public transportation.
However, proponents cite an advantage for cities beyond transportation: business development. In fact, that might be the most important advantage. Streetcars require city infrastructure, such as in-ground metal tracks and overhead electrical lines, that connote a certain amount of permanence. Unlike buses that can be easily removed to other neighborhoods, streetcars imply to business people that the line will remain.
That means retailers and real estate developers for apartment buildings and houses have more confidence that streetcar traffic will continue. Increased development also means more jobs and additional tax revenues for cities.
Portland, a poster child for liberal and green construction, has profited from more business along its streetcars. Streetcar boosters in other cities are touting the business benefits. But business also could be sparked by other new transportation systems such as light rail trains, bus rapid transit systems, and subways. And those systems are much faster and often travel greater distances than streetcars.
Streetcars can succeed in Europe because they are firmly integrated as a major component of a country's overall transportation ecosystem, often travel in a lane separate from traffic, and serve populations that are more attuned towards public transit than America's car-oriented culture.
In the US, such cities as Arlington, Va.; Cincinnati; Charlotte; Dallas; Detroit; Fort Lauderdale; Milwaukee; Kansas City; Minneapolis; Oklahoma City; Salt Lake City; San Antonio; Seattle; Tacoma, Wash.; Tucson, Ariz.; and Washington, D.C. are planning or recently launching new streetcars. The jury is still out on whether streetcars are better for cities and residents than other forms of transportation.
Based on my research, it appears that other public transportation systems in the US might make more sense financially and for efficient transportation. But as long as lobbyists ply their trade for funds, cities are willing, and there aren't any horror stories, streetcar implementation will continue.
I hadn't heard of Antoni Gaudi, so I looked him up. Some very interesting buildings. Also, his failure to receive prompt care speaks to the inherent bias of many humans who are less interested in providing care to poor people. (At least I carry some ID!) But that's another subject....
Still, totally noise-free transportation can be dangerous. I assume it will be discussed in the years ahead as new types of [silent] transportation are developed.
Gaudí killed by a streetcar "the problem of silent electric cars (they can cause accidents)"
I just remembered that Antoni Gaudí, the famous Catalan architect. was killed by a tram in 1926, when he was walking to church. Since he didn't carry ID and was dressed poorly people assumed he was a beggar, and did not received innmediate attention. When he was taken to the hospital it was too late.
Thanks for the info. I didn't realize sound was an important consideration in streetcars/trams. However, since I've discussed in this blog's comments the problem of silent electric cars (they can cause accidents) with CitySolver, I guess I should have considered it further. I don't remember reading a single article even mentioning the importance of noise (or lack thereof) for streetcars, although most of what I've read focused on U.S. developments.
Also, the U.S. is known not only for its large number of roads but also for their number of lanes. As a big fan of public transportation (and bicycles), I've written a bit about techniques use to slow the speed of cars and trucks, such as purposely constructing winding roads. Some U.S. cities are using these techniques, especially as more milliennials and seniors move to the cities for, among other things, walkability. It's definitely why I have have always been a big city guy.
Perfect for city center "Streetcars can succeed in Europe because they are firmly integrated as a major component of a country's overall transportation ecosystem, often travel in a lane separate from traffic, and serve populations that are more attuned towards public transit than America's car-oriented culture."
Alan, one of the main advantages of trams is silence. That is why many European cities are re-installing them to use in the city center. And overhead lines are no longer a problem, as the city of Seville has demostrated.
European cities have longer discovered that they can't absorb more cars, and they are reducing lanes and street parking to discourage motorists. The installation of tram lines goes well with these policies.
I've taken very few electric buses and there aren't many around my Washington, D.C. area. I wouldn't be surprised if batteries would allow them much more freedom from overhead lines. In general I prefer subways and regular light rail, but I'll take what I need to get places. My area has good public transportation with several modes, including a District/Maryland/Virginia bike share program.
Re: Minor issue Alan, I was thinking about this issue (the trolley power connector losing contact and stranding the electric bus) and I realized I was revealing my age... I think that the modern versions of electic buses are more likely to use a big battery and wireless recharging, and so they will be able to navigate several miles away from their primary route.
Re: Minor issue I have to cross train tracks on my bicycle on a regular basis. If you are too close to being parallel with the tracks they WILL guide your bicycle tire into the groove and you may very likely lose control. But if you use a little common sense and go across instead of along the tracks you will be fine. I seriously doubt that the weather conditions will affect this very much. Wet tracks will make it harder for the train, or streetcar, to stop...just like wet roads make it harder for the non-tracked vehicles to stop.
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