Streetcar Comeback in America! Why?
by John Smatlak All Photos by John Smatlak
What is a Streetcar?
"Streetcar" refers to local public transportation using electric vehicles that run on rails. Streetcars (called "Tramways" in Europe) are generally designed to provide short-trip urban circulation, and the vehicles and infrastructure are optimized accordingly. The streetcar alignment can be located in shared traffic lanes or on a segregated right-of-way if one is available. Vehicles typically consist of a single unit, ranging from restored heritage cars to modern multi-section articulated designs from Europe and Japan.
Streetcars are part of the ongoing renaissance which is bringing new life to American (and the world's) urban centers; as more and more Americans return to the city, the need for new urban transportation solutions grows ever more important. Transportation is the key to creating great public places- and cities across the country are taking a new look at an old idea, the city streetcar. Whether the streetcar is heritage or modern, the goal of helping build livable communities remains the same.
Vintage Trolley vehicles bring their own unique aspects to the table, providing an authentic historic trolley experience that mixes urban transportation with visitor entertainment. The ratio of this mixture varies widely; on some systems the vintage trolleys really are providing a full-fledged transportation function, the vehicles just happen to have an historic theme!
Why are Cities Building Streetcar Systems Again?
Streetcar projects are typically driven by the need to rejuvenate the urban public space. The coming of the streetcar can help transform the face of the city; the streetcar provides attractive short-trip urban circulation and becomes a formative component in reshaping the public space. A streetcar is a proven way to attract "choice" riders (riders who have ready access to a car and are not transit dependent), a significant advantage over rubber-tired alternatives. By connecting together key activity centers, parking and other forms of transit with convenient service levels, the streetcar becomes the key to creating a vibrant cityscape that is attractive to all. Visitors and residents alike can leave their cars behind and see and do more within a given district when a convenient streetcar service connects destinations together. Stops are spaced relatively close together, and the streetcar thus becomes a "pedestrian accelerator", facilitating trips that are part walking, part streetcar.
In addition to their mobility benefits, streetcars have an excellent track record of being a catalyst for positive urban change when integrated with land use policy and greater coordination of all transport modes. The fixed nature of the rail infrastructure implies permanence- it's going to be there as a community resource for the long run. This can be a key ingredient in helping communities maximize public/private investment. The streetcar is also highly visible, has an easily understood route, and the quiet, pollution-free electric vehicles blend in well with the community.
Streetcar systems are also much less expensive to build and operate than conventional rail systems. Infrastructure is simpler, consistent with the lower speeds and circulator function. Because it is easily integrated into the built urban environment, streetcars cost significantly less per mile than higher capacity, longer-distance Light Rail systems. Both have their roles to play in the public transit arena of course, and some cities are using a streetcar as a precursor to a new Light Rail system, offering a low-cost "demonstrator" line that can later be extended or incorporated into a larger system. Some systems might also be considered hybrid Streetcar/Light Rail, incorporating aspects of both approaches including sections where tracks are segregated from roadway traffic to achieve higher operating speeds.
Accompanying the growing interest in streetcar systems, the marketplace now has many choices in new streetcar vehicles. Whether a replica "heritage" car from companies such as Gomaco or Brookville, or a "modern" car from Alstom, AnsaldoBreda, Bombardier, CAF, Inekon, Kawasaki, Kinki-Sharyo, Siemens, Skoda, Stadler, United Streetcar, vehicles are readily available. Entire fleets of replica heritage cars have also been produced in-house; the New Orleans RTA partnered with suppliers and built 23 of its own cars in 2002. Other cities, such as Philadelphia, opted for a total rebuild of vintage PCC type streetcars, stripping them to a shell and applying new equipment to create what is essentially a new car. Costs for a replica car currently begin around $900,000 for an air conditioned double-truck vehicle (using rebuilt vintage running gear and modern control equipment). A typical diesel transit bus costs about half as much, but has a shorter service life (17 years vs. 25 for trolley / streetcar / LRV). A modern light rail vehicle or modern streetcar costs between $3.5 and $4.5M.
Check the Replica Trolley Cars page (above link) for a complete roster of all replica heritage cars built to date, with facts and figures (including cost) on each.
Gomaco replica heritage car Capacity: 88 passengers;
44 seated, 44 standing
New Vehicles: Heritage or Modern?
New streetcar vehicles can be purchased in either "Modern" or "Heritage" form. Modern and Heritage streetcars both utilize essentially the same infrastructure; the tracks and overhead wire are easily integrated into the built urban environment using relatively low-impact construction techniques. Both Heritage and Modern cars can be air conditioned, and both can provide a comfortable ride given the short trip times involved.
There are differences in the vehicles to be sure; when designed together with a simple boarding platform, Modern Streetcars provide level boarding, and of course they offer the ultra-modern appearance and performance one would expect from today's technology. Some cities (such as Portland) have operated both Heritage and Modern cars on the same route. There are also significant differences in vehicle cost and complexity, a modern replica car selling from about $900,000 and a modern articulated streetcar at between $3.5 - 4.5M (the vehicle is also larger, see sidebar). It should also be noted that the technology gap is narrowing, with replica heritage cars becoming increasingly modern "under the hood".
At the beginning of the US Streetcar revolution, the replica heritage cars also provided a Buy America-compliant solution for US agencies. In 2010, a lot has changed; almost all of the major world suppliers are preparing (or are already able) to provide Modern Streetcar vehicles that will meet Buy America. In Canada, Toronto is in the process of buying more than 200 new 100% low-floor streetcars from Bombardier to completely re-equip their fleet. Also, United Streetcar has now introduced a US-manufactured version of the Inekon streetcar. The APTA Streetcar Subcommittee is helping to develop guidelines for the introduction of Modern Streetcar vehicles in North America, check out the ModernStreetcar.org website for more details.
In the final analysis, a host of local factors will play into the decision of which vehicle type should be used, but both can provide effective urban circulation that is attractive to riders and helps promote livable cities. Click here for a presentation given at the 2007 APTA Rail Transit Conference exploring this topic further (1.9M pdf file).
For a sampling of European tramway systems and vehicles, check out these excellent photo websites:
Trams in France
RailfanEurope.net picture gallery
Capacity: 178 passengers; 50 seated 128 standing
Capacity: 156 passengers;
30 seated, 127 standing
For more information
For more background information on streetcars, Reconnecting America has published an excellent book entitled "Street Smart: Streetcars and Cities in the 21st Century", available via their website. Also check out the APTA Streetcar & Heritage Trolley website and the ModernStreetcar.org website from the APTA Streetcar Subcommittee. There is also the Light Rail Transit Association website from the UK, and LRTA publishes a phenomenal monthly magazine "Tramways & Urban Transit".
For an interesting discussion of streetcars in the context of urban planning, check out the streetcar and rail transit-related content on the Human Transit Blog. Another good read is "Bring Back the Streetcars, A Conservative Vision of Tomorrow's Transportation" by Paul Weyrich and William Lind.
For additional information on the advantages of rail transit in general, browse over to the Light Rail Now! website.
check out our Report from InnoTrans 2010 in Berlin for information on
the expo and some photographs of Berlin's world-renowned transit system.