Streetcars Ahead

Streetcars (trams, tramcars, trolleys, trolley cars) are a very interesting mode of public transit that has been around for a long time, and is beginning to gain popularity. Many cities that had/have streetcars are re-introducing them back into their public transit, and mode choice seems to drum up the most public interest and debate. There is an obvious understanding of difference between “bus” and “rail”, but there is room between commuter trains/subways and conventional buses for something else. As technology develops, there has been a blurring of lines between different modes of rail transit, and what advantages might be conferred by one mode or the other.

What is a Streetcar, Anyway?

As with many discussions, before delving into any sort of analysis or investigation on the usefulness of streetcars,  it’s important to start by very carefully defining what I’m really talking about.

Streetcar is a North American term for a Tram. These are rail vehicles, and they run on tracks at street level, in a variety of mixed and exclusive right-of-way configurations. I am also going to add one more condition: streetcars run as single-car trains.

With that definition, what I have in mind are more like the streetcars as seen in Toronto, like this:

There is a more generic term which encompasses a number of what I think are distinct modes of transportation: light rail transit (LRT). To me, LRT involves higher speeds, longer trains, fewer stops, and more exclusive right-of-way scenarios than streetcars are practical for. In reality, many of these vehicles are capable of operating as one “mode” or the other, and because of this the line often gets blurred. For this discussion, I am going to stick to the above definition, partly because that definition allows for the best comparison with buses.

Streetcar or Bus?

It’s always easy to try and compare modes of transportation. It’s much easier to wax poetic about the advantages or disadvantages of this mode or that, while it gets boring and tedious to talk about “this route or that”. Remember, it’s just one part of transportation planning. If you can’t get the rest right, then this comparison is moot.

All that being said, here’s how I think buses and streetcars are really similar:

  • Use existing streets – While streetcars require some additional infrastructure, both can generally operate using existing street layouts; there is not a requirement to tear down buildings and change the street configurations to put in a streetcar line because of their ability to make sharp turns and access narrow roadways. Buses, of course, can run on almost any street.
  • Passenger Load – For the streetcars under my definition, the number of passengers carried is very similar.
  • Subject to traffic congestion – Both modes are at the mercy of the congestion on the street, which is a symptom of any transit operations in mixed traffic. Yes, streetcars can be placed on “priority lanes”, but then again so can buses.

There are some areas where buses have an advantage. Buses are generally more flexible to planning changes – it’s a whole lot easier to move a bus stop to another block or route a bus down another street than it is to rip up track embedded in the street as well as moving the wires used to supply power. Buses can also navigate around accidents, while streetcars can be held for quite some time until the track is cleared. In that sense, buses are still the most flexible and permeable transit mode.

But streetcars have an important place: they operate more like a rapid transit bus systems. Rail service, more than bus, benefit from the positive feedback that longer stop spacing provides faster travel service, which will increase attraction and raise demand. Rail service is smoother and more comfortable, in part due to the way power is supplied and used by electric vehicles. Streetcars can more efficiently use electricity, and depending on how it is produced, a streetcar network can be more energy efficient than a comparable bus network. They also have an advantage, at least in North America, that we have (generally) learned to accept that rail transport should be given some form of right-of-way, and are more amenable to accommodate that than we are with a bus.

It’s always a local decision, with local variables. There are plenty of examples where streetcars should be and aren’t, and just as many examples of where streetcars are, and shouldn’t be. Hopefully there are also plenty of places where streetcars are the right fit. As always, no mode is always “better” than another, for all purposes. In the end, mode choice is only one of many aspects of good transit planning.

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