It's a big day for streetcars. Portland has released its draft Streetcar System Concept Plan, an ambitious vision for extending the city's popular downtown streetcar all over the city. There are similar plans underway in Seattle, Minneapolis, and many other cities.
WARNING: This article contains an observation about streetcars that is not entirely effusive. It may provoke hostile reactions from some streetcar enthusiasts. It would probably be better for my transit planning career if I didn't make this observation, but unfortunately it seems to be true, and very important, and not widely acknowledged or understood. So I'm going to say it.
- Capacity. In other urban contexts, rail transit is important for its ability to carry large number of riders per vehicle, and hence per driver, usually by combining cars into trainsets. Modern streetcars generally cannot be run as trainsets, but the still have some advantage over buses in this area; they have a capacity of around 200 compared to 120 for a typical articulated bus. This capacity advantage can be relevant in high-volume situations, particularly when frequencies get down to the three-minute range. However. most streetcars now under discussion are not this frequent. Portland's Streetcar System Plan, for example, envisions mostly frequencies of 10-15 minutes, and at these levels the frequency is driven by a service quality standard, not a capacity requirement.
- Existing rail rights-of-way. A proposed streetcar project in Vancouver involves using a piece of existing rail line, as does the small line in Kenosha, Wisconsin. In this case, the streetcar can obviously do something important that a bus can't.
- I'm not disputing the ridership benefits of streetcars. Streetcars do attract more ridership than the buses they replace, though it's not always clear why. There's an urgent need for more research on how much of the ridership benefits of a streetcar are truly results of intrinsic benefits of the streetcar (such as the ride quality, the legibility provided by tracks in the street, etc) as opposed to results of other improvements introduced at the same time (including speed and reliability improvements, better public information, off-board fare collection, and possible differences in operations culture).
- I'm not saying that streetcars don't promote urban development; clearly they seem to be doing that, though there's room for disagreement about how much the development really requires the streetcar.
- I'm not saying that electric streetcars aren't quieter and more environmentally friendly than diesel buses; clearly they are, but if this is your only reason for wanting streetcars, electric trolleybuses may meet your need less expensively.
- I'm not saying that streetcars aren't fun to ride. They are.
- low floors completely level with the platform.
- reduced noise.
- off-board fare collection so that buses board and alight at all doors.
- seating configurations that emphasize fewer seats and higher standing capacity (standing is widely accepted for the fairly short trips we're discussing here)
- wider doors for fast boarding and alighting.
- signal priority systems.
- guidance technologies that enable buses to dock precisely with platforms for level boarding without much of a gap, sufficient for wheelchair boardings.
- major infrastrucure investments, including architecturally substantial stations and sometimes painted lanes, that create the "legibility" that is supposedly offered only by tracks in the street.
- aggressive research toward new propulsion systems that can be powered from within the vehicle, eliminating the need for either diesel engines or an overhead electric power source.