PHOTOS: Can Streetcars Revive the Glory Days of Urban Transit?

Once America's most popular form of urban transit, streetcars practically disappeared but have returned to cities with a vengeance.
by | January 17, 2014

This year, the city of Tucson, Ariz., will begin running streetcars every 10 minutes between the University of Arizona and downtown. It's the city's first modern rail transit system and is already creating a buzz of economic development in what's considered a typical American sprawl city of 524,000 people.

Streetcars, once America's most popular form of urban transit at the start of the 20th century, practically disappeared but have returned to urban centers with a vengeance. Today, there are seven fully fledged streetcar systems in the country, according to the American Public Transportation Association, with numerous heritage trolley lines scattered about the country. Heritage lines are either new streetcars that are built to look old or old streetcars that have been refurbished. The list of cities with streetcar lines under construction is growing longer. Besides Tucson, there's Charlotte, N.C.; Cincinnati, Ohio; Fort Lauderdale,Fla.; Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.; with at least another 30 cities that have streetcar projects in various planning stages.

Streetcars differ from light rail in several ways: They operate in city traffic, rather than on their own right of way; they typically operate a single car and run at local speed limits; they make frequent stops and travel for short distances -- often just 1 to 3 miles; and they're less expensive to build than light rail systems, costing as little as $25 million per mile, in some cases.

Both streetcars and light rail differ greatly from heavy rail, or subway lines, which cost significantly more per mile to build; run on tracks that are either underground or elevated; carry far more passengers and run longer trains with much greater frequency.

Governing transportation columnist Alex Marshall calls streetcars the "low-hanging fruit" of transportation: "Relatively cheap, they can be installed on the streets where they used to run and be part of reorienting city streets away from cars and back to people."

This photo gallery is our salute to the comeback kid of urban transit: America's streetcar.

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