The Streetcar Surge

Streetcars, popular again in a growing number of cities, have the potential to be a vital part of urban transportation systems.
December 1, 2007 AT 3:00 AM
Alex Marshall
By Alex Marshall  |  Columnist
Senior Fellow at The Regional Plan Association in New York City

In the history of currency, there is Gresham's Law: Bad money drives out good.

I suspect there is a similar law at work with language that says bad words drive out good ones. A nice evocative word like "library" becomes "media center." "Typing" morphs into "word processing." And most pertinent here, "streetcar," "trolley" and "tram" become "light rail."

It bugs me that such an awkward, engineering-specific term -- light rail -- has become the common one for the trains that run on fixed rails with overhead electric wires that have been built in dozens of cities across the United States. (The term comes from the fact that light rail is an alternative to "heavy rail" systems -- subways or inter-city trains that weigh more and can carry more people.) I support the mass transit systems, but who could love something as soulless as "light rail"?

Maybe that's why dozens of cities are building new streetcar lines. Charlotte, Little Rock, Memphis and Tampa, to name a few, are putting either vintage or antique cars on their streetcar lines or even brand-new cars with the sharp, clean angles that resemble those you see on light-rail lines. They join cities such as New Orleans that never got rid of their old streetcar lines in the first place.

And how does a streetcar or trolley differ from a light rail line? Interestingly, there is no magic divide that separates one from another. Both ride on rails, are relatively light and are powered electrically. But light rail tends to have more cars, make fewer stops, run longer distances, have a dedicated right of way and, most significant, cost a lot more to build. It is estimated that streetcar lines cost about a third as much to build per mile as comparable light-rail lines. As the streetcar companies of yore knew, they are relatively easy to build. Strip away a layer of street, install some tracks, re-lay the asphalt and you're good to go. Once you buy some cars, of course.

Streetcars have advantages over buses, which are the usual lower-cost alternative to rail. They offer a smoother ride, can travel at higher speeds and are far more beloved by customers. As significant, they generally attract more private development because rails in the street have a permanence that inspires confidence in commercial and residential developers.

It's hard to believe that streetcars used to run in every major and most minor U.S. cities. The old Brooklyn Dodgers, originally called "the Trolley Dodgers," got their name because of all the streetcars that fans had to look out for. These streetcar lines created streetcar suburbs, a type of urban design that in many ways undergirds New Urbanism and other classic revival towns. The streetcar suburbs that bloomed for the few decades on both sides of 1900 tended to have two- and three-story single-family homes and apartment buildings built near shopping streets that sprang up around the streetcar lines. Commerce always gathers around the principal means of transportation. Many of those shopping streets are still there, palimpsests that show the legacy of the old streetcars.

To be sure, streetcars are not a major factor in the overall transportation picture. With the exception of Portland (Oregon), San Francisco and New Orleans, streetcars in most cities fill niche markets of tourism and travel. But when combined with good land use policy and good urban design, streetcars could once again be a vital part of an urban transportation system.

That's how it is in Portland, the urban mecca that is showing once again it is the leader in the country in transportation, land use policy and urban design. The city's streetcar line -- now six miles long -- has taken the place of a much more expensive light-rail line and is a vital part of the regular transportation system. It's not just, or even principally, for tourists.

Streetcars are an example of what the management gurus used to call low-hanging fruit. Relatively cheap, they can be installed on the streets where they used to run, and be a part of re-orienting city streets away from cars and back to people. In Portland, streetcars are accompanying a big bicycle movement. That's a good trend as well.

If we can have a rapid streetcar, how about just abandoning that term light rail completely? I'll meet you at the trolley, the tram or the train.

Alex Marshall
Alex Marshall | Columnist |