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‘Streetcars’ vs. Light Rail September 13, 2012

Samuel L. Scheib, editor of Trip Planner magazine, argues here that so-called ‘streetcars’, trams which actually run in the street with the cars, are not so much ‘public transit’ in the manner of light rail as a tourist amenity and should be funded privately. Two private short ‘streetcar’ lines in Los Angeles [the one at the Grove and the one at Americana Brand in Glendale] are actually run by the shopping center. The new ‘streetcar’ in Tampa runs from the cruise ship dock to the historic Ybor City district and is basically of use to tourists more than most residents. In Portland, the ‘streetcar’ does not belong to TriMet, the transit agency that controls all the other metros and buses of Portland. [Scheib mentions nothing about the cable cars of San Francisco, the ultimate tourist transit system, but of course San Francisco has two other rail systems, the ‘light’ Muni and the ‘heavy’ BART, that are quite different from the cable cars.]

What we call ‘light rail’ today first appeared in postwar Germany, where it was necessary to reconstruct urban life quickly, and was called Stadtbahn in German. Scheib writes,

Stadtbahn ran at street grad but was isolated from other traffic; had multiple cars, each with one or two double-width doors that would all open together at platforms to board and alight; and relied on fares that were paid off the vehicle, checked by roving inspectors. Stops – stations really – were spaced between a half mile and a mile apart. It was fast, efficient, relatively inexpensive, and entirely new to the transit world.

Because laying rails is expensive, and there is a certain lack of flexibility because vehicles are tied by definition to the rails and cannot just cut across country, so to speak, there are lines that have attempted to approach a bus equivalent of Stadtbahn, called BRT, standing for Bus Rapid Transit, in the trade, and by me ‘virtual rail’. Of course, now that I’ve read this, I should start calling streetcars, as opposed to light rail, ‘virtual buses’.

I find light rail and ‘virtual rail’ a lot easier to use than buses and ‘virtual buses’, because

1. The maps are cleaner and easier to read and make plans from,

2. You can usually buy your ticket before you get on, from some machine or person that actually makes change [this is important for people who don’t ride on a daily basis], and

3. If the trains or virtual rail buses run fairly infrequently, they will usually post schedules and you can do calculations.

The dominant camp on the right today tends to regard public transit as a boondoggle, though there are exceptions such as William Lind; Lind has actually argued that fixed rail is superior because it encourages real estate investment at stops, because it can’t be changed easily, and sometimes the same might be true of virtual rail lines like LA’s Orange Line from North Hollywood to Chatsworth if they require a certain level of permanent infrastructure that is not easily abandoned.

Scheib thinks some of the best places for public transit, and even streetcars, are university towns, where students are used to walking anyway and like to hang out in the downtown.

Incidentally, Scheib also writes about the craze for ‘pedestrian malls’; these stayed pedestrian where there was either a strong downtown or a university, or in the case of San Antonio, a water feature. I did a post on Pomona, California, which was one of the first, and was reopened to autos in the 1970s, though the Millard Sheets decorations remain [see last paragraph].

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