Streetcar lines are being built all over America — but what does it take to make one effective?

Streetcar systems are popping up all over North America. Charlotte, Dallas, Kansas City, Salt Lake City, Cincinnati and Baltimore are just some of the cities that have implemented the lines while many more cities are in the planning stages.

In order to see what an effective streetcar network looks like, we can take a look at Toronto. Streetcars were introduced to the city in 1861 on a route from Yorkville Town Hall to the St. Lawrence Market, and from there they expanded explosively to cover most of the city. Post-WW2 the Toronto Transit Commission announced its plans to eliminate all streetcar routes by 1980, but decision was met with so much opposition that the commission changed its mind quickly. Transit-enthusiasts were quick to step in and find that retaining the fleet would be more cost-efficient than converting to buses. Since then several new routes have been added or modified, most notably routes where streetcars operate in their own lanes, such as the 512 St Clair and the 510 Spadina.

Both Washington, DC and Atlanta have recently begun operating streetcar lines. In myAJC, Jarrett Walker wrote that when a new form of public transportation comes to a city, its a chance for new people to try out and rethink how they use it. The hope is that the results change the city, making it easier, quicker and more efficient for people to get to the places they’re going. Besides creating a better public transportation network, they bring both an old-time charm and futuristic feel to the way people get around.

The modern streetcar movement, which began with Portland’s streetcar in 2000, has always been about the emotions that streetcars generate. They’re as sleek as an airplane, yet they remind us of the vast streetcar networks that existed a century ago. The emotional genius of streetcars, then, is that they’re futuristic and nostalgic at the same time, and that’s enough to charm almost anyone. A tech-obsessed teenager can ride with his grandmother who recalls the streetcars of old, and both will feel their heartstrings pulled.
— Jarrett Walker

Streetcars need to do several things in order to be successful: they must provide people with a direct connection to — or serve as a mobility hub linking them with — where they want to go, provide a quick ride for passengers and be frequent enough for people to not consider driving instead.

Frequency

In order for public transportation to be efficient and widely-used, it needs to be frequent enough for people to rely on it to get where they need to be, when they need to be there. Frequency is freedom when it comes to public transportation users, which is something that car-owning politicians have a hard time understanding. Though systems don't need to have vehicles arriving to stations at maximum headways all the time, assuring riders with the knowledge that a vehicle arrives every five or ten minutes can go a long way. Being able to turn-up-and-go on the train instead of needing to calculate your commute is imperative to boosting ridership and creating a successful network.

Technology

In Toronto, streetcar usage is explosive and measures higher than most other cities because it's been made equivalent to buses and the subway in terms how people get around. Portland operates a handful of different light rail and streetcar lines (though the graph below only includes the Portland Streetcar lines) and has turned them into a useful and effective form of public transportation — something that many other systems have failed to accomplish, if looking at ridership numbers.

Portland's system includes something as simple as a LED sign telling riders that the next streetcar will arrive in two minutes, something that Atlanta has failed to do so (in fact, Toronto is just beginning to roll these out now as well).such as screens saying when the next vehicle is due to arrive — goes a long way.

Streetcar Ridership by Month from 2016-2017

Cost

The cost of using public transportation is important for people using it; it can't cost too much or people will just stay home, but money needs to be made to fund the networks people ride.

TriMet, the public agency that is in charge of MAX light rail, WES commuter rail and bus lines, allows for transfers across all transportation methods after paying the $2.50 fare. Even better is the fact that when using Hop, the reloadable smart card, your fare is capped at $5 per day and $100 per calendar month.

Dedicated lanes

Putting a streetcar line, or a portion of it, in a dedicated lane can make travel times a lot quicker than if they had to battle with traffic. In Toronto take the 501 streetcar, travelling along Queen Street in mixed-traffic versus the 510 Spadina, which uses a dedicated right-of-way. The 510 allows for much faster travel and more comfortable ride when compared to going the same distance on both lines.

Including a dedicated lane for a streetcar line separates it from traffic, which brings the number of delays down. There's much less a chance of a streetcar being blocked by a stalled vehicle when it's not operating with traffic, and priority measures, such as extending green lights to let a streetcar get through an intersection, only make the ride faster.

Development

When implemented correctly, as in Portland, streetcar lines can lead to millions of economic development along the corridor which they run through. They spur development of high-rise buildings and malls, department stores and office buildings along their route when designed properly.

In The Transportation Politic, Yonah Freemark points out that cities sometimes forget that without changing the zoning by-laws surrounding streetcar routes, transit-oriented development will not occur. Take St. Louis for example: their streetcar doesn’t travel through downtown, offers limited frequencies, operates in mixed traffic and doesn’t actually serve the largest destination in the area. Buildings along the corridor are not allowed to exceed 50 feet tall and the zoning laws favour restaurants that are non-pedestrian oriented.

In Washington, DC businesses popped up all along the H Street corridor following some streetscape improvements that were made in preparation for the streetcars.

David King has offered his opinion on the sudden boom of streetcar development, indicating that few cities were interested in building the lines before the government began throwing money at whoever would build the lines. Feasibility reports almost never find a line unfeasible — which would be a sign that there are political interests, instead of mobility needs of citizens, are at play.

At the end of the day there’s little that a streetcar can offer that a bus cannot. Streetcars can easily carry more people than a bus, averaging around 150 versus only 80 on an articulated bus; this only matters if the streetcar is able to come as frequently or almost as frequently as a bus would. A streetcar is also unable to navigate around delays the same way a bus is able to — if there is a car crash on the streetcar tracks, it can’t simply go around the block to avoid a delay.

Streetcar networks, in order to be effective and worth building, need to include what are now basic features including real-time displays, unified fares, and frequent service. Only then will people trust them to get them where they're going in a timely fashion, and cities will find them an effective form of transportation.

📊: Data collected from Portland Streetcar, DC Streetcar, and the American Public Transit Association.