Thursday, July 12, 2012

Streetcar Basics

The interior of a Portland Streetcar.
The interior of a Portland Streetcar. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: A car of the Portland Streetcar syste...
English: A car of the Portland Streetcar system at the eastbound Portland State University stop, on Market Street at the South Park Blocks. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A few years ago the thought of streetcars returning to our streets was a fantasy. Today several cites have either installed new streetcar lines, constructing lines, or in the advance planning stages. I support streetcars as I feel that they are a great step between basic bus service and full light rail service (notice I did not include BRT - Badly Repackaged Transit). 

The question is, what should be the priorities of new streetcar lines. The most famous new streetcar line is off course the Portland Streetcar. To be honest, I rode it on Monday but overall I rarely do. Now that I spend more time downtown at Portland State I most likely will be riding more especially to head to Powell's Books

People opposed to the streetcar line say is nothing but a subsidy to developers. It is easy to call it that, after all it goes through a part of town that was about to rapidly development. On the other hand the same people who make those kind of comments turn a blind eye to all the subsidies suburban sprawl developments get every day of the week. We could quarrel all day about the that, but instead lets see what the streetcar does do. 

1. The streetcar provides service along a corridor that has never had service. While the two ends of the network (in the northwest side of town and south of PSU), the bus service was not in direct competition with 
Tri-Met buses. In fact the one line that follows the streetcar in the northwest will be rerouted in September in a budget cut move that actually eliminates duplicate service. 

2. The streetcar provides an alternative form of transportation that makes that part of the Portland much more livable. While I don't go to Powell Book's everyday, maybe once a month at the most, it is much more convenient to take the streetcar than trying to drive and find a parking spot. 

The question is, what should the priorities be for a streetcar line? The problem with making a blanket statement is that every city has different priorities so what is important for Portland, is different for Salt Lake City, Cincinnati, Atlanta or any of the other cities that have projects in progress. 

While Portland is a great example here is some things that could improve the current Portland system and any future extensions: 

1. One problem was that the system was designed only to have single cars. From my understanding this was a compromise to ensure support along the line. However, one of the benefits of rail transit is when you add additional cars to a train to make it more efficient and carry more people. Any future lines should have the capability to run multiple car trains. 

2. There is no private right of way. The streetcar gets stuck in traffic. While in an ideal world the streetcar would have its entire right of way reserved, we know in the real world this is just not possible. However, I see no reason why on 10th/11th Streets the streetcar cannot have its own reserved right of way in stretches and other areas to. 

3. The streetcar should have signal priority plus priority at the four way stops like Couch and 11th were the streetcar gets stuck for extended periods of time. 

In September Portland will open its new East side streetcar line. Until the loop is completed with the opening of the Milwaukee MAX line in 20515 I am not overly enthusiastic about how well this line will do but we shall see. 

That brings up a good question, for a city looking to extend a streetcar line or put a new one in, what should the priorities be? As I said early every city has its own most important priorities but this is some general guidelines. 

1. The first priority of a streetcar line should be to provide an essential transportation function. If the city already has a light rail or rapid transit system, the streetcar should function as a feeder between the major rail line and important business and residential sectors. Salt Lake City is a perfect example of this. The streetcar will provide service from all three light rail lines to the Sugar House district which is currently a major retail center and will have high density housing going in. 

In a way the east side streetcar in Portland will provide this function also as it will connect from the Lloyd District light rail stations to the Pearl District offering customers an alternative to the current ways to get to the Pearl. 

Once the Milwaukee MAX line is completed, the Portland streetcar will provide an excellent feeder from that line to the northwest part of town that is not currently available because of the alignment of bus service (31.32,33 and 99) and the streetcar line. 

Another good route in  Utah would be from the Ogden Transit Center to Weber State University which is being studied at this time. This would create a feeder from the Front Runner Commuter trains to busy 612 bus line on Washington Blvd and onto the University replacing route 603. 

2. Another important priority would be to supplement a overburdened bus route along a busy corridor. In its transit plan Portland is looking to supplement bus service with streetcars in such corridors as Sandy Blvd. I mentioned this at one time where it will allow the 12 route to become limited stop along this section of route speeding up Trimets longest route (which is being split up in September and won't be so long anymore). 

Another good example would be the Barbur Blvd/Capitol Highway corridor. Currently there are in the study phase on this project for Badly Repackaged Transit or Light Rail, but as I see it know there is a slim chance of a good system being built. Chances are some half baked BRT plan will get built that will end up not having a major impact. 

You could run the streetcar down Barbur and Capitol Highway to the Hilsdale area. This would allow TriMet to cut routes such as the 45 at Capital/Sunset and make routes such as the 44 and 12 faster through the area speeding up bus rides for those through travelers. 

When it comes down to it, streetcars can function both as a feeder from major rail routes to major employment and dense residential areas. It can also be a relief valve for busy bus routes along major dense corridors. What it comes down to is that streetcar routes need to be done right the first time. No matter how successful the route would be there will be naysayers, however if a route is well designed and does the job it is easier to counterbalance the CAVE (citizens against virtually everything) types. 
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