Good Streets Include Streetcars

Last stop for Brooklyn’s trolley dodgers at Fairway Market in Red Hook.

Devotees of the Red Hook, Brooklyn Fairway grocery store can have the pleasure, after loading up on gourmet salt and other essentials, of sipping coffee on their back veranda over looking the river. It’s a wonderful view. On your right is the Statue of Liberty, flame aloft, and to your left, about ten feet away, a decrepit old green streetcar.

This old trolley, which adds a rough urban charm to the spot, is about all that remains of an admirable effort that ended a few years ago by Bob Diamond and cohorts to bring streetcars back to Brooklyn.

Diamond, renowned for his discovery of the old Atlantic Avenue tunnel — one of the oldest rail tunnels in the world – may have simply been peaking too soon, for streetcars are coming back. While they aren’t back in Brooklyn yet, they are in many cities. Dozens of cities have built, or are building, new streetcar lines. They include Portland, Kenosha, Charlotte, Little Rock, Lowell, Memphis, Tampa, San Diego and Charlotte. Some of them are installing vintage or antique cars; some are installing brand new ones. They join cities like New Orleans, Toronto, Melbourne and San Francisco that kept or revived existing lines.

Paris, France launched a sleek, modern streetcar system last year.
More Paris photos below…

This trend is a good one, for streetcars can be one more way to give people alternative to driving, and thus enabling more walkable, bikeable streets. Perhaps most important, streetcar lines are the most urban of transit systems, at least those that run above ground. Unlike their competitor, the so-called "light rail line," streetcars mesh almost seamlessly into a street without bulky grade-separating apparatus and stations that can end up making a street less walkable. Streetcars are also less polluting, more energy-efficient and cheaper to maintain than their other big competitor, freewheeling buses.

Before World War II and the complete domination of the private car, streetcars used to run on virtually every major street New York City and indeed, every major street in every city in the United States. These old lines, although long gone, have left their mark on streets in big and small ways.

For example, most local shopping streets tend to be where the old trolley lines ran, like 5th Avenue or 7th Avenue in Brooklyn. That’s because commerce tends to congregate around transportation lines. Those shopping streets are still there, even though the streetcar lines are not. Most of New York City’s current bus lines run along the same routes as the old trolleys.

Another marker is in names, which, as in shopping streets, tend to persist. The Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team, formerly of Brooklyn, derives its name from the hundreds of streetcars that used to roll down the streets of this New York City borough, and the "trolley dodgers" who had to jump out of their way. The name was apt, for the number of streetcar lines that once were in Brooklyn is truly astonishing. It is indeed a subject for an entire field of research.

Could Brooklyn or other boroughs ever have anything like the dozens of different lines they once had? I don’t want to rule it out, even though it’s clearly a dream. What’s not just a dream is that streetcars are coming back, perhaps even in this region. Stamford solicited proposals just last week to examine the potential for a new four-mile line that would connect major nodes within the city. Whether this would qualify as a streetcar or a light rail line might be a matter of semantics.

I could see streetcars playing a substantial role within many cities in the region, even Manhattan. The Regional Plan Association’s (where I’m a Senior Fellow) Third Regional Plan recommended a Midtown light rail loop, which is essentially just a streetcar loop. Vision42 has been pushing for years for a Midtown light rail loop part of its plan to pedestrianize 42nd Street. Vision42 argues that light rail loop could be built at far less cost than the proposed #7 subway line extension while providing many of the same benefits in helping to improve mobility and galvanizing development on Midtown Manhattan’s far west side.

As a "mode," to use a planneresque word, streetcars have a lot to offer. They are better than buses, which are the usual lower cost alternative, because they provide a smoother ride, even while traveling at higher speeds, and being more beloved by customers. One study showed that streetcars travel faster than buses, because drivers tend to defer to a train-like vehicle and get out of their way. As significant, they tend to attract more private development because rails in the street have a permanence that inspires confidence in commercial and residential developers.


The usual competitor to streetcars is light rail lines. Interestingly, there is no clear distinction between a light rail line and a streetcar line, although there are general ones. Light rail lines tend to have dedicated and separate right of way, tend to travel out of town rather than within town, tend to have longer trains, and tend to have fewer stops. And most significantly, tend to cost a lot, lot more to build, often three times as much per mile.

A good place to start looking at the possibilities of streetcar revival is Street Smart: Streetcars and Cities in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Gloria Ohland and Shelley Poticha of Reconnecting America. In a series of separately authored articles, it provides a range of both broad overview and technical analysis of the options involved. They look at vintage cars, new lines, even things like the "rapid streetcar," that blends the best of both the streetcar and light rail styles.

Some combination of the above could clearly work in Brooklyn, to name my own favorite borough and dwelling one. If that were to happen, then the lonely streetcar in Red Hook could be a reminder of what is to come, rather than just of what was.

Photos: Aaron Naparstek, Paris, France, March 21, 2007

  • The basic distinction between streetcar and light rail is reserved right of way: a streetcar line shares lanes with cars, a light rail line doesn’t. By that standard, the Paris line in the pictures is light rail. Streetcars are cheaper because they generally involve no rebuilding of the street. But you can’t get the kind of nice urban environments shown above without reconstruction, and in that case the extra cost benefits pedestrians, bikers, drivers, and neighbors. The best approach: include the transit line in an overall street project, like Washington DC is doing with its “great streets” program.

  • Ian D

    Add Berlin to the list of cities that is “going back”…

    East Berlin saved many (if not all) of their streetcar lines, while the “developed” West Berlin ripped them all out to make more room for more and more and more cars.

    The flood of cars never ended and now it’s widely recognized that while capitalism may have prevailed, the auto’s dominance wasn’t such a good idea.

    So now Berlin is reconnecting lines from the east back into the west, adding many kilometers of rail on streets, replacing what once existed before people “knew better”.

    One drawback – most Berlin streetcars don’t have air conditioning. They say that it wasn’t needed, but I can testify that the last several summers show that this is no longer the case… 🙁

  • Larry Littlefield

    The question is whether the long term operating cost savings of a rail line can pay for the higher short term capital costs. Ridership must by high for that to happen, and if ridership is high, a reserved right of way is preferred.

    I think the best use for something like this in NYC is outside the CBD, along non-subway crosstown routes, perhaps as a future enhancement of a BRT route.

  • Hilary

    The trolley may me moribund, but readers should know that the Water Taxi goes right to Fairway’s door. It should really be promoted as the way to shop both there and Ikea, when it comes (ugh).

    BTW, I believe that trolley was brought in from Philadelphia as a near example of what Brooklyn used to have.

  • Hilary

    There is another benefit to light rail – they make less noise and it’s intermittent, rather than the steady roar of traffic. I’d like to see a comparison of the ambient noise per/person generated by cars, buses, and rail.
    I was in Queens yesterday and thought I would go crazy from the ceaseless thrum of those so-called “boulevards” (you know, as in Paris).

  • jmc

    portland, OR recently brought back streetcars, they were able to rapidly build the systems with the aid of prefabricated components, which enabled them to lay the track very rapidly. tacoma, wa and seattle have most recently copied this example. Tacoma’s streetcar has so far been very successful at attracting people who otherwise would have taken a bus.

  • jmc

    make that “not have taken a bus”

  • Mitch

    Streetcars are also less polluting, more energy-efficient and cheaper to maintain than their other big competitor, freewheeling buses.

    Are there hard numbers on the web (or in my local library) that support this claim? It sounds reasonable to me, but a streetcar proposal has been shelved (at least temporarily) in Madison because the conventional wisdom (in some quarters, at least) is that trolleys would be more expensive and less efficient than buses.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (Streetcars are also less polluting, more energy-efficient and cheaper to maintain than their other big competitor, freewheeling buses. Are there hard numbers on the web)

    Download the cost per rider and vehichle hour from the national transit database for the Niagara Frontier transit authority (Buffalo). You’ll see a lower cost per ride for its light rail system than its buses, though that is after the higher capital costs were absorbed.

    Kind of shows you what was lost when all the tracks were torn up.

  • Jonathan

    I’m sorry, Alex, but I fail to see why streetcars are so much better than buses.

    If there’s a street closing, buses can easily detour around it, while streetcars have to follow their right of way.

    Buses can pass each other on their routes. While this may seem pointless, consider the express buses on different routes that use 5th Avenue. Having only one right-of-way means that they go only as fast as the slowest one. Or, on single-route streets, if someone on one bus is sick, the next bus can stop, pick up the other bus’s passengers, and continue along the route. I’ve treated sick patients on buses; it does happen.

    Buses can easily drive from the end of the route to the depot. Streetcars need tracks from the end of the route to the depot. This means that extra streets near the depot need to be torn up for rails.

    Rails in the street, especially in wet weather, are a real hazard for cyclists.

    Buses can be used for more than just transportation. MTA dispatches buses regularly to fires, building collapses, and other emergencies in order to warm and shelter victims.

    And Alex, can you retire the “streetcars used to run…” line? If you haven’t noticed, there are still rapid transit lines that run along 5th Avenue and 7th Avenue (as well as 8th Avenue, Prospect Park West, 3rd Avenue, 9th Street, Union Street, Flatbush Avenue, and Bergen St, to limit myself to Park Slope) in Brooklyn. They are buses.

  • Joseph

    Jonathan, streetcar proponents are not out to entirely replaces buses. However, on high-traffic streets that currently are served by many buses, streetcars are an attractive alternative for a variety of reasons:
    +less polluting locally
    +more passengers per vehicle operator
    +lower cost of maintenance
    +attracts those who wouldn’t take a bus

    Streetcars can be more effective and less expensive over time than buses when installed in very dense corridors with an existing high level of transit usage.

    Buses still have their place in the transportation network, including the reasons you cited, but that does not mean that streetcars should not be considered in some applications.

  • Chris in Sacramento

    Perhaps this streetcars discussion is focused too narrowly upon transportation. Streetcars are better considered as part of an overall placemaking or economic development strategy.

    They ride on fixed rails, reducing their flexibility, which is perhaps a negative in strictly transportation operations terms, but a potential positive when a city approaches developers about revitializing an area. In that case, the streetcars represent a long-term commitment by the municipality, providing investors with a sense of the stability they crave. Buses can be here today, gone tomorrow and, unfortunately, they just don’t have the cachet of streetcars.

  • Jonathan

    Chris, it’s hard for me to imagine anything more stable than a New York City bus route. The B69 or Vanderbilt Avenue line, for instance, has been running as a bus for 57 years and as a streetcar for 81 years before that. That’s basically seven generations of riders.

  • Eric

    Of course, one could age a generation just waiting for the B69.


  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    “Pure” streetcars (that share their entire right-of-way with cars) are an interesting case, because the advantages are almost all political:

    1. Marketing (as mentioned by Joseph and Chris): people who think that “only bums, retards and crazies take the bus” will take a streetcar because it’s not a bus.

    2. Organizing: the rails are visible, and when there’s nothing running on them, it’s pretty obvious. Transit advocates can use this to get people motivated about demanding service.

    3. Pressure: the municipality has (in theory) invested a significant amount of money in the infrastructure. They are less likely to neglect it than buses.

    4. Development guide/magnet: A streetcar line says “Transit is here!” in a way that bus stops don’t. It is thus a way to guide and encourage transit-oriented development.

    I have to say to Chris and Joseph that these advantages are less true in NYC than in other places. Here the buses have cachet (at least in Manhattan). Transit advocates are fairly well-organized anyway. There’s lots of TOD. The pressure factor is the only one that is relevant here, I think.

    Many of Jonathan’s criticisms are valid, but others are not. On Fifth and Madison Avenues in Manhattan, there are so many bus routes that it would be possible to have two parallel tracks, a local and an express, just like in the subway. Buses with no dedicated right-of-way are no more “rapid transit” than streetcars.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Another factor is that there are relatively few “pure” streetcar systems. Most systems have some level of dedicated right-of-way, up to the Chicago South Shore and South Bend Railroad, which runs FRA-compatible “heavy” commuter rail cars, the vast majority of its tracks being in grade-separated right-of-way.

    Almost all the “modern” light rail systems include tracks along some dedicated former freight or commuter line, like the Denver and Hudson-Bergen Light Rail systems. In some areas it may be cost-prohibitive to build separated connections between legacy railroads, and street running is one solution to that.

    In other areas, like the Paris tramway mentioned in the post, the goal is to kill two birds with one stone, by taking lanes of traffic from dangerous roads and converting them to a dedicated right-of-way for transit. Why not just make a dedicated bus lane? Because private cars can’t drive on rails. The rails-in-grass configuration prevents motorists from using the right-of-way as a shortcut, and it also makes it difficult for the government to quickly convert it back to a general-use lane.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I agree with Jonathan that “pure” streetcars don’t have much advantage over buses. But street running sections for light rail systems are a very useful thing. In general, rather than “pure” streetcars I’d prefer to see more systems like the Paris T3, that take lanes away from dangerous roads.

  • gecko

    Could sure use electric street cars down Van Brunt.

    Red Hook has some of the worst air quality in the city.

  • A streetcar is what you get if you take a bus and make it more comfortable, more durable, more efficient, and more reliable. Where ridership is incredibly durable and predictable, as in some areas of NYC, the question is not why you would build a streetcar line, but why you would not build a streetcar line.

    In the Seattle bus tunnel the driver has to put his right wheels four inches from the platform for boarding. That will be a lot easier to do when those wheels are running on rails.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (Here the buses have cachet (at least in Manhattan).

    That sounds like a topic for discussion, because I’ve never heard that before.

    To me buses are the no-choice-only mode, because of their slow speed. New York City is divided into areas where congestion is low but so is ridership, meaning a low wait, and ridership is high but so is congestion, meaning a slow ride.

    The only good bus ride in my opinion is in Manhattan, on a weekend, on a street with multiple lines. That’s the only way you get a short wait and a reasonable ride.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    (Here the buses have cachet (at least in Manhattan).

    That sounds like a topic for discussion, because I’ve never heard that before.

    Quality and prestige are not necessarily connected, or at least not in the most obvious ways.

    In New York there is a certain group of people who prefer buses to subways, even though the subwy may be more convenient for a given trip. They tend to be older, whiter, femmer and wealthier than average, and they tend to live in Manhattan, but they’re definitely not all rich old white women. For them, the subway is dirty and dangerous, and the buses are clean and civilized. You can find them on just about any bus between 57th and 86th Streets. You can number Henry Stern among them; I ran into him on the M57 once.

    My guess is that many of these people abandoned the subway during the 70s and 80s; some of them may have come back since then. But they still ride the buses in large numbers. Their presence shows that buses are seen as an appropriate mode of transportation for New Yorkers, even upper-middle-class, relatively vulnerable ones. This is quite different from what you see if you take buses in a lot of other cities.

  • Really

    Henry Stern as an elderly white woman!

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Aw geez, you people don’t get the idea of prototypes, do you? 😉

    Here’s another way to look at it: Marketing people want to get influential people talking about their product. If you improve on-time performance on the Kingston City Bus, it may get talked about at the outpatient mental health clinic, but not on the golf course. To reach the influential people you need some kind of rebranding, and a streetcar will get you that.

    If you improve on-time performance on the M66, it will get talked about at the Metropolitan Opera. No rebranding needed.

  • Steve

    Angus, Maybe Henry Stern took the bus once but based on his two CT-plated cars parked 24/7 in the middle of Central Park, I think he favors private auto travel:

  • Someone asked for hard numbers on streetcars being more efficient than busses. There are two big factors in favor of streetcars: the ability to power an electric motor without batteries and the vastly lower rolling resistance of metal wheels compared to rubber tires. Here’s a write up that considers these factors, including power plant efficiency and losses in transmission:

    Surprisingly, it comes to the conclusion rail and autos are approximately equally efficient (I smell a rationalizing motorist), because of a number of things undermining rail efficiency: Principally, trains are damn heavy. I don’t buy the conclusion, seeing as energy losses in getting fuel to gas stations was not considered, or the fact that railed NY subways are a cornerstone of our lower per-person carbon use here.

    But the negative factors are worth noting, because they could be mitigated if there were any modern investment in rail that approached the investment in automobiles. Does the Acela really need to be ten times heavier per seat than a lightweight auto, or have we just invested vastly more national resources in lighter-weight designs and components for autos? (Hilariously, much of the references from the piece are from the U.S.S.R., because “such material is not available in English.”)

    Along auto-centric lines, people argue that electric autos are significantly more efficient overall than internal-combustion autos, even though they’re still on rubber tires and have to lose energy storing and extracting electricity in a battery:

    (It makes the good point that emissions controls at central power plants can be much better monitored, maintained, and upgraded than fuel-burning engines in millions of automobiles. The same problem applies to a lesser degree to a fleet of busses.)

    And of course, people who support light rail are able to come up with numbers (that might be considered hard) favoring rail over busses:

    Whatever numbers you choose to believe, fundamental physical properties favor the efficiency of streetcars over busses. All we have to do is exploit them.

  • Slopion

    My entirely layman opinion: in New York City at least, the reason to reintroduce streetcars over buses would be if they had practical advantages to the rider over buses. That is, would they run more frequently, hold more people and get me where I’m going faster than a bus? If that were the case, I’d be likely to use a streetcar for trips for which I currently opt not to take a bus because I believe the bus would take too long.

    If not, I don’t see the “streetcars are more attractive to riders than buses” argument obtaining in NYC, where bus lines are hardly neglected by riders.

    I can see the possible advantages over buses in emissions, but there are lots of ways of reducing overall emissions by investing in transportation, and this discussion does not persuade me that streetcars are the most effective one.

  • Hilary

    The real practical efficiency of streetcars or light rail in NYC seems to be their ability to load and discharge customers (especially those in wheelchairs or otherwise unable to leap up steps). Or are there buses that could do this as well?

  • Jonathan

    @Hilary: MTA does have kneeling buses in its fleet, but mass transit access for the disabled is a big issue and on the face of it seems pretty poor overall.

    @Slopion, once again we agree. Just one point: are you sure a “holding more people” is an advantage to riders? Seems to me like it’s the other way around. Greater passenger capacity means more stops and longer waits for boarding. I much prefer the regular-length buses to the articulated ones for exactly that reason.

  • Slopion

    @Jonathan: Well, I guess I was thinking mainly of bus lines where, particularly at rush hour, overcrowding is a deterrent to riding. This is probably more of a problem in Manhattan than in my turf of Brooklyn.

    Bottom line, my thinking is that, if we’re considering streetcars as an alternative, or even just a partial adjunct, to buses, then the question has to be, What needs to be fixed about buses and how would streetcars fix it? To my mind, the chief things that would be worth “fixing” are wait times, speed and (in some cases) capacity (whether that capacity is addressed by bigger vehicles or just more of them). “Fix” those and you get more ridership, which is presumably a good thing.

    I’m open to the argument that streetcars are a good and cost-effective fix compared with other uses of transit monies; I just haven’t heard it yet.

  • Hilary

    The long loading time for buses is caused by their kneeling, narrow entrances, high steps, and need to have the driver handle each wheelchair – plus time-consuming fare collection. I think all of these can be eliminated on the trains with wide doors opening at grade, and not having the driver collect fares one at a time. What would really save time is to have a right of way that made the driver unnecessary.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Again, the only role I see for street rail in NYC is outside the CBD in a reserved right of way, in cross-town corridors (perpendicular to the subway lines) with enough ridership to justify the cost.

    Examples could include JFK to Flushing/Citifield via Jamaica, Pelham Parway/Fordham Road, and the LIRR cut through Brooklyn (or a platform over it).

    Given the cost, and the way NY is hosed on capital projects, however, BRT is more realistic.

  • “I’m open to the argument that streetcars are a good and cost-effective fix compared with other uses of transit monies; I just haven’t heard it yet.”

    The vision42 project, linked from this post, has a cost estimate and expected benefits. The world is your oyster.

  • Jonathan

    Doc, the vision42 project involves the complete conversion of 42d St to a motorcar-free boulevard. That’s the part that creates the revenue, not the choice of streetcars per se. You could put the whole project in place with BRT as well.

    I really don’t see how figures from a project about complete autofree redevelopment of one of the most desirable commercial strips in NYC have much to do with putting the B69 bus back on rails.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Angus, Maybe Henry Stern took the bus once but based on his two CT-plated cars parked 24/7 in the middle of Central Park, I think he favors private auto travel

    Good point, Steve, and I admire you for your tenacity on this issue. It seems to me that he realizes how much of a pain it is to drive in NYC, so he just leaves the cars there and takes the bus instead.

    Does the Acela really need to be ten times heavier per seat than a lightweight auto … ?

    No, it doesn’t. The FRA has clung to outdated safety standards because its administrators have no interest in seeing passenger rail succeed.

    The real practical efficiency of streetcars or light rail in NYC seems to be their ability to load and discharge customers (especially those in wheelchairs or otherwise unable to leap up steps). Or are there buses that could do this as well?

    There are, Hilary. Have you ridden the new low-floor hybrid buses? They take care of all those problems except fare collection. The fold-out wheelchair ramp is particularly nifty.

  • “You could put the whole project in place with BRT as well.”

    Yes, car-free autobus boulevard. Let’s find some backers!

    “I really don’t see how figures from a project about complete autofree redevelopment of one of the most desirable commercial strips in NYC have much to do with putting the B69 bus back on rails.”

    I really don’t see how everything has to be about this B69 bus route? Rail excites people more than bussing, and naturally inspires auto-free thinking that mass-transit automobiles do not. But I’m glad you think that vision42 is such a goldmine–I couldn’t agree more.

    After we’ve pedestrianized 42nd and added surface rail, people might start clamoring for the same on other major crosstown streets, not necessarily to the exclusion of autos but marginalization. And from there, farther flung bus routes? But we aren’t there yet. Perhaps some kind of bus will always be the best thing for circuitous routes. My only request is that they stop sounding an alarm before “kneeling”; people aren’t diving under busses unless they want to get crushed anyway.

  • rhubarbpie

    I wonder if anyone’s done a safety analysis comparing buses to light rail/trolleys. My recollection is that trolleys–and the people who would dart in front of them–are the original reason the Brooklyn Dodgers were called the Dodgers. But I suspect that they are treated more respectfully by pedestrians these days and, for a variety of reasons, are safer than buses. Anyone seen research on this? Might help the push for light rail.

  • jmc

    Why do they have that annoying “kneeling” alarm? It’s horribly distracting. If you’re under the bus you’re already in trouble as it is!

  • Thanks for the clarification. As an intern for a major transportation agency in California, I am counting on the veterens in this business to mentor the rookies. The mentoring should include accurate information. As I read this article and peered at the images, I found myself wondering if what I was looking at was light rail or streetcars. My plan was to speak with someone in our department about the proper definitions. I was under the impression from reading any and everything I can get my hands on about this industry, that street cars shared their space with cars, and the like; and that rail had exclusive right-of-way. All you veterens out there…this intern is thankful for any mentoring you may do. Any of you just retired, and/or soon to be fishing in the back country transit professionals, need to know that the knowledge and experience you hold is a priceless commodity. If you have not already considered how you might continue to contribute to this fascinating multiple modal moving people industry, there’s no time like the present to learn from the past…to positively affect the future. Thanks for viewing.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Alice, it’s my professional opinion as a linguist that the terminology on this issue is completely hosed.

    I’d recommend avoiding both “light rail” and “streetcar” (not to mention “tramway”) and just using “trolley.” To older people it may conjure up images of antiquated systems being sold for scrap by triumphant 1960s city administrators, and to younger people it may only suggest transvestite buses. But I think it’s ripe for reclamation, like “queer.” There are enough people who feel nostalgia for the trolleys of old, or who are frustrated that they were taken away, that “trolley” is no longer a dirty word.

    The source of much of the confusion is that, as I mentioned above, there are very few examples of “pure” streetcars that share their right-of-way for the entire route (Philadelphia’s Girard Avenue trolley?), and almost no examples of “pure” light rail systems that have separated rights-of-way for the entire line (the Newark City Subway?). If you want to be specific about the amount of shared right-of-way, you can say something like “a trolley with 15% of its route grade-separated, 40% at-grade and sepearated and 45% shared.” How does that sound?

  • As a regular rider of Parisian buses, metros and the new T3 Tram, let me assure you that the Tram is waaaaayyyyy more comfortable than either the bus and the metro.

    The bus is overcrowded and cramped, and the metro is dark and smelly.

    If you want to get people out of their cars, you have to spend on comfort.

  • Louis

    As a regular rider of Parisian buses, metros, and the new T3 Tram, a classmate of Mathieu’s, and a former intern at MTA, let me second that.

    The ultimate problem for a bus that a good trolley, or light rail, has, is of course fair collection. The reason that MTA buses run so slowly is a combination of the congestion, and the fact that each MetroCard swipe takes about 3-5 seconds. That means that between pulling in and pulling out, and loading, say, 20 people, the bus is stopped for about 2 minutes. A light rail loads from all doors. In Paris, all articulated (accordion) buses load with all doors, thus avoiding the incredible load times of some of New York’s busiest bus lines.

    Further, I recently took a guided tour of the T3, and it was mentioned that while a bus has a capacity of 100 (this is roughly the capacity of a New York bending bus), the T3 Tram holds 300. It also has 7 doors on each side for loading and unloading.

    The final advantage that the T3 line in Paris has is signal prioritization. The line is designed (and succeeds) to NEVER stop at a red signal, but to always receive the green. And this line traverses several of the great Portes of Paris (incredibly important points of access for autos entering the city).

    Also, as far what a streetcar is and what a light rail is, a streetcar runs principally on or in the median of a street. I suppose we could just use the word tram. At any rate, the St. Charles and Canal Street lines in New Orleans both run on medians, not on the actual street.

  • anonymous

    One thing that a streetcar can do that a bus never can is couple two or vehicles to make a train, which of course saves money for the operating agency, and can actually improve service, by making headways slightly longer, but more predictable. And while building rails does cost money, I’m not sure that it necessarily costs more than building roads. Of course, the maintenance costs fall on the streetcar operator, instead of the city department of transportation that has to repave roads for buses.

  • Hi everyone,

    There is lots of confusion here but what Louis from Paris said is right on.

    In regards to naming something correctly (tram, trolley, light rail, etc.)there are several variants which have not been discussed:

    Padua (Padova), Italy and several cities in France used rubber-tyred trams. These are still guided, but with just one track. These are useful for where maximum adhesion is necessary, like a hilly place (not NYC). Google for “Translohr”.

    In the historical centre of Padua, there are no overhead lines and the vehicles are operate on batteries for stretches of several hundred metres. This is for aesthetic reasons but also saves money.

    For about five years there has been a tram in Mannheim, Germany which uses ultracapacitors (also called supercapacitors). See a good introduction at these links:


    (I think Vision 42 people are considering some of this)

    Batteries and ultracaps allow vehicles to operate independent of overhead lines also during emergencies or repair work, etc.

  • Yikes! Here are those links:

    IF that doesn’t work Google “ultracapacitors” and “Mannheim” or find me through my Blog and I will answer all your questions.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (One thing that a streetcar can do that a bus never can is couple two or vehicles to make a train, which of course saves money for the operating agency, and can actually improve service, by making headways slightly longer, but more predictable.)

    Well, no on wants to turn 15 minute headways into 30 minute headways. Best to limit light rail to a few crosstown routes that could start as Bus Rapid Transit and evolve over time, with high ridership and low headways.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Larry, there are plenty of bus routes in the city that have headways much shorter than 15 minutes, and can support higher capacity with the same headways.

    I hear what Louis is saying about fare collection being a primary source of delays. Unfortunately, I don’t see a way that that could be improved without switching wholesale to a Paris/Prague/LA style “controleur” system. If you had a farebox in the back of a trolley, it’d be easy to ignore unless you had (a) someone sitting by it the entire route, in which case you might as well have another driver, or (b) a controleur to periodically make sure that everyone’s ticket was composted.

  • Louis

    Angus, this second driver system is actually employed in the Amsterdam system, which large success. The driver collects some fares, but most work is done by a booth attendant in the 3rd quarter of the “tram”. With this system, there are 2 entry doors and 3 exit doors.

    It should be noted the trams are uni-directional (as opposed to double-ended) in this system, so a loop would be necessary at either end, but historically this was the case anyway. Further, all buses are uni-directional, so there is no disadvantage in comparison to buses. Further, Amsterdam does also employ controleurs, although they have a smaller staff than pure proof-of-payment (honor system) fare collection schemes.

    It would certainly be possible, and certainly in the long run fiscally feasible, to simply convert the whole MTA system to the Paris/Prague/LA (among countless others, including essentially all German transport) system.

  • The definition of LRT and Streetcars is not as clear cut as private right of way and shared streets. If that were the fact then most of the old New Orleans St. Charles line would be “modern light rail”. NOT! In fact it is the oldest continious running line in the hemisphere.

    Here in Jacksonville, once the home of Florida’s largest system, The JACKSONVILLE TRACTION COMPANY has been revived and the transit authority is doing a study to get it up and running. Our historic car lines were mostly side of the road, or median greenspace, with very little streetrunnig and only ran in street in downtown. A clip of the downtown system can been seen in Oliver Hardys “Bouncing Baby” short online.

    Also remember the 1200 mile Pacific Electric is the grandfather of all LRT systems, yet it ran down the center of Long Beach Blvd… forever.

    Bob Mann

  • Myrtone

    “It should be noted the trams are uni-directional (as opposed to double-ended) in this system, so a loop would be necessary at either end, but historically this was the case anyway. Further, all buses are uni-directional, so there is no disadvantage in comparison to buses.”

    Even on bidirectional networks, loops are often necessay at busy termini because there is often not the time, nor the incentive to change ends.
    Unidirectional trams may use either loops or triangular switching arrangements to turn around and the latter is often available at junctions and especially at depot entrances where they can be used for short working, and furthermore have basic sets of rear contorls that can be used if necessary. With multiple unit controls, they can also be be coupled in opposite handed pairs on lines temporalily truncated for trackwork.


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As others have noted, the proposed Brooklyn-Queens streetcar route would run right through city- and FEMA-designated high-risk flood zones. This raises questions about how the streetcar infrastructure and vehicles would be protected from storm surges, as well as the general wisdom of siting a project that’s supposed to spur development in a flood-prone area. Yesterday, reporters at […]

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The New York City Department of Transportation announced today that the agency has started a five-month study to determine whether streetcars should return to Brooklyn on a route linking Red Hook to the downtown area. The city first committed to the study this spring, using funds secured by Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez back in 2005. Today’s […]

DOT to Red Hook: No Streetcar For You

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