25.1.16

THE CASE FOR THE LIMITED TRAM LINE.

Reason's Samuel Scheib offers constructive criticism of streetcar projects.
By the mid-1920s developers were no longer concerned about getting rail extended to their subdivisions, and after World War II transit use fell off a cliff.

But back in Europe, a transformation of street-level rail transit was under way. While Americans were abandoning their cities for suburbs, Germans were busy reconstructing war-torn urban cores and looking for less expensive alternatives to the underground metro.

The result was called stadtbahn, or city rail, which combined the best parts of the streetcar (strassenbahn) and underground (U-bahn).  Stadtbahn ran at street grade but was isolated from other traffic; had multiple cars, each with one or two double-width doors that would all open together at platforms for passengers 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. “These were truly vehicles of mass transportation,” says Gregory Thompson, professor of transportation planning at Florida State University and chairman of the Transportation Research Board’s Light Rail Committee.

“Three features of light rail became apparent to North American [light rail transit] proponents after the reconstruction of Germany,” Thompson says. “The vehicle must be separated from traffic through medians or running on the other side of the sidewalk from automobiles. Stops, as with an underground, should be at intermediate distances, not as frequent as bus stops.” Rapid entry and exit of the vehicles was paramount. “You have to use all available doors and take the driver out of the [payment] loop.”
Here's an example from Turin, Italy.


Note that elaborate mainline-railroad-strength overhead wire supports and compound catenary are not necessary.

Multiple cars with double-width doors?  Those rolled out of Cold Spring Shops nearly a century ago.


These units are laid up out of service at the West Allis Car Station in 1932.  Passengers paid the conductor on each car, and stops were at street corners.

Mr Scheib is less optimistic about tourist streetcars.
There is nothing inherently wrong with streetcars as transit. The problem is in how they are deployed. The original streetcar systems were largely straight-line routes serving central business districts. The point was to get people to the CBD, where they would move around on foot. To this day the urban cores that lend their names to multi-county regions remain the most engaging, comfortable, and interesting places in the metro area to walk. The buildings are varied, attractive, and close to the sidewalk, street trees are common, and fenestration allows two-way communication between occupants of the buildings and the people on the street.
Sometimes, as is the case in Little Rock, the streetcar and the streetscape get built at the same time.



Mr Scheib is correct, though, in suggesting that city boosters not treat streetcars like toy trains.  "Transit projects should be built not to create demand but to serve the demonstrated needs of the public."

Sometimes, that can be a streetcar in a busy shopping area, and sometimes it's the limited tram line.

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