All Aboard: More Streetcars

streetcarTransit initiatives have grown in popularity and acceptance due to their inherent ability to address two large concerns in the country: sustainability and stimulus. Truly, it’s about time. For all the advancement we tote around as a nation our public transit systems are often stymied by our foreign peers. The buzzword solution has become “High Speed Rail” prompting images of sleek trains zipping across the landscape as a blur epitomizing modern advancement. That’s all well and good. I am a big fan of high speed rail, but when it comes to assessing the ways to lower our environmental impact and bolster the economy there are other options. It is possible that a system that provides an answer is not bleeding edge technology, but one we have had for centuries. The Streetcar.

Most of us instantly get the same image in our head. Who says you need lots of hills, tall thin houses and sunny weather for streetcars to be appropriate? Though smaller in stature and slower in speed than its larger cousins do not mistake streetcars for being a less valuable tool for improving the function of our urban centers. Today, an old model has modern successors that are safe, comfortable and efficient.

Streetcars are not a competitor for high speed or commuter trains–heavy rail systems that travel at high speeds with larger cars across greater distances–but instead another component in an ecosystem of alternative transit. Streetcars target a different part of the same problem connecting points within the density of our city centers rather connecting the downtown to outlying suburbs. They can move large groups of people easily within a ten mile radius with frequent stops and smooth rides. Many operate on electric motors leaving them quieter than trucks, cars and light rail brethren with virtually no street level emissions. They promote pedestrian accessibility and with that come enhanced street life and local business. I find that lessening our commuting car dependence can be done in two ways: making it easier to travel to the city without a car (the target of heavy rail) and making it harder to travel in the city with a car.

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Innovative thinkers are using streetcars to move more than people. After a successful pilot in the Netherlands, private company City Cargo is beginning a full implementation of transporting goods via streetcar to utilize Amsterdam’s wealth of existing track. Local wares are loaded onto trains that carry them deeper into the downtown where they are locally dispersed. The company expects to cut the number of delivery trucks downtown in half within four years (pollution, noise and traffic included.)

Novel proposals like vision42 of New York City approach the possibilities for streetcar installations. The privately sponsored plan proposes removing vehicular traffic from the popular 42nd street and adding a streetcar to a new pedestrian promenade. 23rd and 14th streets are other prime candidates for the same treatment to strengthen its many shops and relieve frequent congestion from the L subway line below. Add to that a model like City Cargo and suddenly you have transformed part of the downtown experience while adding accessibility and comfort for pedestrians and vendors alike. The benefits to the downtown microclimate continue. Pedestrian thoroughfares can support more trees and less pavement which both contribute to less heat island effect, less stormwater runoff and more urban biodiversity.

The relatively low cost of streetcar access allows it to be feasible to cities of varying size and monetary restraints. The price is a moving target, but many have been constructed for less than $10 million per track mile leaving them far cheaper than both high speed rail and light rail construction. For those who may point to heavy rail plans with lower costs check to make certain they are not running on existing freight track—a high speed train that shares railways with freight is a flawed system and nothing close to the European speedsters that we here about.

It is unquestionably important that intercity access is improved to divert car traffic into urban centers and improve accessibility, but once those commuters arrive the city must be ready for them. The role of the pedestrian must be supported and continually strengthened in order to add efficiency and activity to our streetscapes.
Photo Credit: Flickr by Winterhawk