We’ve already discussed the disadvantages of streetcars sharing traffic lanes with cars: it results in slower and less reliable streetcar service. That’s not an inherent problem with streetcar technology; it’s a result of how that technology is implemented. Streetcars can also run in their own lanes or outside of streets entirely. That’s not a new idea: streetcars in New Orleans have run in grassy street medians (they call them “neutral grounds”) since the late 1800s. New there’s a name for that, originally coined by Lyndon Henry: “rapid streetcar.” Here’s how it fits in:
|Local Bus||Streetcar||Rapid Streetcar||Light Rail|
|40′ diesel vehicle on rubber tires||60′ electric vehicle on steel rails||60′ electric vehicle on steel rails||trains of up to two 90′ electric vehicles on steel rails|
|shares lanes with cars||shares lanes with cars||operates in own lane or outside of streets||operates in own lane or outside of streets|
|stops with sign, maybe a bench, maybe a shelter||stops with sign, bench, shelter, short platform||stops with sign, bench, shelter, short platform||stations with shelter, benches, long platform, lighting, ticket vending|
|lowest capital cost||medium capital cost||medium capital cost||higher capital cost|
|does not attract choice riders||attracts new riders; makes surrounding areas more desirable to live, work, and spend time in||attracts new riders; makes surrounding areas more desirable to live, work, and spend time in||attracts new riders; makes surrounding areas more desirable to live, work, and spend time in|
The most common rapid streetcar implementation in the United States is the use of abandoned railroad lines. This is very effective, but only if there happens to be an available right of way in the right place, as there was in Memphis:
…or here in Boston. Note the hike and bike trail alongside.
Alternately, rapid streetcar can run in streets, either in the center or along the curbs, in lanes marked off with paving, pylons, fencing, or landscaping, as along the Embarcadero in San Francisco, in a wide boulevard created by the demolition of the Embarcadero Freeway:
or simply with pavement marking, as here in Memphis:
It’s not necessary to separate the streetcars and cars totally: one advantage of a streetcar is its flexibility, and in a tight area, especially one with minimal traffic, a rapid streetcar line can run in traffic lanes for a few blocks. But that affects service. Every block of reserved right of way means faster and more reliable trips.
So far, rapid streetcar is uncommon in the United States. That’s not due to cost: building outside of a street is actually a bit cheaper than building in a street, and the cost of dividers to separate a lane in a street for streetcars is minimal. Not is it because the idea is novel: it’s simply basic good transit practice. Rather, the problem is political. It’s very difficult to take space away from cars. Even in transit-dependent cities like New York, San Francisco and Toronto, where the majority of residents don’t own cars, vocal business owners and car commuters have fought any attempt to give transit its own space. Politicians like streetcars because they satisfy calls for rail transit. But they don’t want to potentially antagonize anyone by taking space from cars, so they put streetcars in mixed traffic. The result looks good, and it’s an accomplishment to brag about. But it’s not actually better transit service than could have been provided with a bus.
Rapid streetcar is another tool for creating good transit. It fits neatly an ordinary streetcar line and light rail: the low cost of the former with the improved speed and reliability of the latter. It makes a lot of sense for corridors where better transit service is needed but demand doesn’t warrant light rail. But doing it right requires the political will to give transit its own space.