Urban Planning

Streetcars are not a one stop shop for transit solutions. : urbanplanning

I’ve seen lots of comments and posts on YouTube, Twitter and here on Reddit that bringing back the streetcar will since all of our transit woes. Patrick Condon here in Vancouver has a long history of opposing skytrain projects and proposing streetcars as a silver bullet solution for all transit needs, from corridors as diverse as Broadway to Oak.

The thing with these views lacking in nuance is that they often miss the forest for the trees. Often the improvements that come with streetcars could be easily applied to existing bus routes for less money, in less time and see comparable benefits. For instance, stations with level boarding located in street medians or at the very least not requiring streetcars to merge in and out of traffic both improves speed and is more comfortable for passengers, but could easily be applied to buses.

Light rail is often hailed as faster than bus rapid transit, but this is not necessarily true with proper station spacing, signal priority/preemption and median bus only lanes. Many LRT systems, for example the Edmonton LRT, is able to preempt traffic signals with crossing gates. There is no reason in principle why this is necessary (many streetcars operate in mixed traffic with minimal if any priority at lights, ie TTC streetcars), nor why a similar degree of priority could not be applied to BRT systems. One simply clears pedestrians from the intersection, which is possible with multi stage pedestrian crossings, and hit all traffic movements in conflict with the bus with a yellow light in advance of the bus arriving at the intersection.

There are some inherent bus rail differences. Comfort, capacity and aesthetics come to mind. Rail almost certainly has a comfort advantage when it comes to smoothness of the ride and overall ride quality. Rail has an innate capacity advantage as well, and aesthetically greentracks are very pleasing for the streetscape. Of course, rail also allows the ability to integrate rapid transit with public art, such as this water feature LRT in Houston of all places: https://youtu.be/lIInN2EPnuo

Capacity is usually the deciding factor. These differences are ultimately few and far between, and don’t make sense as a blanket solution applied universally to all corridors. For corridors where you only need to move, say, 10,000 people a day, BRT makes far more sense than LRT.

And increasingly, the capacity niche where LRT makes sense is shrinking as advancements in light metro and BRT increasingly bridge the gap. BRT can easily carry upwards of 50,000 people per day through a corridor, meanwhile light metro can make sense when ridership figures are barely 80-100,000 per day.

I am not saying that some agencies may make the trade off between lower capital costs and higher operational costs that come with LRT over light metro, nor that aesthetics and comfort are unimportant or should be overlooked. I am saying that transit riders care most ultimately about speed and more than everything about frequency. These and capacity will be the deciding the factors. And when it comes to these factors, streetcars are far from the panacea they’re made out to be.

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