A Real American Streetcar

The blogs are aflutter with Ray LaHood’s visit to Portland, Oregon yesterday. Among other things, he was stopping in to help celebrate the completion of an American made streetcar. The car made by the Oregon Iron Works is the first to be produced in this country in the last sixty years. We can all hope this points to a burgeoning industry.

Oh, and the car will be used for the city’s new streetcar line, which received $75 million dollars in stimulus funds so that it may come to fruition. At least some cities are spending wisely…


photo by mexiwi

11 Responses to “A Real American Streetcar”

  1. 1 Andy

    I would love to see one of these going north and south on Biscayne, and then maybe east/west on Eighth.

  2. 2 Juan Navarro

    I was just posting this on Facebook and was eaten alive by the classic “Miami Politicians would just fuck this up” argument.
    But that’s the thing if we keep going into everything with “the Politicians are gonna fuck this up” they will never change the landscape of Miami at all and we’ll just die choking of exhaust on the Palmetto.
    Plus They can’t ignore this! Ridership is an all time high on Tri-rail. The Metro rail is a failure for sure, but when the fucking thing DOES go somewhere people want to go, it works!

  3. 3 Mike Lydon

    Investments in street cars are all about having the right priorities in place. Spend $150 million on a road widening and people don’t even blink. Try to spend the same on a single, functioning urban streetcar line and everyone all of sudden says its too expensive and asks where will the cash strapped city get the money for such a “boondoggle.”

    The thing is, the widening of the former has nothing but diminishing returns: the infrastructure ages, it will cost human lives in car crashes, it adds to pollution, it invites more sprawl if the land use isn’t properly handled, and ultimately it only invites more demand we will pay another $150 million to widen it again.

    However, investment in the latter leads to nothing but increasing returns of directed investment, better quality of life, less pollution, less emissions, more transit use, synergy with other modes of transportation, increased tax base, etc.

    But until the City, County and FDOT can transform their thinking to a different paradigm entirely, one where total costs and life cycles are taken into account, one where reaching a long term goal is the priority in the short term, then all the ‘green’ initiatives will have little effect because they will always be canceled out by other poor decisions.

  4. 4 Neil

    Are typewriters, kerosene lamps, and the Charlston comming back too? What can a streetcar do that a bus can’t?

  5. 5 Mike Lydon

    Hi Neil,

    Have you ridden on a modern streetcar? They are fantastic, for the following 36 reasons:

    1. New streetcar lines always, always, get more passengers than the bus routes they replace.
    2. Buses, are susceptible to every pothole and height irregularity in the pavement (and in Chicago we have plenty). Streetcars ride on smooth, jointless steel rails that rarely develop bumps.
    3. Streetcars don’t feel “low status” to transit riders. Buses often do.
    4. Mapmakers almost always include streetcar lines on their city maps, and almost never put any bus route in ink. New investment follows the lines on the map.
    5. The upfront costs are higher for streetcars than buses–but that is more than made up over time in lower operating and maintenance costs. In transit you get what you pay for.
    6. There is a compelling “coolness” and “newness” factor attached to streetcars.
    7. Streetcars feel safer from a crime point of view.
    8. Steel wheel on steel rail is inherently more efficient than rubber tire on pavement. Electric streetcars can accelerate more quickly than buses.
    9. Streetcars don’t smell like diesel.
    10. Streetcars accelerate and decelerate smoothly because they’re electrically propelled. Internal-combustion engines acting through a transmission simply cannot surge with the same smoothness.
    11. The current length limit for a bus is 60 feet, but streetcars can go longer, since they are locked into the rails and won’t be swinging all around the streets, smashing into cars.
    12. Streetcars have an air of nostalgia.
    13. New streetcar and light rail lines usually come with an upgraded street experience from better stops, landscaping, new roadbeds, and better sidewalks, to name a few. Of course, your federal transit dollar is paying for these modernizations, so why wouldn’t cities try to get them!
    14. Perhaps the most over looked and significant difference between street cars and buses is permanence. You’ll notice that development will follow a train station, but rarely a bus stop. Rails don’t pick up and move any time soon. Once a trolley system is in place, business and investors can count on them for decades. Buses come and go.
    15. Streetcars are light and potentially 100% green. Potentially they could be powered by 100% solar and/or wind power. Even powered with regular power plant-derived electricity, they are still 95% cleaner than diesel buses. [Source? -Ed.]
    16. Streetcars stop less. Because of the increased infrastructure for stops, transit planners don’t place stops at EVERY BLOCK, like they do with buses (SEPTA in Philly is terrible for this). Instead, blocks are a quarter to a half mile apart, so any point is no more than an eigth to a quarter mile from a stop.
    17. People will travel longer distances on streetcars. At one point, in the 1930s, a person could travel to Boston from Washington solely on trolleys, with only two short gaps in the routes.
    18. Buses are noisy. I ride them every day in Chicago, and I am constantly amazed at how loud a diesel bus engine is–even on our latest-model buses [and] the valve chatter is an irritant to the nervous system. By comparison, streetcars are virtually silent.
    19. Technological advances already make the current generation definitely NOT your grandfather’s streetcar. Low floors are standard, for easy-on easy-off curbside boarding. Wide doors allow passengers to enter or exit quickly. So streetcar stops take less time than buses.
    20. Passengers can take comfort from seeing the rails stretching out far ahead of them, while ever fearing that the bus could take a wrong turn at the next corner and divert them off course.
    21. Once purchased (albeit at high cost) streetcars are cheaper to maintain and last way the hell longer (case in point, streetcars discarded in the US in the 40’s, snapped up by the Yugoslavs, which are still running).
    22. Streetcar tracks are cheaper to maintain than the roadways they displace.
    23. People get notably more excited about the proposed extension of the streetcar system and expect revitalization of the neighborhoods around the planned stops.
    24. Streetcars create more walkable streets. This is because streetcars, as mentioned above, are more attractive to riders than buses, which in turns prompt to more mass transit usage in general, which in turns prompts to more walking–a virtuous cycle that creates more attractive city streets.
    25. Most European cities and countries kept investing in public transit during the decades when America was DISinvesting. Now I look across the pond and see dozens of European cities extending or building new rail transit systems, including many streetcar lines, and conclude: ‘They probably know what they are doing; we should do some of that too.’
    26. You know exactly where a streetcar is going – but have you ever tried looking at a bus route map?
    27. Streetcars are faster than buses or trackless trolleys (aside from 2 lines in Philly, do any other cities run trackless trolleys, or trolley buses anymore?) because trams tend to have dedicated lanes. Even if they don’t, if they operate on streets with multiple lanes, people stay out of the tram lane, because it’s harder to drive a car along tram tracks (the wheels pull to one side or the other as they fall into the groove).
    28. In buses you’re still jostled by every pothole and sway at every bus stop. I thought bus rapid transit would be a significant improvement - there’s still a bit of sway and they concrete was not installed as smoothly as line of steel rail.
    29. With buses transit planners are pushed by funding formulas to capture every pocket of riders thus you can get a very wiggly route – something that’s less practical on a fixed rail system
    30. Buses lurch unpredictably from side to side as they weave in and out of traffic and as they move from the traffic lane to the curb lane to pick up passengers. In streetcars turns occur at the same location on every trip, so that even standees can more or less relax knowing the car is not going to perform any unpredictable lateral maneuvers.
    31. Most streetcar riders don’t consciously think about the differences between a bus ride and a streetcar ride. But their unconscious minds–the spinal cord, the solar plexus, the inner ear and the seat of the pants–quickly tally the differences and deliver an impressionistic conclusion: The streetcar ride is physiologically less stressful.
    32. An internal-combustion engine is constantly engaged in hammering itself to death and buses tend to vibrate themselves into a sort of metallurgical dishevelment. Interior fittings–window frames, handrails, floor coverings, seats–tend to work loose and make the interior look frowzy and uncared-for. By age 12 the bus is a piece of junk and has to be retired. A streetcar the same age is barely into its adolescence.
    33. Streetcar stops are typically given more attention than most bus routes and the information system is more advanced. In Portland, the shelters even have VMS diplays that tell you the times of the next two streetcar arrivals. This valuable information gives people the option to wait, do something else to pass the time, or walk to their destination.
    34. One great advantage of streetcars is that the infrastructure serves as an orienting and wayfinding device. The track alerts folks to the route and leads them to stops. Because they are a permanent feature of the streetscape, the routing is predictable and stable (unlike bus routes). So unlike a bus, a streetcar informs and helps citizens to formulate an image of their city, even if folks don’t ride it. It is a feature of their public realm. Because of this, these streets get greater public attention.
    35. When you ride one of the remaining historic cars in Toronto or San Francisco you can tell they’re “old” in the sense of “out of style,” but when you look around the interior everything still seems shipshape, nothing rattles, the windows open and close without binding. The rider experiences a sense of solid quality associated with Grandma’s solid-oak dining table and 1847 Rodgers Brothers silver. And that makes everybody feel good. Unlike, say, an aging bus.
    36. For those of you who cannot see the difference between a bus and a streetcar, I suggest riding a streetcar when you get the chance. Then, if you can locate a bus that more or less follows the same route, give that a try. Compare the two experiences.


  6. 6 Slopes

    I liked the 36 reasons. Maybe a streetcar would make sense for Miami.

  7. 7 Steve

    Kerosene Lamps are great! they burn much cleaner than battery powered lights!

  8. 8 Neil

    @Mike: thanks for the post. I have seen a few of those points mentioned here before, but not that much info at once. I didn’t know that they were cheaper than buses in the long run. Can you cite the source that backs up that claim. That would be very useful. Obviously the main argument against them is cost.

    I have never ridden in a street car. I have been on Miami’s Metrorail. And I used to be a daily rider of our buses. Back in college I rode Chicago’s L train to Northwestern U.

  9. 9 tomas

    The streetcar was controversial to portlanders. While streetcars are nice, they built the line to serve the interests of the wealthy and businesses. The overwhelming majority of portland’s commuters and transit riders live on the east side of the city, especially in north portland, and outer south east. The NW is essentially what is served by the street car, and it is the most wealthy part of the city (excluding the west hills). People living in the NW don’t really ride the street car, because most commute to the suburbs where the corporate HQs are. Portland actually has a really strange economy with wealthier californians who telecommute and leave their businesses elsewhere. Anyhow, while the street car seems neat from afar, most people in portland never really ride it unless they are shopping downtown, which is probably less visited than miami’s downtown even.

  10. 10 Susan


    You do not know what you are talking about. I have lived in Portland for almost 20 years and streetcar ridership is huge and I ride the streetcar at least once every few weeks. Just go get the facts at Portland Streetcar Inc website which shows increasing ridership every year, in fact sometimes you have to wait to get on the next one as it is too full. The ridership has exceeded all expectations. And while you are correct it started in NW, the next extension is the East Side Loop which will serve the East side and the system will keep expanding. So there are tons of people in Portland riding the streetcar every day, from commuters to tourists and from rich to poor people.

  11. 11 Mike Lydon

    Hi Neil, sorry for the delay in response. You can probably tell from the lack of new posts this week, that it’s been a busy one.

    Anyways, I consulted with Jeff Wood of Reconnecting America-one of the authorities on transportation and transit related studies and research in America- and also the author of The Overhead Wire blog. Jeff said that more or less, it truly depends on context and the specifics of how the streetcar is designed and built out. Also, it seems no conclusive numbers yet exist, although Jeff is trying to track them down. He says:

    “My sense however is that when thinking about costs we need to think holistically. When you build a streetcar, you’re doing so to not only transport people but to shape growth patterns. What happens in this is then you’re talking about a whole other set of assumptions for the people that live in newly created neighborhoods. We call this the “Trip not taken” That means people will walk to run errands or go places that they would normally not take or take a car to perform. That saves in terms of GHGs, VMT, etc etc etc. You know all about that.

    I’ll try to ask around and get you some numbers though. My inclination is that because you can fit more people onto a streetcar with one driver, you’re going to drive down your operations cost over time. Also, we know that the FTA allows you to replace buses every 12 years and LRVs every 24, though in places like San Francisco there are vehicles running from the 1950s with refurbishment. This basically means that even though you’re paying more, you’re getting to keep it longer and for the capacity of a streetcar, you have to have two buses. So for every four 40 foot buses you have to buy, you only need one streetcar.”

    And to spur the debate further, check out this very detailed and controversial Human Transit blog post on a similar topic. http://www.humantransit.org/2009/07/streetcars-an-inconvenient-truth.html



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