South Lake Union Trolley 001
This New York Times article about the streetcar’s rebirth is pretty informative. It mentions a dozen cities have streetcar lines, but 40 have plans to build them! And I didn’t know that Portland was the first city to build a modern streetcar line. I also noticed that everyone who’s planning streetcar’s seems to be using the same Ikedon/Skoda cars that we’re using here.

8 Replies to “The Streetcar’s Comeback in America”

  1. Portland was pretty instrumental in getting the modern streetcar up and running.

    What people don’t realize about the tag “modern streetcar” is that it’s wholly dependent upon scale. I believe Wikipedia uses the term “light light rail” (cf. “light metro”) which is wholly appropriate given its intent.

    While some streetcar systems in the country are attempting to draw the single-car consist system up toward light rail standards and capacity, a lot of modern streetcar systems are trying to draw it down a little.

    Of course, this creates problems as they have in Austin where LRT proponents are demanding dedicated ROWs and total grade separation “or it won’t work” — putting a greater weight on the streetcar system than it is intending to have. The civic minded of course don’t see the need to have the streetcars whizzing by since going “a little faster than walking” is the baseline and does serve to help create dense walkable neighborhoods.

    I think Portland got it right and will continue to get it right. I doubt Streetcar Sam’s judgment in a couple of corridors (Sandy, for example) since it seems he wants the streetcar to go through more than one neighborhood transition zone rather than a continuously populated area. His heart is in the right place and perhaps he will go for dedicated lanes and signal priority on those long-haul routes where scale demands it.

    Oh, and Rep. Earl Blumenauer got an excellent deal with Oregon Iron Works to work with Skoda to produce american-built streetcars. Why I’m only dedicating a single sentence to that fact, I don’t know. It’s interesting, look it up for yourself.

  2. Speaking of Oregon Iron Works, the Streetcar division is now United Streetcar, LLC.

    1. Their website is kinda scary, but only because of the one rendering INSIDE A PARKING GARAGE.

      I can see it now– a young woman in her early 30s walking to her car, keys out. It’s dark. It’s scary. Only the sound of her jingling keys and footsteps and the quiet din of her iPod blaring in her ears are present and then ALL OF THE SUDDEN, SHE IS JUMPED BY A STREETCAR!!

  3. So that’s an interesting comment by AJ on whether street cars are being over or under applied, in terms of capacity.

    Coincidentally, this being Skoda, my experience living in Prague in 1999 was the turning point for my view of how rail, in all of its forms, could be the bulwark of a transportation system. As a very young boy, I remember the fascination I had watching massive freight trains zooming alongside the highway, during trips to my grandmother’s home in small town Texas. That fascination has turned into an almost revolutionary fervor, because when I lived in Prague in my late 20s, I was living in a city where everyone got around either by walking or by taking rail. Between the trams, subway, commuter rail, and good ol’ fashioned walking, there was never a need for cars, and rarely a need for a bus. This was true regardless of whether you lived in the city, in the burbs, or in almost any one of the small towns that encircled the city.

    The trams there are double-lengthed (two cars), have extensive routes that run several miles, and arrive at very short intervals. Ask anyone who has lived in Prague about the #9 tram; it took you almost anywhere you could want to go. The tram lines criss-crossed each other and the subway system in numerous places, and of course the city neighborhoods were designed to where most of life’s necessities could be had in a four or five block radius from where you lived.

    I never used a car the entire time I was over there, and used a bus (which were almost non-existent) only a handful of times. Although today cars are increasing in popularity (and roads are being pushed by the current government), when I was there the massive majority across the region got around by foot or by rail.

    So when I hear detractors of rail say that only 12% or so of the population will ever take rail, to me that’s nonsense. I bet a fully fleshed out system in King County could get several times that. And I think high-capacity trams would be a substantial part of that, both in terms of their ability to feed lite and commuter rail, as well as being a major transportation conduit in its own right.

    Having used their trams in Czech, and visited some of their (non-rail) factories, I always liked the fact that Skoda was building cars for South Lake Union.

    BTW: A word to the wise: if you are ever in Pilzen, visit the Pilsner Urquell cellars, where you can tap the beer unfiltered right out of a giant oak barrel. You will never again experience beer that good, LOL.

    1. Been there. They’ve got great food too! I’m more partial to the beers of northern Bavaria, though, as I spent 3-1/2 years there.

      Living in Germany really opened my eyes to what can happen when a country, region or city adaquately funds a balanced transportation network.


  4. Interesting. That mirrors the “conversion experience” I had after being an exchange student in Japan for a year, except that there aren’t many streetcars in Japan, but a lot of “local trains” with their own ROW. I also vastly preferred the subway since with limited language skills I would always know where I was going.

  5. this thread nicely illustrates that LRT and BRT are continuums; that each can provide a range of speed and capacity depending upon how much exclusivity and service frequency they are provided. The Prague streetcar sounds similar to those is Toronto; they are long and have significant exclusivity; they provide great advantages to their riders: speed, frequency, and range.

    The Prague and Toronto streetcars are at the high end of the streetcar portion of the LRT continuum; while the SLU line is at the low end.

    Portland did several things well in building their streetcar: they lined up service subsidy from parking revenue and the alignment was long enough to extend through downtown and to Portland State University.

    These are things that Seattle has not done with the SLU line: it did not line up its service subsidy and it does not penetrate downtown nor reach the University District.

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