Yonah at the Transport Politic weighed in on rail transit categorization/semantics last week, using the potential West Seattle to Ballard extension as an example.

The dividing line between what Americans reference as a streetcar and what they call light railis not nearly as defined as one might assume considering the frequent use of the two terminologies in opposition. According to popular understanding, streetcars share their rights-of-way with automobiles and light rail has its own, reserved right-of-way.

But the truth is that the two modes use very similar vehicles and their corridors frequently fall somewhere between the respective stereotypes of each technology. Even the prototypical U.S. light rail project — the Portland MAX — includes significant track segments downtown in which its corridor is hardly separated from that of the automobiles nearby. And that city’s similarly pioneering streetcar includes several segments completely separated from the street.

As a result, some have labeled this plan little more than a streetcar, whose slow pace and minimal capacity make it more useful as a development tool than a transportation one. Others are convinced that the project will morph into a multi-billion dollar mini-metro like Link, a high-cost concept into whose face city budget experts are afraid to look.

But Mayor McGinn’s proposal is neither of those things — it’s an effort to build a cost-effective rail transit line on the model used by cities across Europe, known typically as tramways.

Jarrett over a Human Transit has a different take, arguing that station spacing is a more important factor in determining what kind of rail transit something is.

More after the jump

Light rail and streetcar technologies are, as a whole, more similar than different, but the terms as I hear them used belong to different categories of usefulness to the customer.  I use the term light rail to describe something that’s at least attempting to be rapid transit, by which I mean covering long distances fast by serving fairly widely-spaced stations rather than closely-spaced local stops.  The term was “light rail” was invented specifically for the contrast with “heavy rail,” which is a competing alternative for the same relatively long corridors.  Light rail often makes closely-spaced stops right in downtown, and may thus serve a “streetcar” function there, but it does this mainly for the purpose of providing good access to people who want to use its higher-speed segments.    I refer to streetcars/trams only when I mean local-stop services, designed to do pretty much what local buses do.  (Such services are usually no faster or more reliable than a local bus.)

Exclusivity of right-of-way is an independent issue, but I think it’s clearer to understand this as a consequence of the original usefulness distinction.  Longer trips are more sensitive to speed and reliability than short trips, partly because these trips don’t have the option of walking.  If Portland’s light rail line MAX doesn’t show up at your suburban station, you’re stranded.  If you’re already downtown and the Portland Streetcar doesn’t show up, you start walking.  A common complaint about transit in Melbourne is that the extensive tram system is still the main way of making some fairly long trips, such as between downtown and LaTrobe University, and it’s local-stop operation makes it simply too slow to be widely attractive in such a market.

Both of them bring up great points. I think Yonah’s point is most salient in a Seattle centric context, while Jarrett’s point is most salient from a conceptual perspective. It is interesting because both of them refer to existing rail transit in a specific city as a baseline measure (Seattle Streetcar/LINK, Portland Streetcar/MAX, Toronto Streetcar/Light Rail/Subway). I.e. the context of existing transit in a city matters.

From a purely Seattle perspective I think the reason that some people call the proposed West Seattle/Ballard line a streetcar is because in relation to LINK, which is about the “heaviest” light rail line in the US, it just feels wrong to call them the same thing. By default then people use the only other term they know, streetcar. But I think it is wrong to call the proposed line a streetcar for the very reasons that both Yohan and Jarrett bring up; it would probably have a larger station spacing and exclusive ROW. So while it certainly isn’t a streetcar, it also isn’t the same as LINK. This is why in a purely Seattle context the word tram might be more appropriate.

More on this later today.

23 Replies to “Streetcar, Tram or Light Rail – ROW or Station Spacing?”

  1. Some of the defining differences between what we think of Light Rail and Street cars is vehicle segment length. While many “streetcars” or “trams” in the world are longer than LINK’s LRVs … the individual segment length of the vehicles are much shorter than Light Rail vehicles. This allows for sharper turns within the confines of city streets. The minimum turning radius for LINK is 82 feet … although not even the Westlake Station turn approaches that … whereas the SLUT/Tacoma Link/Portland Streetcar can actually turn a corner around a city block.

    LRVs are also generally wider than Streetcars. While LINK LRVs are not much wider than city busses, streetcars are generally thinner as they need to be able to successfully negotiate city centers and the thinner the vehicle the more able it is to do that (never mind the ability to clear badly parked cars.

    Regardless … I think it would be stupid for our city to not make the West Seattle and Ballard lines part of the LINK light rail system. These 2 lines need to be an integrated part of our trunk light rail system. Streetcars should only be used to connect the dots so-to-speak … offering local service between light rail stations as well as feeders for the light rail stations. The Capitol Hill / First Hill streetcar is a perfect example of how streetcars SHOULD be leveraged here.

    We need to think of LINK as a commuter line and the streetcar as a feeder / local bus replacement. Otherwise we will be paying for our short-sightedness in the future.

  2. There’s three key critical segments of a Ballard – West Seattle line: Downtown, ship canal crossing, and Duwamish crossing. There is not sufficient infrastructure in any of these places to handle a streetcar-like system and offer any true benefit over the existing bus routes. Without an improvement over buses, I question the investment.

    1. Indeed. I can see running a streetcar if you’re extending the SLUT to Ballard via Fremont, but not in the Interbay corridor.

    2. The SLU Streetcar has several benefits over existing bus routes, including MT 17 (local) to Ballard:

      more frequent operation (especially during the day)
      low floors for easier boarding especially for wheelchairs and strollers
      the option off-board payment (hopefully ONLY off-board payment soon)
      more seating than some Metro buses
      larger stop spacing than some Metro routes (roughly equivalent to the ones with stop revisions)
      clear tourist-friendly routing and marketing

      It’s up to you whether you think these offer any “true benefit,” and in theory they could all be implemented on existing bus routes, but no one is proposing that to my knowledge. I’d happily support it if they did.

      1. “larger stop spacing than some Metro routes (roughly equivalent to the ones with stop revisions)”

        If something is done about the slowness at Valley Street, and the number of stops between Valley and Westlake. The intersection slowness will hopefully be dealt with, but it’s probably impossible to remove a couple stops.

  3. Is it likely that the Ballard – West Seattle Rail Line will be one continuous line? Or Will they connect to the future 1st Ave Street car or Central Link?

    1. I think it is too soon to know. McGinn and the Council need to start moving if they want to be able to propose something good. If I where them I would hire a consultant firm ASAP and get started.

  4. Length of the route and eventual destination make a difference, too.

    I can’t see the Rapid Ride Line C terminating in White Center forever. I can’t see Vashonites excited about West Seattle Light Rail if it can’t reach the ferry dock. (Of course, Vashonites might not get to vote.) I can’t see the county wanting light rail to replace rapid ride if it can’t serve the same major destinations (of which the ferry dock is one).

    I’d like the engineers to look at how much improvement light rail would be over rapid ride in West Seattle, assuming it eventually extends to either TIBS or the airport. Of course, since Seattle is doing the study, that probably won’t get looked at.

    As far as I can tell, Rapid Ride Line C, at least to White Center, is a done deal. It may help build the market for eventual West Seattle light rail. But I believe it is too late to stop the major expenditures on that line.

    Rapid Ride Line D to Ballard has the same weakness that it will just go from downtown to neighborhoods. If the city injected a little money to have it turn eastward to the U-District, probably on 85th St, it could become a similar destination-to-destination steady fullness, getting Greenwood denizens to downtown and getting Interbayers to the U. But we don’t have to wait for Line D to start to get more all-day control of the so-called bus lane for buses.

    There are no cookie-cutter solutions or set-in-stone definitions in this business.

    1. Yeah I think there is a lot of study and thinking that needs to go into this. After thinking about this for a while I think Rapidride and rail service can work well together well by putting the rail line directly through the areas that have the highest development potential (The junction, California Ave, Fremont, central Ballard) and then put Rapidride on the higher speed arterials (15th, Fauntleroy) and have it focus more on serving areas further out where it is hard justifying the infrastructure investment of rail.

    2. Vashon is a pretty lousy destination for light rail. They already have a one-seat foot ferry ride to downtown, and there just aren’t enough people to make any sort of difference.

  5. A Portland city transit person once explained to me that the difference between “light rail” and “heavy rail” is that light rail trains were shorter than a city block, and could therefore make stops in a street grid without blocking intersections. Central Link therefore, is potentially heavy rail (space for long trains), though it currently isn’t operating as heavy rail (only short trains used). Tacoma Link is light rail.

  6. I really like the stop spacing typology. I think of light rail as being equivalent to an express bus or rapidride–it’s about getting commuters from point A to point B as fast as possible. A streetcar is more like a normal bus, with more frequent stops. What’s important in both cases (what makes them better than buses) is the rail. Their permanence and comfort drive development and ridership and allow people to actually live without a car. It drives me crazy that some people in Seattle support light rail but not streetcars. Are you going to go grocery shopping on light rail? No, but you might on a neighborhood streetcar. Many of our best neighborhoods are former “streetcar suburbs” from when most people didn’t have cars. Anyway, I think given the small amount of funding available to the city McGinn should do the Fremont/Ballard streetcar and make improvements to RapidRide that would also help ST3 in the future.

    1. Zef–not meant as a criticism, but a serious question–why can’t the goals of driving development and ridership be driven in other ways? Could perhaps other tangible signs of urban design intent do the same work?

      BTW, in heavily transit-oriented cities, typically there are more and smaller grocery stores, and they deliver. In auto-oriented cities, automobiles do a lot of the work that used be done by delivery services.

      1. It’s one of those chicken and egg problems. B/c it’s not just the stores, but also the way people shop at them. In car-centric worlds, people pull up to a ‘super’market every week or two, fill up a couple of buggys throw them in the back of an SUV and fill up your fridge and stand alone freezer.

        In a walking/public transit world, you stop by the little minimart between your stop and flat every day or every other, pull your reuseable bag out and pick up the few items you need, walk home and put them in your minifridge.

        The question is how do you get from the first scenario to the second? I think public transit one of the crucial first steps, but there is alot more that goes into it.

      2. THANK YOU! You have mentioned delivery services! This is crucial to created an efficient rail-infrastructure. When we lived in Japan a few years ago, we got both our furniture and groceries delivered to us for $5! No joke, and that includes the tax and all extra fees.

        If Seattle had such delivery service, I wouldn’t be surprised if our public-transport ridership jumped 20%

    2. “Are you going to go grocery shopping on light rail?”

      Not if you shop at the nearest supermarket. But if you prefer natural foods + wholesale (farmers’ market, natural-foods store, Trader Joe’s, Costco), they don’t exist in every neighborhood.

      1. Pretty much every urban center and village in Seattle, though, including West Seattle, Ballard, and Fremont.

      2. Southeast Seattle doesn’t have these the way the other neighborhoods you mention do, though we do have one farmer’s market (Columbia City) and a PCC (Seward Park, way out of the way from Beacon Hill).

      3. I wish Rainier Valley would get a natural foods store. I’m not walking up and down a hill to Seward Park or waiting for the occasional 39. Better to go to Capitol Hill or 65th.

  7. I like how they say, “Mayor McGinn’s proposal” as if he actually had any sort of concrete proposal.

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