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.