Sunday, May 11, 2014

The return of the mixed-traffic streetcar

I wrote before that mixed-traffic streetcars no longer make sense in this country, because whenever a corridor has enough walkable destinations to support the service, it attracts too many private cars. Those cars slow down the streetcar so much that it no longer provides enough value to draw passengers. There is a way to make them work, however: drive the cars away.

Drivers are currently drawn to Manhattan under today's heavy subsidy levels, but if the subsidies are decreased it will attract less drivers. Cordon pricing is the most obvious way to do this, but it could also be accomplished with high enough prices on parking or fuel.

Imagine Manhattan one day in the Future. As it did a century ago, a streetcar again connects Greenwich Village with Soho, Chinatown, Tribeca and the Financial District along Wooster Street and University Place. It runs smoothly and quickly, even at the height of rush hour or the hottest club time on Saturday night. The reason is that, thanks a combination of bridge tolls, parking pricing and ten dollar a gallon gas, nobody wants to be driving. There are cars on the streets, but never enough to slow down the trolley.

That's the kind of environment where a mixed-traffic streetcar can work. Without something to keep private cars out of the way, streetcars are just buses with a smoother ride.


busplanner said...

Of course, if you drive away most of the traffic, buses would ride pretty well, too.

Streetcars make sense if the demand throughout the day is such that the added capacity of streetcars is necessary. (For example, if one had demand for a four minute bus headway that could be replaced by a six to eight minute streetcar headway, the argument for streetcars makes sense.) But, in a heavily urban environment such as Manhattan, a headway less frequent than about eight minutes, would simply cause people to walk or choose transit in a parallel corridor.

neroden@gmail said...

The best spots I've seen for "mixed traffic streetcars" are on lines which are exclusive-right-of-way almost all the way, but have a few short segments where the street is really narrow and local access for cars is necessary.

There's such a spot on the NJT RiverLine.

That's the only use I can think of for mixed traffic streetcars.

Unless the street is just so narrow that you can't fit a streetcar and a local access lane without shared running, the streetcar should have its own lane.

Joseph E said...

"Unless the street is just so narrow that you can't fit a streetcar and a local access lane without shared running, the streetcar should have its own lane"


This is the problem with most proposed new streetcars in the USA. For example, in Portland there are two light rail routes thru downtown, where one (or two) lanes have been devoted to transit, with one left for cars (and bikes). The route of the streetcar currently has 2 lanes for travel and 2 for parking on both sides. One lane could have been made transit-only.

Alon said...

@Neroden: yes! But beware of giving buses their own lanes everywhere except where there's congestion, as Boston did with the Silver Lie.