Built For Riders: Operations, Efficiency, and Streetcars
In the previous installment, "Streetcar Suburbs and Trolleytrack Towns," I looked at the way the streetcar culture between about 1890 and 1955 or so shaped America's physical and mental landscape. One of the questions raised at the end was why the system worked. This intallment will talk about one of the reasons, albeit more from an operations and engineering than social perspective.
Part of the answer, and probably one of the most significant parts, is a pair of related principles -- rights-of-way and dedicated trackage. Giving streetcars dedicated tracks or the right-of-way in traffic had various purposes – to free the streetcar from traffic gridlock and to ease passage by other vehicles on the street which might otherwise be stuck behind streetcars; to allow streetcars to space themselves out and not get forced by traffic into groups, and, in areas where there was dedicated trackage, to allow the streetcars to move rapidly over long distances between stops.
Dedicated Trackage: Dedicated trackage functions in streetcar systems two ways – either it runs in the street in its own separate lane, or else it runs separately from the roadway, typically over long distances, as in interurban streetcar lines. In particular, Toronto (where streetcars have remained continually in service for over a century), has several routes operating partially on private rights-of-way, usually in the median of a street and separated by raised curbs. Most of these private rights-of-way are newly established (and a political battle continues as of this writing over private right-of-way for streetcars on St. Clair Ave.), but one street, the Queensway, has featured private streetcar right-of-way since 1957. This feature keeps the streetcars (and streetcar riders) out of the way of automobiles, and automobiles out of the way of streetcars.
(Toronto has managed to keep its streetcar system and culture intact since the 19th Century, despite attempts in the 1970s to scrap the Toronto Transit Commission’s streetcar service altogether. The author suggests that two factors may have kept the streetcars running in Toronto, namely the aesthetics of the custom-designed CLRV and ALRV cars, created specifically to suit both the practical and cultural ethos of the city; and the extensive penetration of streetcars in southern Toronto, which provide most of the surface transportation for the downtown area and inside the original city limits. Toronto boasts 305.8 km/191.7 miles of streetcar lines over eleven routes. Given that the streetcars are both useful and beautiful, and unique to the city – in part because Toronto’s streetcars run on a track gauge that is 6cm/3 3/8” wider than the standard – massive public outcry forced the Toronto Transit Commission to reconsider, and the streetcars remain.)
Toronto’s streetcar system is likely the oldest surviving functional streetcar system in North America, although it is modest in scope compared to many of the systems in the US (and Canada, to a lesser degree), which connected municipalities through a network of fast, efficient streetcar lines. Probably the most famous and emblematic streetcar system ever was Pacific Electric’s Red Car lines. Part of the reason the Red Car in Los Angeles and its surrounding municipalities became the largest and most successful streetcar system in North America, if not the world, was that it ran on its own dedicated trackage, often completely divorced from the roadways. This system eliminated the problems street railways had in the absence of right-of-way in traffic, where the streetcars simply contribute to traffic congestion. Archival footage from some of the last surviving Red Car lines shows a streetcar sweeping down a curving expanse of track surrounded by trees and green space, the rail equivalent of driving down one of Robert Moses’ parkways in their early days, before they became clogged with traffic.
Giving streetcars their own rights-of-way has currency outside of modern Toronto and historic LA, however. In 1993, Joseph DePlasco (then director of public affairs for New York City’s Department of Transportation) and Janette Sadik-Khan (then director of the New York City Mayor’s Transportation Office) wrote an op-ed in Newsday outlining a proposed plan for revitalising transit in NYC, harkening back to the golden age of infrastructure projects in the city, the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Part of their list of proposals includes “reconstruct[ing] bridges to carry trains and to rebuild major corridors, such as 42nd Street, to carry trolleys along a dedicated right-of-way.” The current light-rail system in Minneapolis enjoys dedicated trackage and precedence at rail-roadway intersections. Similarly, the Pasadena Gold Line system has entirely dedicated trackage, which runs from LA to Pasadena along “right-of-way formerly occupied by the Pasadena Subdivision of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway,” according to Parsons, an engineering subcontractor for the project. The Gold Line evokes the old Red Car lines, although it doesn’t repeat them – the new rail doesn’t run along the same tracks.
Right-of-Way in Traffic: The other way to avoid streetcars’ contributing to and suffering from traffic jams is to give streetcars the right-of-way in traffic, similar to the way some jurisdictions now require cars to yield to buses pulling into traffic away from bus stops. Interviewee testimony from Klein and Olson’s documentary on streetcars and traffic, Taken For A Ride, suggests that in the early years of the 20th Century, streetcars had roadway precedence over automobiles in many places. Not only did traffic have to stop at intersections of dedicated streetcar tracks, as still happens with rail today, but drivers were required to yield to streetcars and provide them a clear path (headway) down the tracks.
Recent developments in the analysis of traffic patterns and the physics of traffic flow (similar in some ways to fluid dynamics) suggests that regulating rights-of-way and integrating streetcars actually reduces traffic congestion and increases overall traffic speed. (For a brief overview with bibliography, see "The Physics of Traffic," Physics World, August 1999.)
Interviews in Klein and Olson’s film also suggests that changing the laws (or implementing new ones which specified precedence in the first place) so as to take away right-of-way from streetcars helped blur the differences between them and buses, which were ultimately to replace them in most places, since a streetcar without right-of-way in traffic basically becomes a bus on rails.
Of course, once you have streetcars reduced to buses on rails, you can sell actual buses on the grounds that they're more flexible, fit in better with existing traffic, free up road space and overhead (no tracks or wires required!), and are (arguably) cheaper to operate. Still, even that wasn't straightforward, and required an awful lot of selling, but at the rates of profit to be had, there were more than enough eager salesmen around...
This concludes the series on streetcars. The full-length work should appear in late June, and a parallel piece specifically on transit history in my hometown may be forthcoming, to appear online and possibly in print. Likewise, my publisher and I intend to set up a website with supplemental material. Further information will appear on the blog when it becomes available.