For new urban rail — Modern streetcars now lead light rail revolution

Streetcar under testing in downtown Kansas City. Streetcar systems can readily be upgraded into full-performance light rail transit. Photo: Michael Leatherman.

Streetcar under testing in downtown Kansas City. Streetcar systems can readily be upgraded into full-performance light rail transit. Photo: Michael Leatherman.

For the first time since the advent of the USA’s modern light rail transit (LRT) revolution in the mid-1970s, the modern streetcar — a scaled-down version of higher-performance LRT — has emerged as the leading form of LRT development for launching urban rail in American cities. Characterized by typically shorter stop spacing, somewhat slower speeds, more reliance on sharing road space with motor vehicle traffic, and often slightly smaller rolling stock, streetcars seem to be perceived as a more financially accessible path to initiate a new local urban rail system scaled to the needs of communities previously dependent only on buses for their public transit.

However, because its technology is nearly identical to high-performance LRT, streetcar starter lines may offer the basis of a system that can be upgraded to “full” LRT via affordable and reasonable modifications.

While several major cities with rail rapid transit and/or LRT systems (e.g., Washington DC, Atlanta, Seattle, Sacramento, St. Louis) are also adding streetcar operations with new streetcar systems, this article focuses on new modern streetcar projects that represent the first installation of any form of urban rail for their communities. Thus, projects now well under construction (with route-miles and total investment cost) include:

Cincinnati — 1.8 miles, $148 million

Kansas City — 2.2 miles, $102 million (see photo at top of post)

Detroit — 3.3 miles, $140 million

Modern streetcar projects in planning and preparatory stages of development are also under way in Oklahoma City, Milwaukee, and Ft. Lauderdale, leading the inauguration of urban rail for those communities as well.

In most cases, streetcars are being introduced initially as circulator modes, typically for the CBD or a single major corridor. Even when routed in mixed (shared) traffic, streetcars offer faster, more attractive service to comparable bus operations together with additional benefits for urban livability and economic development.

However, the possibility of upgrading this mode into a cost-effective, higher-performance form of LRT is raised by the rapid streetcar concept, originally proposed in 2004 by Lyndon Henry, a nationally known public transport planner and a technical consultant to Light Rail Now. The concept has generated interest within the rail transit planning profession; see, for example:

The Rapid Streetcar

Rapid Streetcar: Rescaling Design And Cost for More Affordable Light Rail Transit

Rapid Streetcar concept gaining ground

Henry and other public transport professionals and advocates emphasize that it’s critical to upgrade streetcar operations by converting shared-traffic street alignments into dedicated lanes free of other traffic, implementing traffic signal prioritization for streetcars, and expanding these new lines into other city sectors and suburbs.