A Desire Named: Streetcars!

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portland streetcar

In 1947, Tennessee Williams’ most famous play, for which he won the Pulitzer prize, arrived on stage. By that same year, 146 streetcar companies around the US had been bought out and liquidated. The operation was backed by suppliers of buses and cars who profited from the demise of the electric streetcar.

Now, the present administration wants to bring new transportation life to US cities through incentives for new streetcar lines. The Transport Politic warns us:

The fact that streetcars can be built with lower per-mile costs than other forms of rail transit, their ability to attract denser development in some cases, and the possibility of farming off most of their costs to another government entity has made them incredibly appealing.

…and goes on to caution that, in the rush to capture federal funds, some may not be building the most optimal transit systems. Perhaps with some historical perspective we avoid common mistakes and develop a framework with which to adopt new goals and design new standards giving a clear vision of the future.

streetcar tracksFollowing the Streetcar Tracks?

My father spoke fondly of the streetcars he used to ride as a boy. A friend’s Dad actually bought an old streetcar to restore. We used to go inside only to shake our heads when he wasn’t looking. As we would walk along the former rights of way where tracks had long ago been torn up and sold off, I would wonder, “What is so special about these early electric vehicles that seemed to bring such happy memories.”

The Great American Streetcar Scandal

They were easy to use, inexpensive, clean, quiet, and seemed able to take you anywhere you wanted to go. With over 15,000 miles of track, the US once had the most extensive network of streetcars in the world. We now know that installed infrastructure and older vehicles can have a lower carbon footprint the longer they are used, but in the early part of the last century this was never a consideration. Profits were the individual and corporate prime measure of success, with no thought or regard for the effects on society.

Because this is left to individual conscience and moral action rather than social, public, or corporate policy, it is tempting to pounce upon this documented conspiracy as just one example of psychotic corporate misdeeds. Unfortunately, it just tempts others like the Advanced Transit Association to leap back and focuses our concentration on why we cannot succeed rather than finding the means to do so.

Historically, streetcars are an electrification of horse-drawn cars that operated on mostly buried rails within city streets. The first horse-drawn streetcar service began in NYC in 1832 and began replacing the earlier omnicars that did not run on rails. “Horse cars … provided greater speed and a smoother ride.” By using steel wheels riding on steel rails, the rolling resistance is about one seventh. Far less “horse power” was required. Trains were intended to be intercity routes, while streetcars operated as intracity mass transit among other forms of transportation within city streets.

Trolleypoles predated pantographs for conducting electricity from overhead wires

Trolleypoles and Pantographs: Early Electric Vehicles.

While, initially, fewer horses were required to operate cars on rails, by 1900, more than 10,000 dead horses had to be removed from NYC streets each year, without counting what the live ones left behind. Congestion and pollution are constant problems on city streets. One solution was a central steam engine and a cable in a trench between the tracks, a cable car. But overhead electric lines already had begun powering the first streetcars in Richmond, Virgina in 1888.

Pantograph drawing power for this EV from overhead wire

The trolleypoles had to always trail the direction of travel while later pantographs were two-directional and dependable at higher speeds.

What is the Difference Between Streetcars and Light Rail or Actual Trains?

Streetcar lines expanded between cities. They also spawned the subways and elevated trains which obtain electricity from an electrified third rail. Unlike the first streetcars, these additions, with their dedicated right of way and less frequent stops, could operate at higher speeds. It has been argued, however, that stop spacing rather than exclusive right of way could be a more useful distinction. When stops are spread out, speed increases and we are then looking at a rapid transit system. Where stops are close together, it can be a better mass transit system to cars and buses.

Nowadays, the main difference between streetcars, light rail, and actual trains is scale, primarily meaning the distance they cover.

…vs the Trolley Bus

Streetcars have the potential of operating like buses, stopping only as needed. Rapid transit will stop at each station, needed or not. Congestion and pollution continue to be urban problems. We can keep cars out of cities only if we can effectively move people into cities and provide an easy way to travel within the city. Electric mass transit has the appeal of being cleaner than internal combustion engine (ICE) buses. Electric rail transit also has a life expectancy up to 8 times that of ICE buses.

Then, there is the trolley bus, that continues using overhead electric, but eliminates the rails and runs on rubber tires. These vehicles, when compared to diesel buses, are about 3-4 times cheaper to operate but about 2 times as expensive to purchase. Like streetcars, power recovered from regenerative braking can be fed back to the overhead wires, saving operating and maintenance costs. Like all electric vehicles, they produce no pollution from the vehicle and no operational pollution at all if the source of the electricity is clean.

Re-routing around traffic, potential power outages, and ice build-up on the lines can be issues for trolley buses. It would be far more difficult to automate (driverless) a trolleybus system than one which had a dedicated rail right of way. Passengers tend to prefer rail systems. Real estate development tends to follow the greater investment in rail lines than the bus routes that can too easily change. Streetcar investments have been shown to stimulate and guide development.

The chinese straddling bus concept

Alternatives to Same Old, Same Old..

Development within an existing city is difficult. The straddling bus is an alternative to elevated roadways.
An alternative to rail systems that would be cheaper to build would stretch the “string rail” between supporting towers. In the US, making transit available to those with disabilities is a concern. Lower streetcars address this issue. But if the efficiency of rails should be sacrificed for tires and we use the option of a trolleybus, then we can also use onboard storage with intermittent charging at stops or wireless technology to transmit the energy to the vehicle. This may also add flexibility and decrease the influence of weather.

A Streetcar Renaissance

A streetcar renaissance in slowly evolving as we discover electric transportation holds many advantages with transmission of the electricity generally cheaper than using battery powered vehicles. It is tempting in a time of limited budgets to spend as little as possible. We need to be wise enough to appreciate when our long-range costs will be lower… and one day Blanche may yet be able to get on A Streetcar named Desire.

Photo Credits:

Portland streetcar: Cacophony
streetcar tracks: Jason McHuff
Streetcars awaiting destruction via  Wikipedia
horse drawn streetcar via Wikimedia
trolleypoles via wikipedia
pantograph: Audrius Meskauskas via wikipidia
trolleybus via wikipedia
straddling bus via cleantechnica

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