Why are there no trams in America?


Tram in Grenoble, France. From wikipedia.org.

Yonah Freemark recently published a story on Next American City Daily talking about the massive growth of trams in France. Throughout the article, he makes a distinction between European trams and American streetcars or light rail. It led me to think, what are the differences and advantages to the various transit systems between buses and subways, and why do there not seem to be many systems like the trams Freemark is describing in my country?

Trams and their Cousins

Streetcars

Streetcar in Philadelphia. From Studio 34: Yoga.

Streetcars are one of the oldest forms of public transportation. Once ubiquitous in American cities, many were systematically destroyed through a conspiracy involving GM, Firestone, and others in the car industry (sounds crazy, I know, but I’m not making it up; GM was eventually indicted and fined). Streetcars are on a set track and usually powered by overhead catenary wires. They are often no bigger than a standard bus, although some systems like Fort Lauderdale’s The Wave feature articulated systems. although some have formal station structures, like the ones in North Philadelphia, many are just standard bus stops. The greatest weakness of the streetcar is that it has no separation from or priority over other traffic, and gets stuck at lights and behind cars just like a bus would. It’s only advantages over a bus are that it operates relatively quietly (although at least here in Philly when they turn the wheels squeak like the end of the world) and they can have an element of either tech-sexiness or nostalgia to them depending on their design, but otherwise, they are no better than a bus. In fact, their fixed path makes them less flexible and harder to service than buses. The tracks also present a danger to cyclists. I have a number of friends who showed up to class with scuffed knees after an unfortunate altercation with a streetcar track.

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)

Emerald Express bus in Eugene, OR. From reporting1blog.wordpress.com.

Bus rapid transit (BRT) is a comparatively new technology. They are buses, and as such do not run on a set track, giving them greater flexibility, and don’t feature wires, which some people view as an asset (although many in Europe are fond of their catenaries). They are virtually all articulated buses, most with two sections but some with three or more, giving them higher capacity than standard buses and many streetcars. Some have station platforms, such as Eugene’s Emerald Express, but others are simpler bus shelters, such as most stops on Boston’s Silver Line. BRT has its own dedicated lane, separating it from car traffic and allowing them to move more smoothly and efficiently, although they generally lack priority at lights. The lack of a fixed track and catenaries makes BRT flexible in cases of obstructions to the lane or repair, and also makes them much more affordable to build.

Tram

Trams in Vienna. From wikipedia.org.

Trams have a lot of similarities to streetcars (such that they have the same page on Wikipedia), but there are important functional differences. Both are on set tracks and usually powered by overhead wires, and share the same physical risks, lack of flexibility, and visual situations. Some have stations, but many are just sidewalk loaded. There are two major differences however: capacity and a dedicated lane. Trams are often longer, articulated systems and can carry many more people than a standard bus or streetcar. They also have their own dedicated lane, with all the advantages that this brought to BRT, as well as having signal priority. Many trams in Europe, since they don’t have to worry about cars running over them, have planted the rights of way under their trams with grass, creating more green space, with all the benefits that that brings (aside from recreational benefits – please don’t play on the tracks!). These systems are more expensive, however, and often run through pedestrian-only spaces, increasing the chances of a pedestrian collision.

Light Rail

Salt Lake City’s TRAX light rail. From skyscraperpage.com.

Light rail is essentially lighter than heavy rail (commuter rail or most subway/elevated systems) and heavier than a tram. They run on a track and often have wires, although some are diesel powered. They are virtually all articulated and have capacity equal to or greater than trams. They have larger station platforms and stop less frequently than previous systems. This less frequent stopping and a dedicated right of way (sometimes not even parallel to a roadway) make light rail faster from destination to destination, but it reaches fewer places and, depending on the design, can have a detrimental effect on a streetscape. Light rail is the most expensive option so far, but it is considerably cheaper and easier to construct than subway/elevated trains, and many cities in the last decade or so have built these systems rather than going underground.

So why no trams in America?

There are various reasons why other systems are more widespread in the States than the tram. The streetcar is in many ways a holdout from a previous era, and can be operated without taking away capacity from cars, which is always an uphill fight. BRT is a system that allows for a lot of flexibility and little (comparative) investment, and for many medium-sized cities is probably their best bet. Meanwhile, larger cities aren’t thinking about systems for moving pedestrians around their downtowns as much as they are about moving commuters into their cities from the suburbs, and the light rail, with its higher speed, is generally the better option for that. I think that the growth in BRT in America may lead to future tram development: as communities see the success of BRT and begin to demand more capacity, they may become ready for the investment in more infrastructure. Many light rail systems feature somewhat of a hybrid, where they go quickly from community to community in the suburbs but slow down and stop more frequently in town, like Portland’s MAX light rail. As Alex Davies pointed out (under Trams, above), we’re not likely to see trams any time soon, but hey, give it some time and get the Republicans out of the House, and it could happen.

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About Dave Munson
This blog is about architecture, cities, and myself.

2 Responses to Why are there no trams in America?

  1. There are trams in the USA. New Orleans has one, and in fact, it’s the oldest continuously running one in the world. The most extensive one in North America is in Toronto, in Canada.

  2. WJM says:

    “It’s only advantages over a bus are that it operates relatively quietly (although at least here in Philly when they turn the wheels squeak like the end of the world) and they can have an element of either tech-sexiness or nostalgia to them depending on their design, but otherwise, they are no better than a bus.”

    Smoother ride! Bus drivers drive like jerks. Literally. Bad driving habits that jerk customers around. Trams, streetcars, etc. drive much more smoothly, and corner (if they corner at all, unlike bus routes, which are “flexible” enough to curve all over the bloody place) much more smoothly as well.

    On an inner-city arterial local main-street transit route, give me a streetcar over a bus, any day.

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