Greater Greater Washington

Yes, there are new mixed-traffic streetcars in Europe

In an attempt to discredit the concept of streetcars, some opponents erroneously claim that other first-world countries don't build mixed-traffic rail. So let's set the record straight: Yes they do. Plenty.


Mixed-traffic tram in Manchester, UK, opened in 2013.
Photo by Howard Pulling on flickr, used with permission.

I'm not an expert on European transit, but it takes about 5 minutes on Google to find numerous examples of recently-built mixed-traffic European trams.

Here's a (most likely partial) list. The dates in parentheses are either the year trams were reintroduced to the city in question, or the year the specific mixed-traffic segment pictured in the link was built.

That's actually longer than the list of US cities currently running newly-built mixed-traffic streetcars. As of this writing, that list is exactly two cities long: Portland and Seattle. Granted, it is about to explode, but over the past decade Europe has unquestionably built more mixed-traffic streetcars than the US.

Of course, all transit functions better in dedicated lanes. It's completely true that many mixed-traffic streetcars in the US would benefit greatly from dedicated lanes, and will only lack them for political will. It's also completely true that Europe is better at providing transitways for their streetcars more often than the US. None of that is in dispute.

But the fact is, many European cities have indeed recently added new mixed-traffic lines, because whether streetcar opponents care to admit it or not, there are many benefits to rail transit aside from where it runs.

But wait, there's more

In addition to the true mixed-traffic streetcars listed above, Europe also has an entire category of trams that often run in mixed-traffic that's completely absent from the US.

Guided tire trams run on rubber tires like a bus, but have a single in-ground track to guide them, as well as overhead wires. They're a middle ground between buses and streetcars, and are present in mixed-traffic arrangements in multiple cities in France and Italy, at least.

It's not exactly fair to call guided tire trams streetcars, but neither is it fair to exclude them from a discussion of mixed-traffic European trams.

If a US city wants to prove it's serious about providing a rail-like BRT experience, they might experiment with one of these. So far, none have done so.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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Dan Malouff is a professional transportation planner for Arlington County, but his blog posts represent only his own personal views. He has a degree in Urban Planning from the University of Colorado, and lives car-free in Washington. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post

Comments

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yep, looks super-high density to me.

by charlie on Jan 13, 2014 10:16 am • linkreport

Interesting that these examples are mostly in the UK.

None of this changes the wisdom of building mixed-traffic streetcars, however. Why wouldn't you put them in dedicated lanes if you can? The huge boom in urban tramways has come in France, and the French methods clearly provided dedicated space wherever possible:

http://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2012/06/24/commitment-to-tramways-makes-france-a-world-model-for-new-urban-rail/

Like American streetcars, these tramways operate at the ground level, usually without grade separation from automobile traffic, making them relatively cheap to build; on the other hand, like American light rail, tramways operate within their own rights-of-way and they feature long trainsets that can carry the equivalent of four busloads or more — in other words, they actually improve transit capacity and performance.

In other words, they take full advantage of the technology (capacity, smooth ride, etc) and work to ensure the success of that investment by providing supportive policy choices (dedicating street space for transit right of way).

by Alex B. on Jan 13, 2014 10:19 am • linkreport

Yep...that street looks equivalent to Columbia Pike.

I'm not sure trying to discredit something by using an example of a street that appears to get less traffic than the alley behind my house works too well.

by Columbia Pike on Jan 13, 2014 10:27 am • linkreport

In the Tweet that was referenced, and which the author seems to be trying to refute, Steve Smith asked where besides US are new ones being built, not whether they've been built.

by Fitz on Jan 13, 2014 10:27 am • linkreport

@fitz, I think your argument is somewhat irrelevant here. Some of the noted streetcars aren't that new (1994 is 20 years ago), but some where finished last year. It is probably also easier to find already built lines than ones in development (e.g. tourist sites will point out built lines so that tourists know where they can go without a car, this is not true for a line that will be finished in two years).

by bk on Jan 13, 2014 10:31 am • linkreport

Excellent to see the goal post moving already in these comments. [Deleted for violating the comment policy.]

Reminder: it's not like Arlington forgot to consider a separate ROW. VDOT isn't allowing it. I'm sure if they changed their mind so would the Arlington board. That doesn't mean the project won't be successful without it.

by Drumz on Jan 13, 2014 10:37 am • linkreport

Sure it's relevant, the author used it as an example of "opposition" to streetcars, which I also know is not true because I follow Smith on Twitter. He's only against mixed-traffic streetcars.

by Fitz on Jan 13, 2014 10:40 am • linkreport

It's just super annoying since the question of "why no dedicated ROW" has been answered for Arlington and has been for a long time now. It's the same as wondering what's going to happen to the CCT when the purple line is built.

by Drumz on Jan 13, 2014 10:43 am • linkreport

The UK and Ireland aren't countries we should imitate if we want better transit in the USA. I'm surprised to see that France is building mixed-traffic streetcars in Tours and Le Mans, but those are both parts of larger networks--mostly with dedicated ROWs.

But what's *really* disappointing is that the author considers dedicated ROW advocacy to be "anti streetcar." I think it's more on the mark to consider mixed traffic advocacy "anti transit," regardless of mode.

by Alex Forrest on Jan 13, 2014 10:46 am • linkreport

So for anyone truly concerned about Columbia pike having its own ROW start writing to gov-elect McAuliffe to pick a transportation secretary who will tell VDOT to give Arlington permission to take the necessary lanes.

by Drumz on Jan 13, 2014 10:47 am • linkreport

this is the key bit imo

"all transit functions better in dedicated lanes. It's completely true that many mixed-traffic streetcars in the US would benefit greatly from dedicated lanes... But the fact is, many European cities have indeed recently added new mixed-traffic lines, because whether streetcar opponents care to admit it or not, there are many benefits to rail transit aside from where it runs."

by ballston guy on Jan 13, 2014 10:53 am • linkreport

I also think that a dedicated ROW is best, despite the number of streetcars in the rest of the world might be in mixed traffic. We need more dedicated ROW for buses and - now - streetcars, period. We can't keep going like this where we mix in with cars. Any road surface with cars becomes congested and if we want the alternate traffic - streetcars, buses, biking, etc. - to be able to move, it has to have a dedicated lane. This is true with S buses on 16th street and whole bunch of other streets and avenues with packed buses that don't go anywhere because of cars.

by dc denizen on Jan 13, 2014 11:14 am • linkreport

+1 ballston guy

We can often make them dedicated lanes transit later, also (I realize this is difficult for streetcars that don't run in center lanes).

by h st ll on Jan 13, 2014 11:15 am • linkreport

Take a look at Melbourne Australia, one of the largest tram/streetcar/lightrail systems in the world and they have tons of km of mixed-traffic revenue routes. Toronto Canada too!

by Patrick on Jan 13, 2014 11:21 am • linkreport

All nice, but transit, and especially anything on a rails or hanging from an electrical wire has by law highest right of way (after emergency vehicles with sirens).

Generally, in Europe, when a streetcar, tram or electrified bus comes your way, you better get out of its way. Most of them have bells to indicate for their presence. Charming for the first 3 seconds, annoying after that.

by Jasper on Jan 13, 2014 11:38 am • linkreport

The list is grossly incomplete - even for France. Just looking at Wikipedia will produce scores more.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trams_in_Europe

And that ignores Japan and China.

Yes, private right-of-way is ideal. Denver is a nice example. But we cannot find the space in many places. Properly designed light rail will still carry many more people more quickly and more cheaply (after capital expenses) than buses.

by Dan Gamber on Jan 13, 2014 11:53 am • linkreport

Reminder: it's not like Arlington forgot to consider a separate ROW. VDOT isn't allowing it. I'm sure if they changed their mind so would the Arlington board. That doesn't mean the project won't be successful without it.

The benefits of surface transit w/ dedicated ROW are greater than the technological benefits of a streetcar over a bus - just in my humble estimation.

Yes, the auto-focus of many DOTs needs to be a focus in the conversation, but that alone shouldn't be an excuse for inferior transit.

We can often make them dedicated lanes transit later, also (I realize this is difficult for streetcars that don't run in center lanes).

Yes, this can be done - but you need to begin with the end in mind. H St NE won't work this way - not with the tracks separated from the curb by a parallel parking lane. All of the Columbia Pike documents show a curb-running alignment, and some blocks of the Pike do have on-street parking.

by Alex B. on Jan 13, 2014 12:00 pm • linkreport

Most European cities' streets evolved from early times and are extremely narrow hardly allowing for dedicated lanes. The issue then is how many cities with the room for dedicated lanes decline to have them. That's hardly relevant on streets which have 6 lanes- two for parking and 4 for traffic.

The street in the photo appears to be 4 lanes wide. (I also notice that even so it doesn't have the huge hideous poles in the middle of the street that the new American systems and DC's on Benning road have).

by Tom Coumaris on Jan 13, 2014 12:03 pm • linkreport

Do you remember what Benning looked like before the rebuild?

It's much nicer now.

by h st ll on Jan 13, 2014 12:08 pm • linkreport

Stockholm opened aline with mixed-traffic stretches about 15 years ago and opened an extension just a few months ago - with new bits of mixed-traffic lane street running. The old bit has been a huge success while the new one has issues unrelated to the street running (GE signaling system still not working right)

by Gustav Svärd on Jan 13, 2014 12:32 pm • linkreport

An example of a well functioning streetcar route with a dedicated ROW is the Spadina streetcar in Toronto. It replaced a bus route which ran on the same street many years ago. IMO, the dedicated ROW is a godsend. I can't imagine what Chinatown in Toronto would be like if the streetcars mixed with automobiles and this is why I don't understand VDOT's reluctance to dedicated ROW for the Columbia Pike project.

by CyclistinAlexandria on Jan 13, 2014 12:34 pm • linkreport

Yes, private right-of-way is ideal. Denver is a nice example. But we cannot find the space in many places.

Sure we can - to suggest that we cannot 'find' the right of way is only true based on the assumptions about dedicated space for cars.

Tom Coumaris is right - when you look at legacy tram networks in European cities that have very narrow streets, those are real constraints. Consider this from Amsterdam, where the narrow street forces the trams to use gauntlet track and pass by one at a time:

http://goo.gl/maps/QY31p

Demolishing buildings in order to widen that street is a very real constraint, thus you compromise: gauntlet track, mixed traffic, and a shared use of the street for all modes (bike, walk, drive, transit, etc).

The contrast to the photo from Manchester at the top of this post is completely different. The only constraint there is the desire to not give up car travel lanes, car parking lanes, and center turning lanes. That constraint is a choice; an explicit statement of which modes will have the priority on that street.

by Alex B. on Jan 13, 2014 12:42 pm • linkreport

Dan's list isn't "grossly incomplete," it would appear he was intentionally picking out recently-built mixed-traffic projects. Since that's what was asked about - is anyone else CURRENTLY building these things.

by MLD on Jan 13, 2014 12:51 pm • linkreport

I've taken mixed traffic streetcars before in Prague and Amsterdam and I never felt them to be problematic although it is worth noting that in the city center there is much less autombile traffic than we have here. Would it be possible to change the lanes into turn lanes when they are not in the center lowering the amount of through traffic the streetcars would get stuck behind?

by BTA on Jan 13, 2014 1:05 pm • linkreport

@BTA - Same. The tram in Prague worked great. Of course there was much less traffic and many tram/pedestrian only streets.

by Distantantennas on Jan 13, 2014 1:15 pm • linkreport

Alex,

Sure but we are no longer speaking generally when it comes to who gets what lanes on Columbia pike. The county considered it but found that the benefits of mixed traffic outweigh the resources needed to combat VDOT on the issue.

In that context the county made the best decision it could. That's why I get tired when people keep bringing it up as if it hasn't been considered already. FWIW the CCPY streetcar will be able to have its own ROW for the most part, showing that this isn't some sort of oversight or failure to think big.

by Drumz on Jan 13, 2014 1:18 pm • linkreport

Istanbul's T1 has some long sections of mixed traffic and was most recently extended in 2005 across the golden horn.

by Richard on Jan 13, 2014 2:02 pm • linkreport

No one should argue that other first-world countries are not building streetcar lines with -segments- in mixed traffic. For that, you've proved your point. However, I think your post misses the bigger picture that most of the same streetcar lines that you mentioned include substantial portions, majority even, of dedicated right-of-way. Tours is 45% grass track, Le Mans is 65% grass track, Nottingham is 70% dedicated and line 2 will be 63% dedicated and the line 1 extension will be 59% dedicated.

The result is that many of the streetcar systems in Europe that take advantage of dedicated right-of-way have an average operating speed of about 12mph. Meanwhile, here in the US, our streetcar lines will be lucky if they can speed any faster than 8mph.

by Herbie on Jan 13, 2014 2:29 pm • linkreport

Once the delays in DC's system from mixed-traffic operation become apparent, hopefully the political will for dedicated lanes will materialize.

by Omar on Jan 13, 2014 2:29 pm • linkreport

@ Dan Gamber

There is room to build one or two separate lanes for the most parts in areas that are getting streetcars.

Parts of Columbia Pike & Benning Road both can fit dedicated lanes for Streetcars. If you got rid of the medians along Benning Road and straightened out the sidewalks and streets to be even the entire stretch you could fit two Streetcar lanes plus room for platforms.

H Street can also but only at specific points as the sidewalks are not straight along the street. You could shave a few feet off the sidewalks on certain blocks and combine that to equal a separate lane.

by kk on Jan 13, 2014 2:42 pm • linkreport

Herbie,

That's a good distinction, but it's one opponents have not made for H Street (which will run in a dedicated transitway when it reaches K Street downtown) nor Columbia Pike (which will run in a dedicated transitway when it reaches Crystal City).

by BeyondDC on Jan 13, 2014 2:46 pm • linkreport

Just because they do it doesn't mean it's a good idea. Typically rail infrastructure built into mixed traffic was a last resort option in these places because there was no physical room to build transit exclusive ROW without completely closing the road to general traffic.

by Nikinator on Jan 13, 2014 3:14 pm • linkreport

The issue is not that streetcars mix in traffic it is that they are getting stuck in traffic. You can mix if there's not any issues that will get them stuck. The Portland streetcar is very very slow moving. Its almost faster to walk when you factor in wait times. There should be more creativity on this topic -- why not dedicated lanes at key locations, or finding ways for trams to queue jump. Wait - we can do that with a bus! But still, if trams are the choice, then find ways to make them faster.

by norb on Jan 13, 2014 4:05 pm • linkreport

Having ridden many mixed traffic streetcars, there are always the same problems:

1) hassle for cars, pedestrians and cyclists
2) slow
3) expensive to maintain

It's just not worth it.

by Burd on Jan 13, 2014 4:06 pm • linkreport

ugh.

Please do not drag the horrid Translohr system into the conversation. They are horridly unreliable ... and any savings from the single-rail design is lost on all it's other troubles.

As for Europe, Africa, Middle East, etc ... most systems (new or old) run in the streets. That is the norm. Sure, if the space is available they'll attempt at running trams in their own ROW ... but most systems just run in the street.

just look at YouTube ... https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=european+trams&sm=3

by Gordon Werner on Jan 13, 2014 4:59 pm • linkreport

Burd, your experience riding in trams has given you insight into relative maintenance costs?

by Neil Flanagan on Jan 13, 2014 5:08 pm • linkreport

If you are serious about writing a list of new tram systems in Europe, it should be at least 20 or 30 items long. In France alone there are 5-10 completely new tram systems within just a few years. Many others in Italy (e.g. Firenze) and Spain, some in Turkey, even one in Israel. Line extensions are almost everywhere, probably in 50-100 european cities.

Check here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_town_tramway_systems
and look for new tram systems.

by Christoph on Jan 13, 2014 5:44 pm • linkreport

"Once the delays in DC's system from mixed-traffic operation become apparent, hopefully the political will for dedicated lanes will materialize."

Or the conclusion will be that streetcars are a waste of money and most of the proposed routes won't get built.

by BTDT on Jan 13, 2014 6:52 pm • linkreport

@ Neil

Right, one need not ride the system to figure that one out.

by Burd on Jan 13, 2014 7:25 pm • linkreport

Expect a post at my blog in response, but for one, Dan, you are misrepresenting my argument, and I'd appreciate it if you'd correct it. You wrote, linking to my tweet, that "some opponents erroneously claim that other first-world countries don't build mixed-traffic rail." (If you're referring to someone who's not me, then you should link to them, too, but it seems like I'm the main target of this post.) This is not what I tweeted – rather, I said that they don't build primarily mixed-traffic streetcars. I was wrong that no country outside of the US builds "primarily mixed-traffic streetcars" nowadays, but many of the examples you listed are, in fact, not primarily mixed-traffic streetcars. Rather, they have a segment that is mixed-traffic, but are majority mixed-traffic, as commenter Herbie points out above.

Compare this to the US, where, aside from DC (which will be mixing and matching light rail and streetcar-type alignments), I'm not sure that any of the primarily mixed-traffic streetcars have even a small dedicated lane segment.

by Stephen Smith on Jan 13, 2014 7:52 pm • linkreport

So is the contention that without ROW it's just not worth it?
For our local examples at least, the only way to support growth is to have more capacity and a streetcar provides that over buses, ROW or no ROW.

With that in mind and noting how auto dependent we are I'm fine with settling for the moment. Dan couldn't even write about how snow highlights areas for pedestrian improvement without people immediately declaring that traffic would grind to a halt if we made some sidewalks wider.

by Drumz on Jan 13, 2014 9:18 pm • linkreport

Mixed traffic streetcars are a great incentive to walk.

by Tom Coumaris on Jan 13, 2014 10:29 pm • linkreport

"If primarily mixed-traffic streetcars are such a great idea, how come no other country on earth except the US is builds new ones?"

Whether that statement is true or not, few if any countries have had removed their previously existing mixed-traffic streetcars to the extent that the USA has.

by Frank IBC on Jan 14, 2014 12:53 am • linkreport

New Orleans also has two new mixed traffic streetcar lines. The Carrollton branch of the Canal Streetcar Line (opened 2004) and the Loyola Streetcar line (opened 2013).

I am an expert on French trams and several are in mixed traffic for part of their route. However, with 21 French cities and towns with new tram lines# I cannot recall all of them.

oilfreetransport/blogspot.com

# part of the French Climate Strategy (2007 Grenelle) is to build 1,500 km of new tram lines by 2020 in almost every town of 100,000 or larger. It is working, most 3 million daily riders on new (since 1998) French tram lines and -14.8% in per capita carbon emissions since 2007.

by Alan Drake on Jan 14, 2014 6:18 am • linkreport

One of the French cities that installed rubber tired guided "trams" has decided to tear them out and replace them with regular trams.

No new tram line in France is considering this technology, and neither should any American city.

by Alan Drake on Jan 14, 2014 6:22 am • linkreport

The H street line will have segments in mixed-traffic and segments not in mixed traffic; part of it will run in the K street transitway.

Not to mention that the segment on Benning Road is in the center so it could be in dedicated lanes someday.

by MLD on Jan 14, 2014 8:22 am • linkreport

Well there are all kinds of mixed traffic fixed rail services and it's important to distinguish between streetcars, which tend to be shorter distance, slower services, and light rail--which this blog has been overly mixing up lately, in my opinion anyway.

Even in mixed traffic, light rail usually has signal priority. That's a crucial distinction between streetcars and light rail.

I do agree with Alex B. and Alex Forrest that the UK is not usually a good example for this kind of transit operation, and that the construction of light rail systems throughout France is a better example.

But with regard to comments on separated ROW, this is from the 1950 DC Comp Plan:

Bus traffic would benefit from a well-planned thoroughfare system. Freeways and parkways would make possible express bus service to suburban areas almost as fast as rail rapid transit. Within the central area, however, bus operation is sure to be slowed down by auto traffic. The Commission nevertheless recommends gradual replacement of streetcars with buses. It urges study of traffic rules, to speed up bus movements downtown--perhaps setting aside certain lanes for buses only, or even prohibiting private cars and delivery trucks entirely on certain streets in the rush hours. Since a bus carries about 30 times as many people as an auto, it is fair and reasonable to delay as many as 30 autos in order to speed up each bus. The goal is to move people, not vehicles.

by Richard Layman on Jan 14, 2014 11:05 am • linkreport

@ Tom Coumaris - "Mixed traffic streetcars are a great incentive to walk."

Um, did you mean, "walk to the streetcar and hop on", or "get off and walk after it gets stuck in traffic"? ;)

by Frank IBC on Jan 14, 2014 9:13 pm • linkreport

"I'm not sure that any of the primarily mixed-traffic streetcars have even a small dedicated lane segment"

While PikeRail is proposed to run in mixed traffic its entire length, I beleive, it will connect at Crystal City with the CCPY transitway, and conceivably could be extended to through run in it. And there is a study of transit on Rte 7 from Tysons to the southeast, that could result in a rail line on dedicated ROW which could include an extended Pike Rail line.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jan 15, 2014 9:15 am • linkreport

it's important to distinguish between streetcars, which tend to be shorter distance, slower services, and light rail--which this blog has been overly mixing up lately, in my opinion anyway.

There's nothing to 'mix up' between them. Yes, there are differences in the common useage of the term, but the engineering standards that separate them are quite small. It's a spectrum - they're all based on basically the same technology.

I would argue that too many US applications of the technology are rigidly set on the existing defintions. Ask someone why we can't put the streetcar in dedicated lanes, and they'll say something like "that's not what a streetcar is." Rather tautological, no?

by Alex B. on Jan 15, 2014 9:26 am • linkreport

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