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This square in Philadelphia is everything DC's Franklin Square could be

Many celebrate Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square as one of America's best small urban parks. I visited this summer and found it alive with activity. It's a great model for DC's similarly-sized Franklin Square, which the National Park Service is currently redesigning.

Rittenhouse Square. Photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Rittenhouse Square has long had a reputation as an exceptional park. Jane Jacobs lionized it, highlighting the park's wide variety of users over the course of a typical day, in her famous 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She said that the fact that many different types of users with different schedules passed through the park was essential to making it feel like a safe and appealing environment, unlike the other Philadelphia parks she described as "a pervert park" and "a skid row park".

I visited Rittenhouse Square in the early afternoon on a Friday in late July, and while I didn't stay long enough to see a change in the park's users, I did see quite a variety of people there, including businesspeople in suits eating lunch, people walking dogs, several people doing yoga and other exercises, a couple of buskers, teenagers socializing, and an artist painting the scene.

Rittenhouse Square.

This wide variety of users is supported, in part, by the diverse uses in the neighborhood directly abutting the park. A number of small restaurants line the streets facing the park, as do a church, a hotel, a large Barnes & Noble bookstore, a clothing store, and condominiums. The neighboring blocks include several other large churches, but also a wide variety of restaurants and stores and a number of condominiums and office buildings.

Could Franklin Square become DC's Rittenhouse?

Although DC contains plenty of parkland—much of it controlled by the National Park Service—a common complaint is that the city has a shortage of good urban parks that attract a variety of users from the local community.

Franklin Square. Photo by Dan Malouff.

Franklin Square, which consists of just under five acres between K and I Streets in downtown DC, is similar in size to Rittenhouse Square, which is seven acres a few blocks south of Market Street in downtown Philadelphia.

However, despite their similarities in size and location, the two parks couldn't be more different. They both date to the early 1800s and were both vibrant urban parks in the early 20th Century, but Franklin Park began to decay and fell into disuse as the rise of the automobile changed land use patterns in the District. Rittenhouse Square, on the other hand, continued to be well-used.

Part of the reason for the difference in the parks' fate may be the differences in their neighborhoods. While Franklin Square is located in a dense downtown neighborhood, it is largely surrounded by office buildings and businesses that cater to office workers, such as restaurants that are mainly open for breakfast and lunch. This means that while it does attract office workers looking for an outdoor location to eat lunch, few others have reason to go there. A lack of nearby residences, shopping, and public buildings means that there is little to draw people to the park on weekends, or on weekdays outside of the lunch hour.

Franklin Square. Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

The differing state of maintenance of the two parks likely plays a role as well. Franklin Square's last major redesign was completed in 1935, when the current fountain, plaza, and pathways were installed. There was one major refurbishment in 1976 for the Bicentennial, but the park has not been well-maintained by the National Park Service, which owns and maintains the property, since.

Rittenhouse Square, on the other hand, has been well-maintained. The park is owned by the City of Philadelphia, but many recent improvements, including better lighting, landscaping, restoration of the park's fountains, and the installation and stocking of dispensers for bags that dog owners can use to pick up after their animals have been projects of a non-profit called Friends of Rittenhouse Square that works with Philadelphia Parks and Recreation to maintain and operate the park.

Franklin Square redesign plans

Although little can be done about the disadvantages of Franklin Square's location—-the high demand for downtown office space produces high rents and pushes out most other uses—-there is hope for improvements to the park itself.

An $18 million joint project between the National Park Service, the DC government, and the Downtown Business Improvement District to renovate the park and provide year-round programming is set to begin construction in January 2017. The planned renovations include a cafe, improvements to the fountain at the park's center, and a play area for children.

One day, Franklin Square might look like this:

Rendering of Franklin Square from the National Park Service.


National links: New transit for Detroit

Detroit is instituting a tax to pay for more transit, the world's longest rail tunnel just opened in Switzerland, and Expedia is moving to Seattle, but wants to be suburban. Check out what's happening around the country in transportation, land use, and other related areas!

Photo by Graham Davis on Flickr.

Motorbus city: Detroit is going to put a tax measure on the November ballot that would pay for an expanded transit network. The plan has been in the works for 3 years, and would include bus rapid transit lines, improved bus service, universal fare cards, and a Detroit-to-Ann Arbor commuter rail line. (MLive)

All about that Base: Wednesday marked the first run for trains traveling through the 35-mile Gotthard Base Tunnel under the Swiss Alps, now the longest rail tunnel in the world. The project took 17 years and cost $12.5 billion dollars. Project planners claim that a million trucks a year will be taken off the road as goods are shipped through the tunnel's rails. (New York Times)

Suburban campus: Expedia is leaving its offices in Bellevue, WA to move into Seattle. But unlike Amazon, which is downtown, Expedia will be in a more suburban, car-friendly campus, away from high-rise buildings. (Wall Street Journal)

Bad reputation rebrand: Dongguan, a city in southern China, has a reputation for prostitutes and crime. The state hired Hong Kong designers to re-shape the city using modular designs. The project is ambitious, yet officials know it won't fix all their problems. (Fast Company Design)

Shh, don't tell: Cities are hip and fashionable these days, but some of the people you might expect to end up with that loft on a lively street have instead opted for the suburbs. They might even be a little embarrassed about it, but should they be? No. (Philadelphia Magazine)

Red Zone: An influential New York transportation planner in the 70s and 80s, Sam Schwartz created the term "gridlock" and was an early champion of congestion pricing and car-free zones. He's happy to now enjoy some of the ideas he never got to implement, like bike lanes and public plazas. (Guardian Cities)

Quote of the Week

"The floods of 20 years ago are not as bad as the floods that are going to be 20 years from now. But [FEMA's maps] only look at historic experience." Michael Gerrard in an article on Frontline describing how many FEMA floodmaps are out of date and don't take into account the effects of Climate Change.


National links: Seattle's transit-oriented approach to affordable housing

Transit projects in Seattle may boost affordable housing, General Motors is subsidizing Lyft, and Philadelphia is capping a large rail yard with parks. Check out what's happening around the country in transportation, land use, and other related areas!

Photo by Oran Viriyincy on Flickr.

Transit-oriented affordable housing?: The Washington State Legislature has asked that if Sound Transit's ballot measure is passed in November, that the agency buy projects staging land in parcels that will later be usable to build affordable housing. Previous projects have bought just slivers of land that are hard to build on after projects are completed. This innovative step towards TOD, to their knowledge, has never been done before at any transit agency. (The Stranger)

Lifting up Lyft: General Motors is investing in the ride hailing company Lyft, providing drivers with vehicles at reduced costs, or for free if they they complete 65 rides a week. GM sees removing barriers to working in ride hailing as a step into the self-driving car market. (Vanity Fair)

Philly renovation: Philadelphia's 30th Street Station is getting an upgrade, and redevelopment is coming to its adjacent rail yards. A cap over 80 acres of rail yards is part of a project to essentially create a new, desirable neighborhood. (Philadelphia Inquirer)

More transit in LA: Los Angeles Metro has big plans, including a toll and transit tunnel under Sepulveda Pass, a notoriously congested corridor in the region. In November, LA County voters will decide whether to fund the new projects with a tax increase that would bring in $120 billion in new revenue. (Los Angeles Times)

First cities:The city of Alexandria is often hailed as one of the first great cities, but great for whom? Dinocrates designed Alexandria for Alexander the Great, and making sure the city functioned for everyday people wasn't a priority. (The Guardian Cities)

Pigeon Air Patrol: Many cities around the globe are grappling with air quality issues and London is no exception. London is creating awareness by strapping tiny sensor backpacks to pigeons, which will measure pollution in the air and tweet their findings. (Grist)

Quote of the Week

"If you were to check your Facebook on the phone, it would happen in front of the funny shops, among the other people. If you had to tie your shoelaces, it would happen there. If you have to park your bike, it would happen there. We found that all kinds of activities in street were drawn over to where the activity was and people resisted doing anything in front of the inactive place."

International Urban Designer Jan Gehl on the importance of having active ground floor facades. (Plan Philly)


Philadelphia is losing parking spaces, but finding a parking space is getting easier

Philadelphia has fewer parking spaces overall, but it's now easier to find a space in the city's garages and lots. What gives?

Photo by Jukie Bot on Flickr.

Philadelphia has cut its number of parking spots

Planners in Philadelphia do a parking census every five years, and Plan Philly reports that in the past five years, the number of public off-street parking spots around Center City (the name for Philly's downtown areas) shrank by seven percent, or a little over 3000 spaces.

Everywhere you can park in Philadelphia's Center City. Image from Philadelphia Parking Inventory.

Most of the decline in off-street parking is because surface parking lots have become new buildings, some of which built new parking but many of which did not. A lot of spaces that were lost used to be in public parking lots or garages that were sold to make way for new office and apartment buildings.

Center City is getting denser and demand for land means that it's more lucrative to redevelop these parking sites for more than just car storage. Some of the parking will be replace once construction is done but most spots are gone forever as some of the buildings reserve what parking they have for tenants instead of anyone just looking for a place to park to visit elsewhere.

The percentage of people using parking spots has fallen as well

Meanwhile, there's a smaller percentage of people parking in Philadelphia's available spots. It's much easier to find one than it was five years ago.

Parking Lot occupancy rates in Center City Philadelphia. Image cropped by author from Philadelphia Parking Inventory.

It turns out that there are simply a lot of people in Philadelphia who choose to use transit, walk, or ride a bike to get around.

Cities are realizing they don't need to build parking

The news from Philadelphia's parking inventory is the latest in a trend that shows that cities are getting smarter about parking. A critical first step for many cities is to simply count how many parking spaces it actually has. Philadelphia is ahead of the curve in that respect.

But Philadelphia also runs a lot of its garages through the Philadelphia Parking Authority. DC doesn't manage nearly as many garages, with over 20 different garage operators filling the role. Getting good information on the total number of spots and how often they're used might be harder for DC to collect.

But once a city knows how many spaces are availablem it is in a much better position to actually plan for how much parking it will need in the future rather than relying on parking ratios that may be decades old. Philadelphia's inventory is a good start and confirms a lot about what we've learned about parking here in DC as well.


Mayor Bowser wants to raise DC's parking tax. Here's who would win and who would lose out

In her annual budget, Mayor Muriel Bowser has proposed fully funding DC's share of WMATA's costs. Part of that cost would come from a higher sales tax on parking garages and lots. Will the DC Council go along? If it does, who will pay more?

Photo by Trakker on Flickr.

Under Bowser's budget, the tax would rise from 18% to 22%, raising $9.9 million out of the $30.8 million by which DC's payment for Metro transit service will rise this year.

Bowser also wants to raise the general sales tax from 5.75% to 6% and use that money to fight homelessness.

Bowser's staff compiled a set of comparable cities and their parking taxes.

  • San Francisco: 25%
  • Chicago: 22% weekdays, 20% weekends
  • Baltimore: 19%
  • Pittsburgh: 31%
  • Miami: 20%
  • New York: 18.5%
The new rate would put DC around the middle of the pack among cities on this list.

Who pays if rates rise?

Most analysis of the tax, like that from DC's CFO, has assumed that parking rates will rise, and commuters will be the ones paying. Some arguments for the tax cite this as a plus.

For example, unlike many taxes, this will affect both District residents and non-District residents who commute into DC. Past DDOT analysis has estimated that about two-thirds of the vehicles on DC streets during rush hour are from non-residents. Metro service, which the tax money will help fund, also benefits people who live all across the region and not just DC residents.

Also, the federal government subsidizes parking by letting federal and private-sector workers (if their employers offer the program) pay for up to $250 a month of parking out of pre-tax salary. (Sadly, that figure is now only $130 for transit riders).

This means that if garages raise their rates in response to the rising tax, many people will not feel the full brunt of the increase. The money is going to Metro to compensate, in part, for the revenue WMATA lost when the federal transit benefit dropped to $130 in January 2014 and some long-distance riders stopped riding Metro.

Metro riders weathered a price increase of 3% for rail and 9% for bus (and double for bus-and-rail riders). A 4% increase in parking costs is wholly in line with this.

Car cost image from Shutterstock.

But... will rates rise?

This analysis assumes that the tax will drive up parking prices. Economics 101 says that if you impose a tax, it will increase the price of the good, lowering the quantity demanded. Will that happen here?

The parking market is a little different than most markets. For one thing, at least for daily parkers, garages generally post prices and collect cash payments in round numbers which include the tax. This is different from the way it works at a store or restaurant. There's incentive for the garages to keep their prices at a round number of post-tax cash dollars.

Also, parking operators are in the business to make money, so aren't they already charging as much as the market will bear? In other words, if they could raise their prices when there's a new tax, why don't they just raise their prices now regardless?

Well, isn't that true of all markets? But in most markets, competition drives down the prices of goods. If you're making more money than a small profit over and above the cost of providing the service, someone else will enter the market too and try to undercut you.

Parking isn't really a competitive market. In the short run, the supply of parking is absolutely fixed, and there isn't empty land to turn into new parking in central DC. Also, many people also only really want to park in the building where they work, are going to the doctor, etc. and aren't shopping around. That's especially true when a company is buying parking for executives.

These factors make the parking market closer to a monopoly and/or oligopoly, and consequently, the pricing is more at the level that maximizes total revenue in the entire market, a level that's higher than the perfect competition price.

Therefore, there's some reason to conclude that garages already charge as much as people will pay, and can't easily raise rates a few percent.

The other possibility is that garages actually could charge more, but nobody wants to be the first; with the tax, it will trigger a wave of price increases.

A garage in Phiadelphia. Photo by John Donges on Flickr.

Philly parking operators and an expert agree

When Philadelphia was debating the level for its parking tax, the parking operators commissioned an economic analysis that concluded that the burden would fall on them rather than on consumers. It says:

In the short run, a change in the parking tax has no impact on the parking rates paid by the consumer. Consequently, the parking facility operator pays the entire amount of a parking tax increase. Parking facility operators face the same short run problem every day—how to maximize revenue.

In other words, parking operators are already charging as much as they can and the price consumers pay is determined by the number of spaces and the demand for parking, not by the level of taxes. The level of taxation and the other costs of operating a facility do not affect the price charged or the number of spaces available unless the costs are so great that the operator shuts down the facility.

In the long run the story is quite different. An increase in parking taxes discourages the rejuvenation of aging facilities, the replacement of facilities lost to development, and the construction of additional facilities. Thus higher parking taxes will decrease the long-run supply of parking, will increase the cost to the public of parking, and will decrease profits to owners of parking facilities.

Further, should an additional parking facility be required, a higher parking tax implies that the facility will require larger subsidies to develop than it would in the absence of the parking tax increase.

Rick Rybeck, a transportation consultant who previously worked as deputy associate director for transportation policy and planning at DDOT, agreed. He wrote in an email, "For the most part, parking operators are charging the maximum prices that they can charge for parking. If operators are charging the maximum possible price for parking at their location, an increase in sales price will not immediately increase the price of parking."

"Instead, the additional tax will reduce the net revenue to the operator, effectively reducing the base price for parking that the operators collect," Rybeck added. This would just come out of their profit margin, if that margin is large enough (or, depending how the parking deals with buildings are structured, out of the building owner's revenue from leasing the parking to an operator.)

In the long run, this might lead to less incentive to build parking, though DC is not Philadelphia. The Philadelphia report is saying that it might no longer be economically viable to take land in job center areas and use it for surface parking lots or garages. In and around downtown DC, that became the case long ago, and all new parking is underground.

Underground parking is already so expensive to build that developers build what they think is necessary to attract the kinds of tenants they want. According to testimony developers have given at zoning hearings, the revenue from the parking often doesn't cover the cost of building it (though, once it's built, they certainly want to try to sell it).

Maybe a slightly higher parking tax would lead a few companies to rethink exactly how much parking they really need in an area with plentiful transit service.

Jack Evans in a car. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

What will the DC Council do?

The tax increase first has to go to the Committee on Finance and Revenue, which Jack Evans chairs. He is one of the council's most anti-tax members, but is also now the DC Council's voting representative on the WMATA Board and a longtime supporter of keeping Metro strong.

At a recent hearing on WMATA, he said, "I am a big fan of Metro. I served on the baord back in the 1990s and I serve on it again today. Metro is responsible for moving a million people around the area and is critical to the well-being of the metropolitan area."

Evans may not like the tax, but if he wants his committee to remove it, he might have to find the money elsewhere in his committee's budget. More likely, he could try to convince Chairman Phil Mendelson to rearrange the budget in other areas to make up for the money. Evans also opposes the sales tax increase.

In an op-ed in the Georgetowner, Evans wrote,

What is my greatest concern in my initial review of the budget? Proposals to increase our sales and parking taxes. ... This latest [parking tax increase] is a triple whammy. When it's more expensive and difficult to find a parking spot, people are less likely to go out, spend money in the District and generate tax revenue.

Plus, most of these costs get passed on to residents, making it more expensive for people to park near their offices, restaurants and stores. More than a third of those parking in garages are District residents. So, in effect, we are taxing our own people again and again.

Evans makes one strange link when he talks about parking being "more expensive and difficult to find." In truth, more expensive does not mean more difficult. If anything, it's the reverse; more expensive parking means there's more available and it's easier to find. Also, when Evans says a third of affected drivers are District residents, even if drivers do pay more (which isn't certain), two-thirds come from outside DC.

Evans' committee will mark up its section of the DC budget on May 13. After that Chairman Mendelson will propose his own set of changes, and the council will vote on the budget on May 27th.

Public Spaces

Better management can transform downtown parks into gems

It takes more than a tuft of grass to make a good urban park. Some of the best downtown parks in America have non-profit management organizations that produce spectacular results. It's time for DC to join them.

Photo by thisistami on Flickr.

DC is unusual in that the vast majority of the city's parkland is under National Park Service (NPS) control. While this arrangement spreads the cost of local parks across all American taxpayers, it also shackles the parks to restrictive and sometimes uncompromising NPS regulations that have hampered events, food sales, bikesharing, and change in general.

NPS regulations are great for preserving Yellowstone, but not so great for making city squares lively.

Other cities have found that municipal control of parks can be just as disappointing. In the case of New York's Bryant Park, for example, it wasn't until the city turned the park's management over to Bryant Park Corporation, a non-profit, that it went from being a dilapidated den of crime and drug needles to a vibrant space where residents feel welcome.

Bryant Park, New York. Photo by brianac37 on Flickr.

Because BPC isn't part of a municipal government, it's been able to bypass onerous procurement rules. Its full time management staff host events like fashion shows and holiday markets year round. It also cleans the park everyday, works with food vendors, and maintains a temporary ice rink, outdoor ping-pong tables, chess sets, and porch chairs.

Bryant Park's full time staff is something a lot of conventional parks just don't have. At a park panel at the 2010 ASLA conference, Jerome Barth of the Bryant Park Corporation noted that its staff can repair benches the day they break and rearrange movable park furniture as crowds change throughout the day. Imagine DC's parks getting that kind of attention to detail!

Bryant Park, New York. Photo by Mat McDermott on Flickr.

The District could do the same with a lot of the downtown parks that NPS currently controls. The result would be parks that were both more attractive and more useful, and land near these public gems would surely go up in value.

There is already some political support for making the shift. While campaigning, Muriel Bowser told the told the Committee of 100 that if elected, she'd improve downtown parks:

I would work with federal officials to transfer jurisdiction of the many park spaces currently managed by the National Park Service so they have better amenities and programming for residents and visitors to enjoy. Freedom Plaza in particular is an area particularly well suited to the creation of a central park, though I would not limit my focus to this one location.
In its recent environmental assessment for renovating downtown's Franklin park, NPS contemplates a new management system where private partners could explore ways to generate revenue and share responsibility for park maintenance. The private partner would be held to NPS standards for maintenance and preservation, and NPS staff would be free to attend to other nearby land like the National Mall and its surrounding memorial parks.

In DC, good candidates include Franklin Park, Mt. Vernon Square, Farragut Square, Dupont Circle, and Freedom Plaza. Georgetown Waterfront Park, Meridian Hill Park, and the proposed 11th Street Bridge Park are other good candidates outside downtown. Whether the District created a single partner for each park, or one to manage them all, would depend on exactly what each park needs.

Funding sources for parks organizations can vary, from government appropriations, to a special assessment or share of recordation taxes on surrounding property, to vendor fees. Whatever the funding source, the rise in land value would help the District's bottom line.

Other cities have successfully managed parks this way. Aside from Bryant Park, New York uses similar non-profit groups for the High Line (Friends of the High Line) and Madison Square Park (Madison Square Park Conservancy). A local BID-type organization, Union Square Partnership, maintains Union Square.

In Philadelphia, the non-profit Historic Philadelphia Inc. operates Franklin Square, which contains a carousel, a miniature golf course for kids, food concessions, a playground, bathrooms, and a holiday light display.

Non-profits provide the bulk of these parks' operating revenue, and they maintain them as high-quality, attractive public spaces that are open and free to the public.

Union Square, New York. Photo by David Robert Bliwas on Flickr.

Washington deserves top-notch urban parks. We already have an abundance of parkland, and if it were free of so many management constraints, our parks could reach their full potential.


How to tell the difference between streetcars and light rail

There is much confusion over what separates streetcars from light rail. That's because there's no single easy way to tell, and many systems are hybrids. To tell the difference, one has to simultaneously look at the tracks, train vehicles, and stations.

San Francisco's Muni Metro runs both in a dedicated subway and on the street in mixed traffic.
Is it a streetcar or light rail system? Photos by Matt Johnson and SFbay on Flickr.

It's hard to tell the difference because streetcars and light rail are really the same technology, but with different operating characteristics that serve different types of trips.

The difference, in a nutshell

Theoretically light rail is a streetcar that, like a subway or el, goes faster in order to serve trips over a longer distance. But what does that mean in practice?

There are several features of tracks, vehicles, and stations that both streetcars and light rail sometimes have, but which are generally more common on light rail. Thus, although there's no single separating test that can tell the two apart with 100% accuracy, it's usually possible to tell the difference by looking at several factors simultaneously.

Image by the author.

Let's look at each of those factors, one by one.

Lanes and tracks

It's a common misconception that streetcars always run in mixed traffic with cars, while light rail has its own dedicated track space. That's often true, and it's such a convenient and easy-to-understand definition that I've been guilty of using it myself. But it's wrong.

There are too many exceptions to that rule to rely on it completely. Sometimes (though rarely) light rail lines run in mixed-traffic, and there are plenty of streetcars with their own right-of-way. Some streetcars even have subways.

Compare Sacramento's mixed-traffic light rail with Philadelphia's streetcar subway, for instance:

Left: Sacramento light rail in mixed traffic. Photo by Flastic on Wikipedia.
Right: Philadelphia streetcar in a subway. Photo by John Smatlak on Flickr.

In fact, practically every mixed-traffic streetcar has at least a short section of dedicated track. That's true in Atlanta, Seattle, Tucson, even DC. Those streetcar lines don't suddenly become "light rail" for one block just because they have a dedicated lane somewhere. It's just not that simple.

And some streetcars have long stretches with dedicated lanes. Toronto's massive streetcar network has several dedicated transitways, and DC is planning one on K Street.

Left: K Street transitway. Image from DC Streetcar.
Right: Toronto's Saint Clair transitway. Photo by Sean Marshall on Flickr.

There are too many streetcars with dedicated lanes for that to be a reliable indicator on its own. Too many lines that mix dedicated and non-dedicated sections. Certainly it's an important data point; certainly it's one factor that can help tell the difference. But it's not enough.

An even simpler definition might be to call anything with tracks in the street a streetcar, and anything with tracks elsewhere light rail.

But that's not reliable either, as Portland and New Orleans illustrate:

Left: Portland light rail. Photo by BeyondDC.
Right: New Orleans streetcar. Photo by karmacamilleeon on Flickr.

Salt Lake City muddies the water still further. Its "light rail" mostly runs in the street, while its "streetcar" runs in an old freight train right of way, almost completely off-street.

Left: Salt Lake City light rail. Photo by VXLA on Flickr.
Right: Salt Lake City streetcar. Photo by Paul Kimo McGregor on Flickr.

Vehicles and trains

If tracks on their own aren't enough to tell the difference, what about vehicles?

It's tempting to think of streetcars as "lighter" light rail, which implies smaller vehicles. Sometimes that's true; a single DC streetcar is 66 feet long, compared to a single Norfolk light rail car, which is over 90 feet long.

But not all streetcars are short. Toronto's newest streetcars are 99 feet long.

Toronto streetcar. Photo by Canadian Pacific on Flickr.

In fact, many light rail and streetcar lines use the exact same vehicles. For example, Tacoma calls its Link line light rail, and uses the same train model as streetcars in Portland, DC, and Seattle, while Atlanta's streetcar uses the same train model as light rail in San Diego, Norfolk, and Charlotte. And Salt Lake City uses the same train model for both its streetcar and light rail services.

Left: Tacoma light rail. Photo by Marcel Marchon on Flickr.
Right: Portland streetcar. Photo by Matt Johnson on Flickr.

Left: San Diego light rail. Photo by BeyondDC.
Right: Atlanta streetcar. Photo by Matt Johnson on Flickr.

And although streetcars often run as single railcars while light rail often runs with trains made up of multiple railcars, there are exceptions to that too.

San Francisco's Muni Metro and Boston's Green Line definitely blur the line between streetcar & light rail, perhaps more than any other systems in North America. Some might hesitate to call them streetcars. But they both run trains in mixed-traffic with cars, and some of those trains have multiple railcars.

Meanwhile, many light rail systems frequently run single-car trains, especially during off-peak hours.

Left: Norfolk light rail with a single car. Photo by BeyondDC.
Right: San Francisco streetcar with two cars. Photo by Stephen Rees on Flickr.

Stations offer some help, but no guarantee

Light rail typically has bigger stations, while streetcars typically have smaller ones. A big station can sometimes be a good clue that you're likely dealing with light rail.

For example, look at Charlotte and Portland:

Left: Charlotte light rail. Photo by BeyondDC.
Right: Portland streetcar. Photo by BeyondDC.

But that's only a general guideline, not a hard rule. Just like tracks and vehicles, there are many exceptions. Light rail often has small stops, and streetcar stations can sometimes get pretty big (especially when they're in a subway).

This light rail stop in Norfolk is smaller than this streetcar stop in Philadelphia, for example:

Left: Norfolk light rail. Photo by BeyondDC.
Right: Philadelphia streetcar. Photo by BeyondDC.

Stop spacing and route length

Probably the most reliable way to tell streetcars apart from light rail is to look at where the stations are located. Light rail lines typically have stops further apart from each other, on lines covering a longer distance.

This chart explains the difference:

Image from Jarrett Walker.

This is the definition transit expert Jarrett Walker favors, and if you have to pick just one or two factors to consider, stop spacing and route length are the best.

But even this is no sure way to categorize all lines as either streetcars or light rail. It might be easy to tell the difference between something with stops one block apart (theoretically streetcar) versus stops two miles apart (theoretically light rail), but what if the stops are 1/4 mile apart? Or what if the gaps aren't consistent? There's no clear place to draw the line.

Furthermore, Walker's graphic itself illustrates exceptions to the rule. The top line shows a light rail route with stops close together downtown, the third line shows a streetcar with some sections that have far-apart stations, and the fourth line shows a very long streetcar.

There are certainly plenty of real-life examples of those exceptions. Before Arlington, VA cancelled its Columbia Pike streetcar, DC and Arlington were considering linking their streetcars with a bridge over the Potomac River. Had that happened, there might have been a mile-and-a-half between stops.

Certainly station spacing and route length provide a convenient general rule, but only that. There's no hard boundary where everything to one side is streetcar, and everything to the other is light rail.

To really know the difference, look at everything

There are seven factors that light rail usually has, but that streetcars only sometimes share: Dedicated lanes, off-street tracks, bigger vehicles, multi-car trains, longer routes, bigger stations, and long distances between stations.

No single one of them provides a foolproof litmus test, because sometimes streetcars have each of them, and sometimes light rail doesn't. But if you look at all seven together and determine which direction the majority of a line's characteristics point, over the majority of its route, then you can usually sort most lines into one category or the other.

For example, DC's H Street line fits neatly into the streetcar category, because it runs in the street almost totally in mixed traffic, with small vehicles on single-car trains, along a short route that has frequent, small stations. Even if DDOT builds the K Street transitway and a dedicated-lane streetcar on Georgia Avenue, the majority of the seven factors will still point to streetcar.

On the other end of the spectrum, Seattle's Central route is squarely light rail. It has a dedicated right-of-way that's often off-street, uses large 95 foot-long vehicles that are usually coupled into multi-car trains, along a long route with infrequent stations.

Left: Seattle light rail. Photo by Atomic Taco on Flickr.
Right: DC streetcar. Photo by BeyondDC.

But even then not every system is crystal clear. San Francisco's Muni Metro, Philadelphia and Boston's Green Lines, and Pittsburgh's T, for example, all have some segments that look like classic streetcars, but also some segments that look like classic light rail. These networks defy any characterization, except as hybrids.

It's a feature, not a bug

The fact that it's hard to tell the difference is precisely why so many cities are building light rail / streetcar lines. The technology is flexible to whatever service characteristics a city might need.

You can use it to build a regional subway like Seattle, or you can use it for a short neighborhood circulator like DC's H Street, or anything in-between. And perhaps even more importantly, you can use it to mix and match multiple characteristics on the same line, without forcing riders to transfer.

That's why many of the most successful light rail / streetcar systems are the hardest ones to categorize as either / or. They match the infrastructure investment to the needs of the corridor, on a case-by-case basis, and thus have some sections that look like light rail, and others that look like streetcar.

That's not muddied. That's smart. That's matching the investment to the need, which is after all more important than a line's name.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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