Greater Greater Washington

Posts about San Francisco

Transit


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.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Arts


San Francisco street lights will animate subway trains below

A public art installation on San Francisco's Market Street will add animated lights following the movement of subway trains running directly below.


Image from Illuminate The Arts.

The project is called "LightRail," and according to its sponsors it will be the world's first "subway-responsive light sculpture."

Two LED strings will stretch above Market Street for two miles through downtown San Francisco. Using real-time arrival data, the strings will visualize movement of BART and Muni trains directly underneath the street.

Sponsors hope LightRail will open in 2015, and will remain in place until at least 2018. If it proves popular, officials may decide to keep it up longer.

Without a doubt, this is one of the coolest public art projects I've ever seen.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Transit


Red paint keeps drivers out of San Francisco's bus lanes

San Francisco is a crowded city with great transit ridership. To prioritize buses and streetcars over cars, they've set aside dedicated lanes for years. But now to send a signal to drivers to keep out, they've painted some lanes red. The data shows it's working wonders.


Church Street, south of Market in San Francsico. Photo by the author.

This is Church Street, a north-south street that carries trolleybus line 22 and the Muni Metro light rail J line. The central transit-only lanes have been there for several years. But they were only painted red in the early months of 2013.

Less than two months later, San Francisco's transit operator, SFMTA, reported that travel times on the 22 and the J were down 5% and on-time performance for those lines had increased 20%.

That's a big improvement for the some 15,000 riders who use these lanes each day. Especially considering the painted lanes only stretch for three and a half blocks.

Painting the lanes red sent a signal to drivers that "bus lane" stenciled on the pavement didn't seem to send.

Building on the success of the Church Street red lanes, SFMTA has been rolling out more red paint across the city, and has plans for still more in coming years.

New York has also been painting the town red with lanes for its Select Bus Service. Other American cities, including Seattle and Chicago have plans to introduce red lanes in the near future.

While the Washington region doesn't have very many bus lanes today, there's been talk of installing more. But they'll only work if drivers stay out.

Red paint, much like the green paint DDOT is now using to mark bike lanes at conflict points, could go a long way to keeping DC's bus lanes free of scofflaw motorists.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Roads


When temporary becomes permanent: Why reopening the SE Freeway is risky

Studies are underway to replace the closed piece of the Southeast Freeway, between the 11th Street Bridge and Barney Circle, with some combination of roads, parks, and buildings. But meanwhile, DC transportation officials plan to reopen the freeway. That's a terrible idea.


Image from Google Street View.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Brian Flahaven has explained some of the many policy reasons this is bad. It'll encourage more traffic in an area where DC has long-term plans for less. It'll cost money only to undo later. It'll foster cut-through traffic in the neighborhood, and entice people to drive through DC who don't today.

Meanwhile, DDOT's Ravindra Ganvir tells Aaron Wiener that the city needs to reopen the freeway because the closure was always intended to be temporary.

Will the city be able to open a freeway segment and then close it again soon after?

In an ideal world, officials would analyze a situation with public input, make the best decision given the facts, and then implement it without regard for the politics. In reality, people are often resistant to change. In many public projects, a large number of people might benefit a little, but if a smaller group loses out in a big way, they'll fight hard not to give up an advantage.

That means that a temporary project can really change a political dynamic. Open up a road that you just want to get rid of later, and it'll create a constituency of people who will then fiercely resist the later effort to remove it. Create a pilot project you think you might want to extend permanently, and you create a constituency to extend that for good.

Smart officials can use this effect to help move toward long run goals. Officials who ignore it set themselves up for failure later on.

When nature wipes out roads, cities decide they didn't need them anyway

For years in the 1980s, San Francisco leaders hoped remove the Embarcadero Freeway, which cut off the city from its waterfront. But voters rejected a plan to do that in 1986. Just three years later, however, Mother Nature cast a more decisive vote: the freeway fell down in the Loma Prieta Earthquake.

Drivers adjusted to new patterns excluding the freeway, and discovered that traffic without it wasn't so bad after all. San Francisco then replaced the freeway with a surface boulevard in 1991.

New York also had a waterfront elevated highway, the West Side Highway, which gradually deteriorated from lack of maintenance. Some portions had to be closed after a collapse in 1973, but proposals to replace it with a new elevated, underground, or even underwater (in the Hudson) freeway never made it off the ground (or under it). Today, it's a boulevard that offers a less forbidding connection between the neighborhood and the waterfront.

DC has its own version of this same effect. Klingle Road was one of the many roads in Rock Creek's ravines that functioned as virtual freeways (like Rock Creek Parkway, Broad Branch, and so on). But it washed out in 1991 and DC never rebuilt it. Drivers adjusted.

In 2008, the DC Council formally decided to build a walking and biking trail there instead, and now, six years later, well, they're about 65% done designing it.

Pilots can be hard to change later

Pilot projects are a great way for an agency to try things and see if they work. Temporary curbs at 15th and W Streets, and Florida and New Hampshire Avenues NW, for example, made a very dangerous intersection a little safer for the six years until DDOT could move forward with the permanent design (slated for 2015).

But if an agency does a pilot when it has every intention of doing something different later, it can be hard to change course. The best example of this effect is visitor parking passes. Before 2008, residential permit parking zones were only for residents, plus a 2-hour grace period for others. If you had a visitor, you could get a 2-week pass from the local police station.

Starting in 2008, pilot visitor passes started in lower-density areas of the city like wards 3 and 4. Legislation also forced DDOT to roll out passes in some areas trying new "performance parking," like the ballpark area and Columbia Heights.

Jim Graham realized visitor passes were popular, and so pushed legislation to expand them to all of Ward 1. Then they expanded to Ward 5, more parts of Ward 6, and now are in effect everywhere except for Ward 2, whose neighborhoods near downtown fear more people will just sell or give their passes to people who commute.

The visitor passes are not very sophisticated: they are simple placards you can place in a window. And, in fact, they work just fine in places where parking is fairly plentiful anyway. But where parking is scarce, each placard helps a visitor, but it also adds to the parking crunch. That's especially true when people give their placards to someone who's not really a visitor, particularly someone who plans to use it to commute to offices or a school and park in the nearby residential area.

DDOT officials have been aware of this potential problem all along, and continually insisted they were working on a better system. However, year after year, they never quite got that better system done, and meanwhile, the program grew and grew.

It's going to be very difficult now to replace this entitlement with a different system, even if it's one that works better for residents as a whole. That's because any new system will take something away from someone, and those people will ferociously resist the change. Everyone else might find it a little bit easier to park, but that benefit is too diffuse to really motivate action.

But six years ago, when there were no passes, a better pass system would have been easy. It would have given residents something useful without taking anything away.

It's too late for visitor passes, and we'll just have to see whether DDOT is ever able to win support for a better plan. Right now, they're trying a very small incremental step: requiring people to actually ask for the passes. Even that is running into some political resistance.

But it's not too late for the Southeast Freeway. There, the road is still closed. The area ANC commissioner and many residents do recognize the danger. The smart move would be to keep it temporarily closed until DC has a final plan for the boulevard. The boulevard plan would then give something to residents and through drivers alike.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Bicycling


The biggest bikeshare station in each US city

Throughout 2014, DC and New York have jockeyed back and forth over which city's bikeshare system has the most stations in the United States. But who has the biggest stations?


New York’s 67-dock station. Photo from Google.

DC currently leads in the number of stations race, 335 to 324. But the number of stations only tells part of the story. New York's stations are vastly bigger than DC's, and by far the largest in the US.

New York's biggest station, which is outside of Penn Station, has a whopping 67 docks. It's almost 50% larger than the next city's largest station.

Here's the number of docks at the biggest station in America's main big-city bikeshare systems:

RankCityLargest stationDocks at largest station
1New YorkPenn Station67
2BostonSouth Station46
3WashingtonDupont Circle45
4ChicagoMichigan/Washington43
5MinneapolisCoffman Union and Lake/Knox32
6Miami Beach46th/Collins31
7tDenverREI27
7tSan FranciscoMarket/10th and 2nd/Townsend27

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Parking


When parking prices reflect demand, everybody wins

When San Francisco let parking prices fluctuate with demand, drivers found it easier and faster to find parking. The city maximized its valuable curb parking spaces and modestly sped up buses.


Image from SFMTA.

These are some of the results from a recently-released evaluation of SFpark, a pilot program that started in 2011 by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) with support from the Federal Highway Administration.

SFpark used a sophisticated system of electromagnetic sensors, networked parking meters, and databases to track the occupancy of 7,000 on-street spaces in seven pilot neighborhoods and 15 of the city's 20 SFMTA-operated garages.

It took less time to find parking

The project's "primary focus was to make it easier to find a parking space," with prices allowed to fluctuate such that on-street spaces met a target occupancy of 60-80% on weekdays between 9 am and 6 pm. (Project managers chose this target as it generally allows for one space on each block space to sit open and ready for a newly arriving vehicle). According to the evaluation report, the dynamic-pricing pilot areas met this occupancy target more often than control areas the report compared them to.

As a result, the time it took to find parking decreased in the pilot area from an average of 11 minutes and 36 seconds to 6 minutes and 36 seconds, a 43% decrease. By comparison, the control areas saw only a 13% decrease. As a result of the reduced circling, the total distance vehicles traveled in the pilot area decreased by 30%, which meant less greenhouse gas emissions.

Nobody benefits when drivers circle for parking, take up road space, release more pollutants, and (in some cases) block the street by double-parking.

In many places and times, parking prices declined

One might think that this all occurred because parking prices shot up, and in some cases they did. For example, side streets along the Fillmore Street retail corridor saw weekday hourly prices go from the old, city-wide rate of $2.00 to as a high as $4.50. However, the average hourly rate for parking on the street, across the whole pilot area, actually went down by 4%, from $2.69 to $2.58. How could this be?

Just as roadway demand exceeds roadway supply (leading to congestion) only at certain times and in certain places, parking demand only exceeds parking supply in certain times and at certain places. In fact, many of San Francisco's pilot-area blocks sat relatively empty when parking cost a flat rate ($2.00, $3.00, or $3.50 per hour, depending on location) because those blocks were not desirable. Now, with parking as low as $0.25 per hour in some locations (the minimum price allowed under the program), demand is distributed more evenly across space.

Also, SFpark introduced time sensitivity to parking charges, making it possible to fine tune pricing to match demand across the day and across weekdays and weekends. Over the time period studied, four of the pilot neighborhoods saw increases in average weekday on-street parking rates, while three actually saw overall decreases.

How San Francisco mastered the politics

Between the evaluation report, the program's technical documentation, an upcoming evaluation from FHWA, and the downloadable data sets that program managers routinely update, there is a lot of quantitative data that researchers, activists, policy-makers and citizens can study in great detail.

Yet stepping back from the quantitative results for a moment, it is important also to recognize and learn from the way in which SFMTA sold dynamic pricing to the public in the first place.

First, it launched SFpark as a pilot, a strategy that can lower the perceived stakes (and tensions) for everyone involved. Second, it set primary and secondary goals that would not only benefit the community at large (reduce greenhouse gases, reduce congestion), but also those drivers paying the variable rates (make it easier to find a spot, make it easier to pay, reduce the number of parking tickets). Third, SFpark made marketing (with graphic design quality not usually seen from a public agency), messaging, transparency, and outreach core parts of the program.


The SFpark overview video explains complex technology with easy-to-understand animations and narration. Image from SFMTA.

It is vitally important that other cities take similar approaches if they are to change parking policy because such policy stirs up strong emotions and political action.

Jeffrey Tumlin, of the transportation-consulting firm Nelson\Nygaard, creatively refers to America's relationship with parking as an "addiction," which vividly sums up how difficult it is to alter the status quo around those patches of pavement where we store our cars. Similarly, a recent primer on parking pricing from FHWA notes that innovative parking policy ideas will go nowhere without political and public support.

The results of the SFpark pilot evaluation provide a rich source of rigorously measured outcomes that planners can reference in policy documents and presentations around the United States. Yet if similar programs and their beneficial outcomes are to take hold throughout the country, officials will need to copy not only SFpark's substance but also its style.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Support Us