UPDATED - Streetcars: things just ain't what they used to be

There has been much consideration and discussion here in Saint Louis about Joe Edwards's plan to reintroduce a streetcar on Delmar Boulevard. The conversation here has been the duplicate of a similar debate raging in my birthplace of Columbus, Ohio. In the case of Columbus, financing was never fully established and that uncertainty, combined with the economic downturn, led to the project being put on indefinite hold.

There are some major differences between the proposals for streetcar lines in Columbus and Saint Louis. In Columbus, the effort was led by a task force formed by the mayor. In Saint Louis, the impetus has come from a private developer, Joe Edwards, who has been the key player in the incremental revitalization of the Delmar Loop. In this case the politicians involved seem to have caught trolley fever and were extremely disconcerted to learn that even in Portland fares only make up 16% of total funding. While this is not earth-shattering if you consider streetcars another form of transit (streetcars pay a larger percentage through revenue than interstate highways for example) but troubling if this is envisioned as merely a novelty.

More tellingly, the philosophy behind each proposal has been different. The lines in Columbus were conceived to connect the 40,000+ population at Ohio State University with jobs downtown and the entertainment and nightlife destinations in the Arena District and Brewery District. The initial plans also involved connecting Columbus State Community College and the Columbus College of Art and Design. As Mayor Michael B. Coleman stated:
I think connecting the Ohio State University to the Brewery District, and the Arena District to the Discovery District, which is CCAD area and Columbus State, is something I think will add to the value of the city, and will be an element of the quality of life to young professionals finding Columbus as a place they want to stay. And anywhere that streetcar is located, you will see restaurants, retail, offices, and residential, all along the line. It will be the spur and difference-maker for economic development in our downtown, in addition to getting around. So it’s a huge catalyst for vibrancy, a huge catalyst for economic development, and a huge catalyst for just getting folks around…

In comparison, the Loop Streetcar connects an already developed area (named one of America's 10 Greatest Streets in 2007 by the American Planning Association) with Forest Park and would run a mere two and one quarter miles. Of this length, only around eight blocks have any potential for the streetcar to serve as a catalyst for significant redevelopment. The Columbus proposal would have been greater than five miles in length, would have connected five distinct economic centers and could have provided the catalyst for over thirty blocks of undervalued property.

The difference is stark, and it is clear that the proposed Loop Trolley (just the use of the term trolley instead of streetcar makes it clear it is planned solely around nostalgia) is meant entirely as a tourist attraction rather than as real transit. This is dangerous for two major reasons. First, as a tourist vehicle, it is especially susceptible to bad publicity. People tend to act much more strongly to entertainment and non-vital establishments once a problem has occurred. Compare the shopping malls to grocery stores; non-essential venues such as shopping malls are exceedingly susceptible to bad publicity. A failure of the Loop Trolley could set back surface transit in Saint Louis for thirty years to come. Furthermore as commenter "Adam" noted at Saint Louis Urban Workshop the brevity of the line is a huge liability in terms of operational sustainability :
When you build only one line, that one line has to absorb all the overhead for operating a streetcar system. It has to have a carbarn; it has to have the electrical substation; it has to have a dedicated trained staff to drive them. And, perhaps worst of all, if there's only one line, it has to be completely shut down for any street maintenance instead of being able to shunt around maintenance on an alternate line. Look at a map of most major cities, including St. Louis, before World War II. Streetcar lines ran up and down practically every major street. They didn't cost $30 million for one mile because resources were shared across many lines (also because labor was cheap). Frankly, $30 million for a single mile along existing streets is absolutely absurd. That's more than $5000 per foot--unless the rails are made of truffles, what is costing that much?

Setting aside the majority of these concerns, how could the proposed streetcar be improved?

It is clear that the trolley backers have not studied the ways trolley traditionally functioned in their proposed study area. A few design changes would have a great impact in recreating a successful streetcar urbanism and increasing safety along the route.

Loop trolley - conceptual rendering.

Looking at the conceptual rendering it is evident that the streetcar is proposed to run in the traffic lanes of already-congested Delmar Boulevard. While running the trolley in traffic lanes romantically hearkens back to the big city urbanism we know from grainy footage, by the time neighborhoods like the Delmar Loop were designed, it was clear that headtimes and safety were improved by separating surface transit from cars.

As this undated image shows, the handicap of streetcar systems is its general inability to detour in the event of accidents

The lushly landscaped boulevards we know today were a design response to this issue. Instead of running in traffic lanes, the streetcars were given a dedicated right of way in the center of the street. In some cities streetcar actuated traffic lights stopped cross-median traffic. The result was increased safety and efficiency for surface transit.

Video from separated ROW of Illinois Terminal Company interurban streetcars, Venice, Illinois.

Former streetcar right of way, now landscape in median, Wydown Bvld..

While not every potential streetcar route has enough width to support a separated system (streetcars typically need at least eighteen feet for unidirectional service) many of St. Louis's boulevards are in excess of 54' in width and some, such as Gravois are in excess of 75' in width. Additional space can also be made on streetcar arteries by limiting parking. Currently Delmar between Kingsland and the Wabash (metrolink) tracks has two lanes of parallel curb parking, two traffic lanes, and a continuous center turn lane (known as a "suicide lane"). The street width from the Wabash (Metrolink) tracks to the end of the line is approximately 48' from curb to curb. In this instance it would make sense to split the line and have one direction loop to the north using Vernon Ave. to avoid overly crowding Delmar and drastically reducing system efficiency.

East of the Wabash tracks the situation is far different. Both Delmar and DeBaliviere have ample street width due to their conscious planning for transit in the early 20th century. The street width is 75' on Delmar and 72' on DeBaliviere allowing in both cases for two dedicated tracks in the median and four traffic lanes with bike lanes or expanded sidewalks on either side. To get an idea of how a revised Delmar streetscape might appear we can look to St. Charles in New Orleans.

Neutral ground on St. Charles Ave. at Calhoun St., a transit right of way and pedestrian refuge.

St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans falls roughly between Delmar Boulevard and Gravois in street width. However, due to the streetcar right of way the street is humanized to a much greater extent. Please also note the picture above was taken in the midst of rush hour gridlock and shows how the neutral ground can create a space for recreation while diminishing car/streetcar contact and greatly increasing system efficiency. Such a right of way could also be flanked with bike lanes to increase efficiency.

In future posts I will propose realignments to the Loop Trolley route as well as future expansions, and examine the often overlooked urban design traits and infrastructure that enabled streetcar-based transit to be so successful, and assess what lessons we may learn from these examples to apply to the revitalization of our cities.

7.9.09 UPDATE:
I was unable to attend the forum on the Loop Trolley, but the presentation is online here:

Alex Ihnen, as usual, has thorough coverage at his blog.

I left the following comment:

While the added expense of running the trolley in the median is certainly an important consideration, I am concerned there is no conceivable way the Loop Trolley will be able to maintain efficient service competing with traffic on Delmar in the Loop during peak hours without separation. Note that Portland's "Streetcar System Concept Plan" (http://www.portlandonline.com/transportation/index.cfm?c=46134) expects an average speed of 7 mph riding in traffic as compared with 15mph in a median right of way.

If lanes are used, there should be a one direction bypass such as Des Peres/Rosedale/Vernon/Kingsland because any accident on the Loop with current levels of congestion would shut down the entire system. Ideally it would be best to limit street parking to one side and remove the continuous center turn lane. While politically divisive this would only eliminate around 100 parking spaces which could be accommodated in future development. The implementation of the Loop Trolly is a serious commitment to transit and should not be hindered by the automobile preference that currently dominates the region.

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