Thursday, April 05, 2012

Streetcars belong. Even on the street

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Much like any group, passenger rail advocates split into subsections or specialties of interest or belief, such as high speed rail, Amtrak, regional/commuter, rapid transit, LRT—and streetcars.

Add to that the human element of being interested primarily in one's home turf first (you can get yours later, thank you very much), and the disparate viewpoints multiply.

Still, I was slightly taken aback this week during an ongoing e-debate over the proposed MTA New York City Transit No. 7 line into New Jersey—New Yorkers largely despise the idea; New Jerseyans like it; who's paying?—when the conversation veered into streetcars and their worth, and, apparently, their place: Not on the street.

One advocate, someone I know and trust on many matters, flatly insisted that all passenger rail needs to be grade-separated, all the time, no matter what (including no matter what the cost? He didn't say). "Careful on streetcars, Doug," he admonished. "The logical extension of what you're suggesting is that NYC would be a thriving metropolis it is if the 'subways' were all at grade level."

I'm not aware of that logical extension at all, let alone my advocacy of it. As noted earlier, I ride the subways, mostly in New York—a lot. New York couldn't function as it does without the subways, no doubt. But it wouldn't hurt some of the streets of New York, or anywhere else, if some streetcars were added to the mix. (Or, as another advocate asserted, returned to that mix; they did exist once.)

For argument's sake, let's buy into the very reasonable assertion, made by rail activists and anti-rail voices alike, that the world isn't New York, nor should it be. I'm good with that. By extension, it means among other things that most of the world's municipalities don't have subways, nor (perhaps) should they automatically have same. I'm still with that.

NO streetcar in snowBut most of those places, certainly most in North America, do have streets. Some of these places are wisely restoring "streetcars" on some of those thoroughfares, and the inveterate holdouts (San Francisco, New Orleans) are expanding what they never surrendered. Yes, yes, the latter is blessed with that nice center median along Canal Street, but all in all those streetcars can be found (yea, verily!) on the street. (And, per photo at left, for New Orleans even in the snow!)

As my fellow blogger Lyndon Henry notes, safety becomes a valid issue, and far be it for me to excuse streetcars from that issue. Still, why do streetcars in particular (and all rail, freight and passenger, in general) carry the burden unduly? Don't automobiles have a safety issue? They sure should, given their better-but-still-lethal daily tally. The presumption today, however, is that streets are for cars first and foremost. No bicycles and, oh my gosh, no streetcars, please.seattle streetcar

Buses, backed by 60-plus years of U.S. "give the poor suckers something" philosophy, get a bye, however, and backers of more buses (including Bus Rapid Transit) love pointing out to me that buses can circumvent auto obstacles on the street—no exceptions. They sure don't live in my hometown, where double-parked cars on both sides of the main street can do a great job obstructing buses. Cars parked in the bus stops also force those magic buses to load and unload passengers in mid-street—more obstruction, more delays. But streetcars—they're supposedly too inflexible for today's motor madness, yessir.

I don't buy it, and, fortunately, neither do some dedicated citizens across the continent, be they in Atlanta, Cincinnati, New Orleans, Portland, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, or Seattle (photo above right). Like me, they believe streetcars are aptly named, and one of their places is on the avenue. Expect that reality to occur more often in the decade ahead.

Douglas John Bowen

Douglas John Bowen is Managing Editor of RAILWAY AGE. He also served as Editor of Intermodal Age from 1989 to 1991, and has held various positions at Inbound Logistics magazine, High Speed Transport News, The Journal of Commerce, and CNN/Money. Bowen began his journalism career at the Asbury Park Press, a New Jersey daily newspaper. A graduate of Rutgers University, Bowen resides in Hoboken, N.J. He served as president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) from 1987 to 2000 and again from 2004 to 2010, serving on the NJ-ARP board from 1984 until 2012; he remains a member of the statewide organization.