Thursday, July 26, 2012

Rapid Streetcar concept gaining ground

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Just over eight years ago I cooked up a new concept in rail transit that I called Rapid Streetcar. Since then, it's been attracting a lot of interest within the public transportation industry (although a lot of would-be "experts" using it as a buzzword don't always get it quite right).

As a concept, Rapid Streetcar represented a confluence of several factors. First, I noticed America's new excitement over streetcar technology—goosed by modern-style streetcar lines in Portland, Ore. (shown below), and Tacoma, Wash., and reasonably successful new (or upgraded) heritage-style installations in places like New Orleans, Memphis, Tampa, and San Francisco's F-Line.

StreetcarPortlandProblem was, North American planners only thought of streetcars as a slow, circulatory mode competing with pedestrians. Meanwhile, de facto high-performance streetcars were taking Europe by storm, and it was clear that streetcar technology could approach the service capabilities of "full" light rail transit (LRT) — in fact, streetcars could be deployed as a kind of "junior LRT".

Another factor was the "gold-plating" disease—over-design—with each new LRT startup trying to "one-up" the last new start in another city. LRT railcars were getting bigger and beefier, and station designs were escalating from originally simple shelters into "palaces."

This led me to recall the original inspiration of LRT—Europe's invention of a rather bare-bones upgrade of ordinary mixed-traffic streetcars into a faster mode with lots of dedicated lanes, reservations, and exclusive alignments, only occasionally running in street traffic. This notion was expounded in the 1960s and early 1970s by transit visionaries like H. Dean Quinby and Stewart F. Taylor; interestingly, Taylor branded his version of the concept a "Rapid Tramway."

Really, I think Quinby and Taylor, and like-minded planners like Lou Klauder, Ed Tennyson, and Vukan Vuchic, recognized that similar features had actually been included in many North American streetcar and interurban systems—those historic lines that had been swept away in the motorization mania engulfing American cities from the late 1920s through the 1960s. And Rapid Tramway, a.k.a. LRT, represented a renewed effort to re-install some of that valuable rail transit that had been expunged.

Blending all this together, I reincarnated the original Rapid Tramway as Rapid Streetcar, proposing that the extended capabilities of modern streetcar technology be utilized with high-performance streetcars running at higher speeds on some segments of reserved or exclusive alignments.

I also incorporated two highly advanced, complex concepts: Back to Basics and the KISS Principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid). The idea was to keep the infrastructure and stations as simple and low-cost as possible—modeled more after the lines in New Orleans, Portland Streetcar, Tacoma Link, and Tampa, and less like the "mini-metro" designs that so many new LRT systems seemed to be trying to achieve.

That, in a nutshell, is what I first proposed at the 2004 Rail Conference of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) in Miami; check out my original paper: Rapid Streetcar: Rescaling Design And Cost For More Affordable Light Rail Transit.

There's also a a slightly revised, expanded, and annotated version of that original paper (with the same title) available on the Light Rail Now website.

In 2006, I presented a further update of the Rapid Streetcar concept in a paper and presentation to the Joint International Light Rail Conference in St. Louis, co-sponsored by the Transportation Research Board, APTA, and the International Union of Public Transport. See: Applying the Versatility of Streetcar Technology to North American Urban Transit.

Since my 2004 proposal, Rapid Streetcar has been catching on; Portland Streetcar's expansion from its original mixed-traffic operation into an exclusive railway alignment is one very tangible example. And it's been further popularized by Reconnecting America in its planning manual Street Smart. And several other cities, such as Seattle, are seriously eyeing this concept.

Let's just hope they can keep the gold plate away from it.

Lyndon Henry

Lyndon Henry is a writer, editor, investigative journalist, and transportation consultant currently based in Central Texas. He holds a Master of Science in Community & Regional Planning, with a focus in Transportation, from the University of Texas at Austin, 1981. From 1973 to 1989 he was executive director of the Texas Association for Public Transportation, and presented the original proposals and feasibility studies for light rail that led to the inclusion of rail transit in the Austin-area planning process.. From 1981 to 1985 he served as a transportation consultant to the Hajj Research Centre at King Abdul Aziz University, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He has also served as a transportation planning consultant on several other transit projects in the USA. In 1983-84 he was a member of the Austin-Travis County Transit Task Force which recommended a transit authority for the Austin area. That agency, eventually named Capital Metro, was created in 1985. From 1989 to 1993, Mr. Henry served as a board member and vice-chairman of Capital Metro. From 1990 to 1992 he was an Adjunct Faculty member at St. Edwards University, teaching a course in public policy. Since 2000 he has served as a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project, and from 2002 to late 2011 he served as a Data Analyst for Capital Metro in Austin. He is also a member of APTA’s Streetcar and Heritage Trolley Subcommittee and Light Rail Transit Technical Subcommittee.