Faster Streetcar?

Over at Transit Sleuth, Adron has published his thoughts on how to make the Portland Streetcar faster.

Signal pre-emption at every intersection. That’s a pretty clear statement about priorities!

21 responses to “Faster Streetcar?”

  1. years ago streetcars ran through downtown Portland every thirty seconds, and did it very efficiently, who needs preemption?? lots of pictures available at Spag factory among other places…

  2. Dick, that’s an excellent point. When people say the Streetcar is slow, I often wonder if they mean it doesn’t move fast enough once they get on board, or whether they mean they have to wait too long for a vehicle show up?

  3. With its frequent stops, preemption is meaningless for Streetcar. It uses the red cycle to unload and load, and as long as it makes the next green, what is to be gained.
    Sure some people can walk almost as fast, but its nice to just sit back and enjoy the ride sometimes.
    Ten minute frequency is a must, however.

  4. As we all know, the time it takes to load and unload is partially related to frequency. If only one person is getting on or off the loading and unloading time can be pretty short. So increasing frequency both shortens wait times and speeds trips.

    The current streetcar is slow by any measure …

  5. Lenny, it’s true that the streetcar unloads and loads during the red cycle — but the question is, which red cycle? I use the streetcar almost every day, and here’s the pattern I see much of the time (I’m making up the time intervals, since I haven’t actually used a stopwatch, but they’re roughly correct):

    0:00 — Light turns red. The Streetcar stops with a couple of vehicles ahead of it, so it cannot pull up to the stop.

    0:30 — Light turns green. The vehicles ahead of the streetcar move on, allowing the streetcar to move towards the stop.

    0:45 — Streetcar reaches the stop, and people begin boarding & unboarding.

    1:00 — Light turns red.

    1:05 — People finish boarding the streetcar. The streetcar waits at the signal.

    1:30 — Light turns green, streetcar moves on.

    This whole sequence, as I’ve shown it anyways, is a full minute longer than it should be. Signal preemption would let the vehicles ahead of a streetcar to move on, allowing the streetcar to load and unload its passengers during the first red light rather than during the second. That would create a significant overall speed increase for the streetcar.

    I should actually start using a timer and a notebook when I ride the streetcar; this needn’t be a guessing game. It should be possible to precisely quantify how much time would actually be saved with better signalization. My hunch is that Adron is correct, and that the streeetcar could gain about 20%-35% in speed. This would translate into both more convenience for its riders, and more frequesnt service without purchasing any additional vehicles.

  6. There is also the issue of Streetcar vs. MAX at the 4 intersections where they cross. In addition to regular traffic signal priority, the Streetcar needs rail system signal authorization to cross. I do not know if an electrical interconnect change is also part of the signal process.

    It appears to me from personal experience that MAX always has priority over streetcar at these crossings, as I have been on streetcars that have waited several signal cycles to cross the light rail tracks. Could this performance be improved?

    If the performance of these crossings cannot be improved, how about an alternative:

    Combine (or relocate) the two stops at 11th/Alder and 11th/Taylor into the already-existing small mid-block pedestrian plaza between Morrison and Yamhill? This would A) allow the streetcar to load even if a couple of vehicles are stopped in front of it and B) allow the streetcar to load while waiting for MAX to clear the intersection of 11th/Yamhill.

    If eliminating the stop at 11th/Alder creates too much of a gap between the last Pearl District stop and downtown, the stop could possibly be relocated to 11th/Washington, with the added benefit that it would more closely align with the northbound stop on 10th/Stark.

    – Bob R.

  7. The Streetcar can brake on a dime compared to MAX, and ensured not to interrupt motor traffic too much. Pre-emption would be seen by the public as a bait & switch tactic. Good functional idea, but bad politics. MAX has pre-emption primarily for safety reasons, nothing more.

  8. Actually, signal preemption for the streetcar would help motorists, not hurt them. The difference between the streetcar and the MAX is that the streetcar operates in mixed traffic. When the streetcar is loading/unloading people during a green light (which is quite common, per my scenario above), there are other vehicles stuck behind it. Signal preemption would help them just as much as it would help the streetcar. True, it slow down cross-traffic very slightly (perhaps by 5 seconds per intersection), but it would make the traffic flow dramatically smoother along the streetcar route, for motorists as well as everyone else.

  9. The Streetcar can brake on a dime compared to MAX, and ensured not to interrupt motor traffic too much. Pre-emption would be seen by the public as a bait & switch tactic.

    We’re talking about downtown Portland, where both MAX and Streetcar operate at low speeds.
    MAX brakes at 3mphps, which is pretty standard. I can’t find stats online for Streetcar braking. Since you say it can stop “on a dime” compared to MAX, what is your source?

    – Bob R.

  10. Nathan Koren – and others.

    One of the big points even if you forget the MAX/Streetcar crossings is that the Streetcar spends a LOT of time just sitting. 10+ minutes in total, just stopped, waiting for various things. Along with the Streetcar in many places traffic is also doing the same. If the Streetcar is given more priority the flow along those streets would also flow.

    As for Portland, that would be a political plus if there where some traffic “enhancements” too boot.


  11. One comment in regards to comparing this Streetcar system with the one’s of yesteryear.

    The Streetcar Systems from decandes ago where;

    Held by Private Companies
    Where Operated at Profit
    Where Part of the Private Utility Providers
    Provided All Capital Costs at Start Up in addition to requesting and maintaining the roadway rights.

    So really, it is more like comparing apples and oranges vs. apples and apples.

  12. Keep in mind that if you give Streetcar priority at signals in the downtown grid, you potentially screw up the progressed signalization on the cross streets (i.e., the ability to drive at a constant reasonable speed and just encounter green lights).

    MAX on Yamhill and Morrison already mess with the progression.

    On the other hand, maybe holding the green a few seconds to clear the platform would not have much impact.

  13. Adron — you’re absolutely right about the sitting. Between this post and the last of my posts, I rode the streetcar down from NW 21st to SW Alder. For the streetcar, it was actually a very fast trip — we never got stuck behind a car at a stop (like in my scenario above), we skipped the stop at NW 13th where nobody wanted to get on or off, and we actually managed to clear the lights at Burnside, Stark, and Washington in one fell swoop (which I have never seen before!).

    Even so, we spent a lot of time waiting at stoplights, and most of the time there wasn’t even any cross-traffic to stop *for*. I counted all of the seconds that would be saved via good signal preemption, and it came to 85 seconds — or about 15% of the trip-time. Had our luck been worse or the roads more crowded, I’m certain that signal preemption would have saved at least twice as much time, if not moreso.

  14. Nathan Koren, thus you know exactly why I did my little write up.

    I’ve spent so many hours of my life in everything from the car in the heat of New Orleans to the Streetcar travelling from PSU to the Pearl. I always count the minutes of my life spent travelling, something I love to do, but do not want to do needlessly for commuting.

    The Streetcar is a GREAT option for commuting, but for those that do use it for that, it’s one of the slowest options. Something I’d love to utilize for commuting, but find it hard to convince myself when so much time is spent idling. It would be so easy for the problem to be remedied, but the question is will it. As the system grows I would bet that others besides just me, you, Chris, and others who count the seconds of operation start to get a ground swell of support for priority service.

  15. I have studied the streetcar a little bit I am a little bit suprised that there is one idea that I thought about and no one has yet to post here:

    Far side stops.

    No waiting to get to the platfrom. No encouraging impatient motorists to turn right in front of the streetcar. That being said, I think that the theory is that the queue should be clearing as the streetcar comes up to it since it should be a part of the traffic signal progression. Right-turners do cause problems with this.

    And, Bob, I am pretty sure that at streetcar/MAX intersections the streetcar is considered just a part of the regular traffic. As for MAX, I don’t think it gets much preemption downtown, since the ride from PGE Park to 9th can be stop/slow & go and it must often wait to leave platforms after the doors have closed. Also, one issue with closing the 11th/Alder stop is that it would disrupt transfers with the buses that also stop there. Though it could improve MAX transfers…

  16. A potential problem with far-side stops (although I do support them specifically for a Hawthorne streetcar alignment) is that inattentive motorists may proceed on a green light (thinking that the streetcar will keep moving) and then wind up blocking the intersection.

    To prevent that problem, you need make the right lane just before a streetcar stop be designated “Right Turn Only Except Transit and Bike”. I think such a configuration can be made to work along Hawthorne, doing it downtown would require some study.

    – Bob R.

  17. To prevent that problem, you need make the right lane just before a streetcar stop be designated “Right Turn Only Except Transit and Bike”.

    Already done on Highway 99W in the north part of Tigard and large parts of 82nd Avenue. Another could be a simple yellow sign on the traffic light post that warns drivers of a potential streetcar stop (just like the “School Bus Stop Ahead” signs you’ll find on rural roads.)

    I just hope that the rest of the Portland area won’t be raped to “fix” this problem, just as TriMet shells out $4M annually to operate the streetcar while my neighborhood is losing transit options, and I still can’t even get from my home to my town’s city center by bus.

  18. Sure some people can walk almost as fast, but its nice to just sit back and enjoy the ride sometimes.

    I took the streetcar to NW 18th & Lovejoy last night after work…very crowded and almost NO sitting. Unlike MAX, a VERY jerky ride for us standees.

    Felt sorta stupid, too, punching my short-hopper ticket in the machine. Didn’t see anyone ELSE pay.

    I have to admit, though, it got me there quicker than walking would have.

  19. its impossible to compare turn of the century streetcars to modern ones… the poster above mentioned the ownership difference, which i think isnt nearly as important in changes in traffic safety.

    (also, one of the big reasons that there are no street cars now is that they didnt actually run at a profit, they were part of the public utilities, which were huge graft operations… ie, they were propped up by public spending indirectly instead of directly)

    anyway, take a look at this movie:

    traffic was freakin INSANE 100 years ago. people driving the wrong way down the street. no one minding safety at all. one could never operate at the old speeds because so many people would be injured or die!

  20. It said the cable cars moved at “nearly 10 mph” – I think people have a bit harder time with the new speeds, not the old ones…

    Not to mention most state highways’ speed limits were around 30 mph.

  21. …the trackback didn’t work so…

    my retort to George and Justin.

    …with all due respect, they DID operate at a net profit enabling the utilities and in many places they operated AT a profit. Key lines handled all of their outlays at the fare box. Seattle, ditto.

    The power utilities weren’t doing this just for fun… they did it because it encouraged development and made them “profit”.

    The city couldn’t have indirectly funded them because it didn’t have the same level of funds available, it’s preposterous to give the Government of the time the credit for funding any of the expansion associated with Streetcars – namely suburbs.


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