Easier To Love A Streetcar Than A Light Rail

What’s in a name?

Well, maybe not much in Shakespeare’s time, but in our present-day society of perception-beats-reality, word association means quite a bit. This article, relayed via Planetizen, discusses this concept with respect to rail-based transportation: Streetcar vs. Light Rail

“It bugs me that such an awkward, engineering-specific term – light rail – has become the common one for the trains that run on fixed rails with overhead electric wires that have been built in dozens of cities across the United States. (The term comes from the fact that light rail is an alternative to “heavy rail” systems – subways or inter-city trains that weigh more and can carry more people.) I support the mass transit systems, but who could love something as soulless as ‘light rail’?

Maybe that’s why dozens of cities are building new streetcar lines. Charlotte, Little Rock, Memphis and Tampa, to name a few, are putting either vintage or antique cars on their streetcar lines or even brand-new cars with the sharp, clean angles that resemble those you see on light-rail lines. They join cities such as New Orleans that never got rid of their old streetcar lines in the first place.”

Continue reading Easier To Love A Streetcar Than A Light Rail

The same author (Alex Marshall) contributed to Streetsblog, writing an essay touching on the history and potential future of streetcars, providing some reasoning for why he believes streetcars are better than light rail and buses.

If you’re interested, that post can be found here

18 responses to “Easier To Love A Streetcar Than A Light Rail”

  1. Too bad we have a “tram” now, or else we could have used the same term most of the world uses for MAX. I ‘ve never liked the term ‘light rail’ and much preferred calling it Portland’s ‘tram.’ Now, I think PDXer’s would confuse the aerial tram, so I guess we are stuck with ‘light rail’ (and its 80’s style full name MAX light rail) forever. Maybe we could change ‘light rail’ to ‘city rail’ (the english version of Germany’s S-Bahn; stadt bahn).

  2. MAX is actually what is called an “U-bahn” in Germany…I call it “ohne-U”…as many are actually Underground in the middle of town, but on the surface in dedicated ROW once out of the center. “S-bahn” trains are what we call commuter rail, though in Frankfurt, Munich and other larger cities they are also in a subway. “Strassenbahn” is, of course, a streetcar which many cities still have.
    In Frankfurt streetcars were being replaced with U-bahn lines until protests kept some streetcars going; people like to be out in the air as they wait for and ride on public transit, even if its slower. Take note subway fans.
    But there is a lot of grey area between Streetcar and Lightrail…the former is really one variety of the latter, with rails, overhead electric power and surface operation. I guess smaller streetcars are more cuddly than the larger lightrail cars. Stand at the corner of 10th and Morrison and decide for yourself which you would rather have running down your local commercial district street.

  3. What’s wrong with “light rail?” I associate “light” with “nimble” and “light footprint,” and I associate “rail” with “motion” and “streamlined.” Also, “light rail” feels similar in construction to “light speed.”

    And I much prefer the word “streetcar” to “tram.” I associate “tram,” which itself seems a more British term than streetcar, with another British term: pram. Pram being short for perambulator — a baby carriage or stroller. It’s a bit of a tangential connection, but it’s there, nonetheless. The right word is streetcar.

    And “aerial tram” is just a ridiculous phrase. Talk about awkward, engineering-specific terms! What about “Skyway?” “Airlift?” “Flying Car?”

  4. What about “Skyway?”

    I like it. It could lead to a delightfully paradoxical name, such as “The South Waterfront Skyway”.

    – Bob R.

  5. Also, whenever I try to retrieve the word “articulated bus” from the back of my brain, I first get “diverticulitis” and have to think, “no, no, the other word!”

  6. the author seems rather clueless, and is perhaps making up for his chrome dome by spouting off about things he’s really not informed about.

    For instance, he does mention Portland. But, he fails to do the research to confirm that:

    * Streetcars are only three seats wide, while light rail trains are four seats wide
    * Light rail tends to have 300% of the capacity of a streetcar, per operator, due to the fact that the train consists of two cars, and each car is about 1/3 longer than a streetcar.

    Therefore, “light rail” is appropriate for the context of regional rail (U-bahn, as some people point out above), whereas streetcar is appropriate for more neighborhood-level connectivity.

    We love them both in Portland, and would never pit one against the other. And yes, while he is technically correct that there was, at one time, a proposal to put light rail on 10th & 11th, and instead, a streetcar line was implemented, I’m not sure that Bill Naito would really complain about how it ended up. We love the streetcar there. We’re also glad to have the light rail on the bus mall, even if it didn’t turn out to be a subway (like it perhaps should have).

    The larger question is, if gas prices, peak oil, global warming, etc., really do cause a lot of people to stop driving and to start taking transit, will our transit systems be able to handle a 200-400% increase in ridership? Is this actually possible?

  7. We love them both in Portland, and would never pit one against the other.

    Depends on the corridor. When it comes time to look at heavier transit on the Barbur corridor, I’d prefer a genuine costs-and-benefits look at light rail, BRT, and “rapid streetcar.” See what the various options are when they’re lined up against each other.

    Maybe do the same analysis on Powell-Foster as well.

  8. Hard to see that the result of those studies would be any different than Milwaukie…BRT has comparable capital costs with higher operating costs. I would guess streetcar would be the same…smaller vehicles boost operating costs.
    Light rail may have a less than smashing name, but it offers flexibility (on the street operation to high speed grade separated service on the same line), capacity (two to four double car trains with one operator) and quality of service (smooth, clean and reliable.) Tough to beat, if you care about cost and quality.

  9. Actually, if you care about cost and quality, you build roads.

    Care to give us some examples of what roads you would build where, how much they would cost, who they would serve, and who would pay for them?

    I don’t think anyone here is opposed to “roads” per se … after all, the history of civilization itself can be viewed one way by looking at the history of roads.

    But in an urbanized region with a more-or-less complete roadway network, there’s more to talk about than more roads, and when we are talking about roads, the type of roads is quite important.

    – Bob R.

  10. There seems to be some confusion on here about the terms used in Germany. To clear things up:

    Stadtbahn is the German term for what in America is called “light rail”, with the exception of streetcars. A MAX-type system would in Germany be called “Stadtbahn”.

    S-Bahn is the German term used for high-frequency commuter rail systems only (“high-frequency” meaning headways of at most 30 minutes). The “S” in “S-Bahn” originally came from “schnell” (“fast”), though this is now almost completely dissociated from the term itself. These systems run on upgraded railway lines, and the truly high-performance systems have dedicated tracks through the city center (tunnels for trunk lines such as those in Munich, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Berlin, et al, which result in the S-Bahn acting like a subway line in the city center, as the joint use of the sections by multiple lines results in subway-like headways of as little as 2 minutes).

    Regionalbahn or (more rarely) Lokalbahn are terms for regional railways that are more similar to American commuter railways (destinations in the city region, with trains every one to two hours, with extra departures during rush hours).

    Straßenbahn is the German term for “streetcar” (“Straßenbahn” literally means “street railway”), and is used nearly interchangeably with “Tram” (especially in southern Germany) or “Bim” in Austria.

    “U-Bahn” is traditionally the term for underground or subway, with the “U” originally meaning “underground”. However, many light rail systems in Germany today have their networks in tunnels in the city center and have therefore adopted the term “U-Bahn”. Because these systems are only partially in dedicated rights-of-way the “U” has taken on the second meaning of “unabhängig” or “independent”, referring to the fact that the system is largely free of conflict with other modes.

    A German public transport employee visiting Portland would most certainly call MAX a “Stadtbahn”. There is simply no other correct term. He would in no circumstances call it an “U-Bahn”.

    Now, as for the article in question, I think it’s all a bit silly. Intentionally opting for a lower-performance mode based solely on name? The author makes the same mistake that the average citizen and transit critic tends to make: arguing about mode choice based on preconceptions arising from a poor definition.

    The term “light rail” was originally formulated to refer to something that in many ways didn’t exist previously and was therefore too often associated with streetcars, which was problematic as in public perception that would be like calling a Ford Mustang a “horseless carriage”. Now, with streetcars returning to popularity, the name stigma isn’t so bad, but to call light rail systems “streetcars” just to avoid the term “light rail” is incorrect. I agree with the previous poster that “city rail” wouldn’t be entirely bad (and it is the English translation of “Stadtbahn”), but at this point it’s a bit late in the game to invent a new name. And I don’t think it matters much.

    Also, on a side note, German transit professionals who visit San Fransisco refer to BART as the city’s “S-Bahn” system, if that helps in your understanding of the term.

  11. Bob,
    Any chance you could fix the tagging in my post? I keep forgetting which sites use HTML and which use bulletin-board speak.


  12. If MAX went into a subway in the Central City it would be exactly the same as the U-bahn in Frankfurt. That is way I call it the “ohne U” or “without U.” U5 there actually runs on the street without separate ROW once it comes out of the tunnel just north of the Anlage.
    Also note that a zone ticket in Frankfurt, as in most if not all German cities, is good on all modes…S-bahn, U-bahn, Strassenbahn and bus.
    I would guess that what we call lightrail came from Germany where after WWII cities began to upgrade streetcar lines with new larger cars and subways in the central cities.

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