Fast and Reliable Light Rail in the Netherlands: How they do it, and lessons for Portland

Zef Wagner is currently in the Netherlands taking a class on sustainable transportation. He will be posting periodically about the Dutch transit system and what lessons we could apply in Portland and elsewhere in the US.

One of the first things I noticed about transit after arriving in the Netherlands was how incredibly fast the trams are here compared to their counterparts in Portland. (Reminder: a tram is sort of halfway between MAX and Streetcar in terms of size and capacity, but they are all technically forms of light rail). Anyone who has spent much time riding transit in Portland usually comes to despise how slow our vaunted MAX system moves through the Downtown and Lloyd Center areas. The Portland Streetcar is even worse, moving barely faster than walking speed. It is naturally tempting to blame this slowness on the fact that we use surface-running rail rather than underground or elevated, but the Netherlands manages to have a massive amount of fast-moving surface-running rail in its major cities. So how do they manage this?

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A typical tram–bigger than a streetcar, smaller than light rail

One reason for faster transit has to do with the nature of Dutch cities themselves and their hierarchical approach to traffic engineering. Most major roads in the Netherlands have widely spaced major intersections, so a tram can routinely travel for a half-mile or more without encountering any signals or much cross traffic. Most blocks, if you can call them that in cities with no grid system, are very long and are often permeable to pedestrians and cyclists but not to cars. The major roads that trams generally use are also very wide, although the right-of-way is divided between pedestrians, bikes, cars, and transit in such a way that it doesn’t seem very wide from the ground. Compare all these factors to downtown Portland, which has very short blocks, narrow streets, a grid system with lots of signalized intersections, and a lot more pedestrian crossings, and you can see that moving light rail in Portland is inherently more difficult.

The Netherlands also employs a lot of transit priority treatments that speed up the trams as they travel through the cities. The major one that jumps out immediately is that trams virtually always have dedicated right-of-way either in the center of the road or along one side. A typical cross-section for a major road in Amsterdam or The Hague or Rotterdam would be sidewalk, one-way cycletrack, 1 or 2 lanes for cars in one direction, tram tracks in both directions in the middle, car lanes in the other direction, one-way cycletrack, sidewalk. Occasionally a road is divided so the trams are on one side and all car traffic is on the other side. Less common treatments I have seen include running trams on either side of a canal, running trams through pedestrian/bike-only areas, and even running them through buildings.

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Trams and cars each get one exclusive lane in each direction

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Several tram lines in the Hague run through this building

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Sometimes trams run through pedestrian zones, but they still go fast

In any case, the pervasive use of exclusive lanes and right-of-way removes the danger of congestion-related delay, at least in the spaces between intersections. Another benefit is that the tracks can be covered by grass if they are tram-only, adding green space to the roadway. It is also notable that I have never really seen trams running on the outside lanes, which is common practice for streetcars in the US. By using center lanes and platforms, pedestrian access is slightly worse but in exchange the trams are out of the way of right-turning traffic and connections between overlapping tram lines are much easier.

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Many tram tracks are surrounded by grass instead of concrete

In Portland the use of exclusive right-of-way is much more limited. The Yellow Line on Interstate is the most similar to what I have seen in the Netherlands, using the center alignment to good effect, but once MAX hits Downtown it becomes more problematic. The exclusive right-of-way in Downtown Portland is only marked by paint, for one thing, which results in cars illegally using the lane and makes it easier for cars to stop in the middle of an intersection blocking the tracks. The lane is also shared with buses on the Transit Mall, forcing MAX to go much slower than it could in an unimpeded lane. Some tramways in the Netherlands can also be used by buses, but the schedules are coordinated so there are no conflicts. Major busways where several lines come together do not appear to ever share space with tram lines.

Portland Streetcar, of course, has almost no exclusive right-of-way and uses a couplet design with vehicles in the right-hand lane of each one-way street. This design would never be used in the Netherlands. The Streetcar gets stuck in traffic constantly and is sometimes blocked by parked cars, and the couplet design results in a smaller walkshed (remember, people need access to both directions). This design is even worse for the new Eastside Streetcar line in Portland. In that case, the two directions of streetcar will be divided by 4 lanes of fast-moving traffic in each direction and one city block. This could have been avoided by running the streetcar two-way on Grand (decoupling Grand and MLK for all traffic in the process), or by running it on the left side of both streets. In either case, it should have also been given exclusive lanes, especially since Grand and MLK have so much right-of-way to spare.

So now that trams in the Netherlands have priority between intersections, how do they get through intersections without delay? The answer is true signal priority at almost all intersections. I have seen countless instances of this: a tram is approaching an intersection at full speed, special “tram” lights start flashing and bells start ringing to warn people, all the lights turn red, and the tram barrels through without slowing down. After it gets through, the normal signal phasing starts again. Sometimes another tram arrives immediately after the last one, and amazingly the lights all turn red again to let it through. The basic message here is that traffic engineers in the Netherlands are willing to deal with the possibility of a few extra seconds of delay for cars so that a tram full of people can pass through without stopping.

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This tram is able to move through the intersection without slowing down

The general practice in Portland is to try our best to time the signals downtown so that buses and light rail and streetcar can move through the lights without stopping, but this barely ever works in practice due to the inconsistencies of loading times at stops. The closest thing we have to signal priority in the Portland and the US in general is the ability of transit vehicles to keep certain lights green for a little longer than normal in order to get through an intersection. This only helps in certain situations, and is no help at all when the light is already red or when a vehicle has to make a stop right before the intersection. It is common for a MAX train to stop and open the doors for loading during a green light ahead, which then turns to red right when the doors close. Then the train has to sit there for a full signal, resulting in delay for potentially a couple hundred people while a much smaller number of people in cars are able to cross the intersection. Again, Portland Streetcar is even worse since it also has to stop at lots of stop signs in addition to signals. Even buses, supposedly inferior to streetcars, almost never have stop signs to deal with on their routes.

The only place in the Netherlands where I have seen a tram slowed down or delayed was in Rotterdam, which generally had much worse car traffic than anywhere else I have visited. In that case, the trams were given full signal priority but traffic was so bad that cars had queued up into the intersection, blocking the tracks. This can happen anywhere, of course, but I suspect this problem may be worse in the Netherlands because they use near-side traffic signals. The lack of signals on the far side of intersection means that drivers close the intersection may not be able to see that they have a red light and are more likely to end up stuck on the tracks.

Portland’s built form and street network, with its small blocks and one-way couplets, creates many challenges to running efficient surface-running light-rail that are not as much of an issue in the Netherlands. However, it is clear that Portland could do a great deal to improve its surface rail system by employing the other techniques used here. Exclusive lanes, ideally two-way in a center-road configuration, along with much more advanced signal priority systems, could do wonders for the Portland system and lead to increases in ridership as speed and reliability improves. All it takes is a recognition on the part of our political leaders and traffic engineers that transit (along with bikes and pedestrians) should be given clear priority over automobiles as we move people through the city.

Zef Wagner is an analyst at Fregonese Associates and is pursuing a Master of Urban and Regional Planning degree at Portland State University, specializing in transportation planning. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fregonese or PSU.

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