Streetcar lessons from France

Paris T3 - image from wikipedia - note the seven-segment vehicle, dedicated right of way, and grass tracks.

Last month, Yonah Freemark’s post on the rapid expansion of tramways in France caught my eye.  These systems offer several key lessons for the streetcar projects popping up across the US, as well as here in DC. The thinking is to make the tram different from just a streetcar – a transit option that isn’t much different from a bus in terms of geometry.

In many ways, this is about further blurring the already fuzzy distinction between light rail and a streetcar.

Some key takeways:

Give transit the edge:  For most cases, this would mean putting transit in a dedicated right of way.  Taking advantage of the urban design elements with grass tracks is nice, but the key element is the dedicated right of way to speed operations and increase capacity (call it mostly Jarrett Walker’s ‘Class B’ right of way).  Leaving an expensive investment to slog along in traffic like the bus would isn’t giving that investment the fullest chance to succeed.

One commenter notes the explicit trade-off:

US so-called light rail is more like a cheap suburban railway, with near absolute segregation, needing large compulsory purchases – again not endearing them to householders or shopkeepers. San Diego had one of the cheapest build costs, but even so had to pay $18 Million for the route – an old railway.

France seems to have decided, rather than buy up property, remove the cars which clutter up the street and replace by a tramway which more than doubles the street passenger throughput. A much better way of doing things.

Take advantage of capacity:  One of rail’s clear geometric advantages over bus is capacity.  The newer tramways in France take advantage of this with longer vehicles than the streetcars currently in service in the US. As an example, the T3 line in Paris makes use of 7-segment Alstom Citadis 402 trams, measuring in at approximately 140 feet long – more than doubling the per-vehicle capacity of the vehicles in use in Portland and Seattle.

Standardization saves money:  These new tramways are, for the most part, fairly standardized in both construction and in rolling stock, allowing for substantial cost savings.  Many of the vehicles feature modular construction, both adding flexibility while maintaining standardization and making procurement of replacement parts easier.  Standardization doesn’t mean a similar look, however – customize-able front ends allow each city to personalize the look and feel of their trams.

Go big or go home:  Well, sort of. Scale matters, both in producing a project large enough to be a successful link in the network and big enough to achieve some economies of scale.  The wiki graphic shows the scale of the tramway network in and around Paris alone:

Building at scale (and with a predictable pattern of expansion and reinvestment) helps control costs.

Moving US systems to this kind of standard could be seen in one of two ways: either in terms of removing a great deal of the over-engineering of US light rail systems, or in terms of increasing the standards of US Streetcar systems.  Given the length of some of DC’s proposed streetcar lines, offering this kind of advantage to transit would be a sure-fire way to give these investments every chance to succeed not just as economic development projects, but as transportation projects as well.

2 comments to Streetcar lessons from France

  • This is a great piece, however, technically the tram in Paris would be called light rail here, and you are talking about streetcars, at least in terms of how you reference Portland and Seattle, unless you are referring to light rail in those communities as well.

    Note with regard to LR in Portland (which you probably already know), in the heart of downtown the line splits so that east is on one street, and west on the other, and that allows for a kind of dedicated right of way.

  • Alex Block

    Richard, this was part of the point I was making. There is no hard and fast delineation between light rail and streetcar.

    American light rail systems do usually have their own right of way, but seldom is it integrated into the streetscape like this for its entirety. The other factor is raw top speed – American LRT systems are often equipped for much faster top speeds than are necessary for an urban environment, where grade crossings and other constraints don’t allow for hitting 55 mph.

    Point being, I don’t think our current labels are particularly useful.

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