The Amazing Possibilities of Streetcars

By Kai Bates – IMCL Urban Design Consultant

A couple years ago while visiting Europe, I was fortunate enough to make my way to Freiburg, Germany*. Since I arrived by high-speed train, I didn’t have a car or bicycle to get around. So, I relied heavily on the city’s outstanding streetcar system to explore the entire city, including visiting such urban design Meccas as Vauban and Rieselfeld, as well as the city’s phenomenal car-free historic downtown.

Streetcars are fully integrated into the pedestrian zone in the center of Freiburg’s downtown.

Photo: Kai Bates

Freiburg’s streetcar network and its ease of use are impressive. Even though Freiburg is a mid-size city (Population: about 220,000, Size: almost 60 square miles, Density: 3,700 people per square mile), it has an extremely robust streetcar network that you can use to get anywhere in the city and that connects very well with local and regional bus and rail networks. With trains running about every 5-10 minutes (depending on the time of day) along four lines (covering a 20-mile route) with 68 stops, I found the streetcar to be the best and most convenient way to get around.

Freiburg’s Streetcar Network as of March 2014. Source: Wikipedia

My experience with Freiburg’s streetcars led me to realize the amazing possibilities and power of an easily accessible and fully connected transit system. Even though I lived in Europe as a child and I have been admiring European streetcar and transit systems from afar for many years, I didn’t completely grasp the beauty of a system such as the one in Freiburg until I had actually used it extensively. And, to think that all of is possible in a city comparable in size to Richmond, Virginia.

Shortly after returning to the U.S., I moved to Portland, Oregon (Population: about 584,000, Size: almost 145 square miles, Density: 4,375 people per square mile). Portland, which is more than twice the size of Freiburg, is known for being a pioneer in streetcars in the U.S. In 2001, it became the first city in North America in more than 50 years to open a new and modern streetcar system.

Streetcar in downtown Portland. Photo: Cacophony

Today, Portland Streetcar has two lines covering a route that is 7 miles long with 76 stops. The service currently runs about every 20 minutes and serves downtown Portland and a few adjacent neighborhoods. But, since it primarily focuses on the downtown, it leaves much to be desired in terms of benefiting the entire city.

Portland streetcar system as of January 2014. Source: Portland Streetcar

Using and experiencing two vastly different streetcar systems in Freiburg and Portland led me into a deeper exploration of streetcars around the world – where they are being used, how they are being used, and the principles involved in setting them up. This exploration has led to some very interesting findings.


Where Are Streetcars Being Used?

Modern streetcars (also known as low-floor and ultra low-floor) are currently being used in cities throughout Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America. The largest streetcar networks in the world by track length are in Melbourne (160 miles), St. Petersburg (150 miles), Amsterdam (132 miles), Berlin (120 miles), Moscow (112 miles), Vienna (107 miles), and Budapest (97 miles).

Melbourne streetcar (tram) network – the largest in the world – as of July 2014.

Source: Public Transport Victoria

In recent years, streetcars have made a significant resurgence in cities throughout North America and Europe. In the U.S., following Portland’s success, streetcar systems have been or are currently being installed in Atlanta, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Dallas, Detroit, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, Seattle, Tucson, and Washington, DC. The interesting thing about all of these cities is all but two (Cincinnati and Salt Lake City) have populations above 450,000. It’s also important to note that the majority of these systems primarily consist of single lines along linear routes that will take decades to develop into true networks, if at all.

Sun Link streetcar in Tucson, Arizona. Photo: Tyler Baker / Arizona Daily Wildcat

In Europe, streetcar (or tram, as they are sometimes called) systems have been developed in recent years in France, Germany, Spain, and Portugal. France, in particular, has seen enormous growth of streetcar networks throughout the country. Since 2000, France has added streetcars in 25 cities, totaling 388 miles of track. In stark contrast to those developed in the U.S., these streetcar systems have been built mostly in cities with populations less than 450,000 – only three (Paris, Lyon, and Marseille) of the 25 streetcar cities have populations above 450,000. In fact, some of these cities, such as Aubagne and Valenciennes, only have populations of about 44,000. Can you imagine a modern streetcar network in, say, Annapolis, Maryland?

Streetcars in downtown Angers, France. Source: Angers Loire Tourisme


How Are Streetcars Being Used?

Since countries like France and Germany have been putting enormous efforts into developing their streetcar systems in recent years, they have also made some of the most interesting advances in how streetcars are being used. In the U.S., when people think of streetcars, they probably think of the Portland version as shown earlier. In fact, as new systems are being developed throughout the U.S., you may notice the striking similarity to the Portland Streetcar – see, for example, Seattle, Tucson, and Washington, DC. Most of the U.S. streetcars are electric (supplied by overhead lines), low-floor, and use on-street tracks that are shared with automobile traffic.

In France and Germany, they have developed exciting innovations such as green track, ground-level power supply, and dual mode diesel/electric power tram-train hybrids (known as the Stadtbahn in Germany). They have even managed to figure out a way to use streetcars to deliver freight!

Streetcar using green track in Paris, France. Source: Amiens Socialiste

Streetcar using ground-level power supply in Bordeaux, France. Photo: Peter Gugerell

The RegioTram in Kassel, Germany, uses dual mode diesel/electric power – electric

in the city and diesel outside the city. Photo: Eastpath

CarGoTram using green track in Dresden, Germany. Photo: kaffeeeinstein


What is the Best Way to Setup a Streetcar System?

Now that I’ve gotten you all excited about streetcars by showing you where they are being used and some of the cool things cities are doing with them, I offer a brief overview of some basic rules for setting up a streetcar system, that I have gleaned from research and experience. Please note that I am by no means an expert on the subject myself, and I recommend that you check out these top transportation blogs:  The Transport Politic and Human Transit.

First of all, as many experts stress, streetcars are not necessarily the best transit option for every city. There are some significant differences between streetcars and buses that need to be considered, in addition to context, density, available right-of-way, funding, demographics, and much more. It’s also important to note that there are fundamental cultural and economic differences when it comes to public transportation between the U.S. and Europe that need to be taken into account. For more on that, check out this excellent article: “5 Reasons Germans Ride 5 Times More Mass Transit Than Americans”.

With those caveats in mind, if your city has determined that streetcars are a viable option, 1) they need to take people places that they want to go, 2) they need to be part of a larger transit network, 3) they need to be easily accessible and easy to use, 4) they must have sufficient frequency and speed, and 5) they must be designed in a way that is attractive and fun to ride.

1) Connections – Very simply, a streetcar system needs to take people where they want to go. Streetcars need to connect residential areas with employment areas, shopping areas, and major attractions throughout the city. If it’s easy for a person to leave their home, hop on a streetcar, and go to work or go to the grocery store and back, they will do it.

This map of Tucson’s streetcar line shows key attractions along the route. Source: Tucson Streetcar

2) Networks – It’s crucial that streetcars connect easily and conveniently to other transit networks. You should be able to go from the streetcar to the bus or other types of rail smoothly.  For a great example of this, check out what they’ve done in Zurich, Switzerland.

This streetcar network map for Munich, Germany, shows how the streetcar connects to U-Bahn (Metro – “U” icon), S-Bahn (Commuter Rail – “S” icon), and Deutsche Bahn (Intercity Rail – “DB” icon).

Source: Wikipedia

3) Accessibility – In conjunction with connections to other forms of transit, the streetcar routes themselves need to form a network that gives people easy access. According to MVG, the public transit agency in Munich, Germany, nearly every household in the city is within ¼ mile (5-minute walk) of a transit stop! In addition to proximity to stations, there needs to be coordination between routes, schedules, and fares with other transit networks as is done in Germany, for example (see the aforementioned article “5 Reasons Germans Ride 5 Times More Mass Transit Than Americans”).

In Munich, Germany’s Freiheit Station, buses and streetcars stop right next to each other.

Photo: Patrick van Britsom

4) Frequency & Speed – Transportation planners use the term “headway” to describe the amount of time between trains arriving at a station. As I mentioned earlier, the streetcars in Freiburg have headways of 5-10 minutes while the streetcars in Portland have 20-minute headways. When you are travelling around a city, the difference between waiting 5 minutes and 20 minutes is huge, especially when you have to be somewhere at a specific time. Ideally, the headways need to be as short as possible, depending on the context.

Speed is an issue that is hotly debated in transportation circles. Just check out these recent articles and their titles: “The Value of Fast Transit”, “Place Mobility: Sometimes Good Transportation is Slow”, and the rebuttal to that last one “Email of the week: on Robert Steuteville's defense of slower-than-walking transit”. The primary debate concerns whether or not streetcars should have dedicated lanes so they can go faster or whether they should share the road with cars and, therefore, go slower. Dedicated lanes may be preferable if there is space, and if distances are greater. IMCL Director Suzanne Lennard summed up these issues: “I suspect the ‘right’ solution varies with the size of the city, the topography, the width of streets, and the feasibility of inserting either one or other system into the existing street network.”

This will certainly slow things down! A crash between a car and the South Lake Union streetcar

in Seattle, Washington. Photo: Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times

5) Design – The final important factor for cities to consider is how the streetcar system will be designed. The design includes everything from branding (logo design, naming, etc.) and marketing to vehicle appearance, station design, and the use of public art. An attractive and inviting streetcar that is easy for people to use and understand will be much more appealing than one where all of the design elements haven’t been integrated.

Interior of the streetcar in Angers, France. Photo: Ingolf

Of course, streetcars can be sexy and cool, especially for transit aficionados like me. But, I hope in the U.S., we will more frequently adopt them as a viable option in an integrated overall transportation network. In our efforts to provide an easy, safe, convenient, healthy, and environmentally sustainable alternative to the car, streetcars are often seen as more attractive than buses, and thus may be more effective in shifting transportation mode. Streetcars are not the perfect solution for every city. However, they can be viable in a wide variety of small to large cities.

It is a joy to experience an extremely well-designed streetcar system, or, even better, to live in a city where such a system exists. Quality of life improves dramatically as a result!


* Be sure to check out the IMCL article “Freiburg: City of Vision