What’s cooler than a bus, cheaper than most modern rail transit systems and a source of civic pride nearly everywhere it exists?
If you guessed light rail, you’d be just as wrong as I was. I always thought that light rail was a way to revive streetcars without the shame of having to say we were rebuilding systems we trashed in the middle of last century in favor of cars and buses.
But streetcars are making a comeback, and now even places as unlikely as Sacramento are considering following the example of Portland, Ore., and making tracks for a time when the internal combustion engine didn’t rule our lives.
Just today, I found this story by my esteemed colleague, Mark Prado at the Marin Independent-Journal. Seems there’s an effort afoot to connect cities in Marin by a trolley system.
I feely terribly ignorant for not understanding the difference between streetcars and light rail. According to a comparison done for the City of Tucson, Az., it is more than just semantic:
Streetcars tend to operate on, er, streets with other traffic, whereas light rail tends to have its own lanes. Streetcars are more often single vehicles, while light rail is more train-like, with multiple cars.
But here’s the big difference: An average of $25 million per mile (chump change), rather than the $65 million norm for light rail.
Streetcars aren’t rapid transit by any means. They sit in traffic and they can stop five times for every two light rail stops.
But people like them. People don’t like buses so much. Say what you will (please) about whether buses deserve to be regarded thusly, but it’s true. Maybe if we had double-decker buses like UC Davis or fitted them with trolley bells, that would change.
That affinity for this archaic form of transit seems to be the biggest motivator for urban areas to re-adopt them. Just as San Francisco’s trolleys make the grandparents weepy and the children coo, city officials in Yolo County believe these vehicles can make West Sacramento seem a bit less like a giant truck stop and more like the actual city across the river.
Considering that Jack London Square already has Amtrak trains running down the Embarcadero, could it be time for Oakland to consider something more ambitious than bus rapid transit?
Photo from www.heritagetrolley.org.