Part of the Bay Area News Group

ultralight rail, just like grandma used to ride

By enelson
Thursday, November 1st, 2007 at 5:33 pm in AC Transit, BART, Buses, driving, Environment, light rail, rail.


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

[You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.]

7 Responses to “ultralight rail, just like grandma used to ride”

  1. Keith Jones Says:

    And some streetcar lines have been built for much less than $25 million per mile. Kenosha WI for $3 million a mile, Little Rock Arkansas for $8.5 million a mile (opened 2004).

  2. Aaron Priven Says:

    A streetcar would serve a completely different purpose than BRT; they’re not comparable. BRT is about speed; streetcars are about making short-distance travel attractive.

    BART did a study of a streetcar system to serve Jack London Square — see, scroll down to Jack London Square feasibility study. I disagree with their routing (I would have it go from Amtrak down 2nd St. to Washington, then up Washington to the Convention Center, than loop around 10th, Clay, 11th –with a stop near the BART entrance on 11th — and 10th) but I think the general idea is a good one, *if* it is paid for out of redevelopment funds our tourism funds or something, because in terms of transit efficacy, there are better ways to spend money.

  3. Capricious Commuter Says:

    And believe you me, that short distance from Amtrak and JL Square to BART would be more than just a downtown redevelopment thing. That connection would make a huge difference for people who are waffling over taking the train from out in the boonies where I live. Few would take the bus that makes that run now, but I think a lot would take a streetcar, because, as you say, it makes transit more attractive.

  4. david vartanoff Says:

    BRT is an excuse for refusing to implement better transit options. Whether you call them streetcars or Light Rail, they ARE more attractive to riders who can choose whether to drive or not. Trolleys are not archaic, they are a tried and true mode of transport. And BTW the distinctions Erik points up are all contradicted in numerous instances around the US.

  5. Reedman Says:

    Shared right-of-way is the most sensible approach for
    cost-effective transit. VTA Light Rail, for example, has a train
    about every 15 minutes during the work day. The ROW is abandoned the rest of the
    time, while cars are in gridlock in the adjacent lanes. No bicycles,
    no pedestrians, nothing can use this valuable strip of land except
    a couple of vehicles driven by civil servants.

  6. Liz Says:

    They should’ve never scrapped the Key systems for the joke we call AC Transit. My grandparents told me that the Key was far better then what AC can do.

  7. miked Says:

    Shared right of way slows down the streetcars. Slow streetcars waiting in traffic were part of the reason that there wasn’t giant opposition to getting rid of them. You can experience the slow streetcar with the F in San Francisco- it comes complete with the old cars from the cities that got rid of their streetcars.

    Unfortunately exclusive right of way suffers from Reedman’s issue- that not many people use a substantial piece of land. There aren’t easy answers.

Leave a Reply