How To Build A Streetcar System The Right Way

This article picks up where I left off when talking about the failure of the Cincinnati streetcar. In that post I talked a lot about how their streetcar system is setup, the costs, and the many problems it currently has. In this post, we’re going to look at how a streetcar system can work in urban areas and effectively move people from Point A to Point B.

Streetcar systems are popping up in a lot of US cities. There’s no doubt that streetcars are part of the transportation of tomorrow. They can be a very effective way of transport when done correctly. There’s several factors that go into building a successful one, and we’re going to break it down and see how it works. All factors will be used for building an urban streetcar in cities, and these are not in any particular order.

Factor #1: Population And Demographic Study

How many people live in downtown, and where? What about the bordering neighborhoods? This should be done before a track route is proposed. What this step does is determine how many people could use the streetcar. Now of course, the minority of the city would actually use the system, which makes it a difficult proposition for smaller cities to justify building a streetcar system. Population density is a big factor, the more people who live in a building, the more likely a streetcar system could work.

It’s not just the population, it’s also the demographics. Income is a big factor when looking into demographics. Let’s say there’s a city that has 10,000 people living in downtown. If they all make $1,000,000 a year, then it’s likely they’re not going to pay $2 for a ticket to ride the streetcar. Now if there’s a good majority of people making $25,000-75,000 a year, then it’s likely that it will draw more riders. And of course if there’s more than 10,000 people living in a downtown, that’s all the better.

The next places to analyze are the neighborhoods bordering downtown. Uptown is a likely neighborhood to look into as most cities have one. How many people live in uptown? What are the demographics of uptown? This methodology can be applied to all neighborhoods near downtown to determine the maximum possible ridership the streetcar could take and its potential routes. Where the streetcar tracks get laid will determine on the next two factors.

Another thing to determine is how many hotels are there and what’s the average occupancy rate. This adds to a city’s population for purposes of who could use a streetcar. Hotels tend to be close to each other in a city, making it easier to place 1 or 2 stops that service them. But like I said, it needs to be determined how many people are staying in the hotels near a proposed streetcar stop, as well as why they’re staying there and where they’re going. If there’s not enough people staying at the hotels on average, or they are going to a different part of the city that wouldn’t be serviced by a streetcar, then it would be a lot harder to justify having a station built near them.

Factor #2: Study Where People Go To Work, Eat, Shop, and Play

This is the second critical piece to determining where people go to work, eat, shop and play. Let’s look into the first one, work. The first thing to identify is what are the major employment centers in town and where they are. Obviously the bigger the employment center, the better, but doesn’t necessarily mean a streetcar system wouldn’t work. If there are several smaller employment centers adding up together as a large employment center (and within walking distance of a streetcar stop), then that would work almost just as well. Connecting people from where they live to where they work as directly as possible is the #1 reason any streetcar line or system should be built.

The next thing to analyze is where do people eat? What types of restaurants are in town? Are they mostly lined up in one area or scattered across town? Are there a lot people in that area, and if so, are they people who would use the streetcar? Obviously if they are from the suburbs or a part of town that does not have streetcar access, they would not be likely riders. If there are large attractions nearby such as stadiums, that would make sense to build a station next to it.

Factor #3: Study How People Living In The City Currently Get Around Town

Now that we’ve identified where people are, with the places they want to go to, we have to study how they currently get there. There are several different ways for getting to their destination, depending how many public transit options there are. The first is, how many people currently walk to work, eat and play, and how far do they walk? Do people use bicycles to commute or go around town? How many people drive to work? Ride the bus? Or other means of public transportation?

Once this is determined, then it becomes a little clearer whether or not a streetcar would be a good addition for a city. If city streets frequently back up, it could mean other means of public transportation are necessary, especially if cutting down automobile traffic is the goal. Are pedestrian and bicycle traffic really that bad to the point it slows people down? How many people use existing public transportation? If there’s no public transportation, then adding a streetcar system would certainly be more of an option.

Factor #4: Potential For Transit-Oriented Development

After we know where people live, work, and play, we can look at where peopleĀ could live, work, and play. In a lot of cities, there are either abandoned buildings, open surface parking areas, or empty land. Parking garages could also be considered for redevelopment.

But with this one, you have to be very careful of. Building a streetcar track through one of these parts of town does not guarantee that there will be revitalization around the stop. Some good questions to ask would be: Is there currently revitalization occurring near where a streetcar track is proposed to be built? Could it be redeveloped at all? How much would revitalization cost? Is there a demand for it?

There has been an urban revitalization occurring in some US cities, and millennials are starting to embrace public transportation. And real estate developers are taking notice, building new apartment and condo buildings or restoring old buildings. This would certainly help a lot for transit oriented development. But you also have to take into account how many people are going to live in these new buildings. If there’s just restoring a house or small building with 10 or fewer units, then it won’t be very effective. But if they’re building or restoring a building that can house 250+ apartments that would likely have a major impact.

Factor #5: Speed And Right-Of-Way

In order to have a successful running streetcar, it has to be fast and effective. But in order to achieve both, the streetcar track cannot share the right away with vehicles. This is because if there is a traffic jam, the streetcar cannot move, and is more susceptible to accidents with vehicles and pedestrians. The speed limit of the streetcar would be reduced in order to match with traffic speed. Both of these things can be easily avoided.

Giving streetcars its own right of way separate from traffic and pedestrians enables higher speeds and is a lot safer. Traffic lights would be timed in favor of the streetcar to maintain speed. With these two combinations, a streetcar could travel relatively fast and be effective.

Let’s use this for example. Say a city block is about 500 feet long. If a streetcar has to travel 4 blocks to the next stop, which is 2,000 feet, at 30 mph would take less than 60 seconds. With its own right of way and green lights, a streetcar could travel that fast, possibly up to 35-40 mph depending on if it could safely travel at that speed or in a part of town where it can travel that fast. In terms of speed, that’s how a streetcar is effective. A lot of streetcar systems in the US average 5-10 miles per hour, which is not effective for the most part.

Brian Cole

I'm Brian and I'm the founder of I have a strong passion for fixing America's transportation infrastructure problem and traffic flow issues. I ultimately want to see the American economy grow as far as it will go, create massive amounts of jobs, and in that way help the quality of how people live.

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