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This article has been adapted from the original three-part series which appeared in the January, May and July 1994 issues of the NY Streetcar News.

Page last updated:
Nov 28, 2016.

Debunking Myths About Streetcars

By Brendan B. Read
Webmaster's note:This article has been slightly edited from its original text.

Streetcars today are dramatically different than their forebears that plied the streets of New York until the 1950s. Modern light rail vehicles (LRVs) are faster, quieter, easier to get on and off, cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, and their tracks, wires and operations fit better into the urban environment. Streetcar design after World War II continued to evolve when many European cities (but only a few smart North American ones) focused on improving their streetcar systems rather than ripping them out.

With the disappearance of trolleys from most American streets by the 1950s, the general public gradually lost touch with the technology of light rail transit (LRT). Today, in nearly every city where LRVs have been proposed to return, an arduous process of educating citizens, debunking myths and answering their concerns has been necessary. Here's a quick look at the elements and environmental impacts of light rail:

The Guideway
With tracks laid in dedicated lanes ("guideways"), LRV's can run far faster and more reliably than buses in mixed traffic. Ordinary bus-only lanes, such as on Madison Avenue, usually require dozens of traffic agents to keep traffic separated. Guideways can also be fitted with traffic signal pre-emption systems. Emergency vehicles and certain buses can be permitted on the guideways.

But street-level guideways raise fears of disruption of automobile traffic. The long history of lane additions and reductions in NYC and elsewhere have shown repeatedly that car congestion disappears. Motorists very quickly adapt, or more important, switch to mass transit. Perhaps the best example of this was the permanent closing of the West Side Highway in December, 1973. Furthermore, taking space from cars and dedicating it to efficient surface public transport like streetcars is a more democratic solution to chronic congestion than higher motorist fees and tolls.

The Rails
Light rail is not light; streetcars can be as heavy as a subway car. Investing in heavier street tracks for LRT costs more upfront but lasts much longer. Special "girder" rail, installed flush with the pavement, is safer for bicyclists and pedestrians, but considerably more expensive. Light rail is so benign a use of street space that in some locations grass can be grown between and around the tracks!

Although bicyclists must exercise caution when crossing LRV tracks, experience in Belgium, the Netherlands and elsewhere shows that proper bike lane design and markings and special grade crossings can make bicycles and streetcars the best of friends. And, of course, LRVs never swerve like buses, presenting far fewer hazards to bicyclists.

Overhead Wires
Overhead wires are the best means available to supply power to light rail vehicles. Although Manhattan's streetcars once drew electrical power from a third rail buried beneath the street, such a deluxe system, as well as other, newer technologies, is not in use anywhere because of its very high cost of installation and maintenance. Other power delivery modes, like battery-powered buses, flywheel energy storage and hydrogen fuel cells, remain unproven or are simply too expensive or impractical, especially for a "starter" system for NYC, like the proposed 42nd St. trolley.

The overhead wires can be supported from poles fitted with bracket arms or with span wires attached to building cleats. Bulky feeder wires from substations would be buried underground. The poles and bracket arms can be quite ornamental or historically accurate and add greatly to the value of the streetscape. The same poles can also be used for traffic signals, lighting and signage. To allow special events such as the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade to pass by, portions of the wire can be easily disconnected.

Modern technology ensures complete safety, with insulators and breakers that limit risks from fallen wires. Firefighting teams in cities with trolleys have long-established and effective procedures in the vicinity of such overhead wires. They can even attach temporary bypass arches to the tracks to allow trolleys to drive over firehoses! There can be no harm possible from electromagnetic fields created by alternating current (AC), since streetcars use direct current (DC). Meanwhile, the actual health hazards of AC are still being debated.

When shown examples of how unobtrusive overhead wires can be and of the genuine advantages of modern electric surface transportation, most urbanites are willing to accept their presence. The citizens of dozens of other world-class cities already have -- why not New York?

New Yorkers will no longer be able to experience the older generation of trolleys, since New Jersey's Newark City Subway just recently ended its use of its beautifully restored PCC streetcars, switching to modern LRVs. Today's modern LRVs are faster, quieter inside and outside, easier to get on and off, have bigger windows and are more comfortable than any of their forebears that plied the streets of New York just a short time ago. LRVs are more spacious and dignified than even the biggest buses. Wheel noise is dampened by both track design and rubber inserts.

No streetcar will ever spew diesel exhaust into your face as it passes by. Steel wheels on steel rails present one-fifth the rolling resistance of pneumatic tires, saving energy. Besides all the latest space-age electronic equipment, LRVs can be fitted with the same trolley bells that gently announced their arrival to our grandparents.

The most recent streetcar innovation, low floors, at a height 12 inches or less above the rails, allow easy and fast boarding for wheelchair users, the elderly and those with strollers, suitcases, packages or bicycles. Some low-floor cars have lowered center sections, with raised floors at each end to allow room for motors and equipment. While new all-low-floor buses are now appearing on the market, the rough shape of New York's streets preclude their operations here. Nevertheless, NYC Transit has introduced some partial-low-floor buses into regular use in the city.

Manufacturers are already building low-floor cars for numerous cities in Europe. Siemens-Duewag is building 39 of them for Portland, Oregon; Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto are considering them. New York can only stand to benefit from the real-world experience and research of other more sophisticated cities around the world.

Environmental Impact of LRT
First and foremost, LRVs replace noisy, smelly and polluting diesel buses. NYC is the nation's diesel bus capital, and has long been in violation of Federal Clean Air standards for cancer-causing particulates, which buses spew.

But LRVs do require electric power generated from either oil-fired, gas, hydroelectric, coal or nuclear power plants, each of which has its own environmental consequences. For example, in New York, total emissions from Con Edison's heavily regulated electricity-generating plants averaged some 55 tons a day of sulfur dioxide in 1989. Still, the emissions from fixed power plants are much better controlled and much further away from human lungs than the hundreds of thousands of exhaust-spewing tailpipes on vehicles driven on New York's streets every day.

Even more important is the environmental gain that results from the shift of motorists to light rail, when compared to buses. And the difference between private cars and LRVs in terms of using energy to move people is enormously in favor of light rail. An electric motor converts 80 to 90 percent of its energy into mechanical motion, compared with 10 to 12 percent for even the best designed internal combustion engine.

Light rail is New York's great hope for creating a sustainable and livable city on a broad scale. Along with the existing public transit system, light rail will allow masses of people to live together more harmoniously, while providing convenient mobility at very low energy cost. And with light rail at about one tenth the price per mile of new subways, there is a much greater chance it will actually be built in today's tough fiscal climate.

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