Examples of Modern Streetcars

When is a Modern Streetcar not a Modern Streetcar?

Summary: Modern Streetcar will not work in Riverview Corridor

On December 14, 2017, the Policy Advisory Committee (PAC, governing body) of the Riverview Corridor project (RC) adopted its Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA). See Policy Advisory Committee (PAC) Final Report LPA 02.2018 and Riverview Corridor Pre-Project Development Study, Final, Feb 2018. One of the provisions of the LPA approval was to “…reconvene to evaluate the technical and financial outlook for the Riverview Corridor project, to determine whether the chosen LPA is likely to become a reality by 2025 and make alternate plans if necessary.”

As discussed in my streets.mn post on December 6, 2019, the LPA for the Riverview Corridor (in St. Paul, MN) has many deficiencies and cost excesses. Optional remedies were presented but have not been seriously considered by the RC. It is imperative that a comprehensive review of these and other issues begin in December 2020 before committing more funds to an infeasible LPA concept.

Among the prominent concepts of the LPA was the selection of “Modern Streetcar” as the rail vehicle for the Riverview Corridor, while limiting the route consideration to West 7th Street and other shared-vehicle streets downtown. As discussed below, the selection and naming of “Modern Streetcar” as the vehicle of choice was faulty and misleading. This is just one of several key issues that need to be reconsidered before the project moves ahead.

The Riverview Corridor is too important to do otherwise.

What is the RC’s Modern Streetcar?

Note: The following figures are scanned from draft project materials handed out and freely available to the public at meetings of the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) and Policy Advisory Committee (PAC) that I attended as a member of the public.

Early on, the PAC was asked to select between LRT and Modern Streetcar as a prerequisite to selecting between bus and rail (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

The visual difference between the two is characterized by Figure 2, a slide from 2016. For LRT, the well-known example has always been the vehicle we ride on, the Metro Blue Line and Metro Green Line.

Figure 2

Modern Streetcar is represented as a narrow, single, articulated vehicle with a low chassis for step-on curbside boarding. A high platform is not needed, making it possible to board from curbside at a wide range of locations.

Although the pictures in Figure 2 are reversed from the order in the title line, note that Modern Streetcar is identified with “Shared Use” right-of way, while LRT is identified with “Dedicated” right-of-way. The Modern Streetcar shares the road with autos and other vehicles, while LRT runs alone on it’s own dedicated right-of-way.

The Modern Streetcar example shown is a vehicle that is narrower than LRT, in order to safely fit within traffic lanes on streets, and runs at lower speeds as is necessary when sharing the lane with pedestrians, bicycles, autos and other vehicles, all of which are moving at various speeds or coming to frequent stops as happens on a public street like West 7th. Notice the passengers stepping onto the streetcar from curb height, something that a passenger hoping to ride the RC’s Modern Streetcar would not be able to do.

Figure 3 shows another example of the RC’s plan for a Modern Streetcar.

Figure 3

Support for this characterization was reinforced by a trip for PAC members to Kansas City to ride the Kansas City Streetcar (see Figure 4), which has all of the typical Modern Streetcar characteristics.

Figure 4

The RC’s imagery of the Modern Streetcar consistently has represented a narrow, low chassis vehicle for curbside step-on access; you can find examples of this streetcar throughout the world.

But it was also noted, with little fanfare, that the RC Modern Streetcar must be able to operate on both the Green Line LRT tracks in downtown St Paul (the route from the Central station, to the Union Depot station and then the LRT maintenance building) and the Blue Line LRT tracks (including the route encompassing Fort Snelling, Terminal 1, Terminal 2, American Blvd, Bloomington Central, 28th Ave and Mall of America stations).

Riverview Modern Streetcar

This operational note is a big deal. The RC’s Modern Streetcar must accommodate all the LRT track, equipment electrification, platform height and vehicle width of the Blue and Green LRT Lines between Downtown St Paul and the Mall of America. This was not hidden (for example, see Criterion 1 in Figure 2 and the first bullet in Figure 3). But it means that the Riverview Corridor Modern Streetcar would be as wide as an LRT and with a high chassis for boarding from 14-inch LRT station platforms.

So, the only characteristic remaining of a true Modern Streetcar is the basic articulated vehicle; in all other respects, it is an LRT vehicle, because it is as wide as an LRT and, especially, the boarding level must be 14 inches, otherwise a big step for even athletic people, let alone disabled.

This also means that streetcar stations cannot be easily located anywhere on West 7th or Downtown St Paul. They can only be located where there is sufficient sidewalk space for (i) a platform the total length of the streetcar(s); (ii) ADA compliant ramps and railings to walk or roll up to the platform; and (iii) conformance with business entrances, alleys, loading docks and display windows, etc.; plus allowing adequate pedestrian passage where pedestrians congregate to wait, enter or depart a restaurant or other business.

(This is the reason why the RC’s Modern Streetcar is proposed as a single unit and likely must stay that way. Combining units would double or triple the required platform length. This could eliminate several of the planned streetcar stations along West 7th and most any other potential station locations.)

Most true streetcars, like those pictured in RC materials, do not require 14-inch raised platforms ramps; instead, passengers can step aboard from the curb. This makes middle of street stations possible and curbside stations smaller and so much easier to locate.

Thus, there were actually two Modern Streetcars in play: one was the narrow body, low chassis vehicle which was frequently pictured and held in mind by the public and members of the PAC; the other was the actual LRT vehicle that was never pictured but that was the only “streetcar” that could actually be implemented in the LPA.

Modern Streetcar vs Light Rail Transit

When it came to deciding between Light Rail Transit and Modern Streetcar, I believe PAC members must have had in mind the Kansas City Modern Streetcar, which was often illustrated, but not what had to be the Riverview Corridor’s Modern Streetcar, which was never illustrated.

The differentiator for the PAC, between LRT and Modern Streetcar, was operation on West 7th Street. A Modern Streetcar would share a lane with all the other vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians using or crossing the street. An LRT could only operate in a separate “100% Dedicated” ROW within West 7th Street.

The last part is underlined for a reason; in the PAC’s decision, it was never allowed that LRT could be located somewhere other than West 7th; it had to be on West 7th. And the fact—that an ideal alternative route comprising the CP-Spur and Shepard Road, close and parallel to West 7th existed—was simply not considered. Poof. Gone. An alternative route did not exist. For this decision, LRT could only run in an exclusive ROW on West 7th (see Figure 5) much as the Green Line runs on University Avenue; but never mind that West 7th is a much narrower street.

Figure 5

To decide between LRT and Modern Streetcar, the PAC was given four differentiators: Traffic, Parking Impacts, Construction and Right-Of-Way, as shown in Figure 6. With LRT’s exclusive ROW defined as two 14-foot or one 28-foot carve-out of the street, there was no contest (my comments below in Italics):

TrafficStreetcar shared use lanes result in less traffic impacts.
The fact that LRT running entirely on its own separate ROW would have NO impact on West 7th traffic was not considered.
Parking ImpactsStreetcar shared use lanes result in fewer parking impacts.
The fact that LRT running on its own separate ROW would have NO impact on West 7th parking was not considered.
ConstructionStreetcar better able to preserve business access during construction.
The fact that LRT running entirely on its own separate ROW would have NO impact on West 7th business access during construction or any time was not considered.
Right-of-WayStreetcar could require less right-of-way.
The fact that LRT running entirely on its own separate ROW would take NO right-of-way from West 7th was not considered.

So, in the Riverview Corridor’s “Alice in Wonderland” court, reality did not matter. Modern Streetcar won on all four counts and LRT was “dismissed” (see Figure 6).

Figure 6

The image of a Modern Streetcar presented in Figure 7 was issued in the PAC Draft of the Riverview Corridor in mid-2017 and was the cover of a handout. On the front page there are five examples of Modern Streetcar to show some of the characteristics of Modern Streetcar. None of the five streetcars would meet the requirements of the LPA, because they could not work on the east and west ends of the route where the streetcar must accommodate the Blue Line and Green Line stations.

Figure 7

When it came time to promote the Draft locally preferred alternative, a flyer was released (see Figure 8). Prominently in full color on the left side of the flyer they provide three Modern Streetcar examples from Kansas City, Detroit and Portland. These are, indeed, good examples of Modern Streetcar. They just won’t work in the Riverview Corridor. Remember, the RC’s vehicle must have a 14-inch chassis height and 8.5’ girth to reach the height and distance to the LRT platforms. The width of the RC’s vehicle must be squeezed into a lane on West 7th Street, right next to crowds of pedestrians walking to the Xcel Energy Center or dining on the sidewalk along the curb (keep your elbows in!) And imagine driving next to it on the other side.

Figure 8

Note: Figure 8 is also available on the 53rd page of this document.

Consider this:

  • The RC arbitrarily excluded consideration of a separate, non-West 7th Street, LRT route when considering LRT.
  • The RC totally ignored the east St. Paul metro passengers who would naturally need to pass through the Riverview Corridor to reach the airport and forced both local and regional transit users into one single-unit vehicle in traffic on West 7th and downtown.
  • The RC acknowledged that this vehicle must be an LRT in terms of platform height and vehicle width, and other technical requirements.
  • But for six years now, the RC have been advertising that Modern Streetcar is their solution.

It is reasonable that a rail transit vehicle running from the St Paul Union Depot to the Mall of America would utilize the existing rail transit track on both the east and west ends of this route. But it is not reasonable to continuously show, as examples, Modern Streetcars that cannot operate on this route.

None of the examples illustrated by the RC over a six-year period show the vehicle that will be used. But the vehicle that will be used has greatly constrained what can be done. There are only a few places where stations can be reasonably located. And the added width of the vehicle endangers pedestrians walking or sitting along the sidewalk and impinges on the adjacent vehicle lane.

The RC’s LPA will have an LRT vehicle on West 7th St but with few, if any, benefits of LRT or Modern Streetcar. For this reason alone, the Riverview Corridor’s LPA is an ill-conceived and inadequate project that must be reconsidered.

About James Schoettler

Jim Schoettler is a resident of the Highland area of Saint Paul. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota school of Architecture with a Bachelor degree in Environmental Design and an MBA from the Carlson School at UofM. He started his career as a planner at the Met Council. Recently retired from Wells Fargo, he is active in civic affairs and is a founding member of Citizen Advocates for Regional Transit (C-A-R-T) www.citizensforregionaltransit.org

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