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Diesel Hybrid Trams Worth Considering for St. Louis

November 17, 2005 Downtown, Public Transit 8 Comments

Today I read an interesting article highlighting a new hybrid tram:

The SMRrTram is a wheeled, bus-like series-hybrid or fuel-cell vehicle that operates at street level and provides continuous, high capacity, two-way transport along a single, dedicated guide lane. Two trams always arrive together at each stop, from opposite directions, and the next pair is never more than two-and-a-half minutes away.

Such a system is worth considering not for long distances and large capacities — that is best served by light rail. But for areas such as downtown, Cherokee Street, Broadway or South Grand this could be an interesting way to serve future transportation needs.

– Steve


Oklahoma City About to Abandon Chance for Excellent Mass Transit System


No, this is not Urban Review Oklahoma City. But I do return to my hometown a few times a year and keep tabs on what is happening there. Besides, we can learn from looking at other city’s successes or, in this case, mistakes.

At right is the remains of a once great rail system serving central Oklahoma. Like most cities of any size, Oklahoma City had streetcars to serve urban transportation needs. Back in the day a number of municipalities dotted the countryside around OKC and these were served by the “Interurban” rail service.

Behind OKC’s Union Station are these twelve tracks. Yes, twelve. Three long platforms, like the one shown in the foreground, served six of the twelve lines. Passengers entered the Union Station and took underground tunnels beneath the tracks and then came up through stairways to get to their platform.

The platforms had long canopies protecting passengers from the sun and bad weather. It appears to have been a great system, capable of serving many passengers. These platforms and tracks will soon be gone.

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$1 Billion Mississippi River Bridge – The Numbers Just Don’t Add Up

Tuesday evening last week engineers revealed a new proposal for the Mississippi River Bridge. As expected, it is less costly and far less intrusive into the city compared to the old bridge. At first glance it looks fine. But when you dig below the surface the new design falls short of acceptable in an urban environment. Dig some more and the conclusion we need the bridge is questionable at best.

If you haven’t seen the previous design take a look at a prior post. Before I get into the question of having the bridge at all, let’s look at the revised design.


Again, the new design is far better than the catastrophic design previously proposed. Keep in mind the original concept many years ago was to make a highway loop around the West edge of downtown and connect with I-64/Hwy 40 just to the West of Union Station. Later this was scaled back as the 22nd Street Parkway but lofts and restaurants in the path of the parkway and lack of funds have killed the concept. But the engineers for the new bridge had continued to act as though the parkway was going to happen. In prior bridge concepts they had a massive hole and roadway stretching across the North edge of downtown that would dump cars onto Washington Avenue. Lack of money, not a richness of good sense, prompted the engineers to reconsider the Missouri interchange for the bridge.

Now, instead of dumping cars onto Washington Avenue they are being dumped onto Cass Avenue. The shortened on/off ramps are still being called “parkway” by the engineers simply because of all the open grass land around the them. Open grass land that comes from razing buildings and erasing the street grid. Long high-speed on/off ramps in an area where buildings and streets used to exist but now has some green grass is not a parkway, it is a mistake.

With nearly every downtown building being renovated as lofts and renewed interest in Old North St. Louis through their new in-fill houses we have a very unique opportunity to mend the city. Between downtown and Old North much has been lost and changed. But the street grid is mostly intact as are many of the buildings that make up a starting point for filling in the gaps between these two points. If done successfully someone could enjoy a nice walk from downtown to Crown Candy Kitchen. Filling in these blocks with new loft-like buildings, rowhouses and other building types we could create an even stronger residential base to support the growing number of downtown businesses. Strengthening our neighborhoods and seamlessly connecting them together should be a high priority for revitalizing the city. The new bridge design will make such connections visually challenging and literally difficult by foot, bicycle and even by car if you don’t know which streets are closed.

The revised design calls for the ramps to dump onto Cass Avenue between 10th and 11th Streets. Engineers have four lanes of traffic exiting the bridge at Cass. Two lanes turn left and two right. The assumption is many of the drivers that turn left will make an immediate right to take 10th Street into the central business district (CBD). 10th Street is currently a one-way street heading south, serving as a speedy exit from the current I-70. During the morning rush the street is crowded with folks just passing through. After 9am the street is desolate unless we have some sort of sporting event going on. The street is not there to serve the residents and to build upon but simply a pass through. Ninth Street is the opposite. No, it is not a lively street 24/7 but simply a Northbound version of 10th, a pass through on the way to somewhere else.

… Continue Reading


Light Rail, Streetcars and Transit Time

I’m still having a hard time justifying the time and expense of MetroLink light rail over streetcars.

Others have made good arguments in favor of light rail, including the ability to move large numbers of people at high speeds which results in substantially lower travel time.

While I have some interest in MetroLink making its way into various parts of the county surround the City of St. Louis it is here in the city where I’m mostly concerned. I assume we still have the greatest population density of the region and we can certainly handle an increase in population. I see an excellent in-city transit system as a means of attracting more city residents. Transit as a means of shuttling suburbanites the 20 miles from their split-level ranch to downtown is a lesser priority for me. Yes, I know that if we get them on rail it is one less car (or SUV) they’ll drive into the city.

But I want a first class transit system in the City of St. Louis. And first class doesn’t include buses. The Northside and Southside MetroLink routes currently being planned include much of their route at grade — that is in dedicated medians in the center of streets such as Chouteau and Natural Bridge. These routes will also make a loop around downtown at grade.

Here is a good opportunity to look at what would happen if we substituted streetcars on the route exactly as planned. First myth we have to dispel is that streetcars run in the street and have to compete with traffic. Not true. Look at New Orleans and you’ll see a couple of routes that run mostly on dedicated medians but running in the street as needed. The same is true of San Francisco with their streetcar lines. Ditto for Portland.

Portland’s streetcars have a modern look — not retro lines as in New Orleans and San Francisco. On the surface you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between Portland’s streetcars and light rail. But when you look closer it becomes more apparent:

The Portland Streetcar is designed to fit the scale and traffic patterns of the neighborhoods through which it travels. Streetcar vehicles are 2.46 meters (about 8 feet) wide and 20 meters long (about 66 feet), about 10 inches narrower and 1/3 the length of a MAX (TriMet’s light rail system) double car train. They run in mixed traffic and, except platform stops, accommodate existing curbside parking and loading. The Portland Streetcar is owned and operated by the City of Portland.

Size is a big factor in that streetcars are narrower and shorter than a typical light rail train. This allows for them to maneuver through the streets. Metrolink’s planned loop through downtown at grade certainly means they’ll have to pick a different car stock than our current system. The narrower and shorter trains also mean fewer passengers per run (but still greater than a bus).

At this point an in-median streetcar system and in-median light rail look very similar. Both are operating on a dedicated right of way and are most likely similar in size to each other. I’m far from an expert on these systems so at this point I’m speculating but rail type and speed are probably the main differences. Portland brags about how its system required little in the way of construction but light rail is certainly a bigger undertaking because of the speeds. The bed for the rail is more massive and crossings require gates. Money aside, fewer crossings for light rail verses streetcars means those walking or bicycling will have fewer places to cross the lines. This is a net reduction in our interconnectedness.

My problem with in-street MetroLink is that it not friendly to other modes of transportation. The cost of street crossings is high enough that pedestrians, bicyclists, scooterists and auto drivers will all have to make right turns coming from side streets until they get to the next crossing. With streetcars in the same median you could have crossings not necessarily every block but certainly more often. The downside is a slowing of transit time. Compared with bus service on the street and stopping every block, streetcars are a good middle solution between buses and light rail.

The number of stops affects transit time but also convenience. In particular the Northside route has the potential to renew interest in a long-neglected part of the city. The number of proposed stops along Natural Bridge is more frequent than our current system, ranging between 0.4 miles to 0.9 miles. I’d argue that the in-street/median portions of these routes should be designed more like the streetcar lines in New Orleans and San Francisco where they are easily crossed by pedestrian, bike or car. When they get into the old rail right-of-way let them pick up speed there. Think of it has a hybrid streetcar/light rail system.

– Steve


St. Louis: More Light Rail vs. Streetcars vs. Bus Service

Few topics raise so much debate as public mass transit. Some, mostly wealthy suburbanites that profit from sprawl, suggest we shouldn’t subsidize mass transit (leaving money to subsidize their sprawl). Others strongly advocate expensive light rail systems including our own MetroLink. Still others advocate an expansion in bus service as a means of reaching more people, in particular those that can’t afford private cars. And finally you have streetcar advocates looking to use their retro charm to invigorate areas while providing transportation.

In July Post-Dispatch reporters Shane Graber and Elisa Crouch questioned the $550 million being spent on eight more miles of MetroLink:

So, what if that $550 million could have been spent on, say, improving bus service instead? As it is, about 70 percent of St. Louisans who use public transit ride the bus anyway. More bus service, some customers might argue, might have been a good thing.

Metro tells us it costs $78 to keep one bus in service for an hour. That includes everything: fuel, maintenance, operator salary and those bus stop announcements that no one can understand.

But Metro says about half of the passengers who ride MetroLink make between $50,000 and $75,000 a year. Only 17 percent of bus riders make that much. In fact, more than half of them make less than $15,000.

Graber and Crouch continue their argument with some interesting math:

So for $550 million, here’s how many more buses Metro could have put on the road every day of the year for 16 hours a day: 241 new bus routes for five years; 120 bus routes for 10 years; 80 bus routes for 15 years; or 60 for 20 years.

That is a lot of buses. Perhaps too many? But their point is well made. Light rail is very expensive and doesn’t always serve the population that needs it most.

I’ve been utilizing our bus service in combination with my bike quite a bit over the last few months. I’ve been very impressed with the cleanliness of the buses, their on-time rate and the friendliness of my fellow riders. The economic difference between riders on the bus and light rail is pretty apparent but in the end not a deterrent. But the stigmatism of the bus is alive in many people’s mind.

Streetcars are basically a bus on a fixed rail. Well, in truth, the bus was a streetcar removed from the rails and given a diesel engine. People universally seem to love streetcars. Even new streetcars that don’t have the retro look. Something about the rail and the overhead wires. Not even the wires so much. Seattle’s buses become electric in the city, connecting to overhead wires. It really comes down to the fixed rail.

You’d think the flexibility of the bus would be more appealing but I believe we all have this secret love of railroads and the rails. The streetcar is the most accessible form of rail transportation. Light rail is superior to streetcars in that one train can hold many more passengers. Each operator carries more passengers a day than would an operator of a streetcar or bus. This is ultimately the big argument in favor of light rail. However, the cost to get those people from place to place is high.

Before people start attacking me let me say that I love our MetroLink system and I’m glad we are expanding it. But I’m wondering about the wisdom of expanding the system further. I’m not suggesting we stop building our mass transit system, just changing from light rail to streetcar.

Part of my reasoning is purely selfish. Where I currently live MetroLink will never be convenient. In about 20 years I might have a stop about a mile West of me that will take me downtown. Twenty years! I’ll be pushing 60 years old by then. Sorry, but I’m not that patient. The #40 Broadway bus is just three blocks to the East and it gets me the six miles to downtown in very short order.

I see the future Northside MetroLink route as being a critical component to repopulating and reinvigorating North St. Louis. But can we afford to wait the 15+ years for it to be finished? As much as I love light rail I think we’d be better off substituting streetcars along the Northside and Southside routes. We can have an efficient system in place years earlier and for millions less. Streetcars offer the lower cost per passenger of buses while increasing ridership through their magical charm.

Ultimately, the sooner we get more mass transit in place the better off we’ll be as a region. Streetcar lines would reach more people in more neighborhoods than light rail. And, after all, that is the goal of mass transit.

– Steve