City Transit Diaries 5: Modern Streetcars

This is Part 5 in a series expanding on the City Transit project, looking at the different modes of public transportation of the U.S. & Canada in more depth and detail.

Streetcars have seen a sort of renaissance here in the U.S. in Canada. After most of our streetcar systems were dismantled after World War II, for decades, the few new systems that did get built were heritage lines (covered last week) largely for tourism.

Of the streetcar lines that survived the post-WWII era, a few also continued to operate as heritage systems (such as New Orleans), while many with valuable grade-separated rights-of-way like tunnels were converted to full light rail systems (such as Boston). Only two cities--Toronto and Philadelphia--modernized some lines and maintained them as streetcars through today.

Then, in 2001, Portland opened the first new, modern streetcar system, and it was a compelling success story. This success inspired many other cities to follow its lead and propose new streetcars of their own. Since then, nine cities have opened modern streetcar lines, with more to come.

Modern streetcar lines differ from their historic predecessors largely in that they generally operate as more compact systems connecting urban villages in a smaller area. Their usefulness as transit in and of themselves is often debated, and largely centers around the disadvantages of running in mixed traffic; that they need dedicated or grade-separated alignments to be truly effective modes of transportation. Rather, their ability to induce transit-oriented development and density around their routes at a lower cost is a significant selling point, and they have been used to revitalize stagnant neighborhoods.

Below are the modern streetcar systems of the U.S. and Canada in operation today. More are also under construction in cities like Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, and Tempe, Arizona.



The Atlanta Streetcar is a 2.7-mile streetcar line opened in 2014. The line, known as the Downtown Loop, connects the MARTA rapid transit system to various landmarks in Atlanta's urban core, such as Centennial Olympic Park and the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site. There are preliminary plans to extend the line another 1.6 miles.



The Cincinnati Bell Connector is a 3.6-mile loop that connects downtown Cincinnati to the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, which was once one of the most economically distressed areas in the U.S. The project faced several periods of opposition since it was first proposed in 2007, but it finally opened in 2016. Naming rights to the system were purchased by Cincinnati Bell, a local telephone company.



The Dallas Streetcar is a 2.5-mile modern streetcar line that compliments the increasingly diverse transit network of Dallas. Opened in 2015, the line connects downtown Dallas and the Oak Cliff neighborhood via the Houston Street Viaduct bridge. On this bridge, there are no overhead wires and the vehicles operate on battery power. Plans exist to extend and connect the line to the city's M-Line heritage streetcar system.



The QLine is the most recent streetcar line to open. Plans for the 3.3-mile line began in 2011 and opened in May of this year. It uses six Brookville Liberty streetcars, numbered sequentially after the last car of Detroit's previous streetcar system, which closed 1956. Naming rights for the system were sold to Quicken Loans.


Kansas City

The RideKC Streetcar runs 2.2 miles between the River Market and Union Station in Kansas City, making connections to Amtrak intercity trains, local buses, and bikeshare. The line is one of the most successful modern streetcars, due in part to its straightforward linear route that connects popular areas in the city.



SEPTA's Subway–Surface Trolley Lines first opened in the early 1900s, and these five lines survived due to their shared use of an underground tunnel through Philadelphia's Center City. The lines operate on about 19.8 miles of tracks, four to the southwest neighborhoods, and one to the Overbrook neighborhood to the northwest.



Portland Streetcar was the first entirely new streetcar system and its success served as an example for all future modern streetcar lines that followed. The 3-line system now spans 7.2 miles, including across the unique Tilikum Crossing bridge, the first major bridge in the U.S. designed for modes of transit other than cars.


Salt Lake City

The S Line is a streetcar that connects the city's light rail system to the Sugar House neighborhood. The 2-mile line was built on a former rail right-of-way and parallels a linear park. A eastward extension of the line is planned.



The Seattle Streetcar system consists of two isolated streetcar lines: the 1.3-mile South Lake Union Streetcar that opened in 2007, and the 2.5-mile First Hill Streetcar that opened in 2016. The two lines are planned to be connected via the Center City Connector through the core of downtown Seattle by 2020, which would greatly increase ridership on the system.


Tacoma Link is a 1.6-mile line that connects the Tacoma Dome Station to the downtown core. Classifying the line is difficult, as the line operates separated from traffic, and its own operator identifies it as light rail, but its use of streetcar equipment and short length make it closer to a streetcar in this context. An 2.4-mile extension of the line is planned.



Toronto is home to the most extensive streetcar system in the Western Hemisphere (and the only in Canada), a system that has continually operated since the 1800s. The system consists of 11 lines over 52 miles and includes new lines that have opened as recently as 2000. Its iconic yet aging fleet is currently being replaced with longer, modern vehicles.



The Sun Link streetcar is a 3.9-mile line that links the University of Arizona to downtown Tuscon. It opened in 2014, and was built on a portion of a heritage line known as the Old Pueblo Trolley that operated from 1993 to 2011 on tracks recovered from the city's original streetcar system.



The DC Streetcar is a 2.4 line linking Union Station to the H St-Benning Rd neighborhood in Washington. The system was originally part of a plan for an extensive network of streetcars up to 37 miles, but due to an embarrassing number of missteps in its development, only a short extension of the existing line is planned.

(For more information on Washington's streetcar development,  check out my posts on Greater Greater Washington: 1, 2, 3, 4)