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Archive of posts filed under the Transit category.

Fastracks Progress: Overhead Catenary System at Denver Union Station

Since I was a kid, overhead wires have always made my infrastructure senses tingle. This all makes sense because I grew up very close to these wonderful pylons running right down East Jewell Avenue in Aurora.

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Source: Google Street View

Some, like myself, don’t mind seeing overhead wires, whereas others aren’t so fond of the visual clutter. But, enough about your friendly DenverUrbanism contributor’s personal childhood and opinions. Denver’s new visual infrastructure comes right to Downtown’s backyard: Union Station.  Let’s take a look at what’s going on under the commuter rail canopy!

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Installation of the overhead catenary system under the canopy has commenced, adding the last piece to making this beautiful station fully operational.

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Can you imagine how great this view will look with the new commuter rail trains running through it next year?

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The real exciting visual, however, is just north of the canopy. These large, overhead catenary wires mean serious business and will serve three commuter rail lines pulling into Union Station!

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This post might seem silly and filled with my likings towards overhead wire systems but remember, without these systems in place, our commuter rail system would cease to exist.

 


Welcome Streetsblog Denver!

Welcome Streetsblog to the Mile High City!

The Streetsblog network is a national source for news and information relating to sustainable transportation, with certain cities (e.g. New York, DC, San Francisco) having their own dedicated Streetsblog site and reporters. Fortunately, Denver has just joined the ranks of those select cities!

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Streetsblog Denver’s mission is to advocate for more bikeable and walkable streets, better public transportation serving Denver’s urban neighborhoods, and to help Denver continue to grow and prosper with an exceptional transportation system designed for people, not just cars. That is DenverUrbanism’s mission as well, so I am thrilled that Streetsblog Denver is here and I am looking forward to working with David Sachs, Streetsblog Denver’s editor and main reporter, on advancing our shared goals for our city. Click here to view the press release (PDF) from a few days ago introducing Streetsblog Denver.

David has a journalism background in covering urban transportation issues and will be a strong ally in hastening Denver’s cultural and physical transformation from a city over-reliant on the single-occupant automobile to one that offers a robust mix of transportation options. I’m particularly excited by the fact that Streetsblog Denver isn’t just about sharing valuable information about livable streets, but that their goal is to “provoke action” to make things happen. Streetsblog Denver is a great complement to DenverUrbanism and DenverInfill and our allies like BikeDenver and WalkDenver.

Congratulations to David and the rest of the Streetsblog team on the launch of Streetsblog Denver!!


How to tell the difference between streetcars and light rail

Lots of American cities are building streetcars right now. But how are streetcars different from light rail? The truth is they’re very similar, and many systems are hybrids of the two. To tell the difference, one has to simultaneously look at the tracks, train vehicles, and stations.

 
San Francisco’s Muni Metro runs both in a dedicated subway and on the street in mixed traffic.
Is it a streetcar or light rail system? Photos by Matt Johnson and SFbay on Flickr.

It’s hard to tell the difference because streetcars and light rail are really the same technology, but with different operating characteristics that serve different types of trips.

The difference, in a nutshell

Theoretically streetcars are simply light rail that’s designed to serve trips over a shorter distance, through more tightly packed urban environments. They’re for travel within central cities, as opposed to travel from the suburbs into downtown. But what does that mean in practice?

There are several features of tracks, vehicles, and stations that both streetcars and light rail sometimes have, but which are generally more common on light rail. Thus, although there’s no single separating test that can tell the two apart with 100% accuracy, it’s usually possible to tell the difference by looking at several factors simultaneously.

Let’s look at each of those factors, one by one.

Lanes and tracks

It’s a common misconception that streetcars always run in mixed traffic with cars, while light rail has its own dedicated track space. That’s often true, and it’s such a convenient and easy-to-understand definition that I’ve been guilty of using it myself. But it’s wrong.

Sometimes light rail lines run in mixed-traffic, and there are plenty of streetcars with their own right-of-way. Some streetcars even have subways.

Compare Sacramento’s mixed-traffic light rail with Philadelphia’s streetcar subway, for instance:

 
Left: Sacramento light rail in mixed traffic. Photo by Flastic on Wikipedia.
Right: Philadelphia streetcar in a subway. Photo by John Smatlak via Flickr.

Every light rail system has long stretches of dedicated track, but so do some streetcars. And in fact, practically every mixed-traffic streetcar has at least a short section of dedicated track. Toronto’s massive streetcar network has several dedicated transitways, and DC is planning one for its K Street streetcar.

 
Left: K Street transitway. Image from DC Streetcar.
Right: Toronto’s Saint Clair transitway. Photo by Sean Marshall via Flickr.

There are too many streetcars with dedicated lanes for that to be a reliable indicator on its own. Too many lines that mix dedicated and non-dedicated sections. Certainly it’s an important data point; certainly it’s one factor that can help tell the difference. But it’s not enough.

An even simpler definition might be to call anything with tracks in the street a streetcar, and anything with tracks elsewhere light rail.

But that’s not reliable either, as Portland and New Orleans illustrate:

 
Left: Portland light rail. Photo by BeyondDC.
Right: New Orleans streetcar. Photo by karmacamilleeon via Flickr.

Or take the Fort Collins Municipal Railway. It’s mostly for tourists, but it’s a streetcar, and it runs through grass.


Photo by BeyondDC

Salt Lake City muddies the water still further. Its “light rail” mostly runs in the street, while its “streetcar” runs in an old freight train right of way, almost completely off-street.

 
Left: Salt Lake City light rail. Photo by VXLA on Flickr.
Right: Salt Lake City streetcar. Photo by Paul Kimo McGregor on Flickr.

Vehicles and trains

If tracks on their own aren’t enough to tell the difference, what about vehicles?

It’s tempting to think of streetcars as “lighter” light rail, which implies smaller vehicles. Sometimes that’s true; a single DC streetcar is 66 feet long, compared to a single Denver light rail car, which is over 80 feet long.

But not all streetcars are short. Toronto’s newest streetcars are 99 feet long.


Toronto streetcar. Photo by Swire on Flickr.

In fact, many light rail and streetcar lines use the exact same vehicles. For example, Tacoma calls its Link line light rail, and uses the same train model as streetcars in Portland, DC, and Seattle, while Atlanta’s streetcar uses the same train model as light rail in San Diego, Norfolk, and Charlotte. And Salt Lake City uses the same train model for both its streetcar and light rail services.

 
Left: Tacoma light rail. Photo by Marcel Marchon via Flickr.
Right: Portland streetcar. Photo by Matt Johnson on Flickr.

 
Left: San Diego light rail. Photo by BeyondDC.
Right: Atlanta streetcar. Photo by Matt Johnson via Flickr.

And although streetcars often run as single railcars while light rail often runs with trains made up of multiple railcars, there are exceptions to that too.

San Francisco’s Muni Metro and Boston’s Green Line definitely blur the line between streetcar & light rail, perhaps more than any other systems in North America. Some might hesitate to call them streetcars. But they both run trains in mixed-traffic with cars, and some of those trains have multiple railcars.

Meanwhile, many light rail systems frequently run single-car trains, especially during off-peak hours.

 
Left: Norfolk light rail with a single car. Photo by BeyondDC.
Right: San Francisco streetcar with two cars. Photo by Stephen Rees via Flickr.

Stations offer some help, but no guarantee

Light rail typically has bigger stations, while streetcars typically have smaller ones. A big station can sometimes be a good clue that you’re likely dealing with light rail.

For example, look at Charlotte and Portland:

 
Left: Charlotte light rail. Photo by BeyondDC.
Right: Portland streetcar. Photo by BeyondDC.

But that’s only a general guideline, not a hard rule. Just like tracks and vehicles, there are many exceptions. Light rail often has small stops, and streetcar stations can sometimes get pretty big (especially when they’re in a subway).

This light rail stop in Norfolk is smaller than this streetcar stop in Philadelphia, for example:

 
Left: Norfolk light rail. Photo by BeyondDC.
Right: Philadelphia streetcar. Photo by BeyondDC.

Stop spacing and route length

Probably the most reliable way to tell streetcars apart from light rail is to look at where the stations are located. Light rail lines typically have stops further apart from each other, on lines covering a longer distance.

This chart explains the difference:


Image from Jarrett Walker.

This is the definition transit expert Jarrett Walker favors, and if you have to pick just one or two factors to consider, stop spacing and route length are the best.

But even this is no sure way to categorize all lines as either streetcars or light rail. It might be easy to tell the difference between something with stops one block apart (theoretically streetcar) versus stops two miles apart (theoretically light rail), but what if the stops are 1/4 mile apart? Or what if the gaps aren’t consistent? There’s no clear place to draw the line.

Furthermore, Walker’s graphic itself illustrates exceptions to the rule. The top line shows a light rail route with stops close together downtown, the third line shows a streetcar with some sections that have far-apart stations, and the fourth line shows a very long streetcar.

Certainly station spacing and route length provide a convenient general rule, but only that. There’s no hard boundary where everything to one side is streetcar, and everything to the other is light rail.

To really know the difference, look at everything

There are seven factors that light rail usually has, but that streetcars only sometimes share: Dedicated lanes, off-street tracks, bigger vehicles, multi-car trains, longer routes, bigger stations, and long distances between stations.

No single one of them provides a foolproof litmus test, because sometimes streetcars have each of them, and sometimes light rail doesn’t. But if you look at all seven together and determine which direction the majority of a line’s characteristics point, over the majority of its route, then you can usually sort most lines into one category or the other.

For example, DC’s H Street line fits neatly into the streetcar category, because it runs in the street almost totally in mixed traffic, with small vehicles on single-car trains, along a short route that has frequent, small stations.

On the other end of the spectrum, Seattle’s Central route is squarely light rail. It has a dedicated right-of-way that’s often off-street, uses large 95 foot-long vehicles that are usually coupled into multi-car trains, along a long route with infrequent stations.

 
Left: Seattle light rail. Photo by Atomic Taco on Flickr.
Right: DC streetcar. Photo by BeyondDC.

But even then not every system is crystal clear. San Francisco’s Muni Metro, Philadelphia and Boston’s Green Lines, and Pittsburgh’s T, for example, all have some segments that look like classic streetcars, but also some segments that look like classic light rail. These networks defy any characterization, except as hybrids.

And in Denver, RTD is considering re-categorizing the Central light rail line though Five Points as a streetcar.

It’s a feature, not a bug

The fact that it’s hard to tell the difference is precisely why so many cities are building light rail / streetcar lines. The technology is flexible to whatever service characteristics a city might need.

You can use it to build a regional subway like Seattle, or you can use it for a short neighborhood circulator like DC’s H Street, or anything in-between. And perhaps even more importantly, you can use it to mix and match multiple characteristics on the same line, or within the same system.

That’s why many of the most successful light rail / streetcar systems are the hardest ones to categorize as either / or. They match the infrastructure investment to the needs of the corridor, on a case-by-case basis, and thus have some sections that look like light rail, and others that look like streetcar.

That’s not muddied. That’s smart. That’s matching the investment to the need, which is after all more important than a line’s name.


FasTracks Progress: Commuter Rail Trains Arrive!

At the beginning of the month, RTD announced they were going to have a commuter rail train on display at Denver Union Station. I missed the window to tour the inside of the train however, it is still parked at the station.

The pictures are pretty self explanatory so without further ado, here is RTD and Denver’s new Silverliner V parked at Denver Union Station!

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Looking a little bit north, the catenary overhead wire system is starting to take shape. Because of the heavier gauge trains, the overhead wire system also substantially larger than what we are used to seeing on the lightrail system. Personally, I have a thing for overhead wires and find this to be an amazing sight.

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As a bonus, the Amtrak was pulling in just as I was getting ready to move on.

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Because the commuter rail lines are still under construction, it’s a rare sight to see two trains parked under the canopy. What a treat!

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Before you know it, 2016 will be here and Denver Union Station will be busy with commuters and visitors!


Two-Way Conversion of 18th Street in LoDo Opens

This past Sunday, November 2, Denver Public Works completed the conversion of 18th Street between Wynkoop and Blake Street in Lower Downtown to a two-way street.

The conversion of these two blocks from one-way to two-way traffic is an important step in helping make Lower Downtown into an even more pedestrian-friendly district. One-way streets exist primarily as a way of maximizing the movement of vehicles through an area, but they also force people to have to drive farther to get where they are going and they also encourage people to drive at faster speeds. One-way streets certainly have their place in the city, but speeding vehicles pose a threat to pedestrians and bicyclists; consequently, one-way streets are not desired in pedestrian-focused areas like around Denver Union Station. As evidence, simply compare your experience as a pedestrian along slower-speed, two-way Wynkoop Street versus the faster-speed, one-way Blake Street.

The 2000 Lower Downtown Neighborhood Plan identified 18th Street between Wynkoop and Blake as one of several one-way streets in LoDo to be converted to two-way. Others included Wazee Street between 15th and 20th, converted a few years ago, which has greatly improved Wazee as a pedestrian-friendly street.

Here are a few photo (courtesy Ryan Dravitz) of the newly-converted 18th Street on Sunday afternoon shortly after the conversion work was complete:

View from Wynkoop looking southeast toward Downtown:

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View from Blake looking northwest toward the Union Station area:

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View from Wynkoop Plaza of the 18th and Wynkoop intersection:

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Overview of the two-blocks of 18th Street between Wynkoop and Blake with the integrated bicycle lane and MetroRide station.

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Space provided for pedestrians, bicycles, cars, and transit—a nice multi-modal street!