Light Rail vs. Streetcar


Did you know that Cincinnati’s streetcar could be the beginnings of a light rail line?

Light rail and streetcar are two sides of the same coin.  In Europe the term “tram” is often used to refer to both.

Both terms refer to electrified train vehicles traveling on a track.  But the distinction between the two generally depends on how the transit line is structured.  A particular transit line can fall at different points on the spectrum for different criteria in the table below.  After considering all factors, a line may fall decidedly on the light rail end of the spectrum, the streetcar end of the spectrum, or be a hybrid between the two.

Streetcar Light Rail
Used for shorter trips Used for longer trips
shorter distance between stops longer distance between stops
mixed traffic / on-street track dedicated right of way / grade separated from surface streets
shorter trains longer trains
speed less important speed more important
frequency most important frequency still important
more about access more about mobility

The last row on the table, referring to access and mobility, is more philosophical than the other criteria, and warrants explanation.  Access refers to the ability to get to destinations where one can perform the tasks of everyday life- work, errands, shopping, entertainment, school or medical appointments, etc.  Mobility refers to the ability to travel over the required distances to perform those tasks.  So a streetcar can provide great access if there are a dense variety of land uses along the line where one can perform those tasks of everyday life, and it doesn’t require mobility across great distances to do so.   In contrast, a light rail line provides greater mobility over longer distances, allowing access to destinations that may be spread out across a metro area.

Streetcar is great for moving around (providing access) in Cincinnati’s urban core basin, and perhaps the Northern Kentucky river cities in the future.  But to extend to the line to further afield city neighborhoods and more distant suburbs, we’ll need a light rail line to move people with a high enough speed to be an attractive alternative to driving (providing mobility.)

Fortunately the existing vehicles and track of the Cincinnati streetcar are compatible to being extended into a light rail style line.   The Cincinnati streetcar vehicles, which are CAF Urbos 3 make and model,  can be extended with additional passenger cars added to the mid-section.  This video from Budapest, Hungary shows a CAF Urbos 3 in a five segment configuration.

Here’s some more footage from Belgrade, Serbia: