Philly Wants to Modernize Its Streetcar System

Philadelphia's streetcar system moves a lot of people, but it needs to catch up with modern demands. Photo: Studio 34 Yoga/Twitter
Philadelphia's streetcar system moves a lot of people, but it needs to catch up with modern demands. Photo: Studio 34 Yoga/Twitter

Philadelphia is one of the few American cities that continues to operate sections of its legacy streetcar system. The city’s streetcars move a lot of people — carrying about 80,000 daily trips on 68 miles of track — but the system could use an overhaul.

The streetcars are reaching the end of their useful life. They are too small. The system is not wheelchair accessible. And it is slow.

The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission is mapping out a way forward with a $1.1 billion plan to revamp the system and improve service, reports Jason Laughlin at the Philadelphia Inquirer. The proposal calls for replacing the 112-car fleet with larger, modern streetcars and constructing raised platforms to accommodate people who use wheelchairs.

Here’s a look at the three major benefits for riders.

More capacity, less crowding

Philadelphia’s trolleys are frequently full, even outside of rush hour, Laughlin reports. The new cars will be 80 feet long and hold twice as many people as the current fleet of 53-foot cars.

Faster trips

The plan calls for consolidating stops so streetcars spend more time in motion. The current spacing averages out to 642 feet between stops — much closer together than the quarter mile stop spacing recommended for local transit routes. DVRPC’s plan [PDF] calls presents 40 percent fewer stops as an option.

That should speed up trips for streetcar riders. In Portland, bus stop consolidation improved trip times 6 percent.

Better accessibility and stop design

Most of the current streetcar fleet is not wheelchair accessible. The new streetcars would be equipped with ramps and low floors to improve access for all.

In addition, streetcar stops could be improved with shelters, and built on raised islands that leave room for curbside protected bike lanes.

While Toronto is showing how much better streetcars operate when cars aren’t in the way, it’s not clear that Philadelphia will do the same. The DVRPC report does detail how certain streets might be cleared of traffic to give trolleys the right of way. It remains to be seen if the city will embrace that sort of strategy — which could really speed up service.

This post was corrected to clarify that Philadelphia planners have not ruled out giving the trolleys dedicated right of way. 

  • AMH

    New low-floor vehicles with level-boarding platforms will reduce dwell time, and all-door boarding would also help; are there any plans for that?

    Dedicated/semi-dedicated ROW should absolutely be considered. Planners should be improving mobility, not parking.

  • Newtonmarunner

    Level boarding for streetcars/trams on streets like the one pictured in this article are going to be awfully politically controversial. I know making the Green Line stations here in Boston fully disability accessible would require getting rid of a car/parking lane on Boston’s narrow streets (Beacon and Comm. Ave — Huntington could be done by sending the Blue Line underneath via MGH/Copley, and continuing down from Riverway to Riverside). [Also cutting a lane on Beacon and Comm. Ave., where the course goes, could make the Boston Marathon even more interesting. …]. That’s extremely politically controversial. Not that the political fight to get dedicated lanes and accessibility isn’t worth the fight because it is. Just politically tougher than we think.

  • Frank Brown

    The plan does actually discuss possibility of dedicated transit lane. Pages 50-59 specifically detail plans that include dedicated transit lanes.

    Here is the report

  • Ed Von Nordeck

    Many system in Europe has new low level loading and it works.

    Why not in the USA. It need not be a new invention!

  • The first low-floor cars in the USA arrived in Portland, Oregon, in the mid-1990s. These Philadelphia cars are from Kawasaki and were delivered in the early 1980’s.
    European systems tend to obtain new equipment more frequently due to the higher investment in transit there and the political power users there have and flex.

  • The Philly system is antiquated. When I last rode it in the summer of 2016, you still had to purchase tokens at special machines in the main stations shared by the heavy rail system. There were no machines in the streetcar-only stations. The streetcar operator let us ride for free. Otherwise, we were told we could buy tokens a few blocks away at a drug store. 2016, folks. 2016.

  • San Francisco light rail (if you want to call it that) is similar to Boston’s green line with the exception that the underground stations here are high platforms. It would cost billions and huge disruption to the one tunnel in SF if they were modified for low-level boarding.
    As for stop consolidation, that’s another issue here in SF where there is a vocal backlash at removing any of the stops, most of which are only a couple hundred feet apart along the mixed-traffic surface routes. Talk about slow in the self-proclaimed tech capital of the world.

  • Another big difference between the Green Line and SF’s rail tunnel is that the Boston system was built 80 years prior, utilizing individual streetcars and having stations spaced closely together. The idea to move transit underground was revolutionary at that time.

  • Marek B.

    You mean Philly streetcars DON’T allready have all-door boarding?

  • newtonmarunner

    Boston has an even worse problem than San Francisco with stop spacing on the Green Line (and the buses). There are 25 stops, I believe, from BC to Park St. And nobody is willing to give up “their” stop.

    Also, the E Line on Huntington Ave. (a very busy 4-lane street) past Brigham Circle is in mixed traffic.

  • Marek B.

    You don’t have to get rid of car lanes near tram track to offer level boarding. In the case there is no other option, Prague (CZ) uses raised car lanes leading continually through tram stops, where the height differrence of platform is between tram track and car lane, not as usual between car lane and sidewalk.
    You can see tram approaching this type of platform on the picture:

  • Marek B.
  • Oh yes. I have ridden the Green Line many times on my visits and experienced delays and slow as molasses service.

  • HamTech87

    SEPTA Key has been rolled out and replacing tokens. I don’t know anyone who still uses tokens.

  • HamTech87

    “SEPTA expects to buy vehicles with floors about 14 inches above the ground and buttons on the outside of cars to allow people with mobility issues to automatically extend a ramp.” Are European streetcars lower than 14 inches?

  • crazyvag

    USA forced ADA on transit sooner back when low-floor trams didn’t exist. This forced many systems into high-platforms, ramps and lifts.

    Today, take a look at Combino:

    Up to 177 ft long (vs 80ft proposed), 11.8 ft low-floor throughout the whole vehicle.

    The current “state of the art” low floor is called Ultra Low Floor at height of 7 inches:

    They’ve only been available since late 90’s, way after US passed ADA laws which forced most systems into high floors – (SF Muni).

    ADA laws are make it complicated to “upgrade” down to low-floor, since I heard there are rules that prevent “stepping down” into a vehicle, so conversion is impossible in many places.

  • crazyvag

    One way to make stop reduction more palatable is to use much longer trams. 177 ft long trams are essentially same a 4-car light rail train. Muni 2-car trains will be about 160 ft long, but a 4-car train would be 320 ft long. This makes platforms longer and spacing less of an issue.

  • newtonmarunner

    The tram stations — particularly on Comm. Ave. (and Huntington Ave.) — would have to be redone in order to run 3-car trains. Huntington Ave. will never be able to handle 4-car trams. Also, the frequency would have to be slashed from 10 tph/branch to 7.5 tph/branch in order to accommodate the increase in loading time. The Central Subway stations — save maybe Boylston — should be fine, though.

  • newtonmarunner

    That’s from, I feel, four GL branches running six minute headways each on two tracks. We need another four tracks — regardless of the line — from at least Hynes to Boylston. Using the Blue Line to prune a branch (maybe Huntington Ave. to Riverside) would help. So would running the commuter rail like an express subway on the urban core. [With infills at West Station and perhaps a BU Bridge, Comm. Ave. would get absolute rights of way like Huntington Ave. would if you send the Blue Line under there.]

    That said, the Green Line is sloooow, but it serves its purpose (kind of): it runs the best route of all the lines (though I’d break up the Green Line at Boylston with the Boylston St. Subway going to South Station/Seaport/Southie and the Tremont St. Subway going to Dudley/Mattapan/City Point), and connects to the entire system.

  • newtonmarunner

    Blargh … Meant four branches @ six minute headways each in the two-track Central Subway.

  • AMH

    Only in underground stations where they are inside fare control. On the street boarding is the same as for buses.

  • Marek B.

    Well, no wonder nobody uses public transit in US. I don’t know ANY European streetcar system, that doesn’t have all door boarding. Fare evasion is much smaler problem, than unnecessary slowing down of transit.

  • AMH

    That’s exactly the point that needs to be hammered home. It seems that a lot of officials, and people in general, don’t care how much it costs in wasted passenger time or operating inefficiency so long as a a potential fare evader has to walk past the operator to do so.

  • Michel S

    The trolleys can and still do accept cash fares. You didn’t need a token to ride, it was just cheaper if you had one. Similarly, using the new KEY card charges you less for the fare than if you used cash.

    Are tokens outdated? Yes. Did the system force you to use them? No. Would paying a $2.25 cash fare as opposed to $1.85 with tokens leave some visitors indignant? Apparently yes.

  • City Resident

    Such a stop design is also common in Austria. An additional advantage of such stops is they encourage motorists to slow down as they approach – since the roadway is raised at such locations.

  • Aron

    Amsterdam is one. They have a conductor on board at the second door from the back. You can only enter at the front and second door from the back. The other 3 doors are exit only. It doesn’t always work well with the tourists, overcrowding and lack of space. But it’s nice for the tourists to have a physical service person there to talk to.

  • crazyvag

    I don’t understand why spacing has to go up from tram every 6 mins to every 8 mins with longer trams. I mean, they are longer, but not anywhere near THAT much longer.

  • Rick Smith

    The cars are 50′, not 53′. Only the suburban cars are 53′.

  • Anon

    Type 8’s have a bridge plate that extends out and offers level boarding from ground level.

    When the Type 7’s are phased out in another decade or two, you’ll have achieved accessibility overnight at many of the stops that aren’t currently marked “accessible”, or could do so with minor platform alterations.

    The ones which will remain inaccessible have platforms too narrow to ever realistically let a handicapped person maneuver on them.

    Some of them might be able to have travel lanes/infrastructure shifted in a rebuild to get a little more platform space, a small number will never realistically be able to be accessible.

    The ADA recognizes that it can be infeasible to make certain pieces of existing infrastructure accessible, the small handful of stops which fit that category will be left as-is.


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