In 1832, America’s first horsecar line — the horse- or mule-drawn predecessor to the electrified streetcar — opened in New York City, transporting passengers between present-day Manhattan and Harlem. With the dawn of the electric age, streetcars were installed in cities across the United States and around the world. Some of the nation’s earliest streetcar systems remain in operation today, including the St. Charles Avenue Line in New Orleans and Boston’s Green Line.

Green St. Charles Line streetcar on New Orleans street.
Photo courtesy Robert Kaufmann.

Many historic streetcar, tram and trolley systems have offered limited accessibility, due to their high-floor rolling stock and stations/stops that were produced well over a century before the Americans with Disabilities Act became law. Adapting outdated transportation infrastructure is a time-consuming and costly process, and many cities have still not made their streetcars and subways fully accessible to disabled people.

A new generation of streetcars in the USA

In 2001, the City of Portland, Oregon unveiled the Portland Streetcar, the first new streetcar system in the United States since World War II. With nearly 5 million riders annually, it has been deemed a success that has encouraged further investment. Following a series of expansions, the system now encompasses three lines serving more than 70 stations.

Portland streetcar crossing bridge in roadway with other cars.
Streetcar in Portland, Oregon. Photo courtesy Steve Morgan.

Portland’s project kicked-off a rush to introduce new barrier-free, low-floor streetcar systems in cities across the United States. The following low-floor streetcars have begun operation since 2001:

  • Seattle Streetcar — Seattle, WA (2007)
  • S Line — Salt Lake City, UT (2013)
  • Sun Link — Tucson, AZ (2014)
  • Atlanta Streetcar — Atlanta, GA (2014)
  • Dallas Streetcar — Dallas, TX (2015)
  • DC Streetcar — Washington, D.C. (2016)
  • KC Streetcar — Kansas City, MO (2016)
  • Cincinnati Bell Connector — Cincinnati, OH (2016)
  • QLine — Detroit, MI (2017)
  • The Hop — Milwaukee, WI (2018)
  • Oklahoma City Streetcar — Oklahoma City, OK (2018)

Two streetcar systems are currently under construction, the Tempe Streetcar in Tempe, Arizona, and the OC Streetcar in Orange County, California. Both systems are expected to open in 2021. A number of other cities are actively planning future streetcar systems, including Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York City, Sacramento and Saint Paul.

Wheelchair space with grabs bars.
Wheelchair spaces on the Dallas Streetcar.

How modern streetcars promote independence and freedom of movement for disabled people

What set Portland’s streetcar apart from the older systems that preceded it was accessibility — the low-floor train cars with their suite of accessibility features made it possible for wheelchair users and other disabled people to board, ride and disembark the vehicles independently. Features of the Portland Streetcar and others like it include:

  • Modern, low-floor streetcars feature level-entry boarding with a minimal gap between the tram and station platform, or are equipped to automatically deploy a wheelchair access ramp to bridge the gap with the touch of a button.
  • Modern, low-floor streetcars include priority seating for seniors and people with disabilities, in addition to well-marked spaces for mobility devices and grab bars.
  • An abundance of clear floor space is available, making it easy for wheelchair and scooter users to maneuver safely.
  • Where applicable, streetcars have multiple stop request buttons and/or strips that can be pressed to notify the streetcar operator of your intention to disembark.
  • Stop announcements are communicated verbally, as well as visually on overhead monitors.
Streetcar crossing street in Kansas City. Photo by Jason Doss.
Streetcar in Kansas City, Missouri. Photo courtesy Jason Doss/Wikimedia Commons.

Modern streetcars are free of many of the barriers to independence that exist on other modes of public transport. There are no elevators, no fare gates, no seats to move out of the way and no securement straps to contend with. If a ramp is necessary, wheelchair users can deploy it themselves, with no intervention from the operator. The ability to roll-on and roll-off unassisted makes America’s 21st century streetcars a fantastic example of barrier-free transportation and a testament to the value of accessible design.

Although more than 10 cities have followed the Portland example, others are stuck in the past. In a follow-up article next month, I’ll take a look at a number of brand-new streetcar systems that are operating on technology from the last millennium — a reality that has disadvantaged disabled people and left many experts scratching their heads.

Featured image courtesy Sam Beebe via Flickr.

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