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Streetcar is Not Light Rail [Infographic]

Sep 02, 2015
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Light rail or streetcar? Most passengers don’t know the difference. Why should they? In their eyes, both light rail and streetcar are simply an effective way to get from point A to B. For your riders, whether its streetcar or light rail makes no difference. Let’s take a look at the unfortunate case of San Antonio where semantic confusion led to the loss of a multimillion dollar project.

The Cost of Confusion

In 2004, residents of San Antonio voted to pass a quarter sales tax to fund local transportation projects. The funds were intended to be used for road upgrades and advanced transit services, with only one catch – the funds could not be used for light rail transit. Jump forward a decade where VIA proposed a 5-mile streetcar system for downtown San Antonio and planned to open by 2017. One minor hiccup stood in the way – confused citizens.

Since the sales-tax dictated that the funding could be used for anything except light rail, the proposed project was a victim of political backlash as it was mistaken for light rail. Those who opposed the project leveraged the confusion and filed a lawsuit to halt the project altogether. After a few years of opposition, the project was ultimately stopped because of the misuse of a few words – light rail or streetcar? Charlie Gonzalez, VIA’s Chief of Public Engagement, stated it best “For some folks, if it’s on a rail, its rail.” (Source: City Lab)

So, how do we avoid this confusion? It’s time we explore the real difference between light rail and streetcar. 

Defining the Differences

Locations Served & Spacing

Light rail typically connects suburban communities to local downtown business areas. With long, sprawling tracks and less frequent stops, light rail traditionally serves larger parts of the community. According to APTA’s recent report, rail typically stretches for 15-20 miles with transit stations every half-mile to a mile. Streetcar on the other hand, serves a smaller community and offers more frequent stops. Traditionally, streetcar has about 2-5 miles of track with frequent stops every half-mile or less. 

But these rules aren’t always followed. Below, we can see an image from APTA’s Streetcar and Heritage Trolley website where they categorized spacing for typical systems as well as some less common systems that bypass our rules: 


LRT typically has dedicated right-of-way which might be completely removed by land or dedicated space. The tracks are often made of steel rails connected to wood or concrete. Streetcar on the other hand typically occupies travel lanes and runs with local traffic and the tracks are typically embedded in street-level concrete or asphalt (Source: APTA). According to a study by the National Transit Database, there was over 221 miles of elevated LRT track. Compare this to the 0.8 miles of elevated track for Streetcar and we can start to see some real differences. 

Unfortunately, these rules aren’t as concrete as the infrastructures. Sacramento boasts its very own light rail system which has served its city for nearly 30 years but it defies our rules by driving downtown in the middle of local traffic. We can also look to Atlanta, Seattle or Tucson where their streetcar systems have stretches of dedicated lanes – making them an exception to our rule (Source: Greater Greater Washington).


Due to it’s long corridors, developed stations, a higher capacity and frequency of service, Light Rail requires significantly more technology. LRT typically uses a radio system with consoles in a control center, communication trunk lines and in 2013, 95.9% of LRT systems used a public address system. Streetcars are more limited in their required technologies as they traditionally use a radio channel on an existing system and most use “next train arrival” signs as most stops do not require additional communications (Source: APTA).

According to the 2014 Public Transportation Fact Book, Light Rail Transit traveled for 91.2 million vehicle revenue miles in 2012. LRT systems are typically equipped with at least 2 ticket vending machines (TVM) per station and use barrier-free, proof-of-payment for fare validation. In 2012, streetcars saw a rise in vehicle revenue miles operated with a total of 5.5 million miles traveled. Streetcars are typically barrier-free and often validated by an on-board operator.

Our final, and potentially the most visibly obvious, difference is the vehicles. A common LRT vehicle is typically 80-95ft long and roughly 8.6ft wide. These vehicles can usually hold 70 seated passengers and 130 standing passengers and reach a top speed of 55-65mph. Streetcars normally range between 66-80ft long and 8ft wide. One streetcar can typically hold 30 people sitting and 90 people standing and can reach a maximum speed of 42mph.

The Deciding Factor

So how do we decide whether a transit system is streetcar or light rail? We evaluate each system on a case-by-case basis. Even if a system has an exception (streetcar with designated right-of-way), it still meets all of the other criteria to be considered a streetcar. Looking at every rule collectively instead of individually allows us to realize that nearly all systems meet the majority of the rules and can, therefore, be called either a light rail transit or a streetcar. 

We hear it all the time – Light Rail and Streetcar, what’s the difference? While not everyone needs to know the details that differentiate the two, we understand just how important it is when it comes to the technology behind your transit system. 

We also understand the importance of fully-integrated transit solutions that communicate together regardless of your mode of service. We’re starting to see transit agencies realize this as well through the implementation of centralized operations systems and the increased demand for real-time passenger information.




As VP of New Markets & Product Management Programs, Matt is tasked with executing on new opportunities for growth such as leading a renewed focus of Trapeze to better serve passenger rail transportation clients. Matt has over 15 years of experience in transit working with agencies across North America, Europe, and the UK.
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