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Heritage Trolley Site
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Streetcar Circulator

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Definition: Streetcar Circulator

In July 2001, Portland (OR) inaugurated a new class of urban transit with its downtown circulator streetcar system. Though Portland has operated both light rail and heritage trolleys (on the central part of the light rail system), the new line is distinctly different from both. It is essentially a hybrid combining features of heritage trolley lines, traditional downtown streetcar lines, and light rail. The initial stretches of the line were built completely in the pavement of city streets and operate in mixed traffic, just as a traditional streetcar line did. The initial stretch of the line was confined completely to the downtown area, as is normally the case with heritage trolley lines. However, the cars operated on the line are of a new European, low floor design, and are essentially smaller versions of light rail cars, though they are incapable of running coupled in trains. Service is frequent, stop spacing is relatively short, and average operating speed is low. City officials chose modern streetcars, rather than much lower cost buses, as they believed the streetcar would attract more riders, inspire development, and generally make a positive contribution to the urban environment. See the description of this project (Portland Streetcar) for a further explanation of the rationale for choosing this mode of transport.

A modern streetcar on Portland's new downtown circulator streetcar system.


Tacoma and Seattle in Washington are two cities that have constructed similar streetcar lines connecting downtown with other points in the city. Inspired by these Pacific Northwest successes literally dozens of cities are considering building similar lines. In Portland the initial line was so successful that extensions beyond the downtown have been built or are being planned.

For further discussion of the differences between streetcars and light rail refer to the following brochure: Light Rail and Streetcar Systems - How They Differ; How They Overlap..


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