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The Modern Streetcar's Greatest Asset: Low Floor Boarding

By Eric Richardson
Published: Tuesday, April 22, 2008, at 09:51AM
Red Streetcar Eric Richardson [Flickr]

A Seattle streetcar approaches the northern terminus of the South Lake Union line.

The proposed streetcar system for Downtown is often referred to as a revival of the Red Car, the romanticized system that connected all parts of the L.A. area. That has led many to think that the system should use historic vehicles, either original or recreations.

Last week a delegation from Downtown visited Portland and Seattle, two cities that have opened streetcar systems in recent years. Both cities use modern cars from Skoda-Inekon, a manufacturer in the Czech Republic.

While the desire to connect with the history of L.A. is admirable, the benefits of a modern streetcar are overwhelming. Perhaps most importantly, the low floor height of the cars has huge ramifications for how the system integrates into the urban landscape and how efficiently passengers are able to get on and off the car.

The Skoda cars used in Portland and Seattle have a floor that sits just fourteen inches above the roadway.

Because of the low vehicle floor, platforms at the streetcar stops are not much different than a normal stretch of sidewalk. They rise to ten inches, less than double the height of a typical curb. The streetcar vehicle is only 66 feet long, so the platform takes up little room on the block.

Passengers in wheelchairs press a button found both inside and outside the car to deploy a ramp that bridges the remaining four inches between platform and car. The ramp deploys with impressive efficiency, taking only ten seconds or so to extend and the same to retract. The feature is so efficient that it's easy to miss -- passengers simply get on or off before one even realizes they're using the ramp.

The lack of stairs at entry and an open middle area means flexible space for getting heavier crowds on and off the system quickly. This keeps stops short even when the system is heavily utilized.


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