So What's The Difference - A Transit Reference

October 21, 2015 9 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Just when you thought you've heard it all, Metro Jacksonville's Robert Mann takes another look at transportation alternatives being advanced in Florida, a critical look at the differences in mass transit modes, and the possibilities afforded Jacksonville by the Skyway; with some of the positives and negatives of each.


Ridership has soared, just as the venerable Skyway cars run their last miles, this leaves Jacksonville with a critical decision, whether the Skyway lives or dies and some thoughts on what form or forms our future mass transit efforts should take.


Monorails have long held a public image of being the 'train of the future'. However, it is a train that has been around since the late 1800's and it hasn't arrived yet. Here, we see the famous 'Bicycle Railway' that once made demonstration loops around Coney Island before it was dumped in the scrapheap of history.

A truer monorail was an experimental system, called the Pelham and City Island Railway, which operated in the Bronx. The management was so impressed with a demonstration at the Jamestown, Virginia Exposition in 1907, that the Interboro Rapid Transit Company (owner of the 'Third Avenue Railway' ) had the system installed from the IRT station to the foot of the City Island Bridge.

The system opened on July 16, 1910 and on its first trip out, the car called 'The Flying Lady' lived up to its name and flew off the track seriously injuring a large number of riders. The monorail was bankrupt by December of 1911, and it only operated a short time after that.  

Pollution caused by urban railway horsecars and omnibuses was a health hazard in cities everywhere. Thus, the race to replace was as important to that generation as the race to the moon was in the 1960's. Through a long succession of inventions and inventors, the cable car offered an answer. The unpowered rail cars were pulled along attached to a cable running in a grove in the street. A central power plant and a cable loop of several miles allowed comprehensive coverage from New York City to Seattle and from San Diego to Tulsa. This photo illustrates why the trend didn't take root in the South; not only was the infrastructure complex and extremely expensive, it was equally costly to maintain. The 30 or so systems peaked and vanished for the most part within 10 years between 1875 and 1885. By 1900 about all that were left were the lines in cities where extreme grades made a cable pulled transit system more practical.

The ubiquitous streetcar was originally created without the trademark pole on the roof. Instead, a small wheel rode along the electric wire at the end of a cord. While the spring loaded pole was a logical improvement but not before some wise guy decided the vehicle was 'trolling' through the city. A corruption of trolling became 'trolley.' Thus, a vehicle with the pole attached to a wire, on rails or on rubber tires is legitimately a 'trolley,' and anything else is factually not.

Trolleys allowed massive expansion of urban railways throughout the country. Jacksonville, Tampa, Miami and Pensacola all operated substantial streetcar systems. Therein is another often misunderstood FACT, streetcars run on railroad track, not streets. Historically in Jacksonville, much, if not most of our system ran alongside the road, not in it. Other sections of the system operated in broad landscaped medians earning for us the moniker of 'The Most Beautiful Streetcar Line in The World.'

The incredible flexibility to operate anywhere tracks were laid, meant that streetcars historically operated on roadway, alongside the road, in the median, elevated on bridge structures, in subways, and frequently alongside major railroads.  Jacksonville's streetcars followed the mainline too, the right-of-way (green space) between the CSX tracks and Plymouth Avenue in Murray Hill is one such location still visible. In this view we see a elevated trolley descending the ramp to street level in April 1943, Baltimore, Maryland, in a photo by Marjory Collins.


While virtually everyone is familiar with the omnipresent city transit bus, not everyone truly understands what Bus Rapid Transit really is. Promises of huge new Transit Oriented Development (TOD) projects, fast, frequent service, and all of the other trappings of rail systems actually require an investment comparable to rail systems. This is where the deception, intentional or not, about the new 'First Coast Flyer' is so grievous. A nickel and dime approach to BRT will only deliver nickel and dime results. This station on the BRT in Medellin, Colombia, helps illustrate a true world class BRT system.

This BRT system in Nantes, France illustrates the massive amount of change brought about by a true rapid transit system. Without this type of investment you simply deduct the 'RAPID' from the 'TRANSIT.' BRT does have some advantages over rail; the ability to nickel and dime your system and the ability to leave the busway and resort to surface streets as a local bus then return to the busway for the 'rapid' ride back being two of them. The downside to BRT is pretty extensive too, short vehicle life, small capacity per vehicle/operator hour, heavy vehicle wear on pavements requiring frequent resurfacing, a tendency for the buses to bunch up when they encounter numerous traffic signals.

Transit extremes still exist such as this system in Adelaide, Australia, where the cost exceeds that of many rail systems yet with all of the handicaps of buses.

An improvement to the BRT concept is the true 'Trolleybus.' Such a bus route gives the rider the route certainty of rail, and many of the lower cost benefits of buses, married to a true BRT busway system this can be a win-win combination.

One of the sales pitches of the BRT industry is the slogan; 'It's just like rail only cheaper.' The facts are, if you want a rail system's performance, you build a rail system and if you want to duplicate the whistles and bells many places (Tampa) added to their urban rail systems you'll pay a rail system price for a bus.

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