We would have thrown out this idea long ago, except we did not know it existed anymore. That is until recently in Philadelphia we saw new trolley buses, which we always called trackless trolleys, making their rounds. We thought those interesting vehicles had expired years ago, about the same time that trolleys on tracks left most cities. In fact, in Philadelphia they had left. The old vehicles wore out and Philadelphia did not replace them for five years. But the city sensibly never took down the electric wires, and recently decided to bring back some new trackless trolleys.
These are an improvement over the ones that served the city for 80 years, in that they have generators which enable them to run "off wire" in special situations where their power poles are too short to do the job. They combine the virtues of tracked trolleys, in that they run on electricity, with the flexibility to maneuver in traffic. Plus, and this is the big advantage, they are quiet and emit no noxious fumes. Running on rubber tires, they don't clank like steel-wheeled trolleys. Although more expensive than traditional diesel buses, they are cheaper to run, last longer and are popular with riders for the above reasons.
Thus, it seemed strange that they would disappear from the urban scene. In fact, they hadn't. Research reveals that a number of cities still run them. Seattle and Boston have major fleets. Philadelphia is just the latest to revive a good idea.
Which, of course, makes one wonder why Fort Lauderdale is making such a big deal of its Wave, a traditional trolley in the planning stage. From what we hear, most people think it is a regressive step. Officials tout the trolley as a traffic reducer, but most people think whatever motorists they take off the road will be negated by their need to stop every block and back up traffic as they take people off and on. And a tracked vehicle can’t swing around traffic when necessary. Does it make sense to go to the expense of laying down track, with the disruption it will cause, when a vehicle exists which can provide better service on existing roadways?
Light rail works when the electric cars have a dedicated lane, so they don’t become part of a traffic jam. Denver provides an excellent example. The rail cars have their own lane on city streets, so they move faster than automobile traffic. They serve high traffic locations in the city, and then they connect to existing railroads for fairly high-speed trips to suburbs 15 or 20 miles away.
If Fort Lauderdale’s Wave were to connect to the FEC tracks, and become effectively a commuter train as well as a streetcar, it would be a different story. But that is not the plan. Maybe smokeless and trackless should be.