Philadelphia’s Girard Avenue trolley, with island platform. Image by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

We originally published this post on December 17, 2013. It's still interesting, so we're sharing it again!

Philadelphia’s streetcar network is the largest and busiest in the mid-Atlantic, and has several interesting features. The city calls its system trolleys instead of streetcars, because it’s vintage from the original trolley era. While Philadelphia did discontinue many of its original trolley routes, unlike DC they also kept many.

The Girard Avenue trolley line even uses vintage trolley vehicles, originally built in 1947. It also runs in a unique on-street arrangement, with tracks down the center of wide Girard Avenue, and stations in narrow floating medians.

The Girard Avenue trolley’s floating platforms. Image by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

The Girard Avenue arrangement is totally different than DC’s H Street layout, which uses a mixture of curbside and full median tracks.

Philadelphia’s center-running tracks result in fewer conflicts with parked or turning cars, which speeds the trolleys down their route. It’s almost-but-not-quite like a dedicated transitway.

Unfortunately, the platforms are too narrow to meet modern disability-accessible design guidelines. If DC were to use a similar arrangement, we’d need wider platforms and thus more street width.

Narrow platform on the Girard Avenue trolley line. Image by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

On narrower streets in West Philadelphia, trolleys still run in the center, with bike lanes between the tracks and a row of parked cars.

Trolley line on Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia. Image by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

Having space between the tracks and parked cars means Philadelphia's trolleys don't have to crawl by every wayward mirror, or stop every time someone opens a car door. The down side: Riders have to walk into the street to board trolleys.

The trolley subway

Five trolley routes that run on-street in West Philadelphia combine and then move into a dedicated trolley subway to speed through Center City. It’s a great way to maximize the efficiency of the system through its most dense and congested section, while still taking advantage of the flexibility of on-street operations further out.

13th Street trolley subway station. Image by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

DC once had a short trolley subway too, under Dupont Circle. Today, DC’s reborn streetcar plan doesn’t call for any. They’re hugely expensive, after all. But with the specter of Metrorail capacity constraints looming, and new DC subway lines under consideration, perhaps someday a streetcar subway could again be appropriate in DC.

What else is there?

I’ve never personally lived in Philadelphia, so my experience with its trolley network is fairly limited. I’m sure there are other interesting features. What did I miss?

Adopt-A-Tag

Allison Davis is this month’s sponsor for posts about Transit. Learn more »

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and an adjunct professor at George Washington University. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado and lives in Trinidad, DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post. Dan blogs to express personal views, and does not take part in GGWash's political endorsement decisions.