Autumn on Lake Audobon

Autumn on Lake Audobon
Autumn on Lake Audubon, Photo by Alison Kamat

Monday, November 17, 2014

Are streetcars really the answer for transit?

Update--11/18/2014:  Although this post was not aimed at any particular streetcar initiative, today Arlington County canceled its plans to proceed further with the Columbia Pike streetcar initiative.  Clearly the initiative was aimed at encouraging development along Columbia Pike, not an improvement in mobility as laid out by Jeffrey Brown and Jarrett Walker in the two posts linked to below. 

Late last week, Washington Post writer Robert McCartney wrote:
The Nov. 4 election results in Arlington show how the surge of anti-spending sentiment among voters is creating major doubts about the Washington region’s strategy for growth in the inner suburbs.
For many years, the area has planned to build transit lines, particularly the Columbia Pike streetcar and Maryland’s Purple Line, to promote economic development without worsening traffic congestion.
Now both projects are endangered. In Maryland, voters elected a new governor, Larry Hogan (R), who thinks the state can’t afford the Purple Line.
I think supporters should keep pushing for the two projects. For the sake of the environment and our quality of life, we need more dense, urban-style neighbor­-hoods where people are less dependent on cars. . . .
This writer agrees that we need more people using public transit as the region becomes more urban, but not that streetcars are the best solution.  Buses appear to offer a better solution in most cases, including the Columbia Pike and possibly the Purple Line routes.

So having picked a fight with a large number of urbanists, let me give a few reasons for this point of view:
  • Streetcars require a huge front-end investment in the building of the trackway not required by buses.  This is the key to concerns in Arlington and Maryland about the two proposed lines where WaPo reports the projected cost of the Purple Line is $2.4 BILLION and the Columbia Pike streetcar is$333 MILLION, including a share from Fairfax County.  These costs are the primary concern over the feasibility of both lines and contributed to the election of opponents of the lines in Maryland (Gov.-elect Hogan) and Arlington County (John Vihstadt).  In contrast, buses use existing street systems.
  • Streetcars, in general, are no less expensive to operate and maintain than a bus.  They can carry more passengers than a bus, but not more cost-effectively in many, if not most, cases.  
  • Streetcars are inflexible; they can go only where the trackway goes.  Buses are flexible and can change routes (a) tactically as accidents, etc., block a route, and (b) strategically as demand to go to and from different destinations changes over time (and it will).
  • Streetcars often must use exclusively one or more lanes of vehicular traffic capacity permanently with boarding islands and other obstructions, depending on route design.  The local traffic system may actually lose transportation capacity along a given streetcar route.
There are some advantages to streetcars.  They are more iconic and, because they are fixed systems, tend to attract real estate development.  There may be others.

Many others have commented and studied the two types of transit systems.  Here are some leads readers may want to follow up on:
  • "The Modern Streetcar in the U.S.:  An Examination of Its Ridership,  Performance, and Function as a Public Transportation Mode," Jeffrey Brown, FSU, Journal of Public Transportation:  This research looks at the operating costs of each mode in more than a dozen US cities.  Among his conclusions;
    • There is significant variation in performance, with some of this variation a function of the built environment within which the systems operate and/or of the degree of integration with the rest of the transit system, captured in the transfer rates. In all of the cases, the streetcars are not operating faster than the agency’s typical motor buses in revenue service, although they are providing service that riders value, . . .
    • The difficulty encountered in obtaining data on streetcar service from many of the agencies in this study suggests that many do not really view the streetcars as primarily transit service but instead view them more as development catalysts or as devices used to serve tourists and shoppers as opposed to regular transit riders.  Whether this is an effective strategy or not is also something beyond the scope of
      this study, but it is indicative of a dilemma in these fiscally-constrained times, given that streetcar projects funded by the federal government’s resource-strapped capital grants program use resources that might have been used for other projects designed primarily to transport regular transit riders.
      . .
  • Human Transit, streetcars: an inconvenient truth, Jarrett Walker:  Written by urban public transit planning consultant, this post notes:
    • Streetcars that replace bus lines are not a mobility or access improvement.  If you replace a bus with a streetcar on the same route, and make no other improvements, nobody will be able to get anywhere any faster than they could before. This makes streetcars quite different from most of the other transit investments being discussed today.   (NOTE:  This would seem to make the Columbia Pike streetcar a rather cost-ineffective option, but leaves open the possible effectiveness of the Purple Line.)
    • Are there cases where a mobility improvement (i.e.  enabling someone to go somewhere faster than they can now) follows logically from the streetcar technology?  Yes, there are some:
      • Capacity.  In other urban contexts, rail transit is important for its ability to carry large number of riders per vehicle, and hence per driver, usually by combining cars into trainsets.  Modern streetcars generally cannot be run as trainsets, but the still have some advantage over buses in this area; they have a capacity of around 200 compared to 120 for a typical articulated bus.  This capacity advantage can be relevant in high-volume situations, particularly when frequencies get down to the three-minute range.  However. most streetcars now under discussion are not this frequent.  Portland's Streetcar System Plan, for example, envisions mostly frequencies of 10-15 minutes, and at these levels the frequency is driven by a service quality standard, not a capacity requirement.  
      • Existing rail rights-of-way.  A proposed streetcar project in Vancouver involves using a piece of existing rail line, as does the small line in Kenosha, Wisconsin.  In this case, the streetcar can obviously do something important that a bus can't.
      Let me review carefully what I'm not saying about this incredibly sensitive topic.  
      • I'm not disputing the ridership benefits of streetcars.  Streetcars do attract more ridership than the buses they replace, though it's not always clear why.  There's an urgent need for more research on how much of the ridership benefits of a streetcar are truly results of intrinsic benefits of the streetcar (such as the ride quality, the legibility provided by tracks in the street, etc) as opposed to results of other improvements introduced at the same time (including speed and reliability improvements, better public information, off-board fare collection, and possible differences in operations culture).
      • I'm not saying that streetcars don't promote urban development; clearly they seem to be doing that, though there's room for disagreement about how much the development really requires the streetcar.
      • I'm not saying that electric streetcars aren't quieter and more environmentally friendly than diesel buses; clearly they are, but if this is your only reason for wanting streetcars, electric trolleybuses may meet your need less expensively.
      • I'm not saying that streetcars aren't fun to ride.  They are.  
      Most important, I'm not saying in the abstract that streetcars are good or bad.  I'm saying that they are a major capital expense that requires a justification other than mobility ("getting people where they're going fast and efficiently") when we compare them to the bus routes they replace, or that could be developed instead. 
And that last sentence pretty much captures this writer's viewpoint.  Streetcars are major capital investment not justified by improved mobility when compared with transit bus alternatives in most cases.  This is especially true for the Columbia Pike streetcar proposal and may also be true for the Purple Line given the huge capital investment required (that will no doubt escalate as planning continues).  It also seems definitely true in the urbanizing areas of Fairfax County, including Reston. 


Terry Maynard

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