I hinted at my general skepticism about the modern streetcar movement in the BQX post, and there were some (admittedly half-hearted) pushback, so let me spell out the case a little more clearly.
This is not skepticism about the technology per se. Streetcars are trams are not an inherently useless form of public transit/urban mobility, as many cities in Europe and elsewhere clearly demonstrate. The argument is this: in the built, economic, and political environments of 21st century American cities, streetcars do not offer mobility, speed or reliability improvements over buses, while costing an order of magnitude more. Most of the time, in order to get the kind of speed, mobility, and reliability improvements worthy of significant financial investment, grade separation is necessary. If grade separation isn’t in the cards, transit resources should be on improving existing at-grade service–there is no transit agency in the country where there aren’t plenty of efficiencies and improvements currently being left on the table. One touted advantage of streetcars over buses is capacity–depending on how you measure it they have a 50-100% greater capacity than buses. No 21st century streetcar system built in the United States is remotely close to having the kind of demand where that capacity advantage would be relevant. (The F-Market in San Francisco might be an exception, but of course their use of historic/heritage rolling stock leaves some of the potential capacity advantages on the table. And, of course, as Walker notes in the post linked below, that demand is in part because of some infrastructure improvements that have nothing to do with streetcar technology.)
Jarrett Walker’s 2009 post on the subject has not been proven wrong by the last seven years of streetcar developments. Walker:
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.
Where a streetcar is faster or more reliable than the bus route it replaced, this is because other improvements were made at the same time — improvements that could just as well have been made for the bus route. These improvements may have been politically packaged as part of the streetcar project, but they were logically independent, so their benefits are not really benefits of the streetcar as compared to the bus.
Once we have set aside the idea that streetcars are faster than buses, it appears the remaining pro-streetcar arguments appeal to the notion that the bus as we see it today is all the bus will ever be. But buses are changing fast; if you don’t believe me, go ride the oldest and newest bus in your own city’s fleet. The evolution of the bus, moreover, is being driven largely by demands that it better emulate the rail experience, particularly for the purpose of Bus Rapid Transit operations that consciously simulate rail. A lot of work is going into creating bus services that can do many things that we currently associate only with rail, such as:
* low floors completely level with the platform.
* reduced noise.
* off-board fare collection so that buses board and alight at all doors.
* seating configurations that emphasize fewer seats and higher standing capacity (standing is widely accepted for the fairly short trips we’re discussing here).
* wider doors for fast boarding and alighting.
* signal priority systems.
* guidance technologies that enable buses to dock precisely with platforms for level boarding without much of a gap, sufficient for wheelchair boardings.
* major infrastructure investments, including architecturally substantial stations and sometimes painted lanes, that create the “legibility” that is supposedly offered only by tracks in the street.
* aggressive research toward new propulsion systems that can be powered from within the vehicle, eliminating the need for either diesel engines or an overhead electric power source.
I’m not saying that the bus will ever be a perfect replica of the streetcar. It won’t. But they key fact is that buses are not just improving, they’re improving in the direction of emulating rail. This should suggest that the difference between bus and rail, as perceived by ordinary people who don’t know which features are intrinsic, is going to diminish over time, as it has been doing for the past two decades. Doesn’t this suggest that while the short-term urban-development advantage of streetcars is undeniable, the long-term advantage may be much less? Big capital spending has to make sense for the long term. Speed and reliability are eternal values; I’m quite confident that in 2050, people will still choose a faster service over a slower one. I’m not sure that in 2050, people will choose an electric vehicle on rails over an electric/hydrogen/whatever vehicle of the same size and shape, with many of the same characteristics, running on tires. Are you?
Even here in boring old Dayton, the gap in ride quality, comfort and appearance between the oldest and newest buses in the fleet is considerable. The argument now often turns to the brute fact of mode-bias; namely, that some riders simply won’t ride buses, but will ride rail, and we should cater to them. This is true, although the modest ridership figures for slow, mixed traffic streetcars hardly support the view that they are legion. (And, of course, when buses do everything right, they can attract new and choice riders–See LA’s Orange Line, which has twice the ridership of Portland’s ‘successful’ streetcar lines.) I like Walker’s approach to the mode bias problem:
Many commenters propose that a widespread disinterest or disapproval of buses will remain a cultural absolute, and on this point I really do disagree. We are living in a time of epochal changes in the culture of transportation, increasingly forced upon us by a changing calculus about what works and what we can afford. I have seen monumental changes of attitude in the nearly three decades that I have watched these issues. For that reason, I instinctively give more weight to values that have proven themselves stable over centuries — such as the need to save travel time and money — than to the negative associations that may have gathered around buses, in some cities but not others, just in the last half-century. When people face a stark choice between retaining their prejudices or saving time/money, prejudices can change pretty fast.
I think we can group very close to all the people who won’t ride the bus but will ride rail of comparable quality into two groups: foamers and classists. The foamers are people who think trains are neat, and ride them accordingly.* The classists think buses and the people who ride them are gross, dirty, etc, and don’t want to be associated with, or in close proximity to them. There’s another group of people–and I tend to agree with Walker that in the long-term this group is going to be a great deal larger than the other two–people who don’t ride transit because of inadequate speed, frequency, or reliability of the service. Insofar as we’re going to spend limited public resources attempting to attract some group of potential transit riders, the case for aiming for the people who want higher quality service seems a great deal stronger than subsidizing hobbyists or indulging in cultural/class/racial biases associated with anti-bus attitudes.
In short, modern streetcar fetishism is a classic example of technology first thinking:
But as a transit planner, I’ve learned to question sweeping claims on behalf of any technology, including a lot of bus technologies. Transit planners are trained to ask a different question: “First, what are we trying to do? Second, what’s the best tool to do it?” I love seeing a house built, so I respect the role of hammers. But if you fall in love with the hammer rather than the house, you’ll just go around looking for nails to pound, and that’s not the way to build the best possible house.
As Walker notes, Seattle’s effort to build high-speed, high capacity transit on the city’s Western edge from Ballard to West Seattle is a classic example of the failure of technology-first thinking. When it became clear the fetishized technology (in this case, a monorail) could not deliver the quality for cost they needed it to, quality was put on the chopping block rather than questioning the technology. When confronted with a substandard product, voters, predictably and wisely, killed the project. Streetcar projects that fail to deliver on a variety of quality metrics survive because of lower stakes and consensus elite support, but they’re making the same mistake.
*NB: I am one of these people.