« Rapid Bus slips to 2010 | Main | Why streetcars suck »

Difference between streetcar and bus

Since many people still think that if you build streetcar, they will come; here's a set of use case-like tables which I hope will explain what the actual difference is between streetcars and buses. The first case is for "why can't we just fix commuter rail by building a streetcar line to which they can transfer?". The second case is for "won't streetcar get more residents of central Austin to take transit to work?".

Some shorthand below explained up here:

"Stuck in traffic": Does the vehicle have its own lane, or is it sharing a lane with cars? This affects speed and reliability.

"Detourable": If there's a traffic accident in the shared lane, can the vehicle in question change lanes to get around it? This is a drastic impact on reliability.

"Fast/slow": Is the vehicle capable of accelerating/decelerating quickly? Speed, obviously.

ModeStuck in traffic?Detourable?Fast/slow?
Circulators as applied to commuter rail service
Mode by itself (for residents of actual central Austin)

Notice anything? Whether you're using the vehicle as a circulator or as your primary form of transit, it performs exactly the same. I know this seems obvious, but I still get people thinking that there's some magic fairy dust that will make streetcars turn into good transit service for the people who actually wanted it, in both 2000 and 2004. No, credulous fellow residents of Central Austin, streetcar doesn't bringing anything more to the table than bus does - arguably LESS, for daily commuters. Note the "Detourable" column. Yes, I've had times on the bus when I've benefitted from this capability. They won't detour just to get around heavy traffic, but they darn sure will to get around an accident.

So what are some of the other benefits of streetcar not mentioned here? It provides a perception of permanence that bus service does not. This is worth something if you're trying to stimulate development somewhere - but downtown Austin doesn't need the help. It also provides a minor benefit for tourists - making it more obvious that transit exists, and making it more attractive (people from out of town are unlikely to want to ride the bus given the stigma of bus service in many other cities).

The only advantage streetcar has is for tourists - which is why, IF we build this thing, it should only be funded out of hotel/rental car taxes. Even if it ran through the dense residential parts of Austin, it would provide precisely nothing of benefit to those residents, who, by the way, pay almost all of Capital Metro's bills.

This entry was posted in the following categories: Austin , Don't Hurt Us Mr. Krusee, We'll Do Whatever You Want , Funding of Transportation , Texas Republicans Hate Cities , Transit in Austin , Transportation , Tri-Rail , Urban Design , Use Cases


I think most people assume that streetcar = cablecar. I don't know why, but that's what I think is going on.

I'm not sure I agree with your designation for "Fast/Slow" for streetcars.
It's dependent on the actual rolling stock and the grade of the road.
My experience, based off Green Line cars on the T, is that at least those cars (several models involved) do accelerate faster than busses, except on significant hills.
Yes, 90%+ of the currently-operating Green Line routes are either entirely reserved guideway, or reserved guideway with at grade signalized crossings. But I'm talking about the physical capabilities of the cars, not the overall speed of the line.

Any chance for reserved guideway here? Seems to me that is what it would take to make a streetcar system work.

Zero chance of reserved guideway for this streetcar system - despite what you're hearing from professional BS artists like Lyndon Henry. It's being sold as shared-traffic-only; it will need to run in the right lane (where you can't really run reserved-guideway unless you're on a one-way street and usually not even there); etc.

But, yes, if you had streetcar running on reserved guideway, you basically have LRT.

The BS brigade will pop up from time to time and talk about the possibility of "some segments" of reserved guideway in some nebulous future world - but all you need to do is look at the route to know that's a load of crap; it's not going to happen. You can't eliminate right turns into driveways, even downtown; and none of those streets can be turned into transit malls or the like either.

I was in Rome a few years ago, driving in the lane next to the streetcar lane, stopped at a red light. There were cars stopped next to me in the streetcar lane. I saw a streetcar coming up slowly behind them. I kept expecting it to stop, but it just kept coming and plowed slowly into the car next to me.

Gotta keep those trains running on time, or next thing you know Mussolini takes over.

Post a comment