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Why streetcars suck

If you're seeing a lot of people with whom I normally agree pushing streetcars very hard, and you might be wondering why I keep naysaying them, here's a handy guide. Consider this list of pros and cons for two transit modes I talk about a lot: the city bus and light rail. And remember the target is daily commuters, not tourists - otherwise, we're not really doing anything to improve mobility.

City buses are, well, normal buses. They're what we run today.

Pros:


  1. Low capital costs (very little facility investment; moderate vehicle investment)
  2. Slightly flexible (vastly oversold by Skaggs' band of Neanderthals; but at least it can change lanes to get around an accident and can be detoured around a festival).

Cons:

  1. Slow - even on the open road (no traffic), will always be a bit slower than an econobox. And in stop/go traffic, poor acceleration is magnified.
  2. Very unreliable - traffic is a big problem; and unlike in your car, you can't go over one block if you feel like it (this is where the libertarian anti-transit trolls go so far off reality by claiming "flexibility").
  3. High operating costs - relatively few passengers per driver, even on articulated buses.

LRT, or "light rail" runs in the street where it needs to, but in a reserved guideway (has its own lane and some control over traffic signals) and runs in off-street right-of-way elsewhere. We almost passed this in 2000 and could easily have done so in 2004. In Austin, it would have run right down the middle of two-way streets such as Guadalupe and Congress - in its own lane, so in most cases, traffic congestion could not slow it down.

Pros:

  1. Reasonably fast - in similar conditions can accelerate or decelerate almost as well as a private automobile.
  2. Very Reliable - more so, even, than the private automobile. Blows buses out of the water. This is a very key metric - people will accept a slghtly slower AVERAGE commute if the worst-case is basically the same as the average.
  3. Low operating costs - very many passengers per driver, and electric drive is much cheaper than diesel.

Cons:

  1. High capital costs - requires infrastructure such as rails, electric wires, and expensive vehicles.

Now, for comparison, look at how streetcar stacks up, including all pros and cons from light rail and bus above. Note for the record that our streetcar proposal does not include any segments of reserved guideway, nor can it ever be converted into reserved guideway.

Pros from buses:

  1. Low capital costs - Nope. Has almost all of the capital costs of light rail. Slightly cheaper vehicles, but you still need electrical wires and rails.
  2. Slightly flexible - Nope. Unlike that city bus, it can't even change lanes to get around a double-parked, stalled, or wrecked car. (Irrelevant for LRT since it has its own lane).

Pros from LRT:

  1. Fast - accelerates pretty well.
  2. Reliable - Nope. Just as unreliable as the city bus, if not worse (due to the flexibility liability).
  3. Low operating costs - Partial. Not much better than bus in passengers-per-driver; but electric drive still provides some cost savings.

Cons from buses:

  1. Slow - Win. Yes, streetcar can accelerate a bit better than buses, thanks, DSK. I submit this makes very little difference given:
  2. Very unreliable - Loss. As indicated above, streetcar is likely to be even less reliable than city bus on the same route.
  3. High operating costs - Partial. As indicated in pros section, somewhere in the middle.

Cons from LRT:

  1. High capital costs - Yup, as indicated above, streetcar's capital costs are practically as high as LRT.


The summary here: streetcars have almost none of the positives that light rail has but city buses lack; and it shares almost all of the liabilities of BOTH modes. It's almost expensive to build as true light rail; but it's also more expensive to run, and very unreliable, like city buses. Even in Portland (Home Of The Streetcar!), people who look at it dispassionately come to the conclusion that it's usually juat a glamorous (for now) immobile bus.

But M1EK, you ask, what about all the people who won't ride the bus today? Won't they flock to streetcars because of their image? Capital Metro's consultant certainly thought so.

The mode preference problem for buses versus rail is vastly misunderstood. It's not that people always prefer rail over bus even if they're exactly the same in all other respects, it's that rail service in the past was always at least a little bit better than bus service on several of the critical metrics listed above. Even traditional streetcars held up as examples have some pros which the "streetcar vulgaris" we're thinking about building here won't - dedicated right-of-way in segments, for instance, or other enhancements. Streetcar seems to attract more people than buses because the rail service is usually far superior to the bus service it is being compared to. That's not going to be the case here in Austin - all we're doing is nailing the shitty buses onto rails, with all their old liabilities and some exciting new liabilities and, thus, streetcar isn't going to buy us anything worth paying for.

No, there's no magical streetcar fairy dust. Sorry, guys; even people who try it out of curiousity will figure out pretty quickly it's actually slower than the Dillo used to be (combining speed and reliability).

Also, while I'm at it: another nugget from Appendix A, just confirming something I've been saying for a really long time, but which still hasn't made any traction with the naive fools who think we can expand commuter rail into the center city:

(Note: Capital Metro is currently implementing Capital MetroRail using Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) type vehicles on its existing railroad right-of-way from Austin to Leander. Although in the future transit system it may be desirable to extend this technology into the circulator corridor to gain certain operational efficiencies, this technology is not envisioned as a viable alternative to the bus and streetcar technologies identified for further study. This is primarily because of the mobility limitations of the DMU technology. DMU technology is therefore not included as one of the potential technologies carried forward into the analysis of alternatives.)

(Yes, this ends up rehashing about 75% of the last post; but this one, I hope, does so more coherently).

This entry was posted in the following categories: Austin , Don't Hurt Us Mr. Krusee, We'll Do Whatever You Want , Transit in Austin , Transportation , Urban Design

Comments

I can't disagree with you on this one....

However, there are likely some streets which are more suited for streetcar than light rail. Alas, a light rail line replacing the #1 #3 etc would be glorious - jmvc

I'd argue any street "suited" for streetcar is suited for buses. The towns which succeed with streetcar have segments where it can run off-street (in old rail ROW or something else) - but we don't have any of that downtown - except for maybe the route I heard about while I was working on the OWANA plan - basically running alongside UP from Deep Eddy into downtown (obviously in mixed traffic at the downtown end). Might be good enough to get daily commuters to actually use the Austin High-area lots for reasons other than going to the courthouse.

as a portlander who admittedly prefers the bus to the street car, i think you are missing something in your analysis.

part of why i prefer the bus is because the streetcar is so damn successful it stops at every stop (which are like every other block), and quickly becomes overcrowded. whereas with the bus i usually zips past stops by the half dozen (except during rush hour), and i get where i am going quick. this complaint is kind of like yogi berra complaining that "nobody goes there no more, it's too crowded!".

the point of the streetcar, in portland, is not to move commuters from A to B or to show off a cute novelty to tourists (though it does both things well)--it is to extend the walking area of the city, coupled with providing a sense of permanence for developers to build high density housing. the latter point is not absolutely necessary, but it does create a feedback mechanism where the more places you can easily and comfortable go downtown without a car, the more people want to live there, the more housing is needed, the more services become available, the less people need to drive, creating more demand for more streetcar, and more housing, etc.

i think you underestimate streetcars attractiveness (much more comfortable than a bus), and the riders per driver ratio. also, in capital costs it is more cheaper light-rail than you think because the lines are much shorter. the lines are shorter because people don't need to go as far to get to everything. developers are jumping over each other to build mid to high rise apartments in the streetcars path and people are paying serious coin to live there. people are also selling their cars and moving to portland the do the same.

i would love to see the bus system fleshed out so as to allow pre-purchase of tickets, and multiple boarding points, and traffic light pre-emption. i don't think it's going to happen. it's worth looking at the opportunity costs of building streetcar, but i think your comparison needs to take into account the things i mentioned, and seriously look at why it is so popular if logic says it's not much better than bus. also, urban planning overlord is not what i would call a dispassionate observer.

as a portlander who admittedly prefers the bus to the street car, i think you are missing something in your analysis.

part of why i prefer the bus is because the streetcar is so damn successful it stops at every stop (which are like every other block), and quickly becomes overcrowded. whereas with the bus i usually zips past stops by the half dozen (except during rush hour), and i get where i am going quick. this complaint is kind of like yogi berra complaining that "nobody goes there no more, it's too crowded!".

the point of the streetcar, in portland, is not to move commuters from A to B or to show off a cute novelty to tourists (though it does both things well)--it is to extend the walking area of the city, coupled with providing a sense of permanence for developers to build high density housing. the latter point is not absolutely necessary, but it does create a feedback mechanism where the more places you can easily and comfortable go downtown without a car, the more people want to live there, the more housing is needed, the more services become available, the less people need to drive, creating more demand for more streetcar, and more housing, etc.

i think you underestimate streetcars attractiveness (much more comfortable than a bus), and the riders per driver ratio. also, in capital costs it is more cheaper light-rail than you think because the lines are much shorter. the lines are shorter because people don't need to go as far to get to everything. developers are jumping over each other to build mid to high rise apartments in the streetcars path and people are paying serious coin to live there. people are also selling their cars and moving to portland the do the same.

i would love to see the bus system fleshed out so as to allow pre-purchase of tickets, and multiple boarding points, and traffic light pre-emption. i don't think it's going to happen. it's worth looking at the opportunity costs of building streetcar, but i think your comparison needs to take into account the things i mentioned, and seriously look at why it is so popular if logic says it's not much better than bus. also, urban planning overlord is not what i would call a dispassionate observer.

The sense of permanence advantage is relevant only to areas which need a spur for high-density development. Central Austin is largely immune from this problem - the issue here is how to get neighborhoods to stop FIGHTING high-density development, not how to get the market to supply it.

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