We haven’t talked about streetcars much here lately, although one thread has started to heat up again on Columbus Underground in the past week. I wanted to share an interesting article I read on Human Transit last week though. The author of the blog, Jarrett Walker, is a transit consultant based in Australia. The article begins by arguing that streetcars replacing existing bus lines are not a mobility improvement. Before you get all upset and start commenting, let him explain.
streetcars: an inconvenient truth (final july 7 version)
…Streetcars that replace bus lines are not a mobility improvement. If you replace a bus with a streetcar on the same route, 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.
I think this gets to the heart of what streetcar opponents dislike about the Columbus streetcar plan and why many transit advocates would still rather see more regional rail lines that actually improve travel times. The streetcar would run and up and down High Street, just like the #2 bus. It doesn’t take you anywhere you can’t already go via transit. It won’t do take you anywhere faster than a bus could if you were to provide the same stop frequency with level boarding and off-board fare payment. But it will cost over $100 Million.
Despite these drawbacks, there ARE benefits of building the streetcar, as acknowledged by Mr. Walker:
* 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 when we compare them to the bus routes they replace, or that could be developed instead. If you want a streetcar because it will make your city a better place, then build it for that reason. If you want a streetcar because of the development it will attract, fine, though this suggests that (as in Portland) the landowners who will benefit when the streetcar raises their property values should probably be one the main sources of the money. But you want a streetcar because it’s intrinsically faster and more reliable than a bus — well, that’s just not true.
So I think this provides some insight into how the argument for the streetcar should be framed by advocates.
- The streetcar needs to be viewed as a supplement to the #2 bus, not as a replacement. Maybe the streetcar can even enhance service on the #2, perhaps by letting it run a little faster through the Campus, the Short North, and Downtown with fewer stops? It could also help provide extra capacity in its larger cars to relieve over-crowding on the #2 in peak periods.
- The streetcar is a first step towards a larger rail system. Much like a White Castle Slider, advocates are hoping that the streetcar creates a crave of delicious transit service that will keep Columbusites waiting in line to get more.
- Rails provide a smoother rides than even state-of-the art buses that I have ridden.
- The streetcar is likely to increase transit ridership. It’s not clear if this is because rail is easier to understand, because it’s marketed better, or because of the smoother ride (see #3), but rail pretty much always attracts more passengers than a bus on the same route. There is an opportunity to get more visitors out of cars and to get them to see more of Columbus since the line goes by destinations like the Convention Center and the Arena District.
- Electrification can provide environmental benefits.
- Most importantly, the streetcar has potential to spur economic development and help create a denser downtown.
I do think that a full alternatives analysis should be considered before building the streetcar. Hopefully this would be included with the engineering study that has yet to take place. If an alternatives analysis has already been done, please let me know. I’d love a link to the report. The studies I’ve seen so far basically justify investment in a streetcar without considering other alternatives. Human Transit warns against this approach:
Let me repeat: my purpose here is not to praise or condemn the streetcar in the abstract. 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.
The diversity of transit needs in each city is so great, and geography of each corridor is so different, that the decision about the right mode needs to be made corridor-by-corridor. Portland’s new Streetcar Network Plan does acknowledge this, but the entire scope and definition of the study is still troubling. The question as framed by the study was not “What are our transit needs, and how do we meet them?” Rather, it was framed as “We want streetcars!!! So where do we put them?”
…But when the thinking starts with the love of one technology, you’re in danger of producing an inferior transit service, because when compromise needs to be made, technology-first thinking will tend to sacrifice the goals to save the technology. To use my previous analogy, you’ll build an inferior house because you weren’t really focused on building the house, you were focused on how much you like your hammer.