March 13, 2016

The light rail myth

Four decades ago, this journal - then the DC Gazette - was a lonely critic of the Washington's new subway system. Our criticisms - which turned out to be true - included the fact that it would become easier for businesses and hotels to move or be built outside the city, that it would primarily serve  and attract suburban riders who could use the city for free since Congress barred DC from having a commuter tax, that it would attract new development to which only a minority would come by subway thus actually increasing street traffic, and that its finances were based on stealing passengers from the current and much cheaper bus system. We pointed out that, for the same cost, one could build many more miles of  streetcar and/or bus service.

The one thing we didn't initially notice - though might have given that defense contractor Boeing was an early player in light rail - was that light rail costs would soar,. So some years later we became an advocate for buses with their own reserved lanes, still probably the best mass transit choice other than the one suggested to us by a transit expert: "Stop people from moving around so much."

The following story indicates that our shift from liking light rail was not misplaced. 

Gabrielle Gurley, American Prospect - The long-awaited D.C. streetcars recently started trundling down Washington’s H Street NE, near the U.S. Capitol. Yet the $200 million line, which had been in the works for a full decade, has mostly been greeted with the sound of one hand clapping. Residents have complained about the slow speed of the system, the short span of the line, and the paucity of new jobs or better transit connections for the area’s African American poor.

When it comes to streetcars, New York is no Washington, insists Gotham Mayor Bill de Blasio. The Big Apple, he says, would have a “different” approach to the $2.5 billion Brooklyn Queens Connector, a cross-borough waterfront streetcar plan....

Streetcars are all the rage today in areas that would be otherwise ideal for a speedier and less expensive option, such as bus rapid transit. But the streetcar renaissance in cities like Washington and New York reflects a short-sighted prioritization of real-estate development projects served by boutique transit, rather than more well-thought-out, cost-effective transit options that provide demonstrable benefits for the greatest number of residents.

The primary such option is bus rapid transit, which provides bus-exclusive travel through a separate right of way (such as a tunnel) or a dedicated lane that excludes other vehicles, preferably with traffic lights timed to speed the vehicles through, especially during rush hours.

In a tax-averse era, buses have other virtues. They are less expensive to purchase and operate. Two years ago, an Arlington, Virginia, streetcar proposal got the axe as its estimated costs crept over the $500 million mark. This month, Cincinnati taxpayers found out a nearly $150 million city streetcar line will cost an additional $1.2 million more. However, streetcars have few of the benefits of rail or buses. Unlike bus rapid transit, they travel at a leisurely pace, make frequent stops, and get held up in the same traffic that buses, cars, and trucks do.

“There is always a bus solution to doing what a streetcar does,” says Jarrett Walker, an international transit planning and policy consultant who blogs at “The expense of a streetcar is specifically associated with improving the look and feel without improving how soon you get anywhere.”

But streetcars have a major public relations advantage: They aren’t buses, which are arguably the most maligned mode of transportation on the planet. Modern streetcars have more cachet, they are both sleek and retro in an age when an old-school vibe is a positive attribute. (Why else would young men favor beards commonly associated late-19th-century U.S. presidents?) Buses can be scruffy and are in sore need of a phalanx of public relations gurus.


1 comment:

Hugh Reitan said...

Here in Duluth Minnesota, the streetcar network was largely developed to serve middle and upper income neighborhoods and suburbs far from downtown. Working class people walked to work and large employers had their own buses or spawned bus companies to serve them. Once trucks had enough power to plow snow it was all over for the street cars, as their customers could afford cars.