Streetcars: An Inconvenient Truth


It’s a big day for streetcars.  Portland has released its draft Streetcar System Concept Plan, an ambitious vision for extending the city’s popular downtown streetcar all over the city.  There are similar plans underway in Seattle, Minneapolis, and many other cities.

I love riding streetcars, and I don’t want to shock anyone, so let’s start with a warning: This article contains an observation about streetcars that is not entirely effusive.  It may provoke hostile reactions from some streetcar enthusiasts.  It would probably be better for my transit planning career if I didn’t make this observation, but unfortunately it seems to be true, and very important, and not widely acknowledged or understood.  So I’m going to say it.

But I’m going to be very careful.  As I said in this blog’s manifesto, “my goal is not to make you share my values, but to provide perspectives that help you clarify yours.”  If you’re a streetcar advocate, I want to help you be a better one by really understanding a critical issue that doesn’t get talked about very clearly in most streetcar debates.  It goes to the fundamental question of why you would build streetcars in urban corridors where there’s already a good bus route.

Enough cautions.  Here it is: 

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.  Likewise, if you build a streetcar instead of a good bus line, that money you spend above the cost of the bus line is not helping anyone get anywhere any faster.

This makes streetcars quite different from most of the other transit investments being discussed today.

Where a streetcar is faster or more reliable than a bus route doing the same thing, this is because other improvements were made with the streetcar — 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.

To take one of the most famous examples, San Francisco’s F-Market streetcar does achieve better travel times along Market Street than the old 8-Market trolley bus that it replaced, but it does this because the street was redesigned in a way that made transit of any kind more reliable.  Like most buses, the 8-Market ran in the right (outside) lane, where it had the usual interference from parallel-parking movements, right-turning cars, etc.  Some of its stops were pullouts (a designated gap in the parking strip where buses pull up to the curb, largely leaving the traffic lane).  Pullouts are good for getting buses out of the way of cars but not a good way of running buses reliably, because the bus often has difficulty getting back into traffic.
DSCF9058 When the 8-Market bus was replaced by the F-Market streetcar, the streetcar was placed in the left (inside) lane, stopping at island platforms.  This eliminated conflicts with right turns and also eliminated the pullout problem.  These improvements were made together with the streetcar, so people naturally think of them as streetcar benefits, but they were logically independent.  The same street design could have been done for the bus if the City had wanted to, and it would have achieved the same speed and reliability benefit.    
Later, on the Embarcadero, the F-Market was extended to replace the 32-Embarcadero bus.  Here, the streetcar was placed in an exclusive median right of way.  That, obviously, was a huge speed and reliability improvement.  But it was the exclusive right-of-way, not the streetcar, that created this benefit.  Such a right of way could have been built for buses to yield the same outcome.
Are there cases where a mobility improvement (i.e.  enabling someone to go somewhere faster than they can now) follows logically from the streetcar technology?  Yes, there are some:
  • Capacity.  In other urban contexts, rail transit is important for its ability to carry large number of riders per vehicle, and hence per driver, usually by combining cars into trainsets.  European streetcars are often huge trainsets with capacities of 500 or more.  Typical single streetcars used in the US have a slight advantage; they have a capacity of around 200 compared to 120 for a typical articulated bus.  This capacity advantage can be relevant in high-volume situations, particularly when frequencies get down to the three-minute range.  However. most streetcars now under discussion are not this frequent, or for markets nearly this busy.
  • Existing rail rights-of-way.  A proposed streetcar project in Vancouver involves using a piece of existing rail line, as does the small line in Kenosha, Wisconsin.  In this case, the streetcar can obviously do something important that a bus can’t.
Let me review carefully what I’m not saying about this incredibly sensitive topic.
  • 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, and whether the land value uplift from streetcars is durable.  (It may not be, if it’s based on confusion about the level of mobility and access that the streetcar actually provides.)
  • 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 (“getting people where they’re going fast and efficiently”) when we compare them to the bus routes they replace, or that could be developed instead.  [2015 update: I’d no longer use the term “mobility” here. I’d use “abundant access.”]  If you want a streetcar because  you think 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.
Both Portland and Seattle started with streetcars that don’t directly replace any existing bus services, which helped them avoid this issue.  As these networks expand, though, the issue of how to compare streetcars to existing frequent buses will come to the fore.  So let’s be clear about what we’re doing, and why.

First Update, and Another Hard Question

Since writing the text above, I’ve studied Portland’s draft Streetcar System Concept Plan and note the plan advises us to expect an average speed of 7-12 mi/hour for local-stop service (p 13) running in the outside or “slow” lane (like the current Portland Streetcar).  This speed, typical of mixed-traffic streetcars in dense areas, is easily matched and usually exceeded by ordinary local-stop bus services.  Again, if off-board fare collection were used for both, I suspect buses would be faster.  Note that the slow lane is where transit can be obstructed by parallel parking movements, right turn queues, etc.  When these brief disruptions occur, the streetcar is stuck while a bus would just go around them.
The Portland study also suggests we should expect an average speed of 15-25 mi/hour when operating in the inside or “fast” lane with island platforms (like San Francisco’s F-Market).   Again, this is easily matched by a bus doing the same thing in the same type of right-of-way with the same fare collection system, signals, etc.
So any speed advantage that streetcars have over buses is due not to the streetcar technology but to other logically independent changes made as part of the streetcar project — changes that could have been made for the bus.  By contrast, one clear speed-and-reliability benefit of the bus is intrinsic to the technology: Buses have the physical ability to go around obstructions that occur in their lane, while the streetcar is stuck behind them. 
To end, then, let me ask one other hard question.
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 infrastrucure 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?
Certainly, there is a strong case for streetcars (or light rail) in cases where (a) the ~50% capacity advantage of a streetcar is critical and (b) the streetcar can be placed in the “fast lane” like the F-Market or in a transit-only curb lane.  But operations in mixed traffic in the slow lane (like the current Portland Streetcar) make many transit experts nervous, becuase they are only going to get slower and less reliable as traffic increases with development.
Finally, when I say that big capital spending has to make sense in the long term, it obviously depends on whose money we’re spending.  If the property owners along a street want to pay for a streetcar, and it can be done in a way that matches the speed and reliability of the bus that’s there now (and maintain that into the future as traffic increases), then I can’t see why anyone would object.  If public money goes into it, my role as a consultant is to help communities make well informed decisions, so I’d just want to make sure that they don’t have a false expectation of the level of mobility it will offer.  
I’d also caution against allowing bus services to deteriorate or stagnate as you pursue a streetcar.  (In Portland, for example, remarkably little new service has been added to the eastside grid of frequent routes since that grid was created in 1982, despite a huge growth in population in that time.)  Streetcar advocates will look more like transit advocates if they take a strong interest in making the bus service work as well.  Otherwise there will always be a suspicion that bus services are intentionally not being improved so that the streetcar looks better by comparison. 
So what else am I missing here?  I’d like to be more of a streetcar enthusiast.  Certainly I’d have more friends in Portland!

Second Update, as the Comments Roll In

Not surprisingly, this is by far the most-read and most-commented post yet on Human Transit.  Many commenters weigh in to defend the streetcar on a range of grounds.  I have no quarrel with most of the comments, but many of them do not engage the actual argument I’ve made.  I’ve been very specific, for example, that when I say a streetcar will not get anyone anywhere any faster than a bus does, I’m not saying that’s the only criterion that matters, nor am I expressing an opinion about streetcars in general.  I am just pointing out that streetcars do have this feature, and that they are unusual among our major transit investment proposals in this respect.
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.
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?”  
I think this is what Terry Parker means in his comment when he says that “comprehensive transit planning in Portland has been lost.”  A plan for where we could put streetcars is not a plan for how to meet inner-city Portland’s transit needs.  If the overriding goal of the Portland Dept. of Transportation really is “build as many streetcars as possible,” many of those needs are not going to be met, and many opportunities for efficiency and creativity will be lost.
Now I have the highest respect for the lead consultant on the study, and I know he understands these principles.  His plan acknowledges, to the extent that its streetcar-centric scope permits, that the future network will be a mix of technologies.  I hope that means that each street will get the mode that really serves its needs.  I hope that in Portland, the next step is to say, OK, we now know that we can put a streetcar down Belmont Street.  So let’s do a corridor study in which we debate what we should be trying to do on that street, balance the different objectives, and then — only once we agree on what our goals are — select the technology that best delivers those goals.  No responsible transit planner would question a streetcar line that emerged from that kind of thinking.  I hope that’s the direction that Portland, and other cities, go.
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.  
We saw this happen in the dying days of the Seattle Monorail Project (1996-2005).  As the costs ballooned and support dried up, the proponents’ last move was to shorten the line, reducing its benefits, because their first duty was not to serve the needs of the corridor but to build a monorail at all costs.  They sacrificed the actual goal of the technology in order to save the technology itself, and in that case, they ended up with nothing.  If the Seattle Monorail Project had been defined as the “Northwest and West Seattle Rapid Transit Project,” charged with determining the community’s goals and selecting the best technology to meet them, I bet we’d have some kind of rapid transit in that corridor by now.  We might even have a monorail.  Instead, because the organisation was committed to the technology first, it ended in failure.
Another way of describing technology-first thinking is that it tends to select and emphasise goals that the favored technology is good at meeting.  It’s as if we told our architect: “design me a house that will require hammering lots of nails!”  If a community really does rise up as one and say “the goals served by the streetcar happen to be exactly our goals!” then they should have a streetcar.  But too often, the technology advocate ends up sifting the goals based on whether they fit his technology, rather than whether they’re the community’s real goals.   
You can build a lot fast if you sell technology-first thinking on a large scale.  Certainly that’s how we got the Interstate Highway System, which (literally) ran over a lot of important values in its quest to implement one favored technology everywhere.  But for the planet’s sake I hope Portland’s smarter than that, because many, many cities will follow Portland’s lead.  Dont’ let anyone tell you that the streetcar made Portland a great livable city.  Portland is a great livable city because of decades of hard work in comprehensive planning and consensus building, leading to many different actions, and many different technologies, that all served the goals that people really shared.  The streetcar is just one such technology.  It is a result, not a cause, of Portland’s success.
Feel free to keep the comments coming, and select the category “Streetcars (Trams)” to see the conversation continue.  Thanks to everyone who’s contributed so far. My debate with Professor Patrick Condon on this (“Is speed obsolete?”) starts here.  For further thinking on bus-rail debates in general, see my article Sorting out Rail-Bus Differences“.

159 Responses to Streetcars: An Inconvenient Truth

  1. Chris Smith July 4, 2009 at 7:32 am #

    As an unabashed streetcar supporter, I don’t have any fundamental disagreement with your line of argument here. Streetcar’s mobility advantages vs. a bus are limited – mostly the ability to attract riders who would not seek a bus.
    The real motivation for streetcar is the kind of urban environment it helps create (and yes, other complimentary investments are required as well).
    But I don’t accept that the development benefits accrue just to the property owners and developers, the whole community is better off with a healthier and more sustainable city.
    In Portland we’ve invested about $100M in our streetcar system (that’s about to jump by another $150M). The private sector has responded with $3B in development along the alignment in a much more sustainable pattern than would have occurred absent the streetcar. That’s an incredible leveraging of public resources.

    • John Brownson September 29, 2016 at 8:40 pm #

      multiple modes are best, with coordinated planning and investment to create effective, efficient & comfortable passenger experiences, from train to light rail, streetcars, busses & private jitney services, the latter works very effectively in many other countries will no more traffic accidents than in other places. Using UBER type systems where regularly scheduled routes connect to multi-passenger vans, such as airport shuttles makes great sense as electric cars are still neither affordable nor reduce traffic ….

  2. Beige July 4, 2009 at 8:57 am #

    To some extent, this is the argument that BRT could be perfectly nice, if anyone ever actually built full-on dedicated lanes and boarding stations BRT and didn’t just bargain everyone down to a plain old bus with a New Rapid Transit Logo painted on the side.
    I experienced electric buses in San Francisco years ago, though they weren’t particularly nice buses (they seemed uglier than buses usually are) the lack of roaring engine was great. Where else are those used? Anywhere else in the US? I’ve never even heard of their use being proposed in a more serious way than bloggers mentioning the possibility.

    • Lucas February 11, 2016 at 6:59 am #

      Electric trolleybuses are also used in Philadelphia, Boston, Cambridge, Dayton (Ohio), Seattle and Vancouver in Canada. Also around 150 european cities use them.

      I really love streetcars but I have to say that you are right! Sometimes they are even slower than buses.

      The big bonus of streetcars is the high capacity (up to 400 people!) like in Paris, Berlin or Budapest and that the streetcars have a longer life expactancy than buses.

  3. anonymouse July 4, 2009 at 9:36 am #

    I’d argue that what you say is mostly true, but only mostly, and largely has to do with the choice of particular streetcar vehicles in the US. One benefit of streetcars is that they’re electric and therefore have better acceleration capabilities than bus, and that they can run fast on exclusive ROW where that is available. But the streetcar model used in Portland has rather unimpressive acceleration and a top speed of only 30 mph, which it achieves only with some effort. A somewhat better performing streetcar has somewhat more benefits in terms of getting you there slightly faster, and yeah, the MU capability is really the main thing that buses can’t do. But of course there’s also the fact that streetcars save money: a streetcar is cheaper to run than a bus, and past some level of service it becomes a net savings overall including the cost of construction. And the transit agency can reinvest that money (plus the extra fare revenue from extra ridership on the streetcar) into providing more bus service on the farther reaches of the network.
    Another benefit of streetcars is that unlike buses it’s harder to compromise or remove the various enhancements. A bus lane is just a car lane with the word “bus” panted on it after all, and the buses run on roads owned by a Department of Cars and Highways (often called a “Department of Transportation”), while streetcars run on rails owned by the transit authority.

  4. Alon Levy July 4, 2009 at 10:10 am #

    Streetcars can use rail signaling systems to automatically stop a vehicle that’s running too fast. This allows them to drop other fail-safe systems that buses need, especially braking a longer distance before red lights. Overall, this provides a speed advantage.

  5. Aaron M. Renn July 4, 2009 at 10:39 am #

    A spot on observation.
    I speculate that if we controlled for all the variables – ROW improvements, investment policy, etc. – we’d find that the vaunted superiority of streetcars over buses is almost entirely the result of those factors.
    I think it is notable that the most passionate supporters of street car and light rail solutions over bus are to be found in cities without a strong transit culture where the advocates themselves have little to no experience riding buses and/or the bus lines in question are a bare minimum social service network.
    In a city like Chicago where huge numbers of upscale people ride the bus every day – and where express bus services like the ones along the lakefront offer better journey time than the L – almost nobody bashes buses or pushes to replace bus with rail. The idea that nobody would ride a bus that offered quality service is laughable.

  6. anonymouse July 4, 2009 at 10:57 am #

    Even with all variables controlled, studies have shown that riders have a preference for rail over bus. And the problem with buses is that their exclusive ROWs take more space, need more maintenance, and are more subject to automotive encroachment. Anyhow, are you saying that Seattle and Portland don’t have a strong transit culture? Or DC for that matter? I wouldn’t call Seattle’s trolleybus network a “bare minimum”, nor Portland’s MAX, and Washington’s Metro is far ahead of the Chicago L in terms of ridership.

  7. anonymouse July 4, 2009 at 10:58 am #

    But I still think that the way Seattle and Portland are building their lines is a mistake, and that their 25 mph operation makes it more a toy than a real form of transportation and competitor to (or replacement for) the bus.

  8. Alon Levy July 4, 2009 at 1:49 pm #

    Aaron, to be fair, when you control for all those variables, the cost advantage of buses over LRT disappears. Full BRT, with physically separated lanes, boarding available at all doors, signal priority, and high-capacity vehicles typically costs about $50 million per mile, compared with $35 for LRT. Some LRT systems actually come out cheaper – for example, in Calgary, where light rail was built with cost containment in mind, the system cost $24 million per mile.
    Once you include operating costs, LRT looks even better: steel wheels require less maintenance than rubber tires, electric traction costs less to operate than diesel traction, and trains can be combined to form larger vehicles. Only one of those advantages is true for trolleybuses.

  9. Wad July 4, 2009 at 3:23 pm #

    Beige wrote:
    I experienced electric buses in San Francisco years ago, though they weren’t particularly nice buses (they seemed uglier than buses usually are) the lack of roaring engine was great. Where else are those used? Anywhere else in the US? I’ve never even heard of their use being proposed in a more serious way than bloggers mentioning the possibility.
    There are only 6 systems in North America using trolleybuses: Boston, Philadelphia, Dayton, Vancouver, Seattle and San Francisco. Edmonton is phasing out trolleybuses.
    You don’t see more trolleybuses because they costs too much to run them unless there is a compelling need for them. In Seattle and San Francisco, the buses are needed to climb very steep hills.
    Also, most cities need an abundant source of electricity, such as hydro power. The cost of wire maintenance, plus the cost of generating electricity from coal or fossil fuels, put ETBs at a disadvantage over internal combustion buses. It would be cheaper to run a natural gas-powered bus than to run an ETB using electricity generated by natural gas.

  10. Jarrett at July 4, 2009 at 5:08 pm #

    Great comments. Let me hit the main themes so far.
    Aaron, I disagree that streetcar plans are happening ONLY in places without a strong bus culture, although I agree that they ARE happening in such places (e.g. Tucson and Winston-Salem). But Portland and Seattle can’t be put in that category. Both are already very dense and have relatively strong transit cultures for cities their size.
    Alon Levy is the only commenter who alleges any truly intrinsic speed advantage for streetcars, and I’ve asked for documentation on that showing how it makes a significant difference in a typical urban local-stop setting. I don’t claim to be knowledgeable about vehicle engineering or even especially interested in it. I’m focused on what these various technologies can offer in the effort to create useful public transit.
    My contention in this post applies specificially to local-stop operations, such as streetcars and local buses typically provide. So at the moment I’m not engaging a Bus Rapid Transit vs Light Rail debate, as those terms generally imply rapid transit style operation with less frequent stops.
    Because of the electric trolleybus option, I’m also contending that the fuel-burning vs electric distinction is different from the streetcar vs bus distinction. I realize this will perhaps seem like a stretch because electric trolleybuses do have a capital cost. However, it’s still way cheaper than a streetcar. Basically, for a streetcar you have to build the rails in the street and the electric power system above. For trolleybuses you just need the latter. I believe the unit costs of a modern streetcar vehicle are well above those of a trolleybus.
    (Also, re the commenter who’d ridden unpleasant old trolleybuses in San Francisco, do come back now and ride the low-floor fleet that began phasing in earlier this decade, and that’s also starting to appear in Vancouver.)
    By the way, we need to let go of our habit of referring to non-electric buses as “diesel”, because bus fuels have been diversifying for more than a decade now. The one crucial thing we don’t have is a battery-powered full-size electric bus, so at the moment the electric trolleybus is the main alternative that fully captures the acceleration advantage of electric motors. This advantage will be obvious to anyone who’s watched a crushloaded trolleybus zoom up a steep hill in San Francisco or Seattle, though because streetcars can’t climb such hills at all, the streetcar advantage will always be subtler.
    Finally, to Chris, I’d never allege that the benefits of redevelopment extend SOLELY to property owners, but I’d say that while every benefits equally from a more interesting city, those owners do get an added benefit, to say the least, and should pay for it. How to balance developer contributions (including Local Improvement Districts) with general taxpayer funds is obviously the kind of question we pay politicians to answer.
    But I end with this caution as it applies to fungible funding sources. As far as I can see, streetcars that replace buses are the only kind of major transit investment that yields virtually ZERO mobility benefits. I contend that they belong in a separate conceptual category for that reason, and that very hard questions have to be asked about what kind of benefit we’re buying when we do this, and who should pay, and why we’re spending money that could otherwise be spent on services that actually get people where they’re going faster.
    And as that argument plays out in each city, we have to notice that the remaining pro-streetcar arguments are primarily CULTURAL. A streetcar’s ridership, and its ability to spur development, are based at least in part on people’s CURRENT attitudes about buses. As buses continue to improve, taking on more and more of the features of rail services, and more people ride them, shouldn’t we expect this advantage to diminish? Doesn’t this suggest that while the short-term advantage of streetcars is undeniable, the long-term advantage may be much less? Big capital spending has to make sense for the long term. 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, with many of the same characteristics, running on tires.

  11. anonymouse July 4, 2009 at 7:03 pm #

    Wad: LA did a study of trolleybus, and they found that the maintenance costs of trolleybus vehicles plus wire is actually lower than that for diesel bus (and no wire). Of course it’s the capital cost that gets you, but wires and poles last at least 30-50 years.

  12. Alon Levy July 4, 2009 at 8:13 pm #

    Jarrett, the mechanical advantages of steel wheels are true not just for LRT versus BRT, but also for streetcars versus trolleybuses, and for that matter regular metros versus rubber-tired metros. Conversely the advantages for rubber tires are similar across the board.
    The differences boil down to the fact that rubber tires have more friction, which increases energy use and wear and tear but improves grade-climbing and sometimes acceleration. Having a guideway, such as rails, improves acceleration and permits running longer vehicles at shorter headways. So for rapid transit, it’s sometimes worth it to choose rubber-tired metros on their own merits, whereas for local and intermediate transit, buses are the cheaper and lower-quality solution.
    People want rail over buses not just in the US. Jerusalem is building multiple light rail lines to supplement its bus system; Tel Aviv is planning a subway-light rail hybrid, though it’s far behind Jerusalem there. In both cities, there’s no social stigma against bus riders, but the buses are slow and sit idle in jammed traffic, so the authorities are looking for a railed replacement.

  13. Jarrett at July 4, 2009 at 8:30 pm #

    Correction to my last comment, thanks to Wad: San Francisco’s new trolleybuses are not low-floor. I’m pretty sure Vancouver’s are, however.
    Re Alon Levy’s last comment, I’d appreciate if someone can point me to some documentation showing how the acceleration differences between rails and rubber tires (as opposed to differences related to engine and fuel type) yield measurable differences in travel time in typical urban frequent-stop in-street operation.

  14. Jarrett at July 4, 2009 at 8:36 pm #

    Thanks for your advice on this.  I'm familiar with what you say in principle, but I need to find some documentation showing how the rail vs tire tradeoff affects actual travel time in an in-street, local-stop setting — presuming flat terrain for the moment — when all the other cultural and political differences affecting streetcar implementations have been factored out.  Let me know if you've seen anything.   Thanks for keeping me honest here.

  15. Michael Druker July 4, 2009 at 8:51 pm #

    Streetcars are not rapid transit, nor are they a cure-all. They have the visibly permanent track going for them. They are notably bigger than buses and easier to enter and exit. (Apparently the original Portland ones fit 156 people, versus around 105 for articulated buses.)
    But really, the ride is smooth. A small part of this is captured by electric trolleybuses, but not too much. Only the most well-maintained road in the world with an extraordinary driver can give you a bus experience that matches a normal streetcar ride. I have no argument that the streetcar is faster. However, it is far more pleasant — which leads to less time and worry attributed perceptually to the ride.
    I regularly walk 30 minutes instead of taking the bus for 10 minutes. But I would take the 10 minute streetcar, maybe even the 15 minute one. Travel time is a useful measure, but it is not always the most important one. What’s the point of “mobility” if you avoid using it?

  16. Chris Smith July 4, 2009 at 9:31 pm #

    How to balance developer contributions (including Local Improvement Districts) with general taxpayer funds is obviously the kind of question we pay politicians to answer.
    Each Streetcar project in Portland (original alignment, 3 extensions, now the Loop project) has STARTED with an LID. The LIDs have ranged from 10% to 50% of capital costs depending on the circumstances (15% is typical).
    Indeed, the LID commitment is the first requirement before City Council will even entertain a streetcar project.

  17. Chris Smith July 4, 2009 at 9:58 pm #

    As far as I can see, streetcars that replace buses are the only kind of major transit investment that yields virtually ZERO mobility benefits.
    I think you are making a mistake in looking solely at mobility rather than access. A huge benefit (perhaps the largest benefit) of streetcar is the ‘trip not taken’. By fostering a more compact form of development streetcar allows people to meet their daily needs with fewer trips or shorter trips (and shorter trips are less likely to be auto-oriented).
    You’re correct that mobility does not increase greatly. But access increases tremendously.

  18. The Overhead Wire July 4, 2009 at 11:07 pm #

    Nice post. A lot of people above are already deep in the weeds on a number of different issues but in addition to the trip not taken and access, let’s not forget the ADA issue as well. In Portland with the level boarding and push ramp that comes out from under the door, a wheelchair or stroller can load like anyone else. With a bus, even on a low floor bus, the person in a wheelchair must be buckled in (I don’t know where this rule comes from but i see them buckled in all the time). Since the buses come to different curb heights, there isn’t a mechanism other than the onboard ramp that is much easier than that of the streetcar. We have low floor buses in Oakland and some of the wheelchair loading has taken 5 minutes, a lifetime in transit schedules. That alone is a huge mobility issue.
    This however is not the case where Streetcars do not have low floors. In San Francisco access is hampered by the lack of many ramps and in places like Little Rock or Kenosha, wheelchair lifts are the same as they are on buses. So it’s primarily an advantage of low floor modern vehicles.
    See this video at 1:45

  19. Alon Levy July 4, 2009 at 11:14 pm #

    Wikipedia is a pretty good source for rubber versus steel. The relevant articles are Rubber-tyred metro, Guided bus, and Rail transport.
    The travel time issue is different. It boils down to the fact that unguided buses can’t reliably run at higher frequency than about one every 3 minutes; beyond that they bunch too much. Bunching and high load factors then lead to long queues, which lead to excessive dwells.

  20. Daniel July 5, 2009 at 4:23 am #

    “Most streetcars now under discussion are not larger than buses, and have no capability to be run as large trainsets, so this is not an issue in any North American or Australasian debates of which I’m aware.”
    Not sure about this. There are clearly trams/streetcars in service in Melbourne (such as the older B class and the new, on-loan Bumblebees, neither of which are ever coupled together) which have a greater capacity (around 200) than any bus I’ve so far seen.
    The Overhead Wire: “Since the buses come to different curb heights, there isn’t a mechanism other than the onboard ramp that is much easier than that of the streetcar.”
    What about kneeling buses? With careful driving and a kneeling bus, I’d imagine any height difference+gap would be no more than you’d see with trams/streetcars and platform stops.

  21. Daniel July 5, 2009 at 4:24 am #

    “Most streetcars now under discussion are not larger than buses, and have no capability to be run as large trainsets, so this is not an issue in any North American or Australasian debates of which I’m aware.”
    Not sure about this. There are clearly trams/streetcars in service in Melbourne (such as the older B class and the new, on-loan Bumblebees, neither of which are ever coupled together) which have a greater capacity (around 200) than any bus I’ve so far seen.
    The Overhead Wire: “Since the buses come to different curb heights, there isn’t a mechanism other than the onboard ramp that is much easier than that of the streetcar.”
    What about kneeling buses? With careful driving and a kneeling bus, I’d imagine any height difference+gap would be no more than you’d see with trams/streetcars and platform stops.

  22. Michael Druker July 5, 2009 at 8:39 am #

    Kneeling bus or not, you still have to squeeze wheelchairs and strollers through the narrow space next to the driver.

  23. Here’s an idea that came to me while reading these comments.
    We all seem to agree that the scenario we’re discussing here is one where ridership will be increased. And we can agree that even though we may not know why, we do know that two routes that are equal in all respects except mode, the streetcar will have higher ridership. This higher ridership is desirable, because it will cause higher density development. There will be more housing, more retail, more office compared to what the area had before the street car.
    As much as we would hope that the new residents are coming in from the suburbs, they’re probably more likely to be from other declining cities or rural areas. But either way, there are more people. Without the increased density, this new development would have happened out in the suburbs. I shouldn’t have to argue too hard that the new development in the suburbs will lead to less mobility to those who occupy it.
    Here’s where the streetcar increases mobility, but it comes with a large assumption. The assumption I’m making here is that our streetcar system, and other ‘good’ transit, will offer increased mobility over no transit. So anything we can do to increase ridership on ‘good’ transit will increase overall mobility.

  24. Jarrett at July 5, 2009 at 8:55 pm #


  25. anonymouse July 5, 2009 at 10:09 pm #

    I think you’re basically right, at least from a purely transit planning perspective, aside from the fact that streetcars attract more ridership than buses. From a broader urban planning perspective, there are a few other reasons why streetcars might be good, including development, greening the city, and so on.
    In traditional Soviet transit planning, the streetcar was actually at the top of the urban transit hierarchy, above the trolleybus and bus. The streetcar was used as the high capacity mode on major corridors in cities that didn’t have rapid transit, and in cities that did it generally served the corridors that didn’t have Metro lines yet or orbital corridors. Generally in city centers the lines ran in mixed traffic, and on the outskirts they ran in reservations along the side of a boulevard. The trolleybus was generally for major thoroughfares that didn’t quite warrant a streetcar line, and for streets that paralleled a Metro line to provide a local service. Buses were generally for local neighborhood routes, express lines, and places that hadn’t gotten a trolleybus yet. Incidentally, Russia is the only place I know of that had MU trolleybuses.

  26. Jarrett at July 5, 2009 at 10:22 pm #

    Note that the argument based on likely future improvements to the bus suggests that traditional historical roles of streetcars may not be relevant to the future. (Pre-ww2 streetcars also didn’t contend with so much car traffic.) Current high ridership is acknowledged, but the real question is why and whether improvements in buses that make them more like rail won’t cut into that difference.

  27. Aaron Antrim July 6, 2009 at 1:17 am #

    I’ve lived in Portland for about 6 months. I am a somewhat regular bus rider and occasional MAX rider. I rode streetcar once in the time I’ve lived here. Using an iPhone to look up transit directions on-the-fly makes the bus system legible through the virtual world. The fact that Streetcar tracks show where the vehicles travel means little to me (but is useful for non-fancy-mobile-phone-owning passengers). This is another example of how current technology is shifting parameters that had previously favored streetcars over buses.
    It does seem to me that arguments in favor of streetcar are mostly cultural. Generally speaking, people who own nice condominiums feel streetcar is an acceptable transit mode for people for them. Buses not so much. I apologize if this appears provocative. I like riding streetcars but am not sold on widespread investment in them.
    I would be curious to see what data TriMet and Portland Streetcar have on ridership demographics between Streetcar, MAX, and bus, and the level of overlap. Specifically, I would like to find out how many Streetcar-bus and MAX-bus transfers (connections?) occur.
    I speculate (no facts available right now) that many streetcar passengers ONLY ride rail vehicles (MAX or streetcar). If true, this is a bad thing. Passengers should perceive and experience each transit service type as an interconnected part of a larger system.
    Investing in streetcar at the neglect of bus service, and, more crucially, including the sorts of features people expect from streetcar (signal priority, dedicated ROW, etc.) and not building these features into bus service means perpetuating the stereotypes people have about bus and streetcar services. I sense a certain amount of self-fulfilling prophecy.
    This said, I am looking forward to East-side Streetcar service on MLK and Grand.
    But, what I would like even more is if newer, quieter buses with signal priority were deployed on Route 15/Belmont, and if streetcar-like/BRT service features and amenities were added to the service.

  28. anonymouse July 6, 2009 at 1:45 am #

    The historical roles of the streetcar in pre-WWII cities was pretty much the same as buses today. What I was talking about in the Soviet planning system is a post-WWII attempt to rationalize things, although there were quite a few “legacy” streetcar lines left over of the low density, mixed traffic, center-city type. Of course in modern day Russia, the streetcar also has the advantage that you can install three foot deep pits and tire-destroying spikes to ensure that the dedicated ROW stays dedicated, as no “dedicated” busway would stay that way for very long with Moscow drivers. Anyhow, I’d like to reiterate my conclusion from all this: streetcars can be very useful on higher-density urban corridors that don’t warrant rapid transit. But the Portland implementation of streetcars is not really very good and is not in any way superior to a bus if you’re trying to get across town. At best it’s good for short local hops, which is fine for a line mostly in the inner CBD, but maybe not so useful in a city-wide context.

  29. Jarrett at July 6, 2009 at 6:05 am #

    Thanks for all your thoughtful feedback.  As I mention in the expanded version, I think there's very strong reason to believe that the subjective differences between bus and streetcar will shrink over time, which suggests in turn that all forms of high-quality mobility will become more equal in their ability to stimulate development.  It's a speculation but an informed one. 

    I encourage you to broaden the debate by linking to my piece from Portland Transport.  In the end, a broader debate will give you a more politically secure and resilient streetcar network.
    See also my welcome and manifesto re the role Portland played in my own development as a planner (link is in my banner).
    All the best,  Jarrett Walker

  30. Michael Druker July 6, 2009 at 7:43 am #

    There’s no doubt that buses are improving, as are streetcars. However, the difference in the long run may very well remain substantial. Buses run on roads, and that places a very severe limitation on how smooth their ride can be. The more buses try to emulate rail, the more high-tech — and consequently expensive — they need to become. At some point you will have to concede that trains are both better and cheaper at being trains. Once you accept that, you can spend some of that futile train-emulating money on providing more frequent and extensive bus service, and on trains where warranted.
    In 2050, new trains and buses will be worlds apart, just as they are now, and just as they were 50 and 100 years ago.
    Regarding mixed-traffic streetcars: If cities develop as we now think they should, and if they do get their light rail and streetcars, there is every reason to think that traffic will actually decline. So mixed-traffic streetcar operation could be a self-fulfilling prophecy, if done right.
    Public transit needs to get people to where they need to go reasonably quickly and without undue discomfort — else they will avoid using it. That second part does not appear to figure much in your use of the term “mobility”.

  31. Daniel M. Laenker July 6, 2009 at 8:12 am #

    I would really love to see more trolleybuses everywhere. It’s electric, relatively fixed-guideway, and above all quiet (my biggest particular beef with buses, and probably most people’s). Unfortunately, it seems planners are as convinced that the public is allergic to overhead wires as they are that buses are untenable.

  32. Beige July 6, 2009 at 10:22 am #

    The oldest and newest buses in *my* city’s fleet are nearly indistinguishable, but we are in a death spiral and don’t actually have anything new. Incredible vibration, astonishing noise, comically old-timey fake plastic wood trim. Not different from the early-90s low-floor buses, which were noticeably different from the even older high-floor and even louder still buses. I suppose a hybrid that shut the engine off when stopped (like the car I’ve had for years now…) would be nicer, at least when (as is so often the case) stopped.
    7-12 miles per hour (11-19 km/hr) is just absurd for motorized transport. The high end is a low average speed for bicycling, if you take it easy plus get unlucky and end up stopped at every red light. The low end… Well, walking is 5-6 km/hr or so, so if the service is very, very frequent it could be faster than walking.

  33. smably July 6, 2009 at 10:36 am #

    It has been claimed that buses may, perhaps, eventually, be able to match the streetcar experience, so we shouldn’t invest in streetcars now. I’m not convinced.
    Here is the thing: right now, with the technology and culture we have, streetcars attract more riders than buses.
    Once we’ve sunk the capital cost into streetcar infrastructure, they can be operated for the same cost — possibly even for less cost — than buses. We must consider how long it will take for bus technology to match streetcar technology (and consider that streetcar technology will improve too, especially if it becomes more popular), and spread the streetcar capital cost over that time.
    Then consider how many more riders will have been attracted to streetcars in that same period.
    We must also consider cultural issues surrounding buses. Even if you could build a bus that provided just as good an experience for riders as a streetcar, it could take up to a generation for people to lose their cultural aversion to buses. In North America, people don’t just avoid buses because they’re noisy and smelly; they avoid buses because they’re seen as transportation for poor people, and they don’t want to be associated with that. (I won’t offer any judgement on this, and neither should any transportation planner, because we must plan transit for how people /do/ act, not how they /should/ act.)
    There is also the fact that rail transit shapes urban form, and I haven’t seen much evidence that lines painted on a road are any good at that.

  34. Steven July 6, 2009 at 11:43 am #

    I don’t think the preference for streetcars over buses occurs in cities without a strong transit culture. I think it is because people ARE familiar with riding a bus. A real world experiment would show you why people feel that way.
    If you are ever in San Francisco, ride a (modern) streetcar down Market Street or the Embarcadero. Then ride a bus along the same stretch and compare the two rides. Which is easier to enter and exit? Which has a smoother acceleration? Which has a smoother ride? Which is quieter? Which one shakes and rattles more?
    The EXPERIENCE in riding a streetcar is far superior to riding a bus and no amount of updating of a bus is going to change that. As long as your ride is in a rubber tire vehicle on pavement, the ride is going to be jerkier, bumpier and more noisy than riding on rails. There is a reason why the lifetime of a bus is so much shorter than that of a streetcar; running on pavement literally beats them to death. And whether it is 2009 or 2050 that fact is not going to change.

  35. EngineerScotty July 6, 2009 at 1:45 pm #

    One other thought, following up to Steven’s post–just as much as the roads beat up busses, busses beat up the roads. Streetcars don’t cause anywhere near the wear and tear to the rails; and don’t touch the pavement at all, even in places where they run in mixed traffic.
    In many locales, this is an external cost not borne by the transit agency (though ultimately borne by taxpayers who fund both the transit authority and the public works department).
    If transit agencies were subject to fees in order to allocate this external cost, I suspect the streetcar would be a more attractive compare than it is now.

  36. Terry Parker - Portland July 6, 2009 at 3:44 pm #

    Your post is right on target! Personally I agree with most of your comments and conclusions – including requiring the property owners on the streets where streetcars operate help pay for them. However I disagree that streetcars are best for Portland. Additionally, there are a few of things that were not said.
    1. Streetcars crawling along in mixed traffic and obstructing motor vehicle travel lanes when boarding passengers create additional congestion thereby gumming up the streets on which they operate. Nationally, motor vehicle engines idling in stop and go traffic wastes 2.3 billion gallons of fuel a year. Keeping the traffic flowing on a street must be viewed as a priority. Therefore, streetcars do NOT belong on high traffic volume arterial streets.
    2. It is highly deceptive and fictitious to suggest that streetcars have promoted private sector development. In actuality, the new development that has occurred along the present Portland Streetcar route is to a large degree due to taxpayer funded subsidies to the developers, property tax abatements and cheap land provided by the Portland Development Commission. Given those same incentives, new development could easily occur anywhere in the city.
    3 The ridership numbers on the Portland Streetcar are skewed because the majority of the service is free to the users, paid for with taxpayer and motorist paid subsidies. Additionally, there is a high degree of fare evasion due to the majority of the operation taking place in Fareless Square.
    4. Comprehensive transit planning Portland has been lost. What is currently happening is that a route is chosen for a specific mode such as light rail or the streetcar by a stacked deck of group pushing their own manipulative agenda. An effort is made to justify that route by wedging the rails into the current transportation infrastructure, then projecting increased (and taxpayer subsidized) density and reworking other transit operations to feed the system with the purpose of manipulating the numbers so the new service will pass muster with the Feds.
    Specific transit planning must start with purpose and need with mode choice coming NOT first, but last. What is missing in Portland is an in-depth comprehensive comparison study of the overall cost effectiveness of all modes for transit for each route before a mode choice is actually made. As an example, instead of spending $10M per mile, an electric trolley bus system plan that in its most basic form only requires overhead wires be installed over the streets may very well be the most cost effective for taxpayers. The best example I can give occurred in the 1970s when planning for Eastside transit alternatives and the Banfield Freeway occurred. .Alternatives for transit considered ranged from doing nothing to special treatment on local streets, a HOV lane on the freeway, a bus way and light rail. Alternatives for the freeway included doing nothing, just moving the narrow lanes over to accommodate space for a transit project and various upgrades. What eventually came out of the four year comprehensive study is what we have today – light rail all the way to Gresham (it was originally only planned to go to Gateway), and upgrades to the freeway that included safety improvements and widening the facility and lanes, but to less than full interstate standards. Many of the costs (such as grading and over crossings) to construct light rail and make freeway improvements were shared thereby making the over all project extremely cost effective.

  37. Pedestrianist July 6, 2009 at 6:57 pm #

    I apologize if someone has already pointed it out and I missed it. The bumpy ride of buses not only leads to a poor rider experience, but it also costs transit agencies money. Buses cost less than streetcars upfront, but they need to be replaced much more often – and not for free.
    Paved roads have costs as well, comparable to rail over several decades when you count how often they need to be repaved. If you chalk those costs up as a given for a road driven on by cars, then you concede that transit vehicles will always operate mixed in with cars. Once people stop driving and start taking the bus, transit agencies have to pay for the bus lanes themselves.

  38. Dave Hogan July 6, 2009 at 8:57 pm #

    To use an example I can come up with from San Francisco, I stayed at my brother’s place last fall near Market St. I was planning to head up to Fisherman’s Wharf to grab some In-N-Out for lunch, and he pointed out the fastest route was some bus to some bus. Being only a little familiar with the city, I opted for the F line instead.
    I know where Market St and Embarcadero are, and I didn’t need to transfer. I know that it’ll stop about where I need to stop, and that I won’t get lost on the way.
    When I first was living in Portland proper it was a similar situation. The MAX and Streetcar were easy to understand, and I was able to navigate fairly freely without worrying about missing a stop/transfer, and it was easier than figuring out which # to remember.
    If we have as many streetcars as buses I suppose we’d lose some of that advantage. Overall though, it’s easier for me to remember where a train runs (since it’s usually the densest areas, and serves the destination I’m looking for) better than where a bus runs.
    I now do take buses quite frequently, but it took a while before I was really comfortable crossing to the East side and trying to figure out where I transferred, how many fares the ticket would be, and so forth.
    Things like a smartphone, Google Maps, or definitely make buses easier, but they’re still not as easy for the casual rider who knows that the Streetcar will take them from SoWa to 23rd via the Pearl.

  39. Multimodal Man July 6, 2009 at 9:22 pm #

    Excellent post and ensuing dialogue. I’m concerned when commentators who imply they are professional transit planners start arguing against a particular mode (primarily buses) because Americans have a bias against buses since they are seen as being for poor people. I believe that bias is reinforced by planners who are so busy with their toy train sets they fail to recognize the desparate need to do what we can with the resources we have. Spending triple the money for a 10% ridership gain is foolishness.

  40. EngineerScotty July 6, 2009 at 11:23 pm #

    Multimodal makes an interesting point: How do we address the fact that streetcars attract more riders? I certainly won’t try to defend any anti-bus bias, but they do exist in North America–there are lots of people who simply refuse to ride a bus, for whatever reason.
    How should planners treat this difference? Should they ignore it completely, or reduce its signficance to give busses a boost? Or should they figure it into their plans–if the population of a given area won’t ride a bus, after all, it’s not useful to run a bus to that area.
    That said, referring to transit planners playing with “toy train sets” is a bit of a trollish comment. Most transit planners are professionals who take their job seriously, and are not railfans looking to replace bus service with train service to satisfy some fetish or hobby on the public nickel. Numerous studies of the matter have reinforced the rail preference among the public; however, have failed to adequately explain why–whether its confusing routes on complex bus systems, bouncy rides associated with older busses (especially), the fear of meeting unsavory characters on the bus, or simply believing that busses are somehow low-class, I don’t know. (Probably some of all of these).

  41. Thomas Morris from Calgary July 7, 2009 at 12:16 am #

    Interesting debate and I generally agree with the original posts arguments on streetcar mobility.
    I just wanted to comment on Terry Parker point number 2. It’s generally acknowledged in planning circles that transit does not create development from the ether. That development was going to happen, whether it was going to happen in that location and in that form is a different story. What transit can do is channel development.
    A major argument in favour of street car is that they are better at channelling development. Even this argument is upturned by BRT systems such as in Curitiba and Ottawa. The argument to be made then is that areas where the public realm are better cared for will attract development.
    As a note to an earlier commment about Calgary’s C-Train and how cheaply it was done, it shows. The best parts of the Line are the parts where they couldn’t cheap out and they are few and far between. Some more money would have made a much better system.

  42. Michael Druker July 7, 2009 at 7:54 am #

    A more appropriate title for this post may be “streetcars: an irrelevant truth”. Speed of travel is simply not an important argument for or against streetcars, and it is not treated as such. (Except when it’s streetcar vs. light rail, for example.) This is why I discussed your usage of the word “mobility” — because there are aspects of mobility that really are significantly affected by the streetcar vs. bus distinction, even while pure speed is not likely to be one of them.
    “Many commenters propose that a widespread disinterest or disapproval of buses will remain a cultural absolute, and on this point I really do disagree.”
    That’s not what we’re saying. We’re saying that it is an important cultural difference now, and it would take time to shift the cultural attitude. However, the crucial factor is that this prejudice actually is very much related to the pure experience of riding in a bus. For a large proportion of people, such an experience is an unpleasant one primarily due to the stops, starts, jumps, and rattles (ignoring the highly variable generic public transit complaints). Who is willing to go through with this experience? Well, the relatively few people who don’t mind, obviously. And then also the people who either are dedicated to using transit or the people who have no choice but to use transit. Which obviously doesn’t help transit usage if the latter group is unsavory — but this aversion is a secondary effect.
    Moreover, there are places where that no-choice group isn’t all that unsavory, but the aversion remains. Where I live (Waterloo Region, Ontario), the bus riders often are university students or older people. The buses are very clean and reasonably new. But that’s not the problem! The problem is that very very few people here (and elsewhere) would take any bus when they can drive. I do it mainly due to my convictions. Most of the time it’s not terrible, but I’ve certainly had plenty of bus-induced headaches. I know that to many, buses are physically nauseating, for reasons unrelated to odors or cultural biases.
    You may wonder what motivates me to defends streetcars. As much as you may be tempted to believe that I’m some kind of “streetcar zealot”, it isn’t so. My main interest is in getting as many people as possible using transit, for reasons of environment and of urban form. I have quite a lot of experience with each mode of transit and in various cities, and I understand the upsides and downsides from a rider’s perspective. In the places for which we’re discussing LRT, BRT, streetcars, and so on, the main transit objective is to attract riders away from their cars — not to provide transit to a captive market. You can downplay differences between bus and rail all you want, and even try to predict a future convergence which is very unlikely given the historical progress of the technologies over the last 100+ years. All you are doing is deluding yourself and other planners. Because you will not attract many choice riders with buses. Not now, not in 50 years. When oil goes through the roof, they might take transit for a bit. Until they buy their electric cars, and revert to being choice drivers. I, personally, am okay with taking buses. But would-be choice riders are not, and they are by far the most important group.
    “Streetcars do attract more ridership than the buses they replace, though it’s not always clear why.”
    “I speculate (no facts available right now) that many streetcar passengers ONLY ride rail vehicles (MAX or streetcar). If true, this is a bad thing.”
    It is a very serious weakness in transit planning to fail to understand why it is that the empirical preference exists.

  43. anonymouse July 7, 2009 at 9:08 am #

    “I speculate (no facts available right now) that many streetcar passengers ONLY ride rail vehicles (MAX or streetcar). If true, this is a bad thing.”
    Damn pesky users, not conforming to our models! How dare they! If marketing says they’re supposed to like our product and they don’t, it’s all their fault!

  44. Jarrett at July 7, 2009 at 1:27 pm #

    “I speculate (no facts available right now) that many streetcar passengers ONLY ride rail vehicles (MAX or streetcar). If true, this is a bad thing.”
    I just want to clarify that the above quotation is from commenter Aaron Antrim, not me. Just to be clear, I’m not saying that the choices travelers make now are right or wrong; that’s a pointless question. I’m saying that we don’t know why they make those choices, and I’m implying that we won’t know for sure that it’s because of the streetcar technology until we get serious about developing bus services that match the streetcar experience in every way that a bus can.
    As near as I can tell, the other comments so far have responses in the post. Re Dave Hogan’s comment on legibility, I find this interesting in Portland’s case, because Portland’s eastside grid is fairly legible and there are very clear maps of it. If you live in Portland you know where Division Street and you understand how the numbered avenues run. So when you see a bus whose overhead sign says “4 Division / to 122nd Avenue,” what part of this don’t you understand?

  45. EngineerScotty July 7, 2009 at 1:50 pm #

    One other salient point… you suggest, somewhat, that the authors of the document put the cart before the horse–asking where streetcars could go, as opposed to asking what transit modes would work best.
    A fair criticism–except this is their charter. Portland Streetcar is a streetcar operations and advocacy organization; not the be-all and end-all of transit planning in the Portland area. Projects don’t get done unless the municipal governments involved, as well as entities such as Metro (which does regional planning in those parts of the Portland metro area located within Oregon) and Tri-Met (the transit agency). Other actors are taking the wider perspective that you wish; and there are plenty of folks in Portland advocating for busses as well.
    Portland Stretcar could just as easily be criticized for not examining streetcar opportunities in suburbs like Beaverton or Gresham–both of which are served by MAX, and both of which have urban boulevards with similar characteristics as some of the corridors identified in the draft. This is not due to neglect, of course; service outside of the City of Portland is outside the organization’s scope. The one exception in the works, the proposed Lake Oswego line, is on an existing unused rail line.
    Intelligent transit planning requires looking at the issue from numerous different perspectives. As such “where could we put streetcars?”, or busses, or BRT–is a relevant and useful question. It’s not an issue unless this is the ONLY question.

  46. jojo July 7, 2009 at 1:57 pm #

    I live near PSU and commute with street car and MAX almost everyday. Occasionally I will take the bus. I mostly take the bus from PSU to the MAX downtown.
    The problem with the bus is it’s too much of a headache to keep track of where it is going. If I’m going from PSU to pioneer square, that’s pretty easy I can just take any bus. If I want to go to my place, I can take 34, 35, 43, 56. If I want to go to Lloyd center, I have no idea which bus to take. The bus maps are almost useless. If we can get a nice bus map like the Kyoto bus map, then I would probably take the bus more often. I don’t have an iphone to look up bus route. Then again maybe not, it’s cheaper to drive.

  47. dave July 7, 2009 at 2:01 pm #

    Seattle has an extensive electric trolley bus system

  48. Michael July 7, 2009 at 2:35 pm #

    “I’m saying that we don’t know why they make those choices, and I’m implying that we won’t know for sure that it’s because of the streetcar technology until we get serious about developing bus services that match the streetcar experience in every way that a bus can.”
    A serious question then: how close do the best buses get right now?

  49. Jarrett at July 7, 2009 at 2:57 pm #

    Michael. That’s a complicated question, because conclusions are hard to transfer from one city to another or even one corridor to another. I contend that a lot of people do select their transit mode based on mundane matters of travel time and cost, but those tradeoffs differ between cities and even between corridors, depending on the degree of congestion, the costs of driving, and the alternatives being offered.
    I would love to see some very controlled experiments, e.g. replacing streetcars with buses on a streetcar line for a month, while ensuring that the buses are run with the same signal preemptions, fare payment system, marketing hype etc as the streetcars are. If you did that, people who just need to get where there going would still be on it, but people who insist on riding a streetcar wouldn’t.
    But the real thrust of my argument lies more in the vector of bus improvement than in current best-practice buses. In particular, so much work is going into addressing the noise, emissions, and vibrations issues that I’d be surprised if a bus 20 years from now feels much like a bus today. Even if the next 20 years of transformation is only as extensive as the last 20 years, that would still be a substantial and consequential change.

  50. Dave Hogan July 7, 2009 at 3:04 pm #

    If you live in Portland you know where Division Street and you understand how the numbered avenues run. So when you see a bus whose overhead sign says “4 Division / to 122nd Avenue,” what part of this don’t you understand?
    The names can be somewhat confusing first of all. Without looking it up I’d have no idea that “74 – Lloyd District/Southeast” means Lloyd District across Irving and Glisan and then down 39th. How about “36 – South Shore”? Until I just looked that route up I had no idea it serves downtown Lake Oswego, or even what south shore it was referring to. “32 – Oatfield” apparently takes you to Milwaukie/Gladstone/Oregon City, but even after living in Portland for three years I had no idea that’s what Oatfield was until I checked on Since I live near the 17 I know where it goes, but it makes no mention in the name that it serves St Johns and Sauvie Island.
    It’s also a question of how to I get from point A to point B. Yes, “4 Division” makes it easy if you’re on the transit mall and want to head down Division, but figuring out how to get to the 4 is the challenge for many. Plus you’re not going to see a “4 Division” sign on a bus or a stop unless you already can find the stop to get on it. Tracks make it fairly easy to find a stop, you just follow the tracks until there’s a stop.
    A one or two bus trip isn’t very difficult, but for example getting from Montgomery Park to NE Alberta (as an example) is a lot more intimidating for a new transit rider.
    It’s not that it’s incredibly complicated, but if you’re not familiar with the route and you didn’t have time to plan it online in advance, it’s tough to figure out what combo of buses you need to use, where to find the first one, where exactly they’ll meet up, and where you need to get off.
    If you’re starting off from the transit mall it’s not that confusing, but trying to figure out a route that runs from outside downtown and crosses the river isn’t always that simple. With only 4 or 5 rail lines it’s much easier to remember where they run, although if we build too many trains they’ll get to the point of being like buses, and wind up losing some of the advantage they have as far as being easy to remember.

  51. tomtakt July 7, 2009 at 3:10 pm #

    As an American living in Munich, Germany and learning about transportation issues here, I think I’m essentially witnessing what transportation planning in the United States will look like in about 1 or 2 decades. The Germans do a much better job of conceiving transport as a single cohesive system that serves to move the public around the cities, regions, etc. There is almost nowhere that you can’t get here with public transportation, with a bicycle, or of course with a car. And while there are certainly plenty of transportation wish list items that one still has here (i.e. upgrades to a certain bus/train line or a better connections between two difficult to travel between locations, etc. etc.), it’s all in all a great system.
    However, in the U.S. there is still a different mentality that pervades–one that sees cars, transit, and bicycles as purely competing with one another. Public opinion, in general, is markedly different. In particular, many middle-class people see riding a bus as something they would never do–probably because they have not ridden one in the last 30 years, and as you pointed out, there have been a lot of recent technological improvements. Riding some of the modern articulated buses here in Munich is almost as nice as the trams…almost. Perhaps we need to a lot of money to be put into advertising and demonstrating such new technology, so that your average Joe has an idea of what a modern bus is. Anyway…
    I think you have an incredibly valid point here, and I applaud your courage in posting what seems to be quite the unpopular perspective.
    I also appreciate how specifically you stated what your argument is, however the nature of transportation planning makes it a much less cut and dry case as your example of the hammer and the house. Because every resident of a modern city interacts with the city’s transportation infrastructure on a daily basis, the issues involved become highly politicized. I think that Portland is doing a great job of taking advantage of available political (interest in and excitement about streetcars)–they also seem to be making a concerted effort to brand their city as a (or perhaps THE) streetcar city, which I also don’t think is such a bad idea in the increasingly competetive world of globalized cities. Maybe there is a another, cheaper alternative making use of bus and other technologies, but they’re trying to build a system which somehow sets them apart, even if it costs a bit more. It’s no different than the decision to build the new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge with a “landmark” design, rather than a cheaper run-of-the-mill one…which has cost more money than anyone ever thought. But, I think that that people are ultimately quite happy when something better than just the cheapest option is chosen, especially when it’s something (like transportation infrastructure) that they are going to be interacting with most days of their lives.
    Yes, as you said, such reasons should be cited rather than making false claims that streetcars vs. buses…but I unfortunately haven’t had a chance to read the entire system concept plan and cannot comment on this.
    As a note, I personally find the Portland Streetcar one of the most annoying streetcars I’ve been on, mostly because it’s extremely slow, and it itself suffers from a lack of the often implemented transit improvement techniques that you mentioned could be applied to buses. I hope they build the rest of the streetcar system to function a little better–althought I also find the MAX excruciatingly slow in downtown…maybe Portlanders just enjoy taking things a little slower *wink*.

  52. Julie Anne Genter July 7, 2009 at 5:49 pm #

    Apologies I have not read all the comments thoroughly, so perhaps someone has already mentioned this:
    It seems to me that one of the reasons rail may be more attractive than buses is a subconscious effect of the motion on the sense of balance/wellbeing. For the same reason that many people are able to read without getting motion sick on a train rather than a car or bus, rail may be perceived as more comfortable because it glides forward and never wavers from a relatively linear path. Unless a busway has a guided path, which probably reduces the cost competitiveness with rail, it can waver back and forth a bit more, which may be less comfortable for the riders — though so subtle they may not perceive that to be the reason why.
    Something to research — at the intersection of neuroscience, transit psychology and transport economics (how much are people willing to pay for the guided gliding motion?).

  53. Michael Druker July 7, 2009 at 5:52 pm #

    I would love to see buses and their operation improved significantly and think this is a great aim. But with all due respect, I believe it is irresponsible to advocate that long-term infrastructure decisions be made (or not made) on the basis of a very uncertain prediction about the future of bus technology.
    In lieu of controlled experiments, I think it would be useful to track down comparative ridership numbers on routes where a bus replaced a streetcar or vice versa. I’d be interested to know what the ridership was on the Ashmont-Mattapan High Speed Line in Boston when it was recently replaced with a shuttle bus for a year and a half. Another obvious thing to do is to actually ask people (in a very careful way) why they do or don’t ride the bus or other transit; taken with a grain of salt, responses would be informative.

  54. Ruanne July 7, 2009 at 6:51 pm #

    I think one major advantage is that a streetcar system is a commitment. You are less likely to eliminate entire routes, or lines, or cancel your public transit system entirely, if you have laid rail down in your roads. It’s also easier for the transit rider: you don’t have to guess where the next stop is on a line if you are on foot. It will be somewhere along the track, going in the general direction you are walking.

  55. Michael D. Setty July 7, 2009 at 7:08 pm #

    While I also advocate for streetcars where they make sense and often have a positive impact on development patterns, my associate Leroy Demery and I are not knee-jerk rail advocates. I think this is well illustrated by our transit research posted at,,,,, and many others.
    Also see our article on “BRT Oversell”, I think it is clear that new streetcar lines with low ridership potential are difficult to justify economically, unless they can help leverage a lot of development and other provable benefits. I think we’re on the same page advocating appropriate transit modes for the appropriate markets–e.g., “fitting the mode to the market” if you will.

  56. Michael D. Setty July 7, 2009 at 7:13 pm #

    What’s with your comments function? I put in some links, but the computer deleted it! Sheesh! Some antispam measures are over the top.
    I suggest taking a look at the large number of papers that my associate Leroy Demery and I have posted at, specifically and Upon examination, I think you’ll see we are pretty close to being on the same page on this streetcar vs. bus issue. I would generally agree that the extra expense of streetcars are difficult to financially justify unless there are (1) a relatively high volume of patronage–more than most corridors in U.S. cities will generate–or (2) a line can leverage large real estate investments in ways BRT cannot.

  57. Michael Druker July 7, 2009 at 7:20 pm #

    Here’s one paper on the subject:
    It mentions the case of the Ardmore trolley line in Philadelphia, which in 1967 was converted into a busway (now SEPTA Route 103), with a 15% loss of ridership.

  58. Aaron M. Renn July 7, 2009 at 8:12 pm #

    Uh, oh. Just remember, Jarrett, you will never convince the railigious of anything but what they already believe.
    I’m a rail supporter in the right context. As a noted light rail skeptic in smaller cities, I’ll even admit I see a lot of virtue in downtown circulator streetcars and short distance streetcar networks in those cities.
    But there is literally no argument that can be mustered to convince someone who is wedded to the idea of rail that there is any important way buses are superior, except possibly as subordinate feeder service.
    I was just reading a post about Columbus, Ohio today where people were agonizing over Columbus falling behind because they don’t have any rail service and how people are leaving the city for places with rail. I’ve no doubt of that because people are always moving for a variety of reasons. But Cleveland has rail transit. So does Buffalo. Both cities are economically and demographically in the toilet. Did having rail cause Cleveland to be the 2nd worst performing large metro area in the country? Of course not. Transportation is important, but rail lines are not the all powerful artifacts their supporters might suggest. Columbus is actually the 2nd fastest growing large metro area in the Midwest. Indianapolis is #1 and it doesn’t have rail either. In fact, 3 of the 4 fastest growing and most economically successful Midwest cities do not have any form of rail transit, excepting possibly some lame one train a day Amtrak intercity service that amounts to nothing.
    Also, keep in mind that the vaunted permanence of rail lines cuts both ways. Buses are both strategically and operationally more flexible than rail, as anyone who has been stuck in a train caught behind a broken down one with door problems up ahead can attest.

  59. Jarrett at July 7, 2009 at 8:23 pm #

    Michael.  Thanks for these links.  Have you read Hoffman's paper on Quickways?  I think he's a little too obsessed with eliminating transfers, but I have to say, as someone who works in Brisbane a lot, the SE Busway is amazing, ridership is massive, and nobody seriously talks about converting it to rail now.  

  60. Wad July 7, 2009 at 9:20 pm #

    Saying “they avoid buses because they’re seen as transportation for poor people” is skirting the issue.
    “They” aren’t avoiding buses. “They” are avoiding poor people.
    Buses didn’t stigmatize poor people; it’s the other way around. And it is the middle and upper classes who perceive that the poor taint behavior by virtue of identity.
    In the U.S., Target and Wal-Mart are identical mass-market merchandisers with prices about the same. One key difference is Target is located in middle-class and up or “hip” areas. Wal-Mart is usually located in rural or blighted areas.
    One store is seen as fashionable and fun. The other is seen as “white trash” or “ghetto.” Guess which one is which and why.
    The point is, the poor did not become perceived as loathsome or dangerous because cities took out streetcars and replaced them with buses. Putting streetcars in will not change perceptions if the people we are trying to court harbor the same prejudices of the people who are riding transit now.

  61. Michael Druker July 7, 2009 at 9:46 pm #

    Without feeding the trolls, I’ll say one last thing:
    I think the best way to try to prove that the bus experience can be just as good as the streetcar one would be for a bus company (or consortium) to offer to build a truly state-of-the-art bus line at half price for a city with an open mind. If it works, it would serve as an effective counterpoint to Portland.
    This post and comments have been quite good, by the way!

  62. Phil Ayres July 7, 2009 at 10:36 pm #

    One significant advantage is likely to be energy efficiency. Any metal wheel on rail vehicle benefits from extremely low friction, meaning that it takes very little energy to keep the vehicle moving, and per kilogram (or pound) less energy to get it started. Stopping the vehicle through regenerative braking allows the significant mass of the vehicle and its kinetic energy to largely be converted back to electricity for use across the transport system. This is equivalent to hybrid cars (and buses), but they have the disadvantage of losing a lot of their rolling energy to rubber tyres on tarmac, leaving less to be regenerated on braking and burning more fuel just to keep going.
    The additional advantage comes from street cars, and any electric rail system is the electricity that the vehicles use. As everyone knows, this can be generated using a variety of renewable sources, and even if not, the pollution is at the very least remote. Unfortunately buses rarely have this advantage, accumulating their burnt fuel (including LPG and natural gas) as particulates, CO and smog in the city, where the density of pollution becomes harmful to the people they are trying to help.
    Don’t get me wrong. Buses, street cars, light rail and heavy rail are all better than SUVs, or even smart cars, for a reduction in traffic and pollution. I’m experiencing a living example of this in Mexico City right now. I’ll never complain about the traffic in Boston again!

  63. EngineerScotty July 7, 2009 at 10:49 pm #

    Perhaps a bit off-topic, but—
    The advantage of steel wheels on steel rails is lower friction–meaning it takes less energy to keep the wheels rolling. All else being equal, a traincar will require less fuel or electricity to maintain speed on a flat surface than a bus of the same size and weight. (Of courses, trains and busses aren’t of the same size and weight, but this is merely a pedagogical point).
    The advantage of rubber tyres, or tires as we yankees like to call ’em, on pavement, is higher friction–which adds traction–aiding in things like acceleration, breaking, and operation on steeper grades. Nothing beats an electric trolleybus for climbing steep hills; as the combination of tires with electric motors (generating high torque at idle) is ideal for this application.
    Depending on what you are doing, rolling friction is either your friend or your foe.
    In many cases, streetcars ride on tracks embedded in pavement, as opposed to tracks laid on crossties on a railbed. For such applications, has anybody ever considered building a streetcar with the equivalent of landing gear–a motor-driven tire or two which can be raised or lowered as necessary to aid with acceleration, breaking, or climbing? Or has this idea been tried somewhere and discarded as impractical or useless?

  64. Thomas July 7, 2009 at 10:53 pm #

    Anyone care to consider the costs of obtaining ROWs in modern city environments? Who pays for this? Taxpayers? Like they don’t have enough on their plate?
    You’re all spending money that doesn’t exist.

  65. anonymouse July 7, 2009 at 11:09 pm #

    EngineerScotty: what you propose sounds a bit like a rubber-tired metro or the “tram sur pneu” of France. But they’ve done even better than rubber tires for traction. They have trains with a cogwheel that engages a special rack rail laid in the center of the track, which allows the train to climb very steep grades, in some very special cases as steep as 50%. Rubber on pavement isn’t always an advantage, by the way. For example, the rubber-tired Montreal Metro is built 100% underground and the trains never see the light of day (even the yards are covered), because they just wouldn’t be able to stop if the tracks were covered with snow. Here, track brakes can help tremendously, and in some European cities, streetcars climb grades of up to 10%, and there are sections of 7% grade on the Swiss narrow-gauge network.

  66. James Taylor July 7, 2009 at 11:43 pm #

    The thing that streetcars have and that bus routes do not is permanence. And permanence begets investments. Businesses will open along a streetcar route or near a streetcar stop where they would not invest to be near a bus route or a bus stop. Cities need to include this in consideration of public transit because density of potential riders is critical to long term viability and streetcars may do better in this measure.

  67. Doug Allen July 8, 2009 at 1:30 pm #

    The Sunday Oregonian (a Portland newspaper) of August 1, 1948 published a picture spread entitled “Three East Side Streetcar Lines Discontinued”.
    Among the captions:
    “DANGEROUS Center of street loading requirement of streetcars is a constant danger to passengers, traffic engineers point out. This photograph demonstrates possibility of cars striking passengers.”
    “COMFORT More room, better seats, less dirt are among advantages of busses and trackless trolleys over ancient, poorly arranged, slow-moving, dirty and dangersous streetcars. East side lines were changed over to busses from cars Sunday.”
    “SAFER Busses — and trackless trolleys — can pull over to the curb to let off and take on passengers, thus cutting down hazard and lessening traffic congestion. This is a big reason streecars are going.”
    “NEW TERRITORY Broadway cars, the most modern on the Portland Traction company’s streetcar lines, will be changed over to the 23rd avenue line and their old runs taken over by busses as a part of the modernization plan.”
    “TRAFFIC BLOCKS After August 1, these scenes will become fewer in Portland with three east side trolley lines being replaced with faster, cleaner busses as the Portland Traction company and city coun[cil] move to modernize city’s mass transportation.”
    I guess that 60 years later, it is still true that when it comes to transit, perception IS reality, and we just have to deal with that fact as best we can.

  68. Bus-ted. July 9, 2009 at 9:17 am #

    You yourself have a very clear and long-running agenda.
    Regarding the first point, what do you say to the 300 million tires discarded every year in America? They have a quantifiably larger contribution to pollution than the gas burned by insisting you’re taking a local route, only to be stopped by a local streetcar. To discard 9 billion pounds of tires that require an additional several hundred billion dollars of gas to destroy is, what, exactly? If we can replace rubber with steel, why not?
    To the second, several areas have received similar funding in the past to no great development — Hollywood, Old Town, the Sandy Corridor to 50th, and the biggest, 82nd. None of these areas have seen the boom that you see in the Pearl District. Land there was certainly much cheaper than core-adjacent land in the Pearl area with high remediation costs.
    To the third, free as it may be in the FS, a bulk of the riders are residents of the area. Using local fixed-route service ensures that the neighborhood and not anyone else gets first jab at the benefits and prevents the need for hopping a bus to go to the Safeway on Hawthorne or the Burlingame Fred Meyer.
    Finally, comprehensive transit planning has been going on in Portland for years. They attempted to fix roads, paint bridges, install new sidewalks, but those processes are stopped up frequently by the same people who thumb their nose at other transportation initiatives. Take a look at the Burnside Bridge or the Sandy Blvd projects. Check out how traffic got worse on 82nd, even with widening and restriping. It’s the same veiled argument, which is basically “you can’t stop ME and MY route”.
    Similarly, it seems your main point of contention is not that the city has chosen one mode over others, it’s that they aren’t choosing your mode.

  69. Aaron Priven July 9, 2009 at 3:37 pm #

    Thanks for the great post. We should be advocating for better transit of whatever type. The world is too full of mode chauvinists.

  70. Nathanael July 9, 2009 at 11:53 pm #

    Ride quality. Ride quality. Ride quality.
    No matter how good your roads and busses, the ride is better on the streetcar. I say this as someone who has ridden very nice buses on recently paved roads — and old streetcars on old, poorly maintained track. (Boston!) The streetcar was *still* a smoother ride.
    I get motion-sick in buses. Not in streetcars.
    The greater “visibility”/”certainty of route” is also a huge issue, but to be fair trolleybuses provide that too (the overhead wires are a dead giveaway). But they don’t provide the ride quality.
    That is huge. And that is probably one reason why streetcars consistently attract people who won’t ride buses.
    To be fair, on the rare occasions when it’s been examined, trolleybuses do seem to attract people who won’t ride diesel buses, as well, so the “visible clear route” and quiet running is probably important too.

  71. jack lecou July 10, 2009 at 10:23 am #

    This is, I think, a somewhat odd post.
    Leaving aside the fact that mobility is not the same as speed, the core of the post seems to be the claim that improvements in buses will bring them on par with rail-based street cars, and thus eliminate the perceptual differences in terms of ridership and development.
    Now of course the first objection to that is that streetcars work NOW. But looking past that, I think it would be illuminating to look at what sort of improvements are required:
    1. Absolutely smooth, even streets, and possibly a guideway of some kind (mechanical? magnetic?). This is necessary to try to replicate the smooth ride of rail, to try to reduce or eliminate the jolts, jerks, and sways inherent to a rubber-tired, human-steered vehicle moving on rough streets through traffic, swerving in and out to make stops. This is also necessary to reduce wear and tear on the vehicle, both to reduce traffic costs, and the perception of decrepitude that accompanies buses as they rapidly develop creaks and rattles. (Larger, sturdier buses would also help.)
    (Of course, good luck managing to make maintenance of ultra-smooth streets a long-term city funding priority. Very easy to let that slip, or to object to the expense of repaving a whole block after a sewer line is repaired, etc. And there goes ride quality again.)
    2. Dedicated stations, and a clearly designated, permanent-looking right of way of some kind. Fully separated would help, but the special smooth streets and guideway might be enough. All of this serves as a key signal to developers, as well as a helpful cue for users, visitors, and potential users.
    3. Smooth, electric motive power. “Trolley buses” and streetcars are already almost on the same footing here, of course. Note that any future improvements, in e.g., fuel cell technology, can be applied to streetcars as easily as buses.
    4. Larger, wider, lower vehicles. Steel-on-steel streetcars seem to have something of a fundamental advantage here, with inherently smaller wheels, and a much wider base and reduced suspension needs. The result is higher capacity and a much more spacious, pleasant interior.
    It’s possible you could overcome some of this by taking advantage of the aforementioned bus guideway and ultra smooth roads. Best case, I guess you end up building buses that resemble rubber-tired streetcars. Possibly you could even chain them together.
    Maybe, just maybe, all of those improvements are also enough to overcome the “sexiness”, use, and development advantages streetcars have. (Note that the sexiness factor, however it derives, is real and must be taken into account, not just dismissed as “irrational”.)
    Of course, to get there, you’ve assumed a bunch of technological improvements that don’t exist yet. And in the end what you have is a big, high tech, heavy (expensive) rubber-tired “street car bus”, with an expensive dedicated guideway, expensive specially-graded pavement, and expensive dedicated stations. You’ve got most of the advantages of a streetcar–maybe–but all of the costs too.
    So what, exactly, is the point?
    I think we all agree that some routes are best served by buses, and city planners should be paying attention to that.
    However, I think what “street car fans” DON’T see is how anything is improved by taking a route that is best served by a streetcar and trying to somehow make a bus fit on it…

  72. Peter Smith July 10, 2009 at 10:50 am #

    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?
    this has been another edition of Simple Answers To Simple Questions.
    besides, if buses somehow magically convert themselves into trains over the next 40 years (an interesting process that will be, I’m sure), then guess what? yep – we can start considering buses again. but until that time, buses are out.
    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.
    i’m not sure what all this ‘faster’ stuff is about — it’s only one of a few primary considerations in deciding how one travels every day, and myriad more secondary considerations.
    for me, i like to travel with my dignity intact, so i avoid the loser cruiser. so ‘mobility’, for me, implicitly requires ‘dignity’ — i.e. in my book, if you can’t travel with dignity, it doesn’t count towards ‘mobility’.
    conversely, the ‘mobility’ to which you refer could seemingly be described as “any mode of transport which could possibly move human beings from one location to another, regardless of this mode’s anti-human qualities”.
    unfortunately, you’re not alone in this view.

  73. Noah July 10, 2009 at 11:36 am #

    I think you are right on most accounts in regards to street cars especially in the slow lane as they are never able to avoid vehicles that might be parked or worse double parked. However I think something you don’t take into account is long term costs of maintenance. It is my general understanding that due to the multiple factors the costs of keeping up a street running light rail as apposed to a bus is considerably less. I think the best solution to your problems is to have greater deployments of subways/elevated trains with a mixture of buses for perhaps hyper local traffic and possible light rail as sub commuter rail where there is high requirements for the number of people to be moved, but some impracticality of subways or elevated rail. Light rail can also be used as has been seen to very efficiently move cargo through out a city. Yet further until a truly clean solution (bio diesel isn’t clean) such as fuel cells become common place the light rail will always have energy issues.

  74. Jym Dyer July 10, 2009 at 12:34 pm #

    =v= San Francisco’s F-Market line serves as a rolling museum and tourist attraction, and is thus not a good exemplar. You describe it as having usurped the 8-Market bus line, but the larger history is that the 8-Market and other tire-based vehicles took space away from a streetcar system which had a headway that was measured in seconds, not minutes.
    “Streetcars that replace bus lines” is an odd premise scenario, because the trend is in the opposite direction. As with the 8-Market, most longstanding U.S. city bus lines used to be streetcar routes, and every U.S. “rapid bus” system that’s trumpeted as a success has usurped a streetcar corridor, reaping the benefits of streetcar infrastructure and the extant development that those streetcars attracted.
    I don’t think language like “streetcar zealots” and the corporate P.R. term “railigionist” helps any. People prefer rail for substantive reasons, and it’s better to discuss those reasons rather than concocting motivations.
    For me, the bottom line is the environment. All other things being equal, apples-to-apples, a steel wheel on a rail has less environmental impact than a rubber tire on a road. Less fuel, fewer emissions, and less damage to the vehicles and their surfaces. As has been mentioned, they attract more riders and promote more sustainable development patterns, which multiply their environmental benefit.

  75. brian July 10, 2009 at 2:54 pm #

    another reason I’ve heard normal bus service can be confusing to ride is information overload. A city has so many bus routes and looking at a map can be confusing, plus it’s not clear how fast they run. By contrast, a streetcar, BRT, LRT or metro system has simpler maps and well marked stations on the whole.

  76. Wad July 11, 2009 at 3:47 pm #

    If a rider is confused by looking at a map, it’s the rider’s fault.
    That’s with a big but.
    While there is no perfect map, there are many good ones and cartographers by training have devised ways of delivering as much information with as little overload as possible.
    The frequency issue is one that has been solved easily. Transit systems usually point out discrepancies in service if they are very infrequent, like a tripper route that is dotted or broken-striped to show that it only runs a limited span of service. Likewise, for systems that sell frequency (Portland, Minneapolis, San Antonio, etc.), this frequent service is denoted.
    BRT, LRT and Metro systems have simpler maps not as a special feature, but because it’s a basic requirement. Do you really want for these stations not to be marked? That would be bad mapmaking.

  77. John July 11, 2009 at 3:50 pm #

    I’m a first time reader of your blog (in fact, it was this post that attracted me), and I must say, your analysis is brilliant. I’m from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the mayor proposed building a modern streetcar line a few years ago, which proved politically unpopular. I liked the idea, but when talking to friends about it I always struggled to explain the basic difference between a streetcar and decent bus service, because I simply didn’t understand it. Your straight-forward analysis that isn’t biased towards one particular technology is greatly appreciated.

  78. 21st Century Urban Solutions July 12, 2009 at 7:28 pm #

    I understand where you’re coming from Jarrett, and in some circumstances (especially in America) I agree that streetcars can merely be glorified bus lines. But, I’d like to direct you to my latest post at on the potential of a streetcar network in Oakland to completely reshape the city. While I’ll admit that I haven’t read all the comments here, one of the things I argue is that streetcars be a mobility improvement for Oakland because of their effect of getting more people out in the streets and consequently making the streets safer and more livable. Safer streets mean safer neighborhoods and more transit use. Anyway, check it out, and hopefully it will serve as an extension of the discussion that has emerged here.

  79. Aaron Antrim July 13, 2009 at 6:05 pm #

    I shouldn’t have made my comment at 1am when my brain was done operating for the day.
    Let me be more specific: If travelers limit themselves to specific modes “for people like them,” this limits the usefulness of the transit system for those users. It also increases VMT, congestion, and emissions for everyone and reduces the transit agency’s farebox revenue and corresponding ability to deliver service.
    It’s not cost-feasible to build Streetcar throughout an entire city. Therefore, I am interested in how to make lower cost types of service more attractive to choice riders.

  80. Nathanael July 15, 2009 at 4:25 am #

    Eh. The thing is, even in cities with massively complex tram networks (Melbourne!) the tram map is easier to use than the bus map. What is *up* with that? In practice, rails seem to bring out the best in mapmakers.
    Maybe it’s the permanence. It’s not worth making a good map for a bus line since it can change so easily. The map of my local bus system is quite simply out of date, showing wrong routings and stops.

  81. Ed July 15, 2009 at 8:17 am #

    It’s a given, that buses will never match the smooth ride quality of trams but they’re now starting to catch up on some of the other characteristics that make trams attractive, such as increased capacity and easy vehicle access.
    If you turn up at your tram stop but instead of a tram you find an air-conditioned, low-floor, high capacity articulated bus with four wide double-doors allowing easy entry and exit from all doors; an interior configuration with generous circulation space with lots of grab rails; large windows; electronic displays and audio announcements. Could you say that that vehicle offering would be significantly inferior to that of a modern tram vehicle?
    If that vehicle is part of a frequent service that takes you reliably to other stops along an exclusive bus lane with priority over other traffic, giving you the same journey times as a tram but with the exception of a smooth gliding sensation while travelling, and a greater need to hold on if standing – would that experience be unattractive enough to the majority of passengers that the significant additional expense of building a tramway system could be easily justified?
    The availability these days of vehicles in the style of the Las Vegas Max buses demonstrates the new directions being taken to increase the capacity and improve the attractiveness of buses which are narrowing the operational and perceived gaps between trams and buses.
    One of the big differences often argued between the two is ride quality, but ride quality itself doesn’t count for much when tram services are infrequent, hopelessly overcrowded, excruciatingly slow or all three at once. In well-used systems where all modes are often swamped with too many passengers, travel by tram can be just as miserable as travel by bus, and a tram becomes just a “thing” that you have to take to get home.
    Finally, depending on the size of a city and its growth trajectory, introducing trams on major corridors may prove to be an expensive interim measure and delay introduction of faster and more comfortable modes by decades. Potentially, if a fast growing city could avoid a hasty investment in trams and meet a lot of its heavier corridor traffic in the short/medium term with these sorts of high-capacity tram-like buses, there may very well be sooner opportunity to afford major, real and significant improvements in mobility – with the introduction of a subway/metro/skytrain system.

  82. Matt Fisher July 20, 2009 at 3:59 pm #

    Yes, the streetcars can take a long time, but it doesn’t matter as much. Would you wager that Toronto should close its streetcars and rip out the tracks? Besides, I’ve used them on my most recent trip (and my visit three years ago) as much as I used the subway. For all its faults, Toronto was lucky enough to preserve them as much as Melbourne kept their trams, something I wish we did more in North American cities, only for GM and the road lobby, aided by unwitting government bureaucrats, to bring it down.
    Oh, and that graphic at the top looks like the O-Train. Our Transitway here in Ottawa is certainly not as good as rail, and it was a mistake to pave over a rail line, and turn it into a busway, even if we expected it would someday be light rail “when ridership gets high enough”.
    You can’t turn a bus into a train. A bus can never be “rail on rubber tires” or “just like rail, but cheaper”.

  83. Matt Fisher July 20, 2009 at 4:13 pm #

    I am not an “unconditional” supporter of rail, but I disagree that BRT merits unconditional, unending support, or that BRT is as good as a train. Certainly, there needs to be adequate population density and adequate ridership to justify rail of any kind. But saying BRT is superior to rail and can do better makes me mad. It was quite mad to when they ended the train services in my native province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Thank you very much, P.M. Brian Mulroney.
    And BRT is not a “surface subway”. Even if electrically powered rail is dependent on coal burning power plants, I would prefer it more than diesel buses, even with a technological change far in the future, and it would be more environmentally beneficial. The myth that “there is no evident preference for trains over buses” is not true.
    Like I said, it was a bunch of shit that we disposed of perfectly good streetcars. This has been true in Philadelphia and Chicago, which both once had two of the five largest streetcar systems in the world. Philadelphia kept only a few lines, but Chicago completely disposed of theirs, even with as many as 600 PCC streetcars. I wish several (but certainly not all) of those that were gone (other than when new subway or light rail lines opened) had stayed, if such was fair enough.
    Sorry I was late with commenting. 🙂
    Matt J. Fisher

  84. CroMagnon July 22, 2009 at 3:44 pm #

    A few questions:
    –Have the studies comparing bus vs. streetcar preference controlled for choice riders and dependent riders? I suspect that where a market is overwhelmingly dependent, the difference will be small or negligable.
    –What is the operating cost per passenger-mile of the Portland Streetcar? Last time I checked, they didn’t monitor that stat, only trips. I’d like to see a comparison against bus service overall and estimates of bus costs on comparable routes.
    –I suspect the attraction to streetcar is more novelty. If most of a city were converted to rail, it wouldn’t be special. The poor in the “uncool” neighborhoods would be on them just like the buses.
    –What about roadwork? It puts a severe dent in streetcar service.
    –Based on my trip to Philadelphia, I would say their subway-surface system would be better if it were bus on the surface downtown than what they operate now. That system gets stuck in its own traffic in the downtown tunnel. And I rode when there was the aforementioned streetwork which forced a transfer and we certainly lost at least 10 minutes.

  85. Wenda July 27, 2009 at 2:57 pm #

    Just to comment on what was said about riding new versus old buses–if ride quality is an issue, the new buses are not always better. I live in L.A. and have ridden our agency’s oldest and newest buses, and find consistently that the dirty old high-floor dinosaurs actually provide the smoothest ride–sometimes even comparable to a streetcar! In contrast, the brand-new sleek 45 and 60 foot low-floor modern marvels tend to be the bounciest pieces of sh-t I have ever ridden…and yes I am comparing them on the same routes.
    I am not a zealous advocate of one mode over another, but I’m not too impressed with the modern buses that L.A. Metro has been buying lately, and if they represent the best bus manufacturers can do…that doesn’t bode well for swaying the people that refuse to ride buses.

  86. Damien Goodmon July 28, 2009 at 9:01 am #

    But the question is how much of that development was subsidized?
    And I’m not just talking about direct government support in the form of capital dollars to the projects, but things like density bonuses, lowered parking requirements, tax breaks, low-interest rate government loans, fee waivers, etc.
    Portland has decided it wants a certain type of development and accordingly is doing what every government does when they want something that the market is not providing: they’re throwing a cocktail of subsidies towards it to reel in speculators, and devoting a lot of department attention/human capital toward specific areas/corridors. I’m not saying this is good or bad, just simply pointing out that such can be done regardless of whether a street-car is part of the equation or not.
    True market-driven development is unsubsidized (to the degree that development can be unsubsidized) and demand driven. People want to live near the beach, for example. No subsidies are needed for building a condo project at Venice Beach.
    You see, I hear the street-car = development argument A LOT in L.A. and they all reference Portland. And it’s often stretched to state that at-grade light rail (as opposed to grade separated light rail) is BETTER for development. (The technology-advocates make a lot of illogical leaps here in L.A.) Aside from the great differences between the two technologies (streets cars vs. at-grade light rail), i.e. speed, street closures, lane takes, etc., it completely misses two important points:
    1) In L.A. we currently have Portland-like development in places that haven’t seen a street car run through/near it since the Korean War.
    2) In L.A. we currently have areas with light rail (not street cars) that aren’t doing so well from a development standpoint. If the tracks alone generated development then in the 19 years the Blue Line has been operating it would have produced something that resembles Portland. But it hasn’t.
    You would think this would convince people something else is at work. But the ultimate reality is the arguments are typically made by advocates for particular technologies.

  87. Jarrett at August 10, 2009 at 9:48 pm #

    Because I’m not a technology-first planner, you’ll never hear me say that “BRT merits unconditional, unending support.” I’m interested in BRT because in a range of situations, where people have looked first at their mobility needs and what kind of city they want to have, a BRT system has turned out to be a good answer. But where BRT has succeeded it’s because it was the result, not the starting point, of the process of planning thought.

  88. Jarrett at August 10, 2009 at 9:50 pm #

    On permanence:
    1. It’s very easy to make a bus route look more permanent: Spend more money on the stop infrastructure.
    2. Rails in the street does not appear to have been an accurate predictor of permanence in the early 20th century.

  89. EngineerScotty August 11, 2009 at 10:34 am #

    In places with a strong rail culture, BRT lines (even well-designed ones) have frequently been criticized–the Silver Line in Boston, for example, is universally despised there. Whether this is because the service is actually worse than the various types of train run by MTA (the Silver has a few places where it runs on surface streets), or just anti-bus bias, I dunno.
    One interesting experiment that you might see in a few years is in Vancouver, WA; where long term plans call for BRT to be placed in four different corridors (along I-5, I-205, SR500/Fourth Plain, and Mill Plain). Three of those lines will converge upon downtown Vancouver, where Oregon-bound commuters will (eventually) be able to change to the MAX; the I-205 line will provide connections to MAX and Portland International airport via the Glenn Jackson bridge. The BRT lines called for are mostly dedicated-ROW lines and limited-stop service, not local-service busses painted to look like European trams (like the bus whose picture adorns the top of the blog).
    Construction of any of this is quite a ways off. Why Vancouver has chosen BRT for its rapid-transit needs whereas Portland has been quite successful with LRT for over two decades is an interesting question, and extremists on both sides of the Columbia will be happy to give you offensive answers. 🙂 Dialing down the rhetoric, I suspect the reality of the situation is that a) most transit trips will not cross the river; Portlanders famously overestimate the desire of Vancouver residents to come to Oregon to work and shop, and b) Vancouver, which lacks Oregon’s land use policies and is less dense as a result, won’t generate enough passengers to make LRT cost-effective. Whether or not C-Tran’s ridership projections assume any transit-oriented development to boost ridership long-term, I dunno.

  90. Louis Haywood August 25, 2009 at 11:01 am #

    Cambridge and Waverly in MA also have a 3-route trolleybus network, including a trolleybus tunnel loop directly into the Harvard T station.

  91. Alex Marshall August 25, 2009 at 1:33 pm #

    Here’s something that hasn’t been address, unless I missed it in the voluminous comments.
    According to Ken Greenberg, (and this is from memory from a talk he gave about 10 years ago in Toronto about the Toronto streetcar system), streetcars are faster than buses because car drivers are scared of streetcars. When a streetcar goes down the street, your average driver defers to the streetcar, and allows them to set the pace. With buses, drivers aren’t scared of them, and will cut in front of a bus, and thus slow the bus. Ken said streetcars were significantly faster than buses because of this. He gave a percentage figure, but I won’t quote it because that would be trying to dig too deeply into my memory bank. The point is that, if this is true, streetcars are faster than buses, just by being streetcars.

  92. Jarrett at August 25, 2009 at 1:48 pm #

    I would be curious about what counts as data toward that thesis. If it’s true, it’s a cultural fact rather than a technical one. Cultural issues are important, but are different from one place to another and are also capable of changing over time.
    My impression in northern Europe is that all transit vehicles are treated with equal respect.

  93. Mike August 29, 2009 at 4:05 am #

    “Most streetcars now under discussion are not larger than buses, and have no capability to be run as large trainsets, so this is not an issue in any North American or Australasian debates of which I’m aware.”
    Not sure about this. There are clearly trams/streetcars in service in Melbourne which have a greater capacity (around 200) than any bus I’ve so far seen.
    Also, the claim about trainsets does not seem to be true. The trend may be towards making the units longer by adding more articulated sections, but several of the current streetcar/LRV models can be linked as trainsets. Phoenix runs their new LRVs as trainsets. There are many more examples in Europe, e.g. the new Flexity LRVs on the Tvärbanan in Stockholm, Sweden. I don’t know if these systems qualify as ‘streetcars’ (they do run on streets some of the way), but regardless, the hardware is the same for a more traditional streetcar system.

  94. Jarrett at August 29, 2009 at 12:06 pm #

    Streetcars can have capacities larger than those of buses. Several European
    cities use extremely long articulated units, as well as older units formed
    of multiple cars. However, Portland’s and Seattle’s do not have that

  95. EngineerScotty August 29, 2009 at 1:21 pm #

    To clarify a bit further, Portland Streetcar’s vehicles are configured to hold ~140 passengers (30 seated, 110 standing), whereas the 40′ busses used by Tri-Met are presently configured to hold 63 passengers (45 seated, 18 standing).
    Obviously, that comparison is between 40′ non-articulated busses and single-car streetcars; the present streetcar route isn’t designed for trains longer than a single railcar, and I suspect an articulated bus would have a difficult time navigating the route as well (ignoring the small segments of the route where the tracks are not embedded in pavement and busses cannot run on at all). At any rate, Tri-Met does not presently operate any articulated busses (it has in the past, on express routes mainly, but has since gotten rid of its artics). Excluding smaller vehicles used for missions like senior-citizen transport, the 40′ bus is the workhouse of Tri-Met’s non-rail fleet.
    Much of the difference has to do with seating configuration–like many rail vehicles, the PSC is optimized for standing room and high crush-loads, fare moreso than a bus. Whether the difference is in fact an advantage of rail (the vehicle and railbed can support the larger weight), or simply a difference in operations practice, I dunno–how many folks CAN be safely crammed on a 40′ bus?
    An interesting document that you might call attention to, is the Portland Streetcar System Plan transit technology review. This report comes from an output which is admittedly pro-streetcar, and errs in that it frequently discusses Tri-Met’s bus operational practices as though they were fundamental issues of bus technology; but it still is an interesting and detailed overview of transit choices.

  96. zweisystem September 27, 2009 at 7:05 am #

    Just read your post. Actually studies have shown that a streetcar (tram in Europe) is about 10% faster than a bus operating on the same route, without signal priority of reserved rights-of-ways.
    Still, the main reason that should be considered in building a streetcar is that it becomes more cost effective to operate than buses, when ridership exceeds 2,000 persons per hour per direction.
    This is because 1 streetcar (1 driver) is as efficient as 6 to 8 buses (6 to 8 drivers) and for every streetcar/bus operated one must hire at least 4 people to drive, maintain and manage them. Thus the costs for a tram or streetcar, spread over 20 to 25 years, is cheaper than buses.
    The problem in North America, our planners have reinvented LRT as light-metro and again trying to reinvent the streetcar as something it is not.
    Todays modern streetcar can carry as many as 350 passengers (example Strasbourg’s ‘Jumbos”). In Karlsruhe Germany their streetcars act a trams, light rail Vehicles and commuter trains.
    There is always room for buses, but trams or streetcars have proven one very important thing: They attract the motorist from the car, where buses have not and this singular fact is the reason for the Renaissance of LRT in Europe.

  97. zweisystem September 27, 2009 at 7:16 am #

    “a streetcar is that it becomes more cost effective to operate than buses, when ridership exceeds 2,000 persons per hour per direction … on a transit route.”
    The reason is that a streetcar or tram is faster is because it has acceleration and braking than a bus (LRTA study) and streetcars tend to have much faster dwell times as they don’t have to pull into traffic.
    Operating a streetcar on a reserved rights-of-way (which can be as simple as a HOV lane with rails) and having priority signaling at intersections in fact makes the streetcar LRT and commercial speeds increase dramatically. This is why LRT has made obsolete light-metro systems such as Bombardier’s ART (SkyTrain) and France’s VAL system, as modern LRT can obtain the commercial speeds and capacities of the much more expensive light-metro relations.

  98. Woody September 27, 2009 at 6:25 pm #

    Very insightful. I think you are onto something.
    A related notion is that the schoolbus experience can often be horrible, to put it bluntly — everything they say about buses and worse. Crowded, noisy, bumpy, and uncomfortable, they maneuver with all the sense of security I got while riding atop an elephant (yeah, once was enough). My all-white classmates were as unruly as any boisterous group of kids from the ghetto could be, and the school authorities responded with some authoritarianism. I’m reminded of those days when I see Dept of Corrections buses hauling prisoners to the courthouse.
    The schoolbus was one of those things that when I graduated I hoped never to repeat. So I wonder how many adults are unconsciously reminded of the horrible schoolbus ride when they see a bus as the offered mode of transit.
    For that matter, the shuttle buses that take grown-ups from the airport to the rental car lot is part of the hated, god-when-will-this-be-over airport experience.
    Where in the daily life of most Americans is taking the bus ever a fun, ‘let’s do that again’ experience?

  99. CroMagnon September 29, 2009 at 8:12 am #

    ^But how many routes are actually going to have 2000 persons/hour/direction? Any route that does would likely already have a legacy streetcar, or would be developing an LRT or Metro system in the same basic corridor. If you’ve got 2 streets within perhaps a 1/2 mile spread just outside a CBD, Metro probably makes more sense and is easily justified.

  100. Zweisystem October 20, 2009 at 6:54 am #

    A metro or subway needs a ridership of 400,000 to 500,000 a day to justify investment; any less ridership means that the metro will be heavily subsidized.
    In North America, we have ignored modern LRT development for decades and most light rail lines built are still largely first generation (C.1960’s) stuff with first generation thinking. We are currently entering the second decade of the 21st century and have ignored almost 50 years of development, with exception of the low-floor car.
    Streetcars are seen as “neater” than buses and different to light rail, which is a fatal mistake. The main difference between LRT and a streetcar or tram (in Europe the term LRT is hardly ever used) is the quality of rights-of-way used and if a streetcar operates on a “reserved rights-of-way” is becomes light rail.
    Karlsruhe’s TramTram again blurs the difference between streetcar, light rail vehicle and commuter train, where a one tram operates as a ‘streetcar’, ‘LRT” and ‘commuter train’, all in one journey.

  101. zweisystem October 21, 2009 at 8:28 am #

    Well if a route doesn’t have about 2,000 pphpd to support it, expect higher subsidies to be paid. Also there is the ‘sparks effect’ where the streetcar attracts ridership.
    Costs for LRT can be reduced by single tracking, track-sharing with regular railways, operating diesel LRT, etc.
    In North America (Seattle’s S.L.U.T. streetcar) is a prime example on not how to install a streetcar, but what do you expect with a city witch supported monorail and finally built a hybrid light rail/metro that is big on costs and low on ridership.
    Built light rail right; build it to serve important destinations as well serve the ‘burbs’; and build it affordably is the key to success.
    Building LRT or rapid transit for the sake of building it, leads to financial disaster.

  102. Rajan R November 6, 2009 at 12:14 pm #

    A bit of a late comment here.
    In your example, logically, each is a separate improvement that can be pursued without light rail. Fully agreed.
    But you missed the public acceptance bit. Each incremental improvement requires substantial initial cost (in terms of political capital, pre- and construction externalities, etc.)
    Moreover, if they did all that improvements on the trolleybus instead of introducing trams, it will seem as expensive, minor upgrade. Add a new technology in it, and it is a new system. The public isn’t that rational. 😛

  103. Myrtone December 13, 2009 at 2:28 am #

    From photos I have seen, and video footage, I have noticed that that Portland streetcar stops aren’t all level with the floor but are at kerb height (slightly lower), and retractable ramps are provided. Unfortunately, there has been prejudice against powered ramps here in Australia, they are though to be unreliable and disrupt the service. Has Portland ever run into problems like this.

  104. CroMagnon December 13, 2009 at 6:24 pm #

    Zweisystem, if you’re still around: Can you give me evidence to support 500,000 people to justify a metro system? This is akin to the assertions on the Honolulu post that don’t add up. Almost every system in the world is subsidized and most heavily.

  105. cph December 31, 2009 at 8:48 am #

    I’m assuming a “streetcar” is a rail vehicle that runs in mixed traffic (shares lanes with cars, etc.) while a “light rail” has surface lanes for its exclusive use. (We won’t get into grade-separation here.)
    To make a long story short–if we’re going to spend a lot of money laying down rail, let’s bite the bullet and build light rail, not mixed-traffic streetcars.
    While the streetcar may provide some performance improvement over the bus, such improvement may get eaten up fast by having to share lanes with mixed traffic.
    It’s roughly akin to the BRT, where transit agencies can spend and spend to make a bus more like a light rail, but at some point, it can get expensive enough to say “Why not just build LRT?”
    Same with streetcars. After building the ramps and platforms (needed for handicapped access), signal priority, and such, why not just kick the cars off the lanes and have an LRT?
    Of course, this assumes streetcars in a short-to-medium distance regional transit system. But a lot of the streetcar projects being proposed in the US seem to be 3-4 mile downtown circulators and such. Again, these might attract tourists, joyriders, and maybe the downtown lunch crowd. But are these trips that would have been otherwise made in a car? They might attract more car trips to downtown, as people come downtown to “ride the streetcar” all day as if it were an amusement park ride.
    I see the hoopla over streetcars potentially directing federal/state funding into a bunch of little streetcar loops in cities across the US, while more regional transit concerns are not given the attention they should get.
    US transit funding seems to have gone through several fads. In the 70s, every city was to have a heavy-rail subway. Then in the 80s it was light rail. Then in the 90s, BRT was pushed as a substitute for light rail. Now everyone’s enamored with these downtown streetcar loops which seem (to me, anyway) part tourist attraction, part sop to developers, and relatively little about transit need.

  106. EngineerScotty December 31, 2009 at 11:15 am #

    The concept of “rapid streetcar” (separate-ROW rail transit which uses streetcar-class vehicles, which can have much lower capital costs at the expense of lower capacity and operating speeds) is a bit interesting. Because street-legal trams are used, existing pavement can be converted to streetcar use (either mixed-traffic or exclusive-ROW) with minimal construction–only the top layer of the roadbed need be replaced. Conversion of street lanes to LRT usually requires rerouting utilities and replacing the entire roadbed, as roadways designed for automobile traffic cannot bear the weight of light-rail.
    Of course, the downside of this is the resulting systems aren’t capable of high-speed operation. If you need a line to provide medium-stop service along a local corridor, it works well; if you are running the line long-distance, LRT is probably a better option.

  107. Alon Levy December 31, 2009 at 3:24 pm #

    I’m pretty sure that Calgary, Nice, and any other city that runs modern LRVs in converted transit malls did very little street reconfiguration.

  108. EngineerScotty January 1, 2010 at 9:59 am #

    Depends on what’s under the street, of course, but many sewer lines buried under streets are designed for the weight of trucks but not for the heavier point loads imposed by LRT. 5th and 6th needed to be ripped out, have utilities relocated, and a new roadbed installed for LRT. Adding rails for streetcar-class vehicles simply requires replacing the surface roadbed and installing rails and catenary.
    I don’t know what construction techniques were used in Calgary or Nice.

  109. Alon Levy January 1, 2010 at 5:57 pm #

    Calgary keeps touting its reserving ROW decades in advance as a way of keeping costs down. My guess is that it picked candidate streets for transit mall conversion, and then made sure not to put sewer lines under them that would need to be reconstructed.

  110. Thom January 4, 2010 at 6:36 am #

    Great debate. Thanks for starting it. I live in Toronto where street cars are considered a sacred icon. I agree entirely with your analysis and wish that more people could be as objective as you are. I don’t think there are any mechanical challenges in building something nearly identical to a electric street car, but with rubber wheels. And that’s where my skepticism lies. I understand that metal wheels on rails have lower friction, but does the drop in friction outweigh the cost of building and maintaining a railbed?
    Here in Toronto, the tempurature range is quite broad(-20c to 38c. Sorry yanks, do your own conversion). As a result, there is constant road maintenance and railbed replacement going on. Given that concrete and steel are two of the largest CO2 producers, I find it hard to believe that we actually end up ahead by laying rails everywhere. I would love to see someone document the lifetime energy and CO2 costs associated with steel vs rubber abstracted from the bus vs street car form factor debate.

  111. Alon Levy January 4, 2010 at 8:02 am #

    Thom, bear in mind that the Toronto streetcar infrastructure is shoddy. The rails used to be continuously welded and would last decades without much maintenance. However, in the 1970s Toronto expected that it would replace all the streetcars with buses in ten years, so as the rails approached the end of their life, it replaced them with jointed rails, which would last much less time and require more maintenance but have a lower initial cost. In the city’s view, using continuously welded rail again was a waste of money. By the time the city changed its tune and decided to keep the streetcars, it was already stuck with inferior rails.

  112. Christopher January 4, 2010 at 3:18 pm #

    As a passenger, what’s most important to me is travel time and comfort.
    Re: Jarrett’s “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 most comfortable transit vehicles that serve the new Portland Transit Mall are the express buses that run between Vancouver, WA & Portland by C-Tran….by far.
    They are Gillig Hybrids with well padded reclining seats, overhead storage racks with reading lights. They are stunningly quiet and smooth. I nap so easily on them.
    Every transit fan should ride one once from 5th & Alder to Clay in the AM or in the PM north from 6th & Columbia.
    With the plan to extend LRT to Vancouver, C-Tran has claimed they will not eliminate the express bus service. I sure hope it turns out to be true. Before I sit on a hard, cramped, creeping MAX train all the way between Vancouver & Portland, I’ll be back in my car.
    Streetcar? An expensive, romantic novelty. Many 30′ or 35′ BRT vehicles between PSU & NW 23rd would be so much smarter, faster and more comfortable.

  113. EngineerScotty January 4, 2010 at 5:05 pm #

    Seat quality is generally orthognal to vehicle choice, of course–C-Tran has chosen to outfit its hybrids on the Portland route with more comfortable seating than is typical for transit applications (and more comfy than any of the seating installed on TriMet).
    The busses that they use are pretty expensive, though–$650k a pop vs $450k.
    Whether this is a wise of use transit dollars, I’ll take a pass on. OTOH, the suggestion to replace the Streetcar with 30’/35′ busses is probably a non-starter, simply given the vast capacity differences. While some would love to see more frequent busses vs less frequent streetcars with the same overall capacity; doing so would cost a LOT of money.
    Bottom line is: There is a lot of variation in vehicle ride quality; a luxury motor coach is going to be more comfortable than a vintage streetcar on welded rails with a wooden bench. All else being equal, though, rail is capable of a smoother ride. Whether this smoother ride justifies the expense is a political decision.

  114. EngineerScotty January 4, 2010 at 5:07 pm #

    Sorry, I meant jointed rails.
    If you want the ultimate in uncomfortable rail transit, visit Amsterdam. 🙂

  115. Robert Wightman February 18, 2010 at 7:26 am #

    Thom, “bear in mind that the Toronto streetcar infrastructure is shoddy. The rails used to be continuously welded and would last decades without much maintenance. However, in the 1970s Toronto expected that it would replace all the streetcars with buses in ten years, so as the rails approached the end of their life, it replaced them with jointed rails, which would last much less time and require more maintenance but have a lower initial cost. In the city’s view, using continuously welded rail again was a waste of money. By the time the city changed its tune and decided to keep the streetcars, it was already stuck with inferior rails.”
    Toronto has replaced almost all of its in service track with completely new continuously welded rail on a brand new base going down almost 1 metre. They have steel ties embedded in a lower layer of concrete with the rails mounted on vibration absorbing rubber pads . A top layer of concrete is than poured around the tracks. When it comes time to renew the rail the concrete is broken off the top layer only, new track is attached to the under structure and fresh concrete is poured. Over the next two years Toronto is going to replace most of the non revenue trackage in the same manner.
    In Toronto we do not have higher levels of government providing much, if any, of the capital costs for street car renewal. I am not talking about the new suburban LRT lines here. Toronto figured that it was cheaper to run streetcars and maintain all the associated infrastructure that to substitute bus service. Most of the streets with mixed traffic running are in four lanes that are 3.6 m (12′) wide.
    When buses were substituted for streetcars on some line that were converted when a subway was opened not only did the buses run slower than the streetcars did. All the traffic ran slower than before. Perhaps this is a peculiarity of Toronto.

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    In contrast with light rail transit, for almost the entire route streetcars are not separated from other traffic and are not given any traffic-signal priority over other vehicles, except where necessary to allow the rail cars to make certain turns. This design minimizes construction costs and disruption to traffic flow and parking, but also means longer travel times as compared with light rail.

  118. Roger April 26, 2010 at 4:30 pm #

    Toronto has more streetcars than anywhere, and I wish they’d replace them with buses! The biggest problem is that they’re used in mixed traffic, so every time a streetcar stops to pick up or let off passengers, EVERY vehicle behind it must stop (the streetcars are in the inside lane, and riders must cross the outside lane). Not to mention the additional danger of car drivers not paying attention and running into riders.
    As you can imagine, in rush hour traffic, we get damn close to gridlock every day. A little bit more population, and we’ll hit the tipping point any day.
    For whatever reason, as other large cities built more subways, Toronto instead relied on streetcars, and now we’re really screwed. We have the privilege of paying extra for slower service.

  119. EngineerScotty April 26, 2010 at 5:24 pm #

    Roger wrote:
    so every time a streetcar stops to pick up or let off passengers, EVERY vehicle behind it must stop
    Some consider this an advantage of streetcars–they’re more disruptive of auto traffic. Of course, the same effect could be had with transit busses, simply by treating them like school busses–equip them with flashers and a swingout stop sign, and when the bus stops, so must the cars.
    Of course, the question to ask Roger is–is he riding transit, or driving? While selecting a transit mode with the intent of inconveniencing motorists may not be a good idea; I certainly don’t think that making life easier on drivers should be a factor in the equation. Indeed, many operational improvements to transit (resulting in better service or saved money) come from giving transit priority over other vehicles.

  120. Alon Levy April 27, 2010 at 2:03 am #

    Roger: Toronto did in fact build subways. In fact, it has the second highest rail ridership per capita and transit mode share in North America, after New York, largely on the strength of its subway.

  121. dejv April 27, 2010 at 4:01 am #

    Roger: if therer are streets that are congested with both auto and streetcar traffic, why should streetcars give way to cars? This way, you decrease total throughput of street.

  122. Nathanael May 3, 2010 at 3:47 am #

    “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.”
    Please provide evidence of this perception change. I have seen an *increase* in the perceived difference between bus and rail. Even in *London*, where the buses are frankly awesome.

  123. Curt Sampson May 25, 2010 at 9:21 pm #

    zweisystem: it sounds as if you didn’t read the article closely enough. The lower dwell times are not due to using a streetcar rather that a bus, but due to using a reserved right of way, which a bus could just as easily use. Probably a larger factor in dwell time than pulling into traffic, however, is bording time. This can also be improved for buses just as it is for streetcars. Setting up the payment system so that passengers can board, as well as disembark, through multiple doors will help a lot. This is done in the same way for buses as for streetcars: either with an honour-based system at every door of the vehicle, or via building a small “station” at every stop where passengers pay at the station entrance rather than as they board the vehicle.
    I’m not sure that the better acceleration is a major factor, but note that electric buses have considerably better acceleration that diesel, perhaps even as good as a tram.
    Design as nice, shiny, new low-floor articulated trollybus with three to five doors, give it a dedicated right of way and stations, and I don’t think people would much notice the difference between that and a tram.
    This would not only result in considerable capital cost savings, but would allow inexpensive creation of an express service along the same route using mostly or exactly the same infrastructure. (For the express service, you’d have to use either buses with self-contained power sources or you’d have to run an additional set of power lines for trollybuses.)
    I’m not even convinced that streetcars always offer more capacity. On a single line they certainly do, but if there’s a reasonable split between local and non-local trips, the ability to add a cheap express service may actually increase capacity over a single-line streetcar service since, with appropriate infrastructure improvements (such as larger express stops that can accommodate two buses), it appears to me that you can maintain full headway on the local service while the express service offers additional passenger capacity on top of that.
    So I really don’t buy the “one streetcar replaces 6-8 buses” argument. I’ll buy that it replaces two, but that changes the whole argument about capital costs, especially when you an express service is useful on the route.
    I speak as someone who used to be a fan of streetcars. I’ve changed
    my mind, now. I still would prefer a streetcar to a “traditional” bus system, but I think we can make a modern bus system almost as nice as a streetcar for a much lower cost, and if that gets me more kilometers of that system, I’m all for it.

  124. Brisben June 16, 2010 at 4:47 pm #

    “As buses continue to improve, taking on more and more of the features of rail services, and more people ride them, shouldn’t we expect this advantage to diminish?”
    No, not necessarily. Buses might evolve to be more like LRT and streetcars are today, but you seem to be implicitly assuming that LRT and streetcars will remain static or much the same over that same future time period.
    By the time buses have even approached that of LRT (trappings cost money- so probably with an increase in bus costs too), it is likely that LRT would have further innovations and improvements that would keep the relative differences more or less the same. Maybe innovations that might even mean LRT is cheaper or the same cost as buses?
    Until such time comes along, the future potential for a better bus should not be a reason to hesitate rolling out streetcar route IMHO.

  125. archintent July 5, 2010 at 4:52 am #

    this may have been hit on in some of the comments, but you question why ridership is higher w/streetcars and, having lived in new orleans, i have a couple of thoughts:
    1. depending on the system, there is a novelty/fun factor to the street car, but more importantly…
    2. visibility. you mention legibility, and this may be what you mean: the streetcar tracks and maybe overhead wires are always present/visible, making people more aware of this public transit option. buses are nearly invisible between actualy bus appearances, the signs typically being very small. but the streetcar infrastructure is always present, making this possibility apparent, easy, obvious, etc….

  126. Matt Fisher July 7, 2010 at 2:00 pm #

    In reply to your comment, and I never read this since I made my comment, I seem to acknowledge it. We both seem to agree that technology should not be the main basis of all transit decision making, but we both agree that streetcars certainly can have longer streetcars than buses. The Portland/Seattle model shouldn’t be the model for other American and Canadian cities to follow in that sense. I suggest something a la the Citadis or the Combino (especially the long Supra in Budapest, which is almost as long as a two car light rail train). 🙂
    There can also be Sydney’s Metro Light Rail trains, but the existing line doesn’t go as far as it should. While I speak as a Canadian, I have interest in rail transit developments in all corners of the world. I have about as much in Australia as I do in my own corner here, or in Toronto or something.

  127. Matt Fisher July 7, 2010 at 2:02 pm #

    Actually, zweisystem, I wouldn’t call VAL “obsolete”. They opened a VAL metro in 2008 in Lausanne, Switzerland, by converting the type of operation of a more “classic” metro line. A VAL metro is currently being built in Brescia, Italy. And they’re doing these in cities with metropolitan areas of less than 500,000 inhabitants.

  128. Tim Dow July 10, 2010 at 1:55 am #

    You wrote, “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).”
    Some anecdotal inputs on streetcar benifits from my experience in Munich, Germany. I had a weekly 25 minute trip to meet friends for a running group and had the option of taking a subway, bus, or streetcar. The starting point of each mode of transportation was within one block of my home. Frequency for each mode was around 8 minutes at my time of travel. The subway trip was about 5 minutes faster than the bus and streetcar. Suprisingly, I found myself taking the streetcar 90% of the time. I used the subway when I was running late, but otherwise I found myself drifting to the streetcar stop as I found this mode of transportation somewhow more “pleasant”. Looking back, I think it was related to (of all things) the views out the window. The subways had windows but you couldn’t see anything except the reflection of the inside of the subway. The buses were modern low floor accessible types, but unfortunately you couldn’t see over the row of parked cars lining the streets, so the view wasn’t much better. But the streetcar offered high seating letting me peer into the shops and restaraunts along the way. I could check out the window displays for new stuff at my favorite store, check the wait for tables at the restaraunts, observe the pedestrians, etc. Generally, a very pleasant experience. Maybe it’s some factor as detailed as this that triggers folks streetcar passions.

  129. Chris July 18, 2010 at 5:41 pm #

    It’s not quite true that streetcars don’t go faster, even if there are no other improvements. If streetcars are designed like most of Toronto’s lines, CARS CANNOT PASS A STOPPED STREETCAR. This may seem insignificant, but it’s huge. If a streetcar stops to pick up/drop off passengers in the middle of heavy congestion, by the time it’s ready to move again (30 seconds or whatever), there is a good chance the congestion in front of the streetcar has cleared up for at least a little ways because no cars have passed the streetcar for those 30 seconds while it was stopped, while cars that were in front of the streetcar have had time to move forward, through an intersection, turn, whatever.
    With a stopped bus, cars can continue to pass the bus while it is stopped. That means that even after those 30 seconds, there is STILL likely to be congestion right in front of the bus. In fact, it many have even gotten worse.

  130. EngineerScotty July 18, 2010 at 6:01 pm #

    Stops on Portland Streetcar are typically right before intersections. If the streetcar is stopped at a stop facing a red light, turning traffic may well have filled the gap in front of it.
    That said, the Streetcar runs mostly on lesser-used streets, not major thoroughfares. It will be interesting when the Streetcar Loop opens, to see how it performs on Broadway, Weidler, MLK, and Grand.

  131. Gonzalo Camacho, P.E. December 8, 2010 at 9:46 am #

    Good article Jarrett. Your article is very objective and correct. Most people are not well educated in the various aspects that involve transportation and different modes. Speed, confort, cost, and destinations are some of the critical aspects that ofter are lost in translation. Regretfully transit agencies most often fail to educate stakeholders on the realities of mass transit. At the end they end up developing unsustainable transportation systems.

  132. Frank Illguth December 21, 2010 at 4:30 pm #

    According to the David Suzuki Foundation of Vancouver Canada we read that ” aviation growth is a risk to our planet. The rise in demand for air travel is one of the most serious
    environmental global warming threats facing the world today.”
    Reducing our overland air travel is a giant step in the right direction. There is only one way that we can accomplish this very important objective .We must be able to give you, our today’s air traveling public, something better.
    The Canadian Hydrogen Overhead Monorail Express with the latest advanced Canadian mechanical mass transportation technology will give you, the traveling public, something better.
    The Canadian Hydrogen Overhead Monorail Express is the only train on our planet that can slow down to 35 kilometers per hour, shuttle or load and unload up to 500 passengers with their luggage at the same time without stopping while traveling at 35 kilometers pr. hour.
    When these transactions are complete the Express Train will then return to its normal safe speed of 300 kilometers per hour.
    The Canadian mechanical technology design makes it impossible to have a derailment or an accidental mishap when loading and unloading up to 500 passengers with their luggage.
    The right – of – way concept is not a problem with The Canadian Hyerogen Overhead Monorail Express when it is elevated and travels over all railways, highways, and farmland.
    What does this mean to you, the traveling public? You can travel from Vancouver BC Canada to the city of Quebec Canada in 14 hours with 14 shuttles or Vancouver BC Canada to Peking China in 17 hours with 16 shuttles when crossing The Bering Strait.
    Winter storms, or any impossible whether conditions that will normally ground all air traffic will not slow down The Canadian Hydrogen Overhead Monorail Express.
    There is no airline or high speed train today that can come close to the above performance. All the seats on the Canadian Express are first class, comfortable and affordable. The price tag is in step with our economy class seating offered by our today’s airlines.
    Canada has also a metro mass transportation system on a smaller scale using the same technology. This system will dismiss all the rush hour traffic that most of our major cities, in the whole world are experiencing today.
    Canada will share this Canadian advanced mechanical transportation technology with the rest of the world at no charge. This will be one of the greatest work projects, creating millions of jobs when building the monorail, shuttle stations, preventive maintains stations and a big boost to the industrialized world industry, building the latest advanced Canadian mass transportation system known to man today.
    The Inventor

  133. Robert Wightman December 22, 2010 at 4:54 pm #

    If you believe this then I have a bridge in Brooklyn for sale and some very good land in Florida. As a Canadian I can’t believe that this crap is being touted as Canadian. I have never heard anything about it before. Hydrogen costs more to manufacture than any benefit that will result from using it. I am reminded about an article I once read in a scientific periodical that said that the US had finally generated more electricity from nuclear power than had been consumed in creating enriched uranium. The next week three mile island occurred. Anyone who believes this crap deserves what they get.

  134. Scott December 23, 2010 at 4:45 pm #

    To coin a phrase from Westside Story, “In Canada, nothing is impossible!”

  135. Frank Illguth December 30, 2010 at 3:35 pm #

    Mr. Robert,
    Please forgive me for spelling your name wrong.
    It is not crap, it is Mr. Robert
    The Inventor.

  136. SpyOne January 4, 2011 at 7:48 am #

    Perhaps you could point us to a website that explains in more detail?
    I think I have seen several of these elements before, most notably a high speed train where the passengers board and debark from a smaller vehicle that launches from the station to speed up to the train’s speed, then disconnects and slows to stop at the next station. It seemed more complicated than it would be worth.
    One thing in hydrogen’s favor: it is a pretty good battery. That is, it allows you to move power from one place to another: you can use hydroelectric in the Pacific Northwest to power trains crossing the great plains by using the electricity to make hydrogen, then burning the hydrogen to make electricity. It is inefficient, but so would be running the train off batteries, or trying to send the power across the continent on wires. However, hydrogen is also very big with the pie-in-the-sky dreamers, and practical hydrogen infrastructure is still decades away, so any product that is supposed to run on hydrogen sounds a little like it was designed by a 12 year old; lots of “cool” but not a lot of “practical”.
    Thirty years ago, they promised me that airplanes would be running on hydrogen by now.
    Anyway, if you are confident that this CHOME is something that could actually get built in my lifetime, I’d like to learn more.
    (Isn’t the word “overhead” a bit redundant there? Aren’t like 99.9% of monorail systems elevated anyway? And is the word “Canadian” really necessary? Unless you need to distinguish it from the hydrogen overhead monorail expresses found in other countries, you sound more professional if you drop that. And probably you’d rather use something like “continuous” in this context rather than “express”: “Express” tends to describe a service, not a vehicle or technology. Nobody builds an “express”, they decide to offer one on an existing route.)

  137. Anandakos January 22, 2011 at 9:35 am #

    You can’t “ride a (modern) streetcar down Market Street or the Embarcadero” because the only vehicles on the “F” line are historic streetcars. Some of those loudly grinding Milan cars are 100 years old, and the newest vehicles are Presidents’ Conference Committee cars from the 1930’s and 40’s in spiffy paint jobs.
    Jarrett is spot on about street-running in mixed traffic: it sucks. Unless planners create dedicated rights of way and intersection preferences the current fad for streetcars will soon wane.
    The fiasco on the east side of the Willamette will bring Portland’s love affair with the cars to a screeching halt and Seattle is about to learn that circuitous streetcar routes are no better than circuitous bus routings.
    The bitter truth is that the only streetcar systems in North America that survived the mid-century purge had long stretches of exclusive right of way and/or tunnels through physical barriers which could not be converted to bus. There are many reasons that the lines without these advantages were all scrapped, and Jarrett has done a great job of listing them.
    And, “yes”, the ride is superior and “yes” they do focus gentrified development that was going to happen anyway. But we’ll see how the Grand/MLK couplet fares in Portland. Or doesn’t.

  138. Dave Brough November 11, 2011 at 7:21 pm #

    OK, what about elevating the conversation, say, about 10 meters. And while we’re at it, reduce the fatalities to zero, the cost by 70%, increase tourism by 100%, and manufacture it right ‘here’ (North America).
    Those pictures were from the 1975 version of Aerobus. The technology has advanced significantly since.

  139. Mike January 28, 2012 at 6:34 am #

    As a layman, it seems that streetcars have one big INTRINSIC advantage over buses that was not mentioned here (but was touched on in your “Streetcar v. light rail” post): Streetcars can travel both ON and OFF paved surfaces, thus making it easier to provide them with exclusive lanes as compared to busses. Now, I understand a streetcar system requires more capital than a bus system. However, I’m guessing a large part of that difference comes from buses sharing existing roads with private autos. But if we want exclusive lanes, wouldn’t laying streetcar track in a city with extant streetcar infrastructure be cheaper than paving a new lane of road? If so, streetcars could take advantage of the geography of certain corridors to provide an exclusive transit lane without sacrificing a lane of road traffic and without a costly and disruptive road-widening. Of course, medians in boulevards are the most obvious example, but streetcar track could also cut through parks or other undeveloped land to avoid a congested intersection or section of road. In both these cases, streetcar track would avoid expensive and unsightly pavement. Again, I am speaking as a layman and I welcome any corrections. Love the site.

  140. Jarrett at January 28, 2012 at 9:13 am #

    Mike.  See the "grass track" of the Eugene, Oregon BRT system.  

  141. Mike January 29, 2012 at 6:45 am #

    Ah, I see Eugene solved that problem, eh? Although correct me if I’m wrong, but streetcars are narrower than buses, and also require less “wiggle room” as they are on fixed tracks. So, there could be situations where a streetcar would fit where a bus wouldn’t. But I take your point: buses can do practically anything that streetcars can.

  142. EngineerScotty January 30, 2012 at 8:39 am #

    EmX’s “grass track” is still a paved surface, despite having a grassy patch in between the tires.
    That said, I’m not sure that “streetcars don’t need pavement” matters. Streetcars need tracks and a railbed, and much of the expense of preparing a vehicular right-of-way is involved in grading and preparing the roadbed/railbed, regardless of what the surface is made of. Rail in general requires a heavier-duty bed than do busses, simply because the axle loads of the vehicles are so much larger–with streetcar-class vehicles being the exception due to their smaller size.
    Rails-over-ties does have other advantages over pavement–it’s less tempting to convert into roads later than a busway (or rails-in-pavement), and its a more permeable surface than is pavement, but both of these are probably not very important matters.

  143. D July 3, 2012 at 9:59 am #

    Highest and best use of the streetcar line corridor was originally shown in places able to use streetcar tracks designed to move freight during off-travel peak hours. If strategic planners are correct, we should rethink the concept of moving victuals into city centers vis rail, including produce terminals served by either heavy rail or “Interurban” streetcar or light rail lines.
    Planners with some Simmons Boardman and/or “Official Guide” volumes circa 1920-1950 can see how Pacific Electric did it. In fact, the New York elevated system had a number of downtown food terminals in New York, alongside the elevated tracks. Newbies to rail corridor studies can obtain the US Rail Map Atlas Volumes as well as the above industry resources of reknown.
    No one of the above messages; certainly not the originating owner of this blog seems to have the slightest sense of price and supply effects of liquid motor fuel in the calculations…
    Buses do not shine as brightly in scenario with monetary & resource restrictions on fuel and even paving. Absurd and ridiculous sez you; nonetheless, there are a number of forces and events eventually coming to bear on transportation methodology.
    Currency collapse is not out of the question; Peak Oil is already a demonstrated reality if conventional oil is to be taken as the primary driver of motor fuel supply and pricing. Overstated reserves do not readily translate into predictable flow volumes, at price amenable to maintaining our auto-oriented lifestyle.
    As conventional oil pricing formulas exert upward, offshore & other fossil energy sources including shales and tar sands development become more EIOER expensive. Association For The Study Of Peak Oil & Gas (Kjell Aleklett) can show chapter and verse information to all comers interested in determining reasons for all due haste construction of primary urban rail hub/spine lines with food cargo capability. Take subsidies out of the picture, and railway can maintain ops with less costs per route mile because of the passenger/freight track share capability.
    Progress with wireless urban rail vehicles is moving forward as well: Suntrain Transportation Inc. is just now unveiling a full complement of alternative energy railway solutions, a “Systems” concept for local retail railway. Wise indeed are the transportation planners who understand the mid-long term energy component as well as the international threats to whatever transport mode mix is aimed for.
    It is easy to see in the many posts above a smug assumption that private cars are superior, will always be around as we know and love them. And, buses are tolerated as long as buses bring better pavement… But there are no sure things in life, or the life of a civilization, for that matter. Do planners read and heed energy savants like Richard Heinberg, Robert L. Hirsch, and Michael Klare?
    America may elect a Mormon to the presidency, with hope a business savvy man in charge can set things right? How will Mitt Romney handle an energy emergency, a chain of events calling for Federal Executive Emergency Orders including motor fuel allocation(rationing)? Insights to this man’s world view and business ethos can be seen in a book: Senator Frank J. Cannon’s “Under The Prophet In Utah”. In short, does Romney have a clue about the “Second Dimension Surface Logistics Platform” genius of railways?
    The Islamic component in world affairs is underestimated, in fact all but ignored in our politically correct press. “Progressive Railroading” would be more than just a title if the folks there really understood the strategic and crucial role played by a comprehensive, robust railway matrix, including local links. A quick primer in undercurrents of Middle East turmoil is seen in “The Blood Of The Moon” by George Grant. More updated, see conflict and consequence scenarios from Institute for Strategic and International Studies” (A. Cordesman). Shariah and happy motoring are a tough mix.

  144. LHomonacionale April 13, 2013 at 11:46 pm #

    I think the simple reason why riders prefer streetcars to buses is similar to the reason drivers prefer luxury cars to junkers- People enjoy things that seem a touch excessive. This is America, after all. A brand-new BMW will get you to your destination just about as fast and reliably as a 2000 Honda, but if you asked people which they would prefer to drive there would be no contest. This will always be the case. Of course an answer to this would be to build nicer buses- but buses necessarily have a shorter life span than streetcars and so even a ‘new’ bus that impresses people today is going to appear old and junky before too long. Meanwhile, an ‘old’ streetcar line seems nicer just for the fact that it’s transit on rails. It’s permanent, and gives the rider the sense that the infrastructure exists for them, not that they are sharing infrastructure with cars. (Not to mention the fact that streetcar technology has just as much potential for improvement as bus technology, but that innovation follows money and we will necessarily see more improvements in bus design than streetcar design if more buses than streetcars are being ordered and built.)
    Bus stops and bus lanes are ephemeral. Even a dedicated right of way for a bus is just a paint job away from becoming just another long line of cars because a newly-elected mayor or council wants to eliminate a bus service. I really feel it’s hard to undersell the permanence of putting rails in the ground and building large stops. It doesn’t just broadcast to a rider where their streetcar will be taking them in fifteen minutes- it advises a homebuyer that they will have a reliable route to work for the foreseeable future, that they won’t end up reliant upon a bus line that is discontinued or altered a few years after they move. That kind of stability is not just in the minds of “choice” riders, it’s real. These are the kinds of questions people ask when they’re moving and naturally wondering how they will get from home to work and back.
    Yes, you have to look very far into the future when considering these things- And the long-ranging issue for transit is how are we going to get all these cars off the streets? It doesn’t seem to me as if the number of cars in our society is the least bit defensible, and at risk of sounding anti-car, I’m rather anti-car. You seem to discredit the idea of streetcar transit as a lifestyle choice, but a car-centric lifestyle endemic to US culture is exactly what transit supporters are trying to contend with. Are nicer buses one way of accomplishing this? Yes. Are streetcars a perhaps better way of accomplishing this? Yes.
    I agree that establishing dedicated rights-of-way for high-capacity transit is the most urgent priority, and agree that streetcars shouldn’t be shoved into corridors where they simply wouldn’t be helpful. But if you want to get people out of their cars you need to be willing to give them the transit equivalent of their new BMWs. Buses may be serviceable, but serviceability isn’t ever the only criterion the shallow, fickle American population takes into consideration.

  145. Paul May 18, 2013 at 10:32 am #

    I think that the bus industry needs a new champion and visionary – someone that can, first, create a bus that drives more like a streetcar, has a similar passenger capacity, and look like a streetcar; and secondly, that can help re-brand buses as a reasonable form of transit that doesn’t send messages about social class, etc. The rider preference for bus vs. streetcar seems to me to be something that is almost completely illogical, and would certainly be so if bus design improved.
    As electric battery technology improves, and if we can design better, higher capacity articulated buses, I can’t see why it would keep making sense to build the additional infrastructure (e.g., track) that a streetcar system requires and select a technology that lacks the ability to be as dynamic as a bus system. As a Toronto resident, I see numerous shortcomings of streetcars (either they’re rammed full and one comes every 10 minutes, or the first one has a few people on it and then there are 5 empty ones immediately behind; stopping in the middle of intersections to reconnect disengaged electrical poles; driving in the middle lane, causing traffic disruption during passenger loading and unloading); the list goes on). A bus system would avoid many of these challenges, the most important of which I think would be improving the flexibility and dynamic nature of the transit system – allowing vehicles to be redeployed from over-serviced areas to under-serviced areas with greater ease.

  146. skndr July 4, 2013 at 5:24 pm #

    One big issue we have about street car is availablity problem when one street car goes down. It holds the whole line not allowing other street crs to provide any service until the problematic car is retired. At least that is the case in Toronto. I assume telectric trolleys bus could handle this scenario easily as it does not need rail. Gas/diesel buses are bad for the air quality but electric buses would not be a bad idea to bet for.

  147. Jakub Halor August 31, 2013 at 9:52 am #

    I think you should point clear advatages of modern streetcar over diesel bus – energetical efficiency of rail technology (rolling resistance 10-100 times lower than for vehicles on tyres) and no exhaust emission, no oxygen use in the city. This is what I would pay for deciding to build new tram system. If I know how to manage it, I clearly pay less for each passenger ride running tram than running bus. And this is what I like. The rest doesn’t matter that much in my opinion if we talk about the vehicles of similar size.

  148. Jakub Halor August 31, 2013 at 10:00 am #

    Well, when one streetcar goes down, another on the line should push it to depot or sidetrack. That’s something that is not possible for buses. Of course, it’s not that easy to handle if we have derailment or collision with another road user. Putting back on track old PCC class vehicle is usually easy but for modern multiple section vehicles it can take a lot of time. So it’s better to have rail network which enables you to bypass accidents, bigger cities should have densier network.

  149. Jarrett August 31, 2013 at 7:22 pm #

    Zweisystem. Yes, where the streetcar’s capacity is required, as on major European streetcars, then of course you should build them. That doesn’t apply to any of the new lines in the US.

  150. RLHotchkiss February 15, 2014 at 4:44 pm #

    I found this article almost insanely insensitive to those who actually have to use public transport to get to work. I was living in London in the late 1990’s and the head of the London Underground rode the tube. It was big news because it was the first time that this had occurred in the over hundred year history of the system. This author reminds of that and the horrible sense of powerlessness that one experiences as public transport rider having one’s transportation system designed by people who couldn’t be bothered to consider what the actual experiences of riders might be like.
    I have used public transport for years to get to work. And I know first hand that it doesn’t matter how fast you get to work if your covered in vomit after an harrowing hour of being bounced around a double decker bus like paint in a paint can. In New Orleans I walked for literally miles to take the street car to work rather than be covered with a fellow rider’s café au lait as the bus bounced across the streets.
    The trolley isn’t just a smoother ride. It is the difference between arriving at work fit to work and not. If people are going to take public transport they have to arrive at work fit to work every single time. If speed were the answer why not us catapults, or giant rockets strapped to the hapless workers backs as they tremble upon roller stakes.
    Transit riders are real people. They are not just widgets that you can slam around town on the theory that slightly bending or scolding the odd one now an again in the end will average out. They are human beings who deserve to be transported to some minimum standard of safety and comfort.
    Whilst busses may be necessary as a transitional method or on temporary routes, until a bus can approach the consistent quality of light rail, as much public resources as can be brought to bear should be employed in the construction and operation light rail routes.

  151. Joylfelix February 18, 2014 at 11:09 am #

    One thing you have not factored in is how many drivers stay away from buses do to nausea. Buses run on gas and release carbon monoxide fumes. For many, myself included, this severely limits where I am willing to sit on a bus. Towards the front only. Many people find that riding in the front of a car or bus alleviates this. However streetcars run on electricity and so the same people who would not get out of their cars to ride a bus will for a streetcar. I am not willing to wait through two or three buses to get a front seat. Streetcars, I don’t care where I get on. For many, as you said “it attracts more riders” why – well in part a streetcar is not going to make us ill!

  152. Mikeschinkel January 15, 2015 at 11:01 am #

    “buses with … low floors completely level with the platform.”

    I’ve looked and looked for examples of those and they are nowhere to be found. I’m not challenging you on this, I really want to find examples to propose to Atlanta’s regional planners.

  153. David Cameron July 11, 2015 at 12:34 am #

    Street cars are one of the good option for transportation. It was really a good news.

  154. Don R July 18, 2016 at 9:14 am #

    Portland Streetcar moves at walking speed. Factor in the cost, and it’s ignorance on wheels. The billions in real estate development they keep pointing to are the result of tech workers flooding into Portland from the Bay Area, where they’ve given up on the million dollar housing market, which has actually ruined Portland and everything it once represented. Welcome to New San Francisco.

  155. Fracking tank containment July 23, 2016 at 10:37 pm #

    thanks for nice sharing

  156. Erik February 19, 2017 at 2:32 am #


    I found your blog just today and am surprised by its extent. I personally am also a fan of streetcars, but do agree with your original article as well as the follow ups. I have something similar that I can relate to. I live in Bratislava and there have been plans to build a metro since the 1970s, hand in hand with megalomaniac city planning, where my city should have had over 1 million inhabitants by the year 2000. Today, in 2017, we have less than half of that. But people are still crying out for a metro, which is understood as a sub-terrain rail service here. The biggest problem is that this way of thinking caused that people neglected the existing streetcar system, which was (an in some aspects still is) technologically stuck in the 1970s. Even modernizations of existing routes tend to repeat obsolete traffic planning, stops are not accessible or still at their previous positions, even though recent urban development means that some stops should have been moved, even if it were just 100 meters or to the other side of a crossing to allow a faster, more comfortable and safer transfer to adjunct bus routes. This lead to, and I must admit that in most cases adequate, critique of the streetcar as a system and led people cry out for a metro instead, while they maintained some unrealistic views about how perfect the metro would be. This cognitive bias is just blindness and if people were actually listening and thinking to what they demand, they would find many contradictions. I believe you (author of the blog to make it clear) experience something similar in streetcar proponents mostly in the US than I experienced from metro proponents in my city.

    As mentioned, I am big fan of streetcars, because I see their big potential and I am sure Bratislava does not need a metro or any other new system. It just needs to develop streetcars, but modern ones with modern and people friendly (not car friendly) urban planning. I also acknowledge the bus a means of transport, the problem is that in many cases in my city, so called “temporary” bus routes were built with the prospect they will be replaced by the “metro” in some near future, which never happened. The biggest mistake was to replace the very frequent tram track on the Stefanikova Street with permanent busses, because the tram was expected to be replaced with an underground metro system. Guess what happened. The metro was never built, and most likely will never be built as it is super expensive. Articulated buses run every 2 minutes on Stefanikova, along trolleybuses, and offer little potential or capacity to attract new passengers. We have many examples of super frequent lines where articulated buses run every 4 minutes, or articulated trolleybuses even more often (like the lines to Dolne Hony).

    I once read some public transport planning book (I forgot which it was, I do not have it in my bookshelf), but it mentioned something about economics. The book was from the 80s, but as a rule of thumb was a suggestion that if you run a diesel operated articulated bus every 4 minutes, then you do not need to do big calculations to find out that a streetcar is more economical, even if the investment costs are considerably higher. Interestingly, a trolleybus was somewhere between bus and tram, but this is constantly changing. I personally see the trolleybus as an environmentally friendly means of public transport with relatively cheap vehicles which are not limited in their range compared to battery operated buses. I see a big future in trolleybuses with small batteries that would allow them to operate about 20 km independently of the network, allowing them to serve outer areas of cities, where any investment in building a trolleybus network is due to the relative infrequent service not economical, and sharing an existing network on main streets as they travel downtown while charging their batteries at the same time for the next trip to the outskirts. I believe this combination of trolleybus with battery operated electric bus is a promising future. Or course, only for cities with existing trolleybus systems. But back to streetcars.

    As I mentioned above, I see the streetcar as a useful, ecological, modern, safe, reliable and user friendly means of transport, which should be used in situations where you can actually make use of its higher capacity. I do not want to see a streetcar service which is running every 6 minutes in peak hours and 10 minutes on evenings or weekends and operates “rigid” 16 meter long vehicles. Such a system is super inefficient from an economical point and a trolleybus, or even a diesel operated bus (which I hate, as they are noisy and smelly), is a more efficient system. Bratislava reorganized its streetcar lines over a decade ago and since then single units are no more in service (and they were only on a single line back then). Now you see only articulated 22 meter long streetcars and 32,5 meter long trainsets or new low floor trams of equal length. I believe that the old articulated 22 meter long cars will follow the destiny of the 16 meter long “solo” cars soon, as they do not offer enough capacity in peak hours and are all high floor. I do not think that keeping them in stock just to serve evening or weekend services is a wise idea. In such cases the longer streetcars can operate and allow far bigger comfort, like seats for everyone on weekends. The cost for the driver is the same and the ca. 1/3 bigger power consumption is no big deal, especially since the power is cheaper on weekends and generally off peak times. Diesel prices vary, but not by that much and by hour to hour basis every day. I consider it a waste of money to operate any streetcar shorter than 22 meters and in intervals longer than 10 minutes, as such services would be, from an economical point of view, better served by a trolleybus or bus. Some cities, like Prague or Brno, do have such lines, but I see them only as relics of older times. But I ask myself the following question: If we already have an existing network with some branching at the end and we need to maintain one “backbone track” because we run long modern trams on it in peak times every 3 minutes, does it make sense to use this existing infrastructure to operate also branching lines with 16 meter long cars, if they can offer direct service at evenings or weekends? I am not sure if I managed to put my idea to text correctly, but I hope you get the point.

    At the end I would like to return to my “metro” experience. City officials finally acknowledged that the “metro” is dead, and started, after more than 25 years (!!!) to extend the streetcar system. A new line was opened to Petrzalka, crossing the Danube River. It will basically replace a metro which was planned for decades. The problem is that this metro line was the reason why they teared up the tram tracks on Stefanikova Street at the beginning of the 80s. But without rebuilding also this part, the line from Petrzalka will not be as attractive, because streetcars to the main railway station are detoured via adjacent streets, taking much longer and travelling zigzag (if you want to travel north – south; east – west connection is pretty linear). This was the main reason I worked on a study which aimed to bring back the streetcar to Stefanikova Street in 2012, but the current city administration is not interested in this endeavor. When the Petrzalka line will be fully extended, which should be until 2020, the missing part in the city will cripple its attractiveness and I doubt that the frequent bus lines running on Stefanikova St. will see a decline of ridership in favor for the new Streetcar. Back in 2012 when I was working on the study, I focused not just on the streetcar, but for pedestrian and bicycle transport as well. Unfortunately, there is zero interest in this from the side of the politicians, even though the municipal authorities responsible for transport and planning found it viable (they are now all gone as the current major is a lying corrupt asshole).

    A streetcar is itself not a cure-all for the same reasons why the proposed metro system was not. I can relate to your feelings. If you managed to read this far, then please bear with me, I just needed a place to write down my feelings, experiences and efforts, which hopefully will enable you some insight into my thought processes. I will not post a link to my 2012 study, as it is written only in Slovak. I did also some traffic modelling (again self-taught) and you can easily find the videos on YouTube if you search for “tram stefanikova”. The videos are without underlying graphics, so without context hard to understand. If you are interested, you can google and find the study. I am sort of sad that it never caught any real attention from politicians and can find solace only in some very kind reactions by people who actually worked in the field of urban and transport planning in Bratislava professionally. I do apologize for the extent of this post and also that it was maybe too personal.

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