Is Speed Obsolete? … The rap-up, for now

Almost two months ago now, I did a post focused on startling claims, by Professor Patrick Condon of the University of British Columbia, that we should focus more of our transit investment on relatively slow services — for which his model is the Portland Streetcar — rather than faster ones, such as Vancouver’s SkyTrain driverless rapid transit system.  The resulting post is just the overture.  Discussion continued in the long, rich comment string.  There’ve also been some follow-up posts, and I’ve featured his response.

Professor Condon and I have had a number of constructive exchanges since I featured his views on the blog.  He will say quickly that he’s not a transport planner.  He is very concerned with sustainability metrics, but fundamentally he works in a design field where a crucial element of the task is to create compelling, motivating visions of a better place.  His attachment to the streetcar makes sense in these terms, especially in the context of his larger sustainability agenda, which is about reducing the need for long-distance urban travel generally.

Successful visions have to grab people in the gut. They have to be graspable in an instant by people who lack training, or even interest, in urban transportation. They have to be sharp and clear and not require a lot of explanation.  If you’re in the urban visioning business, and you want to make people excited about linear, walkable, dense neighborhoods, the easy and obvious way to do that is to visualise streetcars, because they work in those terms.  Streetcars offer an image that makes people feel good, quickly and viscerally. The urban design profession ultimately works for developers and politicians.  Those people make their huge bets by trusting their gut, not just by analysing costs, emissions, and travel times.

Speculation: When it comes to transportation especially, we all seem to be longing for some mixture of the future and the past.  Notice how many appealing technologies are either explicitly futuristic, like monorails and maglevs, or nostalgic, like San Francisco cable cars and historic streetcars.

DSCN0333 The streetcars used by Portland and Seattle (like Melbourne’s modern trams) are a two-for-one deal: they manage to feel futuristic and nostalgic at the same time.  As streetcars they appeal to a nostalgic narrative about restoring the urban Eden of circa 1900, while they also hint at the phallic/aerodynamic curves that signify speed, zoom, whoosh, sex, the future.  That’s a rich mix of emotions coming out of one vehicle.  If we judge vehicles as images, without caring about their efficiency or the mobility they can offer, then the Portland/Seattle streetcar — invoking all the authority of age and yet all the sexiness of modernity — is clearly a winner.

The problem with Condon’s vision (which the Antiplanner jumps on at once) is that transit planning is about competing with cars.  We can’t simply install the transit that matches our ideal city form, because we have to win a competition with cars as the city evolves.  This, I think, is one argument for why rapid transit, rather than slow services like streetcars, must be our top priority.  Rapid transit is transit that competes most effectively with cars, and that best complements other sustainable transport tools such as cycling and walking.  (After all, there’s little point in cycling to the Portland Streetcar, because the streetcar is much slower than cycling.)  Rapid transit works well as an essential mobility tool for great walkable and bikeable neighborhoods.  But understandably it doesn’t participate in creating an exciting motivating image of such places, because it’s usually underground, out of sight.  (If it’s elevated, of course, its urban design impacts are usually problematic.)

Beyond this, the specific problem with streetcars comes when you move from a streetcar-as-urban-vision to a streetcar-as-transit-proposal, especially a streetcar-replacing-existing-bus-proposal.  My original post, “streetcars: an inconvenient truth,” was specifically about proposals to replace existing frequent bus routes with streetcars.  Condon’s work caught my eye because he actually makes this proposal.  He wants to replace many of Vancouver’s frequent buses with streetcars, and he explicitly invokes the Portland Streetcar as his inspiration.

As I explained, this particular kind of proposal — to replace a bus in mixed traffic with a streetcar in mixed traffic — is unique in the world of transit corridor improvements in this respect: once you’ve spent all those millions, nobody can get anywhere any faster than they could before.  In other words, if you draw a map of where you can get to from your house in a fixed amount of time, spending these millions doesn’t change that map at all.

When you’ve got so many people without any kind of useful service, and so many voters who aren’t interested in urban visions but are interested in getting to work on time and then home to their loved ones, well, to some people, this is going to seem like an odd thing to spend millions of transportation dollars on.

(There would be no argument against spending urban improvement dollars — such as those that buy attractive light fixtures, public art, brick paving etc. — on a slow streetcar replacing a bus, because clearly it’s a magnificent amenity improvement.  My question has always been solely about how it’s sold as a transportation project.)

The architects of the Portland Streetcar were smart to propose a starter line that didn’t replace any existing bus services and therefore wouldn’t trigger this awkward speed comparison with them. You can, of course, compare the Portland Streetcar to the Line 15 bus between two points where they cross; you’ll find they have the same scheduled travel time, which works out to less than 7 mi/hr. But this comparison wasn’t in people’s faces because nobody had the experience of losing their bus service, sitting through streetcar construction, and then discovering that their transit mobility and access — how many places you can get to in a given time — hadn’t improved at all, and might even diminish.

Most of the Portand Streetcar’s imitators across North America seem to be making the same move. Most of the streetcar starter lines being proposed (most recently in Oakland) don’t replace an existing bus route; they do something else, something that buses aren’t doing now. It will be interesting to see if more cities move forward with proposals to replace busy bus lines with streetcars — as Minneapolis is considering — and how those proposals fare.

For now, I’m grateful to Professor Condon for stimulating this whole line of discussion, and to everyone who contributed excellent comments along the way.  This topic will come around again this summer in some presentations I’m developing, but for now I hope for a few weeks holiday from streetcar debates.  If this topic is your passion, the links in this post will lead you as deep as you want to go.  (I feel an oil-drilling metaphor coming on, so I’d better stop here!)

UPDATE:  Professor Condon has provided his own eloquent wrap-up in an eloquent comment below.

70 Responses to Is Speed Obsolete? … The rap-up, for now

  1. Alan Kandel June 17, 2010 at 7:50 am #

    A few years ago I journeyed by Amtrak to Sacramento from Fresno (and return) specifically to ride the RT lightrail system between the downtown Amtrak station and Folsom to the east (and return). I wanted to get a sense of what lightrail transit in this region of northern California was like.
    As it turned out, extensive track renewal was being performed between the two lightrail endpoints which required transfer between the lightrail and bus modes at designated stations. The part of the experience that stands out most in my mind is that the trains were comfortable, there was plenty of room so I didn’t feel crammed and I felt relaxed. I can’t say the same for the buses.
    The bus replacement for its contribution to the overall journey was crowded (which was to be expected) and I felt cramped and thus way more uncomfortable.
    I’ve ridden rail transit systems in the Bay Area (BART) and San Diego (the San Diego Trolley), Baltimore’s subway (MTA), Phoenix lightrail (Valley Metrorail) and the New York City subway. Each of these experiences to my recollection was pleasant. I rode the bus system in Los Angeles in the ’70s and I wasn’t at all impressed.
    I have to admit, though, that the RT bus service did provide a useful service while there was a service interruption on the RT lightrail line, but if it were not for this, in all likelihood, I would not have boarded a bus.

  2. Aaron Priven June 17, 2010 at 8:04 am #

    In a few weeks, a shuttle will begin service in Oakland between Jack London Square and Grand Ave., operating every ten minutes from 7 am to 7 pm.
    This covers the southern half of the proposed Oakland Streetcar route. So, if it is built, the streetcar will replace an existing bus route, although that bus route won’t exist until next month.

  3. Ben June 17, 2010 at 8:51 am #

    Jarrett, I think you are right, we do need to invest more in rapid transit first. To use Portland as an example, I only took the streetcar once in the entire 7 months I lived there and that was only because I wanted to ride it at least once for the experience. It was SLOW. Very nice, very clean, very comfortable… but slow.
    Slow transit might work well in Portland some of the year when it’s raining a lot and nobody wants to be outside, but frankly, unless I was trying to go from one end of the streetcar route to the other, I could have walked and it woulnd’t have taken too much more time. And certainly, I could have gotten there faster on my bike (and I’m not even one of the crazy cyclists). I can’t remember if you were required to pay fare to ride the streetcar, but if so, that’s a lot to pay to ride so slowly (I think the min Trimet fare is now $2?).
    On the other hand, I would not want to walk or ride my bike between many of the MAX stations since they are far apart and the MAX is fast (if you except the close downtown stops / fareless square).
    This may all seem somewhat rather obvious, but I’m glad you pointed it out, because I’ve often thought the same thing. We need fast rail point to point transit first.
    A few examples I can think of from where I’ve lived that I think rail transit is appropriate and should have been done years ago:
    Atlanta to Athens, GA (Most college students in Athens are from Atlanta, based on my experience. Plus, people are always going back and forth for various nightlife / cultural events. It seems like a no-brainer as Atlanta’s transit isn’t too bad, and most people going to Athens want to go downtown or to the University which are right next to one another)
    Raleigh, NC to Durham, NC and Chapel Hill, NC. Again, a no-brainer. I’m surprised this project has been stalled for this long, given that NC is becoming more progressive and has been making great investments into intrastate Amtrak service.
    Hell, even here in California the rail transit is pretty bad except in certain “lucky” situations. I wanted to take Amtrak from Stockton (pop 300,000+, with 1 Amtrak and 1 commuter rail line) to San Luis Obispo, a popular college town in the southern part of the state. Not possible! Yeah Amtrak can get me there, but sorry, half the trip is on a bus. Forget it. Plus it takes almost twice as long as driving and doesn’t cost any less at $3/gallon if your car gets more than 20mpg. Who in their right mind would do this trip?
    Ok I think I’m getting on a tangent 🙂

  4. ws June 17, 2010 at 9:45 am #

    Great post, Jarrett. It would be nice if your points permeated the planning/bureaucratic profession. I feel you have outlined the reasons why investing in streetcars over buses for surface transportation is not always the best idea. Your ideas should get more traction in Portland.
    I’m also a bit perplexed by Condon’s sustainability argument when he discusses putting in rail lines over an existing bus line. The best option seems to be the no-build one, because that is hardly a sustainable option.
    I can only imagine what kind of transit system Portland could have if it dumped all of that streetcar money used into actually subwaying the MAX lines through downtown. MAX would see a major increase in ridership, no doubt.
    It’s interesting that the argument for streetcars is urban improvement, as putting that money towards great parks and new streetscape designs is going to be a better return on investment.
    I’d be curious to know if there would be one example of a city where putting in a streetcar line over a surface bus line actually made solid sense fiscally and design wise. NYC?
    The one positive I note from streetcars over buses is I know where they line goes, and that gives the rider a level of permanence. Buses need to do a better job of “announcing” their stops (art, better street furniture, landscape, etc.)

  5. anonymouse June 17, 2010 at 9:55 am #

    Ben: You could have taken ACE to San Jose and connected to the Coast Starlight. Unfortunately that only works in one direction and does take a bit of time to make that transfer, but it’s a viable all-rail route from Stockton to SLO. In the other direction, is there a bus that goes from SLO over the mountains to the San Joaquins? That’s not too much bus riding, and there is simply no rail line along that route.

  6. Moore Michael M June 17, 2010 at 10:13 am #

    On the other hand, I would not want to walk or ride my bike between many of the MAX stations since they are far apart and the MAX is fast…
    It’s funny Ben, above, would say this. I recently had a temporary job just off I-205 in SE Portland. I live in NE Portland, about 50 blocks away from the job. The MAX could take me there reasonably quickly, and I was especially lucky because my destination was equidistant from two different MAX stations served by two different MAX lines (specifically, I could take either the Blue or Green line train, whichever came first, and get to work in the same amount of time). Yet when taking MAX, I had to leave home 40 minutes before work to be sure of getting to work on time. When I biked, I had to leave home 20 minutes before work.
    Partly, this is a quirk of geography. My bike route was straightforward and quick, unencumbered by lots of waiting at high-traffic intersections. To get to my local MAX station, I have to walk west, about eight blocks. The walk takes longer than it should because there are some really awkward intersections and busy streets to navigate between home and the MAX. The route the MAX follows isn’t as efficient as my biking route — the train goes NE to get to Gateway, well north of my destination, before heading SE (or just south, depending upon which train). The point is, even a relatively well-designed rapid transit system isn’t necessarily going to be the fastest solution, even for those who don’t drive. (I don’t drive, but I imagine by car I couldv’e left 10-12 minutes before work and been on time consitently.) A big part of the problem in this specific case was the walking time. Outside of downtown, the Pearl, and a select few inner NE/SE neighborhoods, Portland has a long way to go before I’d consider it pedestrian-friendly, especially if you’re talking about walking as a viable means of transportation or as a viable component of multi-modal transportation. I used to think nothing of walking distances in NYC that give me pause in Portland, because I have to factor in too many long waits at too many high-traffic intersections that are prioritized to move vehicular traffic at the expense of (admittedly sparse) pedestrian traffic.
    I don’t think that’s an argument for the proposition that “speed doesn’t matter” when thinking about transportation infrastructure, but I do think that the roadblocks (sidewalk blocks?) urban planners often overlook when considering transit design have to do with how much time it will take people to access that infrastructure. You can’t think of speed only in terms of getting from station to station, you also have to factor in how efficiently people can get to and from the stations. Streetcars, at least, tend to be right where people want to go, whereas light rail stations are often as not somewhat removed from where anyone would go except to catch the train.

  7. Leo Petr June 17, 2010 at 10:16 am #

    Surely different cities have different needs. Some already have rapid transit between the necessary nodes and need to expand and enhance the system in other ways, such as local streetcar routes.
    Streetcars have several advantages over conventional buses:
    1. The vehicles last longer. 30 years for a streetcar vs 10 years for a bus.
    2. The vehicles don’t tear up the street. Buses destroy pavement pretty badly, and asphalt repavement isn’t particularly environmentally friendly.
    3. The ride is smoother on steel rails than on a pothole-strewn street.
    4. Streetcars can operate electrically and with no local emissions without carrying a heavy battery. As the grid shifts from conventional power plants to wind, solar, and other renewal power sources, so do the streetcars.
    5. Streetcars have no engine noise relative to diesel buses.
    Trolleybuses might be a nice in-between alternative to local buses and local streetcars. Have there been any recent installations of trolleybus routes in North America?

  8. EngineerScotty June 17, 2010 at 10:19 am #

    Not building the Streetcar probably wouldn’t have bought very much transit of other sorts:
    1) The initial Streetcar route was actually built fairly cheaply, with simple subsurface replacement done to lay the tracks. This page (on an admittedly pro-rail advocacy page) discusses some of the design trade-offs in detail.
    2) Much of the funding comes from Local Improvement Districts.
    3) The Streetcar is ran by Portland Streetcar, a public non-profit which is owned by the City of Portland. As Jarrett notes in the lead, Portland Streetcar has explicit land-use and urban-form goals–and views transit as part of a greater land-use mission. It is unlikely that City funds would have gone to regional transportation infrastructure had the Streetcar not been built.
    TriMet, the primary transit authority (and which operates the Streetcar under an agreement), is generally more interested in mobility that it is in urbanism, which has led to a few conflicts.
    One future area of concern is a one questionable project being championed by Portland Streetcar–a proposed Streetcar line to Lake Oswego (a rather wealthy inner suburb of Portland)–where land-use considerations appear to be taking priority over mobility concerns on what is essentially a regional service. And unfortunately, there seems to be a desire to replace a perfectly functional bus service with a slower streetcar line, with the justification that twenty years hence, the highway the bus operates on may experience sufficient congestion to make up the difference.

  9. Ben June 17, 2010 at 10:52 am #

    Yeah, Michael you’re right. There are many situations where the MAX isn’t advantageous, because MAX stations are still a far reach for many people. I guess I was thinking more along the lines of if you happen to live near a station, or near a bus route that goes directly to a station, MAX would be faster if you were going more than, say, 7 miles (Gresham to downtown Portland, for instance). I didn’t consider the time to walk to the stations, which is significant in most cases.
    Now that I think about it, getting around Portland (esp if you’re west of 205) is probably faster by bike in almost all situations. I recently went from near SE 37th and Gladstone all the way to Burnside and W 20th by bike, riding casually with a friend, and I don’t think it took us 15 minutes (at least it didn’t seem like it).
    I find even here in Stockton, CA I can get around by bike almost as fast as by car in certain situations and this is a most bike un-friendly city. My daily commute to work is 7 miles each way and it takes me 30 minutes by bike. By car it takes 15-20 minutes due to the traffic lights. That’s not a bad tradeoff if you ask me, but I hardly ever seen another person riding a bike here (maybe one other person who looks like they are bike commuting by choice, the rest are kids riding bikes a short distance to school, or bums).
    I guess there’s a lot to be said for advocating good bike transit and facilities as part of an overall transit plan. Lots of places don’t have bike racks (or they are crummy ones), or the racks are in an inconvenient or insecure location. Or the racks are not covered. Many workplaces don’t have showers or indoor storage for bikes. These are little things that don’t cost a lot, but matter a lot, especially if we are going to get “regular” people to start commuting by bike. We’ve got to start breaking down the excuses people come up with for not riding their bikes.
    I almost couldn’t believe it when I biked to the local Trader Joe’s and there was no bike rack. AND they’re right next to a sports store AND a Performance Bike store. NO bike rack to be found! Actually the only place I have seen a bike rack in this city is the REI (it’s in a different shopping center, and I’ve never seen a bike attached to it). Pitiful, given that Stockton was recently rated the most obese city in the nation, we need to get these chubbies on some bikes! 🙂

  10. dejv June 17, 2010 at 11:02 am #


    I’d be curious to know if there would be one example of a city where putting in a streetcar line over a surface bus line actually made solid sense fiscally and design wise.

    AFAIK, Prague’s line to Barrandov (gallery on WP, video) was such case. It has however only two traits in common with Portland Streetcar – the vehicles and POP.

  11. Sean June 17, 2010 at 11:17 am #

    Leo Petr wrote:
    Trolleybuses might be a nice in-between alternative to local buses and local streetcars. Have there been any recent installations of trolleybus routes in North America?
    As I was reading your list I was thinking that trolleys shared all but two of the same advantages you listed.
    Vancouver BC has had it’s trolley network in place since 1955, and as our Skytrain rapid transit system has been built there have been several kilometres of new wire strung to better integrate the trolley routes with it.
    In the last few years we’ve just replaced all the vehicles and now have over 250 new trolleys, over 70 of which are articulated units.

  12. ws June 17, 2010 at 11:23 am #

    I disagree with your assertions that forgoing streetcar projects for other transit investments wouldn’t be beneficial.
    The section most needed for MAX improvements (such as underground-ing the lines) is inside of the city of Portland. You could very well fund that through LIDs and urban renewal district(s) if need be.
    I think the mere fact that Portland is expecting to spend millions on re-aligning a segment of streetcar track is reason to believe that the streetcar is very expensive and provides little in terms of transportation and its pro land-use equation is very suspect too.
    The land-use/built environment argument is pretty ridiculous.
    Cities such as Vancouver, BC have achieved a much better (way more dense too) built form inside of its city proper w/o any streetcars! Urbanism doesn’t start and end with streetcars.
    Look no further than Seattle with it’s small street car alignment.
    I see a bunch of surface parking lots inside its core along Westlake Ave. Granted, these things take time, but I would have at least expected massive development (that would have occurred during a speculative bubble, mind you) in this area to occur concurrently with the new line.
    From my perspective, it has not occurred.

  13. EngineerScotty June 17, 2010 at 11:25 am #

    As Jarrett himself previously noted, Seattle is actually considering replacing their trolleybusses with something else. Given the steep hills that are found in Seattle; this move is considered highly questionable.

  14. John June 17, 2010 at 11:34 am #

    If a proposed streetcar route doesn’t have a comparable existing bus route, shouldn’t the public ask why they should invest millions of dollars into a route that hasn’t even proven its ridership demand with buses first? If the ridership demand is obvious, shouldn’t they ask why there isn’t already a bus route where the streetcar is proposed?

  15. EngineerScotty June 17, 2010 at 11:40 am #

    Sorry if I wasn’t clear: I wasn’t arguing that forgoing Streetcar for other projects wouldn’t be beneficial–I was arguing that a) the money wouldn’t have been available, and b) it wouldn’t have been much money anyway.
    Would I rather have better MAX service, or additional frequent bus lines, than the Streetcar? Certainly.
    Was the City of Portland, and Pearl District property owners specifically, going to pony up cash to pay for that? No.

  16. EngineerScotty June 17, 2010 at 11:53 am #

    One further comment: While LID financing of neighborhood-specific improvement projects is a good idea–one concern I have is that regional transit authorities might choose to rely primarily on this mode of financing to make planning decisions. Rather than deciding what service provides the most utility, the decision becomes based on who can pony up the bucks?
    That’s how schools are essentially funded in much of the US–each municipality has its own school district and its own tax base–and the results have been disastrous for public education–and for cities–in this country; especially if you happen to live in a poor district. Economic segregation has replaced de jure racial segregation in our schools, but the result isn’t all that different from the inequities that occurred due to official “separate but equal” policies in the pre-Brown era. Portland’s transit system actually serves poorer neighborhoods fairly well compared to many cities (an advantage of a region-wide transit authority).
    The Streetcar doesn’t bother me too much, as the City pays the difference, essentially, between streetcar costs and standard bus service. (Some question the accounting, but that’s my understanding of the arrangement). But were trunkline service to become dependent on neighborhood financing, I’d become very concerned.

  17. Alex B. June 17, 2010 at 12:54 pm #

    Whether you think streetcars catalyze development or not, it’s waaaaay to early to judge Seattle’s line. The line opened at the end of 2007 – that’s barely enough time for any real estate development to make major progress, even without taking the greater economic difficulties into account.
    Also, I think you might need to brush up on your history – Vancouver’s density (and that of most older core cities) was usually served by streetcars. Prior to WWII, Vancouver, like many cities, had an extensive streetcar network – one that enabled that core density that has since been enhanced. Check out this map, circa 1940:

  18. ws June 17, 2010 at 2:02 pm #

    Alex B:
    Every decent sized city in the US and Canada had a streetcar network and reasonable density to boot. I could show a map of some bland Midwestern city with its historic streetcar network, but it really won’t prove much other than the streetcar was apart of the city’s fabric years ago, and that it has little relevance today if it wants to be a great city tomorrow.
    My point of brining up Vancouver, BC was that despite the massive suburbanization of the typical North American city, it has densified greatly and it is a solid example of good urbanism at work.
    It was all due to following the basic principles of urbanism. Streetcars had nothing to do with its successful land use patterns and there’s no getting around that fact — it has done fine if not better than it did with them in tact.
    The more curious thing is Vancouver has some great transit numbers, but all of a sudden it wants to emulate the Portland-way, which is strange because Portland has very modest numbers in comparison. Me thinks what Vancouver is doing is better than what Portland is doing or has done. Portland is only remarkable from where it was in the suburbia golden era to what it has become today.
    I personally believe that “slow transit” does have some applications but mostly for health-related activities like biking and walking. People may choose to add an extra 10 minutes to their commute through walking/biking instead of driving because it adds something to their lives such as enjoying the scenery or being more healthy.
    Most people are not going to willingly choose a slower, highly mechanized form of transportation because it probably won’t add much to their day by hopping along at 7 miles/hr (other than wasting their time).
    Let’s see, going faster and enjoying the healthy activities that biking/walking provides or going slower and not getting anything out of it by taking the streetcar instead.
    Easy choice, as I’ll choose the healthy activity that gives me some fresh air (and is probably faster) than the streetcar 8 times out of 10. At any rate, the 2 times I would choose the streetcar, a decent bus line would suffice.
    Sure, picking on Seattle’s streetcar line is a bit too soon, but it was in the works during the early 2000s which gave developers plenty of time to work on their projects concurrently with decent financing.
    The area around Westlake Ave. is a surface parking lot hellhole. People make it sound like the streetcar is some magic wand for development, and it’s not.

  19. mezzanine June 17, 2010 at 2:51 pm #

    @Alex B, true about ‘streetcar DNA’ in vancouver, but seattle also had a dense streetcar network, dismantled at the same time as vancouver’s (post WW2)
    The inference is that the difference in built form and transit usage between vancouver and seattle since then are not due to streetcars, but due to other programs (zoning, skytrain, highway construction, etc).

  20. anonymouse June 17, 2010 at 3:01 pm #

    Portland and Seattle have freeways right through their downtowns. Vancouver does not. I think that alone pretty much explains everything.

  21. rhywun June 17, 2010 at 3:54 pm #

    I think streetcars are sufficiently superior to buses (for the reasons Leo stated above–and to which I would add another: higher carrying capacity) that they should be considered without regard to “development” or “speed” issues that many people find dubious – and yes, that includes replacing bus service along sufficiently dense corridors. And I’m only talking about urban routes – not “light rail” which has an entirely different set of considerations which should not be conflated with the needs in the cities.

  22. Alex B. June 17, 2010 at 4:46 pm #

    Of course, the area around Westlake wasn’t always a surface parking lot hellhole, either.
    Given the impact that transportation and land use have on one another, to dismiss the role that those transportation networks had on the development of the city back in the day, particularly in the days before Euclidean zoning was widely adopted, is in fact crucial to the ‘elements of good urbansim’ you speak of.
    I’m certainly not one to argue that streetcars are the be all and end all of transit, nor would I embrace Condon’s ideas – but I think you’re selling them short in terms of utility, particularly in their history and in their track record as a real estate development catalyst.
    I’m not sure what you’re arguing – both Seattle and Vancouver removed their streetcar lines long ago, but I certainly wasn’t implying that their removal was the sole determinant of how those cities evolved since then. My point was that streetcars in the pre-war era enabled fairly dense and transit-supportive real estate development in the first place.

  23. Adrian June 17, 2010 at 5:19 pm #

    Re the idea that replacing buses with a streetcar is a bad idea – what about the situation in Sydney, Australia, where buses in peak hour tend to be full to capacity once they reach the inner-city and therefore don’t stop to pick up waiting passengers. Those waiting passengers wait a long time for a bus to stop for them – wouldn’t a high-capacity streetcar get them to work faster, simply because it doesn’t have to ration the number of passengers it picks up?
    I can see streetcars replacing the high traffic routes bus routes through the inner-west (King St, Victoria Rd, Parramatta Rd etc.) and inner-east (especially to Bondi), just for reasons of capacity.

  24. Brisben June 17, 2010 at 5:29 pm #

    So lets look at the opposite.
    If buses are better, faster and more flexible, does this mean that Melbourne should abolish its tram network and use buses for everything?

  25. CroMagnon June 17, 2010 at 5:29 pm #

    Where capacity is an issue, streetcars might be better. But capacity is not a user benefit, it is a cost (or saving if you will). Higher capacity vehicles lower the cost of operation. However, if the streetcar operates much slower than the bus, this savings might be undone thereby negating the justification for the streetcar.

  26. Brisben June 17, 2010 at 5:43 pm #

    Why can’t the streetcar be the same speed as a bus?
    Its not like either are travelling at high speed, especially on CBD streets were everything seems to be slower.
    I think speed is just one dimension, although important.
    Trolleybuses seem overlooked too.

  27. EngineerScotty June 17, 2010 at 5:51 pm #

    Capacity is a benefit, if the added capacity makes the difference between sitting and standing, or standing and waiting for the next vehicle because this one is crushloaded.
    Capacity can be a detriment, if the transit authority uses capacity as an excuse to reduce frequency–and the frequency reduction is noticeable (going from 10-minute headways to 20, for instance).
    OTOH, frequency reduction can be a benefit to the user, if the reduction is minimal (a few minutes max), and it improves the reliability of the system (by reducing inadvertent platooning).
    Streetcars can operate just as fast as busses on city streets (many low-weight streetcar vehicles top out around 80km/h, though; you need LRT at least to provide higher-speed rail service should that be an issue). The main issue is that if something blocks the rails, they’re stuck.

  28. CroMagnon June 17, 2010 at 7:24 pm #

    In most cost/benefit frameworks (well, the good ones, anyway) capacity is calculated as a cost. The extra capacity doesn’t benefit the user, because a lower capacity bus could be run more frequently, which would cost more.
    And, yes, streetcars get stuck behind traffic. But also, can most streetcars safely travel at 30 mph on a hilly urban arterial with a 30 mph posted speed limit? I gotta think the breaking distance is too long. Plus, the reality is that bus schedules reflect the reality of automotive travel: that everyone travels well above the speed limit when traffic permits. Buses in my city are no exception, and that’s something I’m not sure streetcars can safely do.

  29. Brisben June 17, 2010 at 7:45 pm #

    I think it would be unwise to be so general.
    Specific alignments have specific needs. The St Kilda line (Melbourne) uses trams which runs on what was once a railway alignment, the same is true for the Sydney light rail service and also the Adelaide Light Rail service. It wouldn’t make sense to “bussify” these alignments.
    Higher frequency on buses are not necessarily always a good thing either. The high loadings are better for streetcars IMHO. More buses also means more buses to buy and more drivers to hire to drive them- so the staff:passenger ratio would not be good either. The buses also don’t last as long as rail vehicles do. Adelaide’s 1929 heritage trams were in service for 77 years.
    The Gold Coast (QLD Australia) light rail investigation found that LRT was better as running than two big buses at short headway.
    It is the specific that matters.

  30. anonymouse June 18, 2010 at 12:15 am #

    PCC streetcars allegedly have an emergency braking rate of 9 mph/sec, which means that from a top speed of 45 mph, it would take 5 seconds to stop, during which time the car would travel 165 feet. This is about as good as a typical car, and better than a typical bus, and this can be done in a much wider range of conditions, since the PCC has magnetic track brakes, which don’t depend on rail adhesion.
    Anyway, I’d like to reiterate the point that Portland is a very poor example of streetcar technology: their streetcars are slow and have fairly low capacity, and the relatively long headways on the line aren’t a good use of infrastructure.

  31. dejv June 18, 2010 at 4:48 am #

    anonymouse –
    9 mphps is 4 m/s^2, right? Well, streetcars are often tuned to lower values, because of this:

    I’ve heard about emergency braking [of 14T]from 40 km/h on 14 m, equalling 4.41 m/s^2. I personally consider it a crime, because codes require 2.3 m/s^2 and for Trio, we stuck to 3.0 m/s^2 after lengthy consideration, because beyond 3.5 m/s^2, even prepared persons who did measurements had problems to keep standing, not mentioning flying osciloscopes and other stuff. The experience from trolleybuses (which feature railway tachographs capable of pretty precise measurements) show that whan driver fully pushes air brake, the deceleration exceeds 4-5 m/s^2 and any chances of passengers to keep standing upright vanishes with due consequences (ambulance, surgery etc.)

    (source, in Czech)

    Anyway, I’d like to reiterate the point that Portland is a very poor example of streetcar technology: their streetcars are slow and have fairly low capacity, and the relatively long headways on the line aren’t a good use of infrastructure.

    I got an impression from all the comment about Portland Streetcar that there’s single modern thing about it – the vehicles. Otherwise, it’s stuck in pre-car early 1900’s. The tram networks of Europe (and Toronto) had to adapt to car to survive, so the lines have much wider stop spacing, the agencies avoid shared lanes with cars as plague and the lines get to their own segregated ROW or highway median as soon as they’re out of old narrow streets. The resulting system is closer Portland’s MAX, despite running sometimes the same vehicles as Portland Streetcar.
    BTW, one of those cities with legacy systems – Stuttgart – chose to convert their metre-gauge streetcar system to standard-gauge Stadtbahn (light rail), undergrounding the lines in old dense parts of city. They rebuilt many lines to mixed-gauge during the process to allow running of both old streetcars and new U-bahn trains on one line and eventually, after 12 years of transition period, they ended up with system similar to Seattle’s Link (but way more extensive).
    CroMagnogn –
    yeah, the streetcars can run on hilly* 30mph arterial in shared lane, but it’s not practical. First, the cars get stuck behind streetcar every time it must stop, second, streetcar gets stuck every time a car chooses to wait in it’s lane for turn, third, streetcar makes a jerk every time a car crosses it’s path right in front of it.
    That said, once people know for themselves what kind of beast a streetcar is, it’s politically much easier to reserve a lane or whole ROW for them than for buses, but then we’re speaking more about light rail that about streetcar, arent we? Damn American English. 🙂
    * for grades up to 5.5-6 % without any constraints, steeper hills require speed restrictions downhill or beefing the brake power of typical streetcar/LRV.
    But generally speaking, your point that the biggest difference between streetcar and bus is per-vehicle capacity, is correct.
    WRT frequency –
    the biggest practical frequency is when two vehicles have to stop at single stop or behind one traffic lights, translating to some 30-45 vehicles per hour per direction. Anything beyond that either induces delays or requires awkward alternating stop arrangement. If switch from buses to streetcars means changing from 4 buses squeezing through one green phase of 90 s traffic lights interval to one streetcar train every 2-3 minutes, it’s A Good Thing.

  32. anonymouse June 18, 2010 at 10:27 am #

    dejv: the vehicles are “modern”, but they don’t seem to be very good. They are slow to accelerate, have a low top speed (the top speed on the entire line is 30 mph and the speedometer only goes up to 40), and they have very few seats for a vehicle of that length.

  33. EngineerScotty June 18, 2010 at 10:54 am #

    Seating configuration is something that generally can be altered in a vehicle. Portland Streetcar, for some reason, ordered vehicles with a small number of seats (and consequently greater amounts of standing room); but I doubt that’s an immutable property of Skoda streetcars.
    Given the present application (local circulator), the 40mph top speed isn’t a big deal. For other potential applications of streetcar-type vehicles, it is a big deal.

  34. anonymouse June 18, 2010 at 12:31 pm #

    I’m pretty sure it’s actually a 30 mph top speed. Which is… rather slow. Even for local service. And for something like a line to Lake Oswego, it’s a pretty huge deal.

  35. Brisben June 18, 2010 at 11:32 pm #

    “the vehicles are “modern”, but they don’t seem to be very good. They are slow to accelerate, have a low top speed (the top speed on the entire line is 30 mph and the speedometer only goes up to 40), and they have very few seats for a vehicle of that length.”
    Yes, but if city traffic is heavy this caps the maximum speed anyway. All traffic will be slowed anyway, is it really that relevant the top speed of the vehicle? Cars might be able to travel at 200 km/hour but in peak hour traffic, the maximum speed is more like 25km/hr.

  36. Richard June 19, 2010 at 12:16 am #

    The streetcar envisioned by Condon fortunately is not being considered as an option for the UBC Line in Vancouver. Only rapid bus, LRT and rail rapid transit options are still on the table. While Condon seems to have convinced a few businesses and residents along Broadway that a streetcar is practical, most people are not taking him seriously at all. Especially following the success of the Canada Line and SkyTrain in the Olympics, most people understand that real rapid transit is needed.
    The city has done some planning work for a downtown streetcar, which does seem like a reasonable project. However, there is no money for it now and may not be any for years. It is very low on the regional list of transit priorities.

  37. dejv June 19, 2010 at 1:21 am #

    anonymouse –
    the Portland’s vehicles are slow to accelerate because they were ordered so, to keep standees comfortable and to cap consumption. The design top speed is 70 km/h so any lower speed limits are imposed by something else. For comparison – the acceleration of Brno’s Anitras (name change after Škoda-Inekon split) can knock unprepared standee off balance even at 50-60 km/h range. The vehicles have their big weaknesses, but their power isn’t one of them.
    All sitting is fine configuration for lengthy rides with few passenger, for short rides with loads of people, lots of space for straphangers is preferable.

  38. anonymouse June 19, 2010 at 7:53 am #

    In other words, Portland was explicitly going for slowness, thus defeating one of the purposes of the streetcar. Good to know. As to comfort, I’ve heard that it’s not the acceleration that gets you so much as the change in acceleration (jerk), and modern control systems have made that much better.

  39. Zef Wagner June 19, 2010 at 2:09 pm #

    I’m amazed not a single person here has mentioned this, but what about the people who drive cars and would never take a bus, but will take a streetcar? They don’t care that the streetcar is no faster than a bus, because they were never going to take a bus anyway!
    This post mentions that a goal of transit is to replace cars, but then ignores that a lot of people rely on cars because they never ever want to get on a bus. I don’t know what percentage of the population that is, but let’s not kid ourselves. Buses are stigmatized, often for good reason, and affluent people really have no incentive to choose bus travel over driving unless the barriers to driving and parking are very high. Now we should do things to increase the cost of driving, but why not also make transit more attractive? That way the balance tips more of those well-off people towards taking transit.
    I would also add that streetcars are much more useful than rapid transit for anything other than work trips. Think about going to the grocery store or just running errands or going to a park that is too far to walk to. Rapid transit goes too far and has too wide stop spacing for that. Anyway, the comparison of travel times between streetcar and bus misses the point, which is that we are trying to increase the transit share of trips. Buses only get you so far in that goal, streetcars take you to the next level.

  40. Jarrett at June 19, 2010 at 3:22 pm #

    @Zef.  The short answer to that line is that the degree to which buses are stigmatized varies hugely from one city to another.  There's much less stigma around buses in New York, say, than in a typical midwestern city.  Where the stigma is high, this is usually because bus services have many unattractive features apart from being on tires.  Typically, once a city has decided buses are for poor people only, it tends to make choices that emphasise that fact.  Once a city decides that buses need to attract the middle class, they make different choices — such as various forms of Bus Rapid Transit — that make that happen.  Watch First and Second Avenues in New York.  Once that BRT system is in, and turns out to be the fastest way of moving through that corridor apart from taxis, all kinds of people will use buses.
    So the stigma around buses is so self-reinforcing that it can change in response to a clear intention to make buses look and feel more like rail.  And because buses are very intentionally evolving in the direction of rail, it's logical to expect the difference between rail and bus to diminish, though not disappear, over time.

  41. Brisben June 20, 2010 at 12:32 am #

    Buses have been around for a long time, so has rail.
    It depends on the corridor I think. Generalisations don’t really seem that meaningful to me.
    Buses that look and feel like light rail also have costs that seem closer to light rail too, but with a lower vehicle life.

  42. Wad June 20, 2010 at 7:51 pm #

    Anonymouse, Amtrak does run two roundtrip Thruway buses through a Central California passage. Since there are no interstates that way, the route is very slow.
    The buses go from Hanford to San Luis Obispo and Santa Maria via Paso Robles and Atascadero.
    See page 3 of the San Joaquin PDF.

  43. dejv June 21, 2010 at 6:30 am #

    anonymouse –
    Maximum acceleration of nearly empty Anitra at 50 km/h is 360 kW * 3.6 / (50 km/h * 25 t) = 1.07 m/s^2 and if driver pushes the controller forward quickly, both resulting jerk and acceleration is more than enough to knock down somebody unfamiliar with high-acceleration vehicles – if they don’t hold some bar firmly.
    BTW, this two vids show usual top speeds of 45-50 and 55-60 km/h on street-running and dedicated ROW segments respectively:
    AFAIK, Germans prefer streetcars with low acceleration, but they achieve similar average speeds with wider stop spacing and strong pro-transit traffic engineering (no shared lanes, signal preemption and so on), so the software of Portland Streetcars seems to follow their approach vehicle-wise. But if you compare the ride in Portland and in Bremen, with such “lazy” vehicles, it looks like Portland did several things that impede streetcar average speed:
    0) too much stops
    1) not aligning stops with traffic lights, so once the streetcar pulls out of the station, it has to stop on the lights
    2) not prefering it enough by street and intersection design
    3) lots of turns
    Points 1-3 impede the average speed much more than limited top speed and at least point 2 can be pretty easily fixed by traffic signs replacement.

  44. Brisben June 21, 2010 at 4:45 pm #

    Surely if it is “slow” that would be a reason to make it either go faster or increase the space between stops?

  45. Patrick Condon June 21, 2010 at 11:45 pm #

    Jarrett et al.
    I am pleased that this issue remains alive, although it is disheartening to see the same misstatements repeated in the comments. I don’t think its advisable to take each misstatement on, one by one, so i will cut to the chase and speak to what Jarrett sees as the fundamental point:
    “The problem with Condon’s vision (which the Antiplanner jumps on at once) is that transit planning is about competing with cars. We can’t simply install the transit that matches our ideal city form, because we have to win a competition with cars as the city evolves. This, I think, is one argument for why rapid transit, rather than slow services like streetcars, must be our top priority. ”
    So what if i said that i totally agree with that? Lets start with that. Because i do. I believe that Vancouver deserves a high speed back bone of transit, and the choice is skytrain and commuter rail. And as Jarrett says, its needed to provide an option to the car as the city evolves. Agreed. In Vancouver this system is in place. The only missing links are a line out to Coquitlam centre (long promised but not delivered) and a short piece from the end of the Millennium line to the Canada line. So finish those. I agree. Provide a high speed backbone.
    However, i part company when Jarrett and others say, without any caveats, that “transit planning is about competing with cars”. I don’t believe that any more. I did, but now i dont. I now believe that transit is about extending the walk trip.
    Since the end of WWII we have been in a futile race with the car. In most regions the car wins. It wins because our expenditure on transit never equals our expenditure on highways, wide arterials, and vast parking lots. And we never create walkable districts that are transit supportive. Never.
    Unless you put a stake through the heart of the whole system of supplying infrastructure and land uses for the car you cant beat them. Its too hard. Too expensive.
    But all is not lost. Some folks are now thinking about this problem from the other end of the telescope. What if transit is not about competing with the car but about extending the walk trip?
    Asking this question in this way starts from realizing that most of our transit trips, in Vancouver anyway, are short trips. These trips almost always combine a walking segment and a bus ride (Skytrain still captures a small minority of the regions transit trips). It also starts from acknowledging that the key factor in high ridership is not speed, but a combination of frequent service, high density, a diversity of housing stock, and an even distribution of jobs and commercial services throughout transit served districts. What if we thought of transit as a way to enhance these transit supportive characteristics, and aligned our transit investment strategies more to enhance what works, than to chase what is failing?
    I am not, you see, saying dont build the backbone. I am however saying that it would be sensible to reallocate at least SOME of our limited resources towards fostering the gradual development of complete communities on the model of communities that already work. What is wrong with that!?
    Now it just so happens that the places where transit works, in Vancouver anyway, are the former streetcar neighborhoods. Lets support that urban model, and expand it wherever we can! How? By increasing density gradually, more evenly distributing jobs and affordable housing, and making transit investments that make these areas even better places to live.
    Finally, i will repeat myself here. This is all really about saving the planet. We need a way to get a transportation system that is pretty close to zero GHG. I dont think battery operated cars will get us there. I think we have to shift most trips to walking and transit by 2050, and that the transit piece has to be zero GHG. That means electric. For electric you have a choice of two: Trolley bus or tram. If the cost of tram on heavily traveled lines is cheaper than trolley, then i am all for it. The ride is smoother and it creates great places to live.
    And Broadway? Let me just say this at this time. If we cant shift from thinking of transit as the way to get people out of cars to thinking of transit as the way to extend the walk trip this time, on Broadway, the classic streetcar street through the classic streetcar neighbourhood, then we never will.

  46. dejv June 22, 2010 at 3:56 am #

    Brisben –
    removing slow zones and waiting is much more efficient way to improve average speed than increasing acceleration and top speed. Rearranging stops or realigning track is pretty expensive bussines, so in underperforming brand-new system, it’s justifiable only if all other means to speed up service are in place.
    PC –
    Some folks are now thinking about this problem from the other end of the telescope. What if transit is not about competing with the car but about extending the walk trip?
    To fullfill this role, transit must be way faster overall than walking – precisely the thing that 11 km/h streetcar going every 15 minutes can not deliver.
    Regarding Vancouver’s Broadway – if I understand it correctly, it’s 15 km long corridor with strong destination at the far end that attract trips from all around the region. That fact alone justifies rapid transit, because even very frequent slow transit is doomed to be secondary means of transportation for those who can’t afford cars. This is a real world experience.
    BTW, you always bring up sustainability etc. But then – the consumption of streetcars is mainly driven by acceleration, so if well-designed, faster light rail could even have lower carbon footprint than that of slow streetcar stopping on every other corner.

  47. Patrick Condon June 22, 2010 at 10:16 am #

    The whole speed thing is so confusing. First off, one of the posts said that Translink does not have a tram option on the table. It does. It has three of them. Three of the six options have either all tram or tram/skytrain. I call it tram if it is in the street rather than in a dedicated ROW. None of the surface options have dedicated ROW. What they DO have is dedicated lanes and signal priority. And what they DO have are stops that are still within a reasonable walking distance but not every second block. More like every half mile. Thus it is assumed that the trip will be much faster than the Portland streetcar (which by its slow speed has done much to damage the reputation of trams, on this list and elsewhere). It is assumed, therefore, that the tram trip to UBC will be as fast or faster than current 99-B rapid express bus, which most people think is pretty fast.
    On the question of “doomed to be a secondary means” due to slow speed. Not true. The car is already losing out to transit on this corridor because parking is so expensive at UBC and all students have a free bus pass.
    On the acceleration and deceleration question, modern trams capture most of the energy used up in acceleration by gathering it back during deceleration.

  48. MB June 22, 2010 at 11:21 am #

    I’d like to thank Patrick for his contribution, not just in the tram vs rapid rail debate in Vancouver (still raging, that one) but for his reasoning on complete communities and sustainability.
    Where I diverge from his thesis is in two areas.
    First, I believe that higher prices on diminishing supplies of conventional (cheap) fossil fuels will forcefully redirect political thinking incrementally away from cars toward transit in our cities before this decade is through. That is, pure economics, not politics or planning or ideology, will lead us to building more resiliency into our urban fabric. But mainstream economists and the media must first own up to the issue that peak oil must be dealt with. Their myopic world of numbers and newsmaking must square with the geological evidence that the largest oil fields in the world are now in decline, and that there is no ‘magic bullet’ fuel that will replace cheap oil, including electricity in such vast quantities to serve the world’s fleet of cars.
    The layered decisions that over the last six decades created a deep sedimentary foundation of unquestioning willingness to direct huge public expenditures to facilitating the internal combustion engine was predicated on cheap liquid fuel, historical corporate conspiracies notwithstanding. This is, peculiarly, more of a North American reality. Transit in North America has had to fight for the crumbs in this context for three generations now.
    To couch an argument in 2010 that dividing the transit crumbs into tinier pieces is admitting that the argument has little foresight that the context itself is poised for great change. More attention should be focused planning for it at this juncture, not to fostering divisive debates over trams vs light rail vs rapid rail vs commuter rail vs buses vs bikes vs jitney vs shoes. We will need them all, and within the over-riding principle that we need to build our cities better and more humanely.
    Human-scaled urbanism is possible with all modes of transit, but the transit-urbanism relationship is symbiotic by purposeful design and pre-ordained planning. This is not accomplished by suggesting that we merely plunk one technology down (trams) and expect to see pedestrian neighbourhoods and walking streets lined with artisanal shops miraculously appear before our eyes. Moreover, the conversion of the suburbs to more efficacious urban forms will require a multitude of approaches, otherwise there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth if debt-constrained governments do not help the suburbs and exurbs with transportation alternatives to devastating freeways and arterials and the ubiquitous anti-urban cul-de-sac.
    Second, with regard to the Broadway transit debate in Vancouver, many see the missing Broadway link as THE backbone — even as the most important part of the rapid transit network. Their advocacy for the subway / rapid rail option is persuasive and should not be disregarded. Most of them do not see it as an excusive mode either and would welcome trams in other locations. It’s my belief that a subway with improved local bus service in this corridor will meet the demand for regional mobility and local access, and could easily be tied with an urban design initiative to foster communities where walk is more convenient than driving a car.
    It’s a matter of having a choice that suits the circumstances.

  49. EngineerScotty June 22, 2010 at 11:23 am #

    One big problem with these debates is many of them assume a world of limited funding. Of course, that’s a valid assumption in most cases (it is the world we live in, after all), but it often has the affect of chilling debate by forcing advocates to stake out either/or positions: In the present instance, either surface rail down Broadway or SkyTrain; but “both” appears to be out of the question. This pattern repeats itself in many debates around the world.
    So let rephrase the question for both surface-rail supporters such as Professor Condon, and for Skytrain supporters as well: What are your transit priorities? If you were to be given a list of transit projects for the greater Vancouver area, and be asked to rank them in order of importance, where would the two options under consideration (streetcars and Skytain) rank, among other worthy BC transit projects, such as Coquitlam skytrain, light rail in Surrey, or whatever else. Feel free to break up projects into smaller pieces if it makes sense–if you think a Millenium extension to the Canada Line or to Arbutus is a high priority, but not the full line out to UBC, say that.
    This is, of course, how professional planning agencies rack and stack projects. They don’t usually rank each project in isolation–in practice, there are far too many interdependencies to do that effectively–but they do specify different funding scenarios, and list which projects have to get done even in a limited funding environment, vs which ones only get done if money falls from trees, vs which ones aren’t worthwhile in any case.

  50. EngineerScotty June 22, 2010 at 11:58 am #

    Uh-oh, the preceding rant has just inspired a new posting… 🙂

  51. Jarrett at June 22, 2010 at 4:44 pm #

    @ Patrick. I note that you’re using the word tram to denote anything on rails in the street, regardless of speed or exclusivity. This is understandable if you first sort the world into rail vs bus and only then into secondary categories of speed.
    The transit planner thinks about those two things the other way around. First, how fast and frequent and reliable can it be, which determines what kinds of trips will find it to be useful. Second, given that, does it make sense to run the service on rails or tires.
    That’s actually quite an important key to the essence of the disagreement.
    So just to be clear, the definitions I use on this blog are a little different, and I laid them out here:
    What you’re describing with half-mile spacing is closer to “light rail”. But to achieve the speed and reliability that such a service would require, you can only mix with traffic to a very limited degree if at all. And once you give it its own lane, it’s basically the same light rail product that you see on MLK Blvd in Seattle or Interstate Ave in Portland etc etc.

  52. Patrick Condon June 22, 2010 at 6:33 pm #

    Jarrett. I think the whole terminology thing is part of the problem. We have this huge category called light rail that includes everything from poky little streetcars to vehicles only slightly smaller than Amtrak coaches, and in every context from dedicated ROWs that give the northeast corridor a run for its money, to Portland with its stop signs every 200 feet. I use the word “tram” in an attempt to influence the way we think about these systems, and to interject a category of thinking between buses and LR in dedicated ROWs. Its important to think of all the things you can do with transit in mixed circumstances, in streets, with pedestrians, close to other vehicles like buses and cars. Absent that kind of thinking i find it almost impossible to get a good conversation going on how transit can really support urbanism.

  53. Jarrett at June 22, 2010 at 8:02 pm #

    Patrick.  Yes, I deal with the terminology problem every day, especially writing for an international audience in an English that's half-adapted to Australian spelling and vocab.
    I stand by my proposed definition of streetcar as a distinct category from light rail because that seems to be the evolving usage in transit discourse in North America.  I use "tram" as simply the synonym of "streetcar" used outside North America.  Thus, in Australia, Melbourne and Adelaide have trams but Sydney has a small light rail line and another is being developed for the Gold Coast.  Australian transit people seem to understand this distinction, and that implies that they experience "tram" as a synonym for streetcar and that this category is external to light rail, even though we all know that "streetcar/tram" and "light rail" describe different purposes for the same basic technology. 
    I haven 't made those terms up; they're what I can discern as the dominant usage in the transit industry.  And it seems not unreasonable that the transit industry should have some influence over the definition of transit terms.
    I realise that the urban design world will be inclined to invent its own terms.  But if you're talking about transit technologies, and if you make up your own terms because you're not listening to the existing transit discourse, you may have the net effect of confusing the discourse further.
    To be clear, I'm not defending that my definition of 'streetcar' vs 'light rail' is technically accurate.  Obviously it would be better if we had "light rail" as the term for the technology and then "streetcar" and something else — "rapidcar" or something — for its slow and fast applications, respectively.  But usage has developed so far in North America that proposing different definitions is more confusing than just being clear about the meanings that have evolved, and trying to herd other usages back into that imperfect but widely shared space, so that actual communication can occur.

  54. Patrick Condon June 22, 2010 at 11:17 pm #

    Jarrett, your points are well taken and troubling. But, for the moment i would vote that eventually we need a word like “rapid car” or “tram” to signify something that is faster than a streetcar, has a higher capacity, can operate in dedicated lanes, and meet or exceed the speeds of rapid bus. I chose to use the term “tram” precisely because “streetcar” was crippled by its association with antiquated technologies and the assumption that it was necessarily slow.

  55. dejv June 23, 2010 at 6:26 am #

    Patrick. Being from European city of Brno, whose transit backbone is based on streetcars, I know very well how this technology performs. For example, there is one line in Brno, that’s similar to your proposal for Broadway – it’s around 30 m wide (unusual for pre-20th-century streets), it’s 5.75 km long, there are 5 cross streets with heavy traffic, and there are 14 stops, so average stop spacing is 440 m. The trams average 20 km/h there regardless of time of day.
    So yes, if such service is indeed built with 800 m stop spacing, the travel times could equal that of current off-peak express bus at best. That said, by such bus to tram conversion, you’ll gain only two real benefits – lower operating costs and higher capacity, that would relieve overcrowding. The question is – are these benefits enough to justify the costs and traffic disruption during construction? Isn’t it better to build some faster mode, that would make UBC more accessible from all the region?

  56. Patrick Condon June 23, 2010 at 6:55 am #

    Thanks for acknowledging the potentials of such an approach. You ask the key question. What do you gain. You gain a zero GHG system that is more attractive to riders and much more comfortable to the elderly (whose percentage of the total ridership will likely triple over the next thirty years, barring a plague that hits only the old). On the Broadway corridor ridership is likely sufficient such that the long term (construction, operation, fuel, vehicles) cost of using tram will be lower than alternatives. Having witnessed the construction of the Portland system i noted that the disruption to traffic was modest, more modest than what was required for the recent street repaving for Broadway. The 12 inch concrete pad was installed a block or two at a time and didn’t require the closing of the entire street. As for the last sentence, thats the whole question isnt it. Speed, and what you lose to get it. What you lose is this: you lose the fundamental interrelationship between the street and transit that is the very essence of this streetcar street. You lose the opportunity to re-enforce the basic transit NETwork of the district, replacing it to a TRUNK and BRANCH system. You lose the chance to begin a wide scale electrification of the entire system. Finally you bankrupt the coffers at the expense of any other transit initiative that might have more sustainability value.

  57. dejv June 23, 2010 at 8:44 am #

    Patrick –
    You already have zero-GHG system in Vancouver – you can get most of benefits of streetcars for lower price by dedicating two lanes to buses, hanging another two pair of wires and buying some double-articulated trolleybuses for 99-B line.
    AFAIK, Portland Streetcar construction didn’t include utility relocation from outside of track footprint, so once the utilities age enough to fail, major disruption can be anticipated – certainly not a good approach when building high-capacity line with regional significance. From my experience with street refurbishment, utility relocation often takes more than half of construction time and area disruption.
    By reinforcing “basic transit NETwork of the district”, you’ll weaken city/region-wide network. The difference between the two is that people can walk short distances but for longer distances, only transit and transportation-focused bikepaths are the only viable carfree modes. (A side note: during the weekend, when transit headways trough my hilly neighbourhood are 10 minutes, I don’t bother to take it for trips up to 1-2 km because it’s faster to walk.) The trouble with local circulators is that they have to be really frequent to be useful, so outside super-dense areas, their per-passenger operating costs (and energy consumption) can easily exceed that of rapid transit.
    Also, when running on grade separated line, there’s pretty big potential for energy savings (up to 30 %, the same as regenerative braking) by energy consumption optimized automatic operation – for some results, check slides 33-37 of this PDF.

  58. EngineerScotty June 23, 2010 at 10:25 am #

    The term “rapid streetcar” (see this page) sounds like what you’re thinking of: The page describes a way of getting rail rapid transit inexpensively by a) using streetcar-class vehicles in dedicated rights of way on converted streets, with simply rebuilding the road surface. Portland Streetcar did all of these things (except the dedicated ROW part); and was able to install track for far less money than similar LRT projects (such as the rebuilt transit mall or the Yellow Line).
    As streetcar-class vehicles weigh around 30,000 kg, similar to a bus, as opposed to LRT vehicles which are closer to 50,000 kg, they can run on existing roadbeds; they also have the benefit of being able to fit in tight urban fabric. Of course, by failing to relocate utilities, the service runs the risk of a major disruption layer (as dejv notes); if you have an extensive network that may be an acceptable risk. I wouldn’t do that for anything which is a major trunk line–which a Broadway line would be, underground or not.
    But things like signal priority and a dedicated ROW are wasted if you don’t also stretch out the stop spacing. The Yellow Line in Portland has all these three (signal priority, exclusive ROW, and an average stop spacing of 1km)–and it still only manages to average about 30km/h; at the lower end of what is acceptable for “rapid transit”. And it is subject to many complaints that the stop spacing makes it far less usable to the neighborhood than the #5 bus it replaced (although the ridership statistics suggest otherwise).
    This is why I asked the question of “both”; to meet two different service needs. I recognize that funding limitations make “both” unlikely, but the choice isn’t between two different ways of providing the same service; it’s between two different types of service altogether.
    And here’s a bonus question: Were SkyTrain to be extended down Broadway, it would undoubtedly reduce the demand on the 99B, which is today overcrowded. Would it reduce it enough so that the bus service can run a reliable local service, or would surface rail still be needed as a capacity measure? I’m ignoring, of course, bus/rail arguments that don’t turn on measurable technical parameters.

  59. dejv June 23, 2010 at 3:16 pm #

    EngineerScotty: a minor nitpick – the weight isn’t primary difference between streetcar-class and light-rail-class vehicles. It’s mainly maximum speed, minimum turn radius, vehicle width and axle load (but that doesn’t tell much, ULF has 12.5 t under crush load).

  60. Patrick Condon June 23, 2010 at 4:00 pm #

    If the term “rapid streetcar” catches on I am all for it. This is indeed what i am talking about (we used an example vehicle from Siemens for our research reports
    And we all know the dilemma about stop spacing and dwell time. Station frequency and dwell times would slow down skytrain too. I don’t pretend to have the definitive solution to the contradiction between the value of going fast and the value of stopping frequently. I can only say that the spacing of the current 99-B line express/rapid bus is pretty close to what you would want, with perhaps 15% more stops along the built up areas of Broadway (To be clear, by built up areas i mean the stretch between Cambie and Alma. Currently the 99B stops in this stretch are about 1 K apart).
    There would be much longer stretches with no stops from Alma to UBC however (currently there is only one stop between Alma and UBC in Point Grey, a distance of over 4 K. This seems to work pretty well. A strong case could be made for keeping it this way. This is also the stretch where a 1.5 K. long, wide grass median is available for a dedicated ROW. Also, there are no signalized intersections to worry about in this stretch).
    As for what would happen to the 99B post construction, it would simply go away. This rapid streetcar would really be an organic development of that very effective and low cost strategy.
    Finally, you ask about local service. What happens now is that the 99 B is backed up by trolley buses. These buses still stop every 400 meters or less all the way up and down Broadway to UBC, coming by roughly every 7 minutes. My assumption is that this service would continue as is.

  61. mezzanine June 23, 2010 at 7:06 pm #

    Translink has defined the ‘surface rail’ options as more LRT than tram, as per Jarrett’s definition.
    “The Olympic Line [tram, which operated during the olympics] vehicle shares some similar features with an LRT vehicle, one of the rapid transit technologies being considered in the UBC Line Rapid Transit…
    The Olympic Line connected two stops at 1.8 kilometres (km) apart, with no intermediary stops. Streetcars typically have stops every 250 to 500 metres (m), whereas an LRT system typically has stops between 800 m and 1.5 km apart”
    At the end of the day, since UBC is at the end of the broadway corridor, limiting regional mobility to UBC is like limiting access to higher education at BC’s biggest university for everyone in the region outside of the west side of vancouver.
    If transport infrastructure dollars are spent on a local service tram I would find that frankly unjust. Build a limited stop LRT, skytrain or BRT, but not tram.

  62. dejv June 24, 2010 at 3:14 am #

    Patrick –
    If you plan to keep two levels of service, why do you prefer so short stop spacing for faster service, that essentially makes slower service redundant? The better approach IMO is to keep fast service as fast as possible by stopping only at major destinations or major transfer points and keeping local service for local to intermediate trips. Of course, the services should be arranged to provide timed transfers between slow and fast services in off-peak periods (there’s no need for it when headways of both services are under 5 minutes).
    mezzanine –
    ” … Streetcars typically have stops every 250 to 500 metres (m), whereas an LRT system typically has stops between 800 m and 1.5 km apart”
    My quick fact check of few fully street running streetcar lines shows typical average stop spacing of 420-450 m, with wider spacing (up to 700-800 m) in newer stretches or where the streetcar went between settlements that eventually merged.

  63. mezzanine June 24, 2010 at 8:48 am #

    @dejv, that quote is how the regional transportation authority (translink) defines stop spacing with tram vs LRT.
    It is similar to translink’s stop spacing guidelines for local bus versus B-line BRT.
    BUS 250 metres (both near & farside stops
    permitted at major transfer points)
    B-LINE (ie, BRT service) 500 metres to 1,500 metres average spacing on route”
    My point is that a shorter-stop local-service tram requires a lot of infrastructure investment to get marginal gains on vancouver’s existing trolley bus routes. You might get faster service with less money by enhancing the existing BRT.

  64. voony June 25, 2010 at 12:38 am #

    PC mentions the “fundamental interrelationship between the street and transit [which] is the very essence of this streetcar street.” which is arguably antithetic to the speed proposition.
    But then why argue for a “fast tram” with limited stop where all the positive of the streetcar (street relationship) is lost, while all the negative points of it stay? Arguably a fast tram zipping thru the neighborhood in a ROW, neutralizing eventually lot of intersection (for safety and reliability) and neutralizing space to its exclusive usage where it can go fast, all at the expense of other including “smooth one” like bike doesn’t seems a proposition fostering the “streetcar street”.
    At that moment, if speed is an issue, why not put underground the whole stuff?
    there is also an assertion that “Trunk and branches” is not a desirable outcome of the transit network, eventually assuming that a non hierarchic network is better.
    I guess the issue has been discussed on this blog before but intuitively we always use a trunk and branch system in our transportation choice (starting with the Walk-bus-walk scheme)

  65. EngineerScotty June 25, 2010 at 7:47 am #

    While “trunk and branch” patterns, or “fishbone” patterns, have the obvious issue that they don’t serve trips well when the trip isn’t either a) along the trunk, or b) pass through the core; they aren’t exclusive with grids or other well-connected networks.
    It’s perfectly fine to have a grid where some of the routes are rapid-transit, and others are frequent-service local bus (or streetcar, if you prefer) lines.
    Financial constraints may well prevent the “obvious” solution–build Condon’s grid, except Broadway is SkyTrain not streetcar. But if the intent is for the thing to average faster than 30 km/h–the minimum speed for anything calling itself “rapid transit” (and far slower than SkyTrain), it will need its own right-of-way, which is only crossable at designated places; and it will need to have stop spacing on the order of 1km. In other words, something like Portland’s Yellow Line.

  66. Patrick Condon June 27, 2010 at 10:59 am #

    I am persuaded by the 99B experience that there IS a speed and frequency IN BETWEEN the local bus and the skytrain that we are missing. At the speed of the 99B; a speed at which you do not need special care at intersections, that can enjoy signal priority (express buses on Main street recently got signal priority as part of a major corridor long upgrade), that can operate in and out of dedicated lanes, and that can be compatible with complete street objectives. It is a transit type that can operate well with a range of stop spacing (from, in the case of the B-way corridor ranging from 600 M to 1.5 K. I think its possible to have it all.
    Well, not really all. We all know that there are always trade offs. What this is all about is finding the sustainability sweet spot that lays rails (pun intended) to achieve a sustainable region by 2050.

  67. Wad June 28, 2010 at 4:56 pm #

    Patrick, it sounds like the Vancouver B-lines have hit that sweet spot, so it’s not really missing after all.
    Much of the speed gains come from skipping stops. It wasn’t a technological breakthrough.
    It would be the same for streetcars. The problem is that now that an baseline comparison exists between a B-line bus and streetcar, any streetcar improvements are only going to be just marginal gains.
    In other words, the B-Line gained more tangible operating improvements over a local bus than a streetcar would gain over the B-Line.
    Streetcars must therefore find a tangible improvement, and there is one. Unfortunately, it’s not something riders would appreciate.
    Streetcars can offer very high ridership capacity. If Vancouver has very high frequency routes, streetcars can slightly reduce frequency (say, from 3 minutes to 6 minutes) with the trade-off that labor costs are reduced (this helps preserve service) and/or reliability is improved. If a bus is scheduled to run every 3 minutes, yet you actually have to wait 9 minutes and see 3 buses bunched together; then if you could get 2 of every 3 6-minute streetcars to meet their schedules, you’ve doubled reliability.

  68. Joshua Daniel Franklin June 29, 2010 at 9:08 am #

    I live and work in an area with a streetcar (Seattle’s South Lake Union) and I have to say I like it a lot better than I could have predicted. It’s more comfortable than any buses we have and it’s a nice way to sit for a few minutes after a long walk or to get out of the rain. Now, if I were spending transportation dollars on local access, personally I would buy comfortable new level-boarding electric trolley buses and built out station-style stops like the streetcar uses. But when people (including politicians) think of a bus they think of the old buses we have today, not what could be.
    When I need to get to a meeting on which my career depends, or get home to my sick child, I walk (not to mention groceries, restaurants, parks, and so on). While not possible for very many people today, I believe that encouraging a low-carbon (and very enjoyable) lifestyle is the whole purpose of both the Portland Streetcar and Condon’s idea. I think this is a valid use of transportation funds, just like Complete Streets are a valid use of public right of way.
    Of course, in Seattle we are also building a rapid transit rail system, at least partly to connect the urban centers and villages where people can live and work. (We’re also in a somewhat unique situation in Seattle, because our rapid transit and local transit monies go to separate agencies, SoundTransit and King County Metro Transit.)

  69. Patrick Condon June 30, 2010 at 12:38 am #

    Wad et al:
    Thanks for your comment. Yes the 99B has hit that sweet spot, and as i say in my book, if the 99B stays (which is likely, as the province doesn’t really have 2.8 billion to spend anyway!)that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.
    But again, the driving imperative is this. We need to get well over 60% of all trips into walk/bike/transit trips by 2050 and all those transit trips have to be zero GHG. The 99B doesnt qualify. If we dont we wont meet our greenhouse gas reduction targets. If we electrify the buses and the 99B, like i say, sign me up. But if for the same money (over the long term) you can put lots of those trips on steel instead of rubber, then i say go for it. There are so many qualitative and quantitative benefits that accrue when you do.
    And your point about reduced frequency is interesting. Yes our calculations imply but dont state explicitly a reduced frequency when we credit the larger capacity trams with lower labor costs. It probably translates into a 5 to 6 minute headway on B-Way to match what the B Line does now at 3 to 4 minute headways. Certainly as trip number increase on the corridor, over the decades (as transit mode share increases along with residential and job density) the headways would decline.

  70. MB July 2, 2010 at 12:24 pm #

    The province may think it doesn’t have billions to spend on transit today. But that is true only when fingering roads for the majority share of every transportation budget in every jurisdiction. I believe there is a very good chance funding priorities will shift in a couple or three years, and we’ll see “transport revolutions” evolve over the next decade.
    See excerpts below.
    The question may then hinge on service value for money, such as whether to spend three billion on a subway in the dense Broadway corridor in Vancouver to achieve orders of magitude gains in quality of service from day one (coupled with an improved #9 trolley for shorter trips and slower speed) and in perpetuity, or spend a billion on a tram with marginal at best gains in quality of service, unless you speed it up and put pedestrians, cyclists and commercial cross traffic at risk at every single interesection.
    Moreover, the feds may well be subjected to extraordinary demand by their own consituents in every quarter, notably the suburbs, to invest in transit infrastructure when gasoline prices approach $3/litre ($8/gallon).
    Hopefully, any government providing such investments will have the foresight to adapt the appropriate transit technology to circumstances that vary one city to the next, and require municipalitiies to adopt Smart Growth principles in return and place human-scaled urbanism first in all neighbourhoods expected to change under the effects of radically increased transit service.
    Based on the kind of analysis conducted [in the 60s] by M. King Hubbert, with input from geologists in several countries, researchers at the University of Uppsala in Sweden have projected that the peak production of all petroleum liquids [not just oil] will occur in or soon after 2012.
    According to the US National Commission on Energy Policy, “a roughly four-per-cent global shortfall in daily supply results in a 177 per cent increase in the price of oil.” Another analysis [Perry 2001] suggested that a 15 per cent shortfall would result in a 550 per cent increase. Such a shortfall would be considerably less than the 35 per cent shortfall for 2025 [projected as a possibility by the IEA, June 2006]. Thus, an increase in the price of crude oil by a factor of at least six could be expected by [2025]. Such an increase could translate into increase in retail prices of oil products by at least a factor of four.
    This estimate of the extent of price increases must be regarded as tentative. [. . .]
    Nevertheless, we believe . . . that prices of petroleum-based fuels are likely to rise steeply over the next decade. Such increases are the main reason we anticipate one or more transport revolutions.
    Transport Revolutions, Moving People and Freight Without Oil, R. Gilbert + A. Perl (2008, p. 127, 132 & 133)