It turns out there’s a great video of my recent talk at the Congress for the New Urbanism conference in Dallas, including a great discussion with Mariia Zimmerman and Marcy McInelly. Continue Reading →
That's David Alpert's frame in a piece in the Atlantic Citylab today (links added):
Jaffe, Walker, Yglesias, and Capps have no duty to support Team Transit [sic!] no matter what. They should speak their minds. And anyone who supports mass transit expansion should want it to be as close to perfect as possible.
I worry about streetcar criticism that states that a streetcar without every desirable feature is worse than nothing.
But streetcars also have another set of opponents: Those who simply don’t want to fund any transit at all, regardless of its specifics. They seize on any flaw to stop projects that might change their street or interfere with their driving.
So I worry about the effects of this latest trend in streetcar criticism. While streetcar projects can and should be better, many of these articles go further and either imply or outright state that a streetcar without every desirable feature is worse than nothing.
That’s not right. Perfect transit is absolutely a goal, but the perfect must not be the enemy of the good. There are plenty of reasons why a streetcar might be worth supporting, even if it isn't as long, frequent, or speedy as we might like.
I have spent my whole career helping people value what's really good-but-not-perfect in transit choices. Our difference is that in Alpert's framing of the question, the fundamental good to be defended at all costs is the streetcar technology, while to me the fundamental good is the liberty of large numbers of human beings, and their access to both happiness and economic opportunity.
Let us take Alpert's perfect-vs-good frame and deploy it differently. Many earnest American leaders visit places like Bordeaux and Strasbourg and agree their cities should look just like that. This looks perfect to them, but they realize they'll have to start with something that's good-but-not-perfect, an imperfect good.
Well, which "good" element should we start with? In Bordeaux and Strasbourg, the streetcar (never mixed with traffic) is a result rather than a cause of a whole bunch of other things: policies that limit car access, for example, so that transit of any mode can run reliably and so that it delivers people into a rich pedestrian space. The Bordeaux and Strasbourg streetcars also began with the "imperfect good" of bus services, which were used to build robust lines with actual existing markets that would support the future rail service.
Why should the "imperfect good that we start with" be the streetcar instead of a really liberating transit system run, for now, by buses? Why must we start with a hunk of decontextualized technology rather than our liberty and opportunity to go where we want to go?
Alpert goes on to make other points about why "imperfect but good" streetcars are worth supporting:
Imperfect transit can still be good for cities.
There are plenty of places on the edges of cities that could become more walkable, more urban, and have more of a sense of place. To do that, they need better transit, more amenities, and more residents—which generally means more density. When such a place achieves greater walkability and urbanization, the factors making it so strengthen over time. … It’s a momentum game, and even an expensive, sub-optimal transit solution—such as a less-frequent streetcar with no dedicated lane —can push the cycle in the right direction.
The sheer abundance of places that need to be made more walkable is actually the strongest argument against the streetcars-in-traffic campaign. In transit, if it doesn't scale, it doesn't matter. Streetcars-in-traffic have helped enrich a few superdense districts, but they are far too slow, unreliable, and expensive to scale to the size of our urban mobility problem — at least not as long as they remain stuck in traffic. (Once they get out of traffic, they are essentially light rail.) Nor are streetcars remotely necessary for the development of walkable, urban places.
If you want to see how a city massively expands the usefulness of transit, and thus the potential for transit-oriented lives, look to what is happening in Houston. Massive, scalable, high-frequency bus grids that are useful for getting all over the city, and that can be created now.
An imperfect streetcar might be all your city can afford—for now. … Your city can make it better later, and may even plan to.
The frame here is: "The streetcar technology is the essential good, and people's ability to access their entire city is a nice-to-have that we hope to add in the future."
But even if you accept that frame, what's the track record of claims that modern streetcars-in-traffic, first built in compromized ways, have led to later efforts to improve them? Perhaps you should study Portland, which has been living with this product for longer than any other US city.
The streetcar has been extended up to the limits of usefulness for such a slow-by-design service (about 3.5 miles). But there are no serious proposals for taking cars out of its lanes for enough distance to matter, nor is there much energy behind extensions. Why?
In Portland, support for streetcar spending has collapsed. A recent Bureau of Transportation poll found that only 38% of Portland residents would assign a more-than-neutral priority to further expansions of the streetcar. The same number for more frequent bus service is 67%. (Light rail, in exclusive lanes by definition, is at 59%)
The Portland Streetcar has taught Portland residents a lot about what's really matters as you define an "imperfect good." Listen to what they've learned: Frequent, useful, reliable transit — using tools that scale to the scale of the whole city — is the "imperfect good" that matters.
I’ll be leery of Toronto Star interviews in the future, because I explained my view carefully and that’s not how it came out:
Jarrett Walker and Rob Ford (see Rob Ford’s policard) don’t have much in common. One is an Oregon-based transit consultant, the other Toronto’s chief magistrate. One blogs avidly, the other disdains the media. Whereas Ford rails against the “war on the car,” Walker touts the virtues of buses.
But on one issue, at least, the policy wonk and the conservative politician agree: streetcars are overrated. Walker is decisively on one side of a new debate in the U.S., over whether the trendy form of rail transport springing up in American cities makes practical sense.
My actual view is too long for a soundbite but should not have been too long for an article. My view is that streetcars mixed with private car traffic are overrated. I was very clear with the reporter that all of my critiques of the US streetcar revival movement are about streetcars in mixed traffic. In the Toronto context, I specifically distinguished between the old downtown Toronto mixed traffic streetcars, which are nearly inoperable due to traffic impacts, and Toronto’s exclusive-lane light rail segments such as Spadina and St. Clair. None of my concerns about streetcars apply to the latter.
Here’s the bottom line. Streetcars are just a tool. They can be used in smart ways and in stupid ways. Asking a transit planner for an opinion about a transit technology is like asking a carpenter what his favorite tool is. A good carpenter sees his tools as tools and chooses the right one for the task at hand. He doesn’t use his screwdriver to pound nails just because he is a “screwdriver advocate” or “hammer opponent”. Yet the Toronto Star assumes that nobody involved in transit debates is as smart as your average competent carpenter.
To call me a streetcar advocate or opponent, you are imposing on me your own assumption that the bus-rail debate is the most important conversation about transit. This is the Toronto Star’s assumption, but it’s not mine. In fact, my work is about blowing up that assumption, and suggesting that instead of falling in love with vehicles, wires, and propulsion systems, we might consider falling in love with the freedom to get where you’re going.
I don't have time to respond to everything that gets published on transit, but Robert Steuteville's must-read piece today on the Congress for the New Urbanism blog, which explains why we should invest in transit that's slower than walking*, certainly deserves a response.
Fortunately, sometimes an email does it for me. From Marc Szarkowski:
Perhaps you've already noticed this piece and are already penning a response (even though several already exist on your blog!). It seems to be another example of the "urban designers are from Mars, transportation planners are from Venus" phenomenon you described some time ago.
I admire and respect Robert, and I think his "place mobility" concept is quite sensible. Indeed, one can argue that the first and most powerful rung on the transportation "efficiency" ladder is to ensure that destinations are within walking/bicycling distance wherever possible, obviating the need for cars and transit in the first place, in turn freeing up the latter two for long-distance travel. But after the "place mobility" concept, I think the article begins to fall apart.
It seems to me that it's easy to romanticize slow transit if you don't have to rely on it all the time. With all due respect, I get the impression that many "streetcar tourists" use transit only occasionally when visiting a new city, or perhaps to go to a ball game, but for little else. And I get it: if much of your day-to-day travel is characterized by routinized, featureless car trips between work, shopping, meetings, and whatnot, I can see the allure in taking a break to relax and 'go slow,' as it were.
But the romantic impulse towards slow transit wears away quickly if you have no choice but to rely on it all the time! I don't have a car, so I rely on buses that travelexcruciatingly slowly, wasting much of my time. (I have, for example, learned to pad an hour between meetings and appointments in different parts of town, simply because the mixed-traffic transit takes so long to get from A to B to C.) So, rather than viewing slow transit as an opportunity to unwind and watch the street life pass by, I see it as a precious-free-time-gobbler.
I love to be immersed in street life when I'm walking, but when I inevitably need to travel beyond walking distance, I want to get there quickly. Does this make me a so-called "speed freak?" If so, wouldn't all the urban designers out there praising slow transit for others - while they hurriedly shuttle from charrette to public input meeting to office to daycare in their cars – be "speed freaks" too? The reality is that most of us – walkers, bicyclists, drivers, and transit riders alike – are "speed freaks" most of the time, simply because we prefer minimizing travel time and dedicating our precious free time to friends and family.
And this gets back to "place mobility:" it is great when many daily necessities – the grocery store, the bank, the library, the elementary school – are within walking distance. But – and this perhaps reveals a conceptual flaw in New Urbanism – not every place can or should be a self-contained "village." As Jane Jacobs argued, the whole point of cities is to offer rich opportunity – opportunity that requires travel beyond whatever a "village" can offer: "Planning theory is committed to the ideal of supposedly cozy, inwardly-turned city neighborhoods. [But] city people aren't stuck with the provincialism of a neighborhood, and why should they be – isn't wide choice and rich opportunity the point of cities? (Death and Life, 115-116)."
For example, I may be fortunate enough to have a daycare center on my block, but perhaps I want to send my kids to a magnet or private school across town – a school better than my neighborhood school? So would my kids rather wake up at 5am to take a streetcar sitting in traffic to get to school, or wake up at 7am to take a faster subway or a bus on a bus lane? I may be fortunate enough to have a pharmacy on my block too, but what if the doctor I trust is across town? Would I rather take the whole day off from work to take a streetcar sitting in traffic and delayed by a poorly-parked car to get there, or could I take a half-day by taking the subway or the crosstown express bus? For better or worse, there will always be long-distance destinations, and I suspect transit riders will continue to prioritize speed for these trips.
As for the short, local trips made possible by "place mobility," I still wonder whether mixed-traffic streetcars are the best bang for the buck. Yes, they are a placemaking tool, but they're not the only (or the cheapest) one. If, as admitted in the article, mixed-traffic streetcars don't particularly offer useful transit, nor are they necessarily the only/best/cheapest placemaking tool, then I have to wonder if 30 years from now we'll look back on them as yet another expensive urban renewal fad. (American cities are still littered with half-dead "game changing" fads from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s.) We ultimately need rapid transit and "place mobility," but mixed-traffic streetcars are hardly a prerequisite for creating the latter.
So far I've hesitated voicing these opinions to fellow urbanists because I don't want to alienate any friends, but I'm increasingly skeptical of the streetcar fervor. Given that (A) mixed-traffic streetcars are simply slower and less-flexible than mixed-traffic buses, and (B) that the benefits that are packaged with properly-prioritized streetcars (dedicated lanes, signal priority, durable shelters, etc.) could just as easily be packaged with buses, I wonder if the streetcar fervor is an example of simple "technograndiosity." At the end of the day, I'd rather have ten bus lines reaching twenty useful places than one streetcar line reaching two useful places.
(Marc Szarkowski creates plans, models, diagrams, and illustrations of urban design, streetscape design, and planning proposals, and is a regular rider of Boston's, Philadelphia's, and Baltimore's transit systems.)
*Most new streetcars in the US have average scheduled speeds of 6-10 mph, a jogging or running speed for able-bodied adults. However, actual travel time (compared to a private vehicle alternative) includes the average wait time. Most US streetcars are not very frequent (usually in the 15-20 minute range) given the short trips that they serve, so it is the high wait time, combined with the very slow ride, that makes them slower than walking. Again, this calculation describes the experience of an ordinary working person who needs to get places on time, not the tourist or flaneur for whom delay is another form of delight.
From Henry Mulvey, of Massachusetts:
Hello, my name is Henry Mulvey, I am a tenth grader. I am a huge streetcar fan and I love the old Boston Elevated Railway. I hope to attend M.I.T. for urban planning then work the M.B.T.A. or the state on a big replica streetcar plan for the city of Boston. I just read your article saying streetcar aren't what they seem and I have some rebuttal points. I'm going try my hardest to be civil because I am a die-hard streetcar fan. The two things I see that you either underestimate or don't mention are the aesthetic appeal of streetcars and the environmental costs of buses. Streetcars look very different than buses and people like that. In the case of replica streetcars, they might not carry as many passengers as modern types but they make people think "ooh, that's cool! I want to ride!". Streetcars are more attractive than standard old buses, even an updated bus! Streetcars are also more environmental friendly than buses. Ideally streetcars do not omit any pollutants and are much more efficient than buses. I also think the connection between streetcars and economic development is well documented and you don't provide any evidence to the contrary, can you give me evidence? It's my belief that a streetcar line that uses replica streetcars does both provide great transit and showcases history. Boston is a city that loves history and has a need for streetcars so I think a streetcar would work incredibly there. Thank you for listening to me, Henry Mulvey
"I think frequency is an overrated thing. Let's say there's a 20-minute [wait]. You can look on your phone, wait inside and have a beer."
— Portland Streetcar Citizens Committee member
Peter Finley Fry, justifying the 18-minute frequency
of the Portland Streetcar's new eastside loop,
quoted last August in Willamette Week.
Note that Mr Fry is referring to a very slow service (the original segment of the Portland Streetcar is now scheduled at around 6 miles/hr) which is useful only for relatively short trips around the greater downtown area.
If you're interested in Vancouver and missed my "debate"* with Bob Ransford about Broadway rapid transit at Gordon Price's blog Price Tags, well, it's not to late to pile on. It refers back to one of grand debates on this blog, the question of "Is speed obsolete?" raised by Patrick Condon. Gordon says our debate* the most commented piece in the history of his blog, and it's generated fierce Twitter traffic. Apparently, Bob and I will be on CKNW News Talk 980, "The Bill Good Show" on Monday (or maybe we're just taping it Monday).
The occasion appears to have been the Vancouver City Council's decision to endorse a complete subway under Broadway, which is not much of a surprise to those who've been following this for a while. Bob criticized the project on development potential grounds, and as usual, I tried to broaden the question a bit beyond that.
* an often self-glorifying term that readers should view with suspicion. In this case it refers to a published Vancouver Sun opinion piece periodically interrupted by my heckling. It all happened very fast when Gord forwarded me Bob's article, knowing exactly how it would provoke me …
Finally, I am no longer the only international transit expert who hasn't been to Hong Kong.
Everyone who talks about transit in Hong Kong seems to talk about the MTR subway system. Yes, it's sleek, and clean, and massive in its capacity, and beautiful in many other respects. But as someone who looks to actual network outcomes, I remain struck by its lack of self-connectedness. The difficulty of plotting a logical path between logical pairs of stations, even some major ones, makes the MTR subway quite different from many of its world-class peers. Look again (click pic to enlarge and sharpen)
We stayed at Causeway Bay, on the east-west Island Line at the bottom of the diagram. What if we had wanted to get to Hung Hom, more or less directly north of there across the harbour? This is not a minor station; it's the main access point for the light-blue line that extends out of the city, up to the Mainland Chinese border. It appeared that the answer was the old one: "If that's where you're going, don't start from here." In many major subway systems of the world, you just wouldn't encounter this difficulty traveling between any pair of stations, certainly not in the dense urban core.
I did enjoy the double-decker trams that ply the main east-west trunk across the Island (mostly right on top of the MTR Island Line). They have an exclusive lane and in stopping every 500m or so they clearly complement both the faster subway and some of the buses alongside them — the latter tending to branch off in more complex paths. The trams are certainly stately, almost surreal in their height and narrowness. I can't speak for their efficiency, but they're not stuck in traffic.
They stop at platforms in the middle of the street, some rather awkward in their access. This one is meant to be accessed only from an overhead walkway, but obviously many people jaywalk to follow the natural desire line.
Indeed, for a city so densely pedestrianized, I noticed a number of pedestrian challenges in the infrastructure.
Note that in discussing the trams in particular I am being careful to avoid the fallacy of technology-focused transit tourism. While I enjoyed the trams and folks seemed to be riding them, I don't immediately tell you that these things are so cool that your city should have one. I don't know enough about how these function in the context of the larger Hong Kong network to be able to tell you that, nor do I know enough about your city.
The real muscle of transit in Hong Kong was clearly the buses. Double-deckers, massive in both size and quantity. These, it seems, are what really moves the city beyond the limited range of the MTR subway.
I'm coming to view the double-decker as the logical end-state of bus development in dense urban environments. They use curb space so much more efficiently than their alternative, the articulated bus. The sheer volumes of people I saw being moved on these things was unimaginable on long single-deck buses. There simply wouldn't have been room at the stops.
By the way, I noted bus lanes wherever there was a lane to spare, as in Paris and a number of other world-cities where transit is essential to urban life.
On the downside, I could have wished — as in many cities — that the buses were more organized, and that there were a map showing how at least the frequent ones fit together as a network. Instead, I saw many signs that the buses weren't being presented as a cohesive system, but rather as a pile of overlapping products, as if from different vendors.
In fact, I nearly missed a desired bus because I couldn't find its sign among so many others.
Finally, and most important, I noted a key bit of infrastructure that identifies cities that really value buses as an essential part of the mobility system. Adequate bus facilities right where they're needed. This one is at Wan Chai ferry terminal.
There's a similar one across the harbor at Tsim Sha Tsui, right where ferries converge, and towers step down to the water, and tourists gather every evening to watch the skyline sparkle. In short, these bus terminal facilities are on unimaginably expensive real estate, but they are viewed as essential infrastructure for a network that's essential for the life of the city, just like streets themselves, so they're there. Many American and Australasian cities don't quite have this commitment; there, many still long to treat bus facilities as things that can be shoved out of the way.
Finally, before you attack me for having missed the richness and inner logic of public transit in Hong Kong, or for having noticed only things that connect with my own preoccupations, note that I was there for 48 hours — enough time to be confronted and delighted but not enough to absorb and understand. I look forward to the chance to return to the city for a more thorough exploration.
Major San Francisco transit lines take longer than they did a century ago, as they have been obstructed by traffic and slowed by heavy passenger loads using (until recently) inefficient pay-as-you-board methods. A New York Times piece by Zusha Elinson lays out the statistics.
(It's important to clarify, right away, that this has nothing to do with streetcars as a technology. You could easily be misled by this subtle bit of anti-bus bias:
In 1920, the F-Stockton streetcar carried passengers from the Financial District at Market and Stockton Streets all the way to the Marina at Chestnut and Scott Streets in a zippy 17 minutes. Today a very similar trip on the 30-Stockton, the successor to the F-Stockton, takes a half-hour if the stars are properly aligned.
In general, streetcars replaced by buses have slowed down more, over the last century, than those that remained streetcars, but that's an expression of how much more was invested in streetcars than in buses. The main lines that use the Market Street Subway — J through N — have picked up or shed just a couple of minutes from their 1920 times, even though back then they ran on the surface along Market St (about 3 miles) while now they're in a subway, effectively functioning as rapid transit. No such improvements were made for streetcars that became bus lines, so of course their performance deteriorated more. In fact, the 30-Stockton relies heavily on maneuverability in unpredictable Chinatown traffic; a streetcar in exactly the same traffic, unable to move around obstacles, would be even slower and less reliable.)
The real message of this story, though, is the need to have a conscious intention about the speed and reliability of transit. Highway planners ruled the late 20th century with their clearly defined notion of "Level of Service" or cars, which mowed down opposition through its simplistic A-F letter-grades. Just after 2000, the Transit Capacity and Quality of Service Manual sought, at first, to claim this same authority-through-simplification for transit. But while the TCQOS is a spectacular reference guide, few in the business believe that a single A-F score can capture the many important ways that transit succeeds and fails.
My own work in this area has always advocated a stronger, more transit-specific approach that begins not with the single delayed line, but rather with the functioning of an entire network. Don't just ask "how fast should this line be?" which tends to degenerate into "What can we do to make those forlorn buses move a little faster without upsetting anyone?" Instead, ask "What travel time outcomes do we need across this network?" Or turn it around: How much of the city needs to be within 30 minutes of most people? – a question that leads to those compelling Walkscore travel time maps, which are literally maps of individual freedom.
A network speed standard would identify necessary speed standards for each service type, but especially for the Frequent Network, because high frequency means greater impact of delay — both on passenger freedom and the agency's bottom line. We* used this approach in a Seattle Transit Plan study about 7 years ago:
1. Define the Frequent Network (every 15 min or better, all day, every day), including any segments that are "Rapid" (faster with fewer stops)
2. Define the policy operating speed standard for each product (frequent local vs rapid)
3. Map the existing scheduled speeds on each segment against this standard, creating a map with screaming red segments meaning "deficient."
4. Prioritize interventions to improve transit speed based on those deficiencies.
This is quite different from a classic cost-benefit approach in which we count the riders currently on a segment and assign value based on their total travel time saved, because it acknowledges that (a) a dysfunctional segment is probably driving away customers regardless of how many are on it now and (b) the outcome is the network, not just a single line.
We had a lot of success with this in Seattle at the time. Once the deficiency map was drawn, engineers noticed segments that they hadn't identified as problems before, and went to work on fixing them. Note too that the method cleanly separates problem from solution. Don't start with what you think is possible. Start with what you need. Define the absence of what you need as a citywide problem that affects the whole network. Then fix those deficiencies. If you're going to go to war with three businesses over "their" strip of on-street parking, you're more likely to break through the "big agency attacks struggling small business" frame if you're defending the entire city's transit system.
Remember: a line is only as reliable as its least reliable point, and a journey through a network is only as reliable as the least reliable of its lines involved. So one localized problem affecting speed and reliability (such as stops too close together) actually affects a vast area, and drags down public expectations for an entire network product. If it costs the agency money (as slower service always does) then it's also a direct detriment to the overall abundance of transit service. That's the frame in which you win battles over three on-street parking spaces, a signal phase, or even an entire tranist lane.
San Francisco's Transit Effectiveness Project is, to a great extent, the culimination of exactly this thought process. I remember in the 1980s or early 90s a time when Muni proposed to eliminate just one consequential bus stop; 17th & Mission. The story became: "Big, bad transit agency launches personal attack on the people and businesses at 17th & Mission." The TEP has worked to change that conversation, emphasizing that on high-frequency services, the speed of every segment is part of the whole city's transit outcomes. The same process has made it easier to do a range of other locally-hated citywide goods such as removing parallel routes that were too close together.
Does your city's transit system have a similar project underway, one that moves beyond route-by-route analysis and looks at how every speed/reliabilit deficiency harms the whole city's transit system?
*I was with Nelson\Nygaard at the time. The project was the City of Seattle "Urban Village Transit Network" study of 2004, which became a foundation of the Seattle Transit Plan.