It’s a big day for streetcars. Portland has released its draft Streetcar System Concept Plan, an ambitious vision for extending the city’s popular downtown streetcar all over the city. There are similar plans underway in Seattle, Minneapolis, and many other cities.
Enough cautions. Here it is:
Streetcars that replace bus lines are not a mobility or access improvement. If you replace a bus with a streetcar on the same route, and make no other improvements, nobody will be able to get anywhere any faster than they could before. Likewise, if you build a streetcar instead of a good bus line, that money you spend above the cost of the bus line is not helping anyone get anywhere any faster.
This makes streetcars quite different from most of the other transit investments being discussed today.
Where a streetcar is faster or more reliable than a bus route doing the same thing, this is because other improvements were made with the streetcar — improvements that could just as well have been made for the bus route. These improvements may have been politically packaged as part of the streetcar project, but they were logically independent, so their benefits are not really benefits of the streetcar as compared to the bus.
- Capacity. In other urban contexts, rail transit is important for its ability to carry large number of riders per vehicle, and hence per driver, usually by combining cars into trainsets. European streetcars are often huge trainsets with capacities of 500 or more. Typical single streetcars used in the US have a slight advantage; they have a capacity of around 200 compared to 120 for a typical articulated bus. This capacity advantage can be relevant in high-volume situations, particularly when frequencies get down to the three-minute range. However. most streetcars now under discussion are not this frequent, or for markets nearly this busy.
- Existing rail rights-of-way. A proposed streetcar project in Vancouver involves using a piece of existing rail line, as does the small line in Kenosha, Wisconsin. In this case, the streetcar can obviously do something important that a bus can’t.
- I’m not disputing the ridership benefits of streetcars. Streetcars do attract more ridership than the buses they replace, though it’s not always clear why. There’s an urgent need for more research on how much of the ridership benefits of a streetcar are truly results of intrinsic benefits of the streetcar (such as the ride quality, the legibility provided by tracks in the street, etc) as opposed to results of other improvements introduced at the same time (including speed and reliability improvements, better public information, off-board fare collection, and possible differences in operations culture).
- I’m not saying that streetcars don’t promote urban development; clearly they seem to be doing that, though there’s room for disagreement about how much the development really requires the streetcar, and whether the land value uplift from streetcars is durable. (It may not be, if it’s based on confusion about the level of mobility and access that the streetcar actually provides.)
- I’m not saying that electric streetcars aren’t quieter and more environmentally friendly than diesel buses; clearly they are, but if this is your only reason for wanting streetcars, electric trolleybuses may meet your need less expensively.
- I’m not saying that streetcars aren’t fun to ride. They are.
First Update, and Another Hard Question
- low floors completely level with the platform.
- reduced noise.
- off-board fare collection so that buses board and alight at all doors.
- seating configurations that emphasize fewer seats and higher standing capacity (standing is widely accepted for the fairly short trips we’re discussing here).
- wider doors for fast boarding and alighting.
- signal priority systems.
- guidance technologies that enable buses to dock precisely with platforms for level boarding without much of a gap, sufficient for wheelchair boardings.
- major infrastrucure investments, including architecturally substantial stations and sometimes painted lanes, that create the “legibility” that is supposedly offered only by tracks in the street.
- aggressive research toward new propulsion systems that can be powered from within the vehicle, eliminating the need for either diesel engines or an overhead electric power source.