The comments on Is Speed Obsolete? — my post on Professor Patrick Condon’s thesis that slow streetcars are better than rapid transit — are a gold mine of perspectives and insights. I could spin a month of posts out of them.
Let’s start with this one, from Adrian, in response to my claim that slow transit competes more with walking and cycling, while fast
transit competes more with cars.
Streetcars don’t compete with walking, they augment it. When you’re out and about on foot you can easily hop on a streetcar to go a bit further than you’re prepared to walk, and therefore access a few places that are otherwise out of your reach. Streetcars therefore make a walking-based lifestyle more attractive, and lead to more walking, not less.
This point of view depends on whether you think of the ideal trip as spontaneous or intentional. Local-stop transit (streetcar or bus) is relatively easy to use spontaneously, in the sense that if you see one coming you can decide whether to ride it. As such it lends itself to a pleasure-oriented exploration of the city, a kind of flâneurie, which is often a preferred mode of exploration among urban theorists. But most of us have intentional destinations, and deadlines for getting there. Do local-stop, mixed-traffic streetcars really “augment” walking usefully for a significant share of these more purposeful travelers?
First of all, let’s note that Adrian’s point isn’t relevant to the difference between local-stop streetcars and local-stop buses. It’s just as easy or difficult to “hop on” either kind of vehicle. Streetcars are more likely to have proof-of-payment systems that spare you (and everyone else on-board) from the delay involved in buying a ticket from the driver, but that’s a cultural fact, not a technical one. Some bus systems do use proof-of-payment, and some streetcars don’t. Streetcars may also be more legible, but if you’re out in your own neighborhood it’s not hard to remember what the key bus lines do. The legibility and marketing difference between streetcars and buses is also mostly cultural, and is not found to the same degree in Europe.
So Adrian’s point about “streetcars” really refers to “local-stop transit,” which is relatively slow especially in congested inner cities where it encounters many sources of delay. In Portland, for example, the Portland Streetcar and the Line 15 bus have about the same scheduled travel time, 13 minutes, from 23rd & Marshall to around 10th & Salmon midday, going by different but equally congestion-prone routes. (By the way, this suggests that if the bus used proof-of-payment fare collection, as the streetcar does, it would actually be faster.)
The Portland Streetcar’s scheduled speed, within downtown and NW Portland, is around 6.5 miles per hour. That’s just about twice an average walking speed. Cyclists will note that it’s about half of a leisurely cycling speed, which is in the 10-15 mph range. In fact, 6.5 mph is around cycling’s minimum speed, below which it’s hard to maintain balance.
So in round numbers, the streetcar’s in-vehicle travel time is about twice is fast as walking, and about half as fast as cycling.
But of course, that’s just in-vehicle travel time. Transit also suffers from waiting time, which in Portland, with its 13-minute Streetcar frequency, is 6.5 minutes on average. I haven’t run the exact numbers, but it looks like the streetcar, assuming this average waiting time, is faster than walking only for trips of over 0.8 miles. If you’re a pessimist, of course, you’ll use the maximum waiting time, and in that case it’s faster to walk if you’re going less than about 1.1 miles.
But what if you just walk down the streetcar line, and catch it if it overtakes you? Thanks to the relatively close stop-spacing (which has other major downsides) it’s not hard to do that if you’re reasonably fit — just as it’s not hard to do with most North American local-stop bus routes. In fact, as an impatient person myself, it’s what I tend to do with North American local-stop buses or streetcars, unless I have real-time information assuring me that the thing is really coming.
By walking down the line, you have the benefit of the streetcar or bus if it comes without being stranded or delayed if it doesn’t. But someone using this strategy still risks reaching his destination only in the time it would take to walk the whole way. After all, if you were sure the streetcar would come in time for it to be faster than walking, you’d just wait for it rather than walking down the line. So if you have an arrival deadline, the strategy doesn’t allow you depart any later than you would if you were walking. If I have to get to an urgent meeting, or home to a sick child, a
streetcar may speed up my trip but I can’t count on it to do so,
especially if it’s the sort of short-but-too-far-to-walk trip that
And those calculations all assume that the Streetcar is perfectly on time, a big assumption given the conditions in which it operates.
So here’s my main point:
Rapid transit is a far more viable “augmenter” of pedestrian trips because its travel speeds, and thus the trip-lengths for which it’s suited, lie entirely outside the pedestrian’s range, whereas the streetcar overlaps the pedestrian range substantially.
The rapid transit and pedestrian modes play entirely complementary roles, while streetcar and pedestrian modes have partly overlapping roles — a less efficient arrangement. You’ll walk further to a rapid transit station, but once you’re there you can move at a high speed that makes that extra walk worthwhile. Driverless rapid transit, such as SkyTrain in Vancouver, is also extremely frequent and reliable, both factors that make a big difference to transit’s usefulness if you’re making an intentional, deadline-constrained trip.
Rapid transit’s speed also exceeds typical cycling speed, by a large enough factor that it makes sense to cycle to the station. So rapid transit works with cycling to a degree that local stop transit, such as the Portland Streetcar, just doesn’t.
Obviously, the usefulness of rapid transit requires a longer trip length, so rapid transit should be considered only for relatively long corridors. As several commenters have mentioned, the problem with Condon’s view may be in the corridors to which he’s applied it, including Vancouver’s Broadway corridor, where he’s presented it as an alternative to a SkyTrain extension. The Broadway corridor is 8 miles (14.5 km) from the University of British Columbia at the west end to Commercial Drive station in the east, and many people ride the full length to make connections to the suburbs further east. At such distances, rapid transit’s speed advantage is substantial, and its ability to maintain reliability at very high frequencies is also crucial.
Most cities have urban corridors where average trip lengths are short, and there, a streetcar vs. local-bus debate may be in order. But as several comments noted, presenting slow streetcars as an alternative to rapid transit, as Condon does, suggests a belief that we can be forced to make short trips even though the land use patterns of our city (and, perhaps, the different commute destinations of different members of a family) require us to make long ones.
So I’ll end with one of the most big-picture comments, one that I forwarded to Professor Condon and to which I hope he’ll respond. It’s from reader “micasa”:
What does the venerable Jane Jacobs have to say about the notion of a “city of neighbourhoods”?
“Whatever city neighborhoods may be, or may not be, and whatever
usefulness they may have, or may be coaxed into having, their qualities
cannot work at cross-purposes to thoroughgoing city mobility and
fluidity of use, without economically weakening the city of which they
are a part. The lack of either economic or social self-containment is
natural and necessary to city neighborhoods – simply because they are
parts of cities.”
Jacobs is describing what does, and always has, made cities “tick”.
To be against intra-urban mobility is to be against the very
proposition of the city. I don’t think we can afford to let the threat
of climate change, peak oil, or whatever, destroy that. We may need
radically different, more sustainable cities in the future if we are
going to survive, but rest assured, we will still need cities. Not
agglomerations of inward focused neighbourhoods, but cities.
I’m not suggesting that the debate over transit technologies in this
particular case ought to be closed. But I am suggesting that Condon’s
particular argument for surface rail – that it encourages local living
in a neighbourhood setting – is fundamentally anti-urban. A better
argument, and one that actually addresses the urban mobility issue, is
that perhaps surface rail is a cheaper solution that can be designed
“fast enough” to allow those neighbourhoods on the West Side (including
UBC) to cohere with the rest of the region without the necessity of
cars (and vice-versa). But that’s not the argument as presented.
While I look forward to Professor Condon’s book on this subject, that, for now, is my view as well.
I did an analysis of the Portland Streetcar versus the #15 several years ago (http://portlandtransport.com/archives/2005/07/how_fast_is_tha.html) and reached similar conclusions.
I think a major advantage for “spontenaity” for Portland Streetcar is the availability of real-time arrival info at virtually all stops. So pedestrians aren’t calebrating a mode switch to a schedule, but rather to real-time info, so variability from schedule doesn’t really create a problem.
Of course, you could put real-time displays in bus stops as well, but TriMet does not make that investment. I think this is another example where the “we’re going to be on this alignment for a long time” aspect of streetcar prompts some different investment thinking.
I don’t mean to put words into the Professor’s mouth (and I haven’t read the thesis), but part of the Is Speed Obsolete? thesis appears to be that you don’t need a robust transit system, speed-wise, in a large urban area. That seems contradictory to much of the North American transit movement in that citizens are calling for more choices. A local-stop bus or streetcar is not a very viable choice for cross metro trips like UBC to downtown Vancouver or futher east. Reader micasa with help from Jane Jacobs make the point that getting in and out of negihborhoods and different portions of the larger city are a necessity. Without a range of transit options, ideally speed and technology, this can prove difficult.
I’m getting left behind with all the different types of rail-borne transit. Is there a European & American det of definitions somewhere with corresponding trans-atlantic names for the same thing?
It’s not helping that in Germany there’s a lot of overlap between system types and names, and many are closely tailored for their city. For example the Stuttgart “Ü-Bahn” and the München “Ü-Bahn” look and operate quite differently, as do the Karlsruhe and Stuttgart “S-Bahn” systems.
Tourists are probably the most spontaneous travellers. I consider myself an advanced transit user, but in a new city I’m much more likely to jump on a streetcar then any other form of transit – mostly because the streetcar is above ground so I can see where I’m going and streetcars tend to have clearer routes.
To further on Jacobs’ argument about neighborhoods that communicate with one another for the success of the entire city; on a larger scale she also makes the argument that rural/city areas benefit from each other and form a symbiotic relationship.
They import/export ideas, technologies, and resources with one another. Cities generally export technologies that rural areas use, and rural areas export their resources.
To the adrian argument ”
Streetcars don’t compete with walking, they augment it…”
I have gathered some number in a post the zurich Model
tending to demonstrate the opposite : increase in Zurich city transit mode share has been quasi exclusively done at the expense of the walk/bike mode. and we can observe that:
“All things happen like if the improvement of the Zurich city surface transit, by better accessibility and frequency but not necessarily significantly improved speed, compete more with the walking or biking option than the driving option”
It seems to me that the good professor is arguing that rapid transit is bad because it encourages long trips which are bad because they increase greenhouse gas emissions. If this is the case then would the best approach be to not build transit at all but simply to remove and downgrade roads to make travel as difficult and slow as possible, thus encouraging people to live in compact, walkable communities. Pre-streetcar communities, after all, were far, far more compact and walkable than the urban form that is advocated by professor Condon. If low greenhouse gas emissions are your ultimate goal then why not go whole hog and eliminate streetcars, automobiles and buses? Doubtless a city that relies entirely on non-motorized transportation would be more walkable and less carbon intensive than one that relies on dirty mechanized transportation.
Even if a given transit form reduces walking/biking mode share, that isn’t (necessarily) a bad thing–if the mechanized transit provides faster service.
While I’m at it–why are “walking” and “biking” being grouped together? While the obvious response is that both are human-powered, zero-emissions activities–the two differ in speed by a significant factor. Even the slowest reasonable bus will move faster than walking. Cycling, on the other hand, is generally faster than local-stop surface transit; is competitive with cars in dense urban areas; but can’t compare with true rapid transit (or uncongested highways). To speak of the two modes as if they are equivalent (or substitutes) is fundamentally, I think, in error.
Even so, a streetcar is going to provide marginally better times than walking, and certainly not better times than bicycling.
If the issue is truly for GHG reduction, the promotion of bicycling and walking should be first in line — not a series of rail networks throughout your city that replace existing (and fairly clean) buses. Nobody is saying to substitute the buses via foot or cycle.
Condon’s proposal, as far as I can tell w/o him further explaining what he means, is contradictory at best from many people’s vantage point.
@Engineer Scotty. Re the "error" of conflating walking and cycling. I was trying, perhaps awkwardly, to make parallel but different points about these two active modes. Obviously they have different ranges of speeds, but the streetcar overlaps both, while except for the most athletic cyclist, rapid transit overlaps neither.
Agreed. And even Lance Armstrong needs to stop for traffic lights. Though some of the bikers here in Portland have yet to learn that concept. 🙂
Here is Condon’s chapter on the streetcar.
His case is really not compelling at all. No real world evidence is offered that cities with streetcars and without faster, regional serving forms of rail are more sustainable than cities with regional rail. In fact, using his examples of Vancouver and Portland, Vancouver performs much better as a city and a region in transit use and use of sustainable transportation in general. While we have much room to improve in the use of sustainable transportation and streetcars could be an important part of that, so is regional rail. Looking at European cities, the ones that have successfully reduced car use have rapid transit and regional rail. Bicycle use is also key. Cities the size of Vancouver and Portland, such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen, typically rely on cycling for the dramatic reductions in car use while only the larger cyclist achieve this through rail.
Later on in the chapter, he compares costs per passenger mile for various modes. With SkyTrain, he “conveniently” does not acknowledge that the operating and capital cost per passenger decrease significantly as usage rises which, in ten or twenty years, decreases costs significantly and makes them competitive with streetcars. He also doesn’t acknowledge that SkyTrain has much greater frequencies in off-peak hours which, while fantastic for passengers, does increase the operating cost and GHG emissions per passenger.
It truly would be great to have a good, unbiased analysis of all this. This is too important a discussion not to demand that it is done right.
I’d just like to reiterate that the Portland Streetcar is actually a very poor example of a streetcar system, and the streetcars themselves are not very good. They’re slow, and the system is slow and low-capacity. The proper application of streetcar is to run at 35-40 mph on separate ROWs alongside roads or in medians, and provide a higher capacity alternative to buses without a huge investment in infrastructure, while retaining the street running ability to be able to fit in narrow downtown streets. The North 1st Street part of San Jose’s light rail is a US example of such a line. In a city with rapid transit, rapid transit would form the main radial links, and streetcars would be used to complete the grid along major arterials.
San Jose’s over-budget, under-ridership-projections light rail is not a good example of anything.
San Jose’s light rail is a hodgepodge of different parts, some done well, others very poorly, with vastly differing ridership levels. Unfortunately, one of the biggest botches in the design is at the very core of the system, the 10 mph sidewalk running in Downtown. But the North 1st part and the bits south of Downtown work pretty well, and attract a higher ridership than pretty much any bus route.
Anyway, have you ever ridden on the San Jose light rail? I’ve used it at least once a week, if not more often, for the past half a year, and it works fine for me, and, judging by the load factor, for plenty of other people as well.
Also, I believe Phoenix or Houston are also good examples of systems that, while using light rail rolling stock, mostly run at grade in the medians of arterial streets, and do much better in terms of ridership and capacity than local bus routes.
Remember: Land use drives transit use and efficiency. With the land use patterns in places like the southern Silicon Valley, transit isn’t going to perform well.
i responded to the absurd ‘anti-urban’ comment in the original post, but I don’t think i addressed the ‘threat of climate change’ part.
to dismiss that ‘threat’ so casually is such an abomination of a thought, i don’t even know what to say — but it should be condemned by every decent person who wants to save the world, as much as is possible, from the already-devastating impacts of climate change.
i’d been forewarned that i would start to see and read things during these increasingly-chaotic/dangerous times that were unbelievable to me — it’s coming true, now, every single day it seems.
here’s to hoping we can somehow hold onto our collective humanity going forward.
Thanks for this post, Jarrett. It addresses a topic that I had been thinking about, namely the distance at which a local bus is faster than walking. I have been trying to figure out the range of trips where a local bus at a particular frequency would be faster on average than BRT or LRT with wider stop spacing along the same route.
My impression is that only trips between 0.5 and 1.5 miles in length, nearly aligned with the route, are better served by local buses, and any trip that is diagonal to the street / transit grid is almost never faster by local bus, unless your walking speed is less than 1/2 of the average 3 miles per hour.
Do you have any modeling software available at your job that can address this question directly?
In particular, I feel that most parts of Los Angeles would be better served by high-frequency limited-stop (“Metro Rapid”) buses and low-frequency local buses, rather than the current situation where the local bus comes every 10-15 minutes, and the rapid only every 20-30 minutes.
While your estimate sounds reasonable; a few other factors:
* Many don’t have the desire or physical ability to walk. Small children, the disabled, the elderly, the out-of-shape, etc. all may find walking a mile to be difficult.
* Weather, of course, plays a role–if it’s pouring down rain or blistering hot outside, walking becomes less desirable.
* The need to transport baggage further may make distances unwalkable.
* A simple desire to avoid physical exertion.
Just because some folks can walk (or bike) a distance, doesn’t mean that all can (or should).
No. I have, however, read about the line’s costs and ridership. Merely riding a line won’t tell you how popular it actually is.
Houston and Phoenix are actually good examples for how light rail can be done well in a low-density environment.
The truth about climate change is that any sort of shift away from cars and toward electrified transit is positive. It doesn’t matter too much how energy-efficient the electrified transit is – it’s going to be several times as good as cars, and the entire grid will have to be converted to zero-carbon anyway.
With that in mind, ask yourself why Vancouver, which has a 16% transit mode share and the lowest greenhouse gas emissions per capita in North America, at 4.7 tons, should be taking cues from Portland, with a transit mode share of 6% and about 16 tons/person emissions.
Basically, we’d be better off spending money on moving walkways. No waiting time, no need to pay a driver, runs 24 hours….
Merely looking at ridership totals won’t tell you how that ridership is distributed around the system. San Jose’s light rail has a number of distinct parts, with different levels of effectiveness, and the North 1st Street section is both one of the cheaper and more effective ones. I agree that Houston and Phoenix are better examples, it’s just that the San Jose one came to my mind first because that’s the one I’m personally most familiar with, and because I’ve actually seen it and know that its form corresponds to what I have in mind as a median-running rapid streetcar.
I suppose I understand the people advocating everyone living in very small cities, which I think is mostly a post-dieoff scenario even though people writing about it tend to prefer to skip over the dieoff directly to the bucolic small town far future. I don’t think I understand why someone would advocate living in very large cities but never travelling around within them. A contiguous cluster of small towns, with all the food still trucked in from far away? What is the purpose of this vision?
The Portland streetcar numbers are really shocking. That’s *running* speed if you’re slow and will finish a half-marathon well back in the field. This is motorized transport with expensive dedicated infrastructure that can be literally outrun. I’m planning to run to work at least once (14km one-way) just for the heck of it, but I sure wouldn’t do that regularly (it’s a nice bicycle trip).
Living in the USA, I’m used to the idea that only very, very limited funds are going to be available for any sort of public transit. I’m inclined to support transit but I just can’t imagine spending that sort of money on something that is marginally competitive with just walking. That sure seems like handing transit opponents, of which there are very many, all the ammunition they need. It wouldn’t take nearly so much money to fix all the traffic light sensors to detect bicycles reliably and to put in lots of bicycle racks.
The bus vs. streetcar question, as it is put here, seems to be a red herring. The differences between the two are
– most importantly capacity and the flexibility of capacity
– cheaper operational costs for a well-run electric rail system, especially if fuel costs rise (emphasis on well run, many streetcar systems are not)
– ride quality, although buses have got somewhat better
– local pollution from internal combustion engines, although this has got dramatically better from the bad old days and does not concern electric buses
– local pollution from rubber wheels (particulates)
Both buses and streetcars can be made frequent or infrequent. They both can be made fast by reducing stops, privileged treatment at traffic lights and dedicated right-of-ways. They can be as fast as rapid transit on comparable right-of-way and stop frequency. The passenger information systems can be made the same.
So, I think the principal argument for streetcars should be capacity. The Portland streetcar line seems to be very slow, but the vehicles are higher-capacity than buses. How much more rolling stock, space and driver hours would it take to offer the same service with buses?
As for rapid transit, I guess the question is transfer-free connections. A lot of the time rapid transit ends up being not much faster than a direct local-stop service, when getting to the station and waiting is taken into account. The advantage of flexible systems, such as streetcars and buses, is that they can run on both streets and grade-separated rapid transitways (separated tracks or highway bus lanes). These days there is no meaningful difference in the top speed of a bus, light rail vehicle or heavy-rail metro train on a dedicated right-of-way. Driverless metros always need to be separated and can never reach the local stop (to exaggerate a bit).
Someone mentioned Karlsruhe. Take a look at their famous tram-trains and transit mode share numbers.
“First of all, let’s note that Adrian’s point isn’t relevant to the difference between local-stop streetcars and local-stop buses. It’s just as easy or difficult to “hop on” either kind of vehicle.”
Yet again, *JUST NOT TRUE*.
Now, you would be right with old-style streetcars such as Yarra Trams. However, modern streetcars have *platforms* and they line up with the platforms perfectly every time. They are also low floor.
Modern buses are also low floor and they kneel. And they *can* have platforms (though they usually don’t). But they *do not line up correctly with the platforms* without extreme driver care, so you’re still staggering through the muddy puddles on the street half the time.
It is literally, physically, easier to hop on the streetcar. Admit it.
FYI, I don’t think Condon’s argument is reasonable or sensible. It’s not, and he’s just wrong about a lot of things. But use the correct counterargument please — namely, that local service is no substitute for rapid longer-distance service.
For short trips of 1 Kilometre or less. You might find more people walking. Especially if they just missed the bus and they know the next one won’t be by for a while. But this really depends on how fast they walk. Some people will sit an wait for the next bus though for whatever reason.
At a distance over 1KM the bus or street car becomes more viable. But at a certain distance they start to become a bad choice. This is when limited stop bus service and or rapid transit starts to become the better option.
There are have been countless times I’ve actually decided to walk rather than wait. In fact there was a time I missed the bus. I knew it was 30 mins till the next bus. I was 4 KM from home. So I started walking. Keeping an eye on the time and when I was approaching each bus stop. I would see what time the bus is supposed to arrive and figure if I could make it to the next bus stop. I made it within 100 metres of the bus stop I would have had to gotten off at. So while I wasn’t really any faster. I wasn’t sitting around at a bus stop wondering if the next bus would even show up.
You’re guessing wrong. The question is convenient transfers, with minimal walking and waiting. Systems that try to make every trip a one-seat ride end up splitting frequencies and hurting ridership.
How dare you question Landscape Architect Professor Patrick Condom. He is a super transit expert and more of a professor than you people will ever be. Skytrain does not have 400,000 ridership = failure! Development around skytrain stations = no evidence of modal shift from car to transit. Skytrain is a failure. Skytrain is a failure. Only LRT will solve Broadway’s woes.
Go to RFail For the Valley for more info.
Nathanael: so the only difference between bus and tram is tighter gap of trams? Well, then you should look at any tram stop with curved platform and compare it to straight bus platform with Kassel kerb.
Why is this really an argument? Rapid Transit is the spine connecting dense neighborhoods and destinations to downtown in a spoke pattern, and local buses and streetcar connect those neighborhoods to each other with crosstown routes that also feed into the rapid transit. That is the ideal combination, end of story.