This post is an endnote to my post "sorting out rail-bus differences." Read that first.
I took as a starting point the results of an Infrastructurist survey, which gathered and published "36 reasons that streetcars are better than buses." I used these to sort perceived rail-bus differences into three categories:
- Misidentified Differences. Issues such as propulsion and exclusive right of way that may differentiate a particular rail line from a particular bus line, but are not intrinsic to rail or buses.
- Cultural Feedback Effects. Differences that result from how people think about or perceive the difference. These are profound influences on existing ridership, investment outcomes, etc. but come with the caution that culture changes but geometry doesn't.
- Intrinsic Differences. These few items, only 6 of the 36, really are rail-bus differences.
Several items on the Infrastructurist list are either duplicative or are combinations of several issues, so I streamlined them, and added others of my own, in producing the main post. Several readers wondered why there wasn't a one-to-one correspondence between the items in my post and the original Infrastructurist items, so I've added these notes to show how my post derives from the original. Bold is the original Infrastructurist text, followed in each case by my response in plain text.
- New streetcar lines always, always, get more passengers than the bus routes they replace. Cultural Feedback Effect.
- Buses, are susceptible to every pothole and height irregularity in the pavement (and in Chicago we have plenty). Streetcars ride on smooth, jointless steel rails that rarely develop bumps. Intrinsic difference in "ride quality," though pavement can obviously be maintained to higher standards. Score 25% Cultural Feedback Effect, 75% intrinsic.
- Streetcars don’t feel “low status” to transit riders. Buses often do. Cultural Feedback Effect.
- Mapmakers almost always include streetcar lines on their city maps, and almost never put any bus route in ink. New investment follows the lines on the map. Cultural Feedback Effect.
- The upfront costs are higher for streetcars than buses–but that is more than made up over time in lower operating and maintenance costs. In transit you get what you pay for. Intrinsic difference, though with a lot of caveats, and certainly not universally true of rail-bus tradeoffs. Score 50% intrinsic.
- There is a compelling “coolness” and “newness” factor attached to streetcars. Cultural Feedback Effect.
- Streetcars feel safer from a crime point of view. Cultural Feedback Effect. If this difference in "feeling" results from differences in design unrelated to the rail-bus difference, such as better lighting at streetcar stops as opposed to bus stops, then this is also a Misidentified Difference.
- Steel wheel on steel rail is inherently more efficient than rubber tire on pavement. Electric streetcars can accelerate more quickly than buses. First item is intrinsic, though the difference is not large. Second item is mostly about propulsion, which is a Misidentifed Difference. Score 50% intrinsic.
- Streetcars don’t smell like diesel. Propulsion is a Misidentified Difference.
- Streetcars accelerate and decelerate smoothly because they’re electrically propelled. Internal-combustion engines acting through a transmission simply cannot surge with the same smoothness. Propulsion is a Misidentified Difference.
- The current length limit for a bus is 60 feet, but streetcars can go longer, since they are locked into the rails and won’t be swinging all around the streets, smashing into cars. Intrinsic difference, and the one most likely to be decisive.
- Streetcars have an air of nostalgia. Cultural Feedback Effect.
- New streetcar and light rail lines usually come with an upgraded street experience from better stops, landscaping, new roadbeds, and better sidewalks, to name a few. Of course, your federal transit dollar is paying for these modernizations, so why wouldn’t cities try to get them! Cultural Feedback Effect.
- Perhaps the most over looked and significant difference between street cars and buses is permanence. You’ll notice that development will follow a train station, but rarely a bus stop. Rails don’t pick up and move any time soon. Once a trolley system is in place, business and investors can count on them for decades. Buses come and go. Cultural Feedback Effect.
- Streetcars are light and potentially 100% green. Potentially they could be powered by 100% solar and/or wind power. Even powered with regular power plant-derived electricity, they are still 95% cleaner than diesel buses. [Source? -Ed.] Propulsion is a Misidentified Difference.
- Streetcars stop less. Because of the increased infrastructure for stops, transit planners don’t place stops at EVERY BLOCK, like they do with buses (SEPTA in Philly is terrible for this). Instead, blocks are a quarter to a half mile apart, so any point is no more than an eigth to a quarter mile from a stop. Misidentified Difference. To the extent that bus stops are too close together becuase planners think that buses are or should be intrinisically slow, this is also a Cultural Feedback Effect.
- People will travel longer distances on streetcars. At one point, in the 1930s, a person could travel to Boston from Washington solely on trolleys, with only two short gaps in the routes. Cultural Feedback Effect.
- Buses are noisy. I ride them every day in Chicago, and I am constantly amazed at how loud a diesel bus engine is–even on our latest-model buses [and] the valve chatter is an irritant to the nervous system. By comparison, streetcars are virtually silent. Propulsion is a Misidentified Difference.
- Technological advances already make the current generation definitely NOT your grandfather’s streetcar. Low floors are standard, for easy-on easy-off curbside boarding. Wide doors allow passengers to enter or exit quickly. So streetcar stops take less time than buses. Misidentified Difference. Good Bus Rapid Transit vehicles have all of these features; some even have doors on both sides. The only difference that's intrinsic here is some limits on internal configuration required by wheelwells, but in a well-designed vehicle this doesn't affect boarding time.
- Passengers can take comfort from seeing the rails stretching out far ahead of them, while ever fearing that the bus could take a wrong turn at the next corner and divert them off course. Cultural Feedback Effect. Good Frequent Network mapping and BRT-level infrastructure for stops can equalize this for buses. Note also that this supposed assurance provided by rails really works only in cities that have just one or two streetcar lines. Streetcar-rich Toronto and Melbourne have tracks in so many of the streets that there are plenty of opportunities for a wayward streetcar to go off course, if you really want to be paranoid about that.
- Once purchased (albeit at high cost) streetcars are cheaper to maintain and last way the hell longer (case in point, streetcars discarded in the US in the 40’s, snapped up by the Yugoslavs, which are still running). Intrinsic difference.
- Streetcar tracks are cheaper to maintain than the roadways they displace. Not if the streetcar tracks are in the roadway, where they are additional to the roadway rather than a "displacement" of it. Score 50% of an intrinsic difference.
- People get notably more excited about the proposed extension of the streetcar system and expect revitalization of the neighborhoods around the planned stops. This is practically the definition of a Cultural Feedback Effect.
- Streetcars create more walkable streets. This is because streetcars, as mentioned above, are more attractive to riders than buses, which in turns prompt to more mass transit usage in general, which in turns prompts to more walking–a virtuous cycle that creates more attractive city streets. Cultural Feedback Effect.
- Most European cities and countries kept investing in public transit during the decades when America was DISinvesting. Now I look across the pond and see dozens of European cities extending or building new rail transit systems, including many streetcar lines, and conclude: ‘They probably know what they are doing; we should do some of that too.’ Cultural Feedback Effect.
- You know exactly where a streetcar is going – but have you ever tried looking at a bus route map? Misidentified Difference. To the extent that bus maps are incomprehensible because the transit agency mapmaker accepts the notion that buses are intrinsically confusing, this is also a Cultural Feedback Effect.
- Streetcars are faster than buses or trackless trolleys (aside from 2 lines in Philly, do any other cities run trackless trolleys, or trolley buses anymore?) because trams tend to have dedicated lanes. Even if they don’t, if they operate on streets with multiple lanes, people stay out of the tram lane, because it’s harder to drive a car along tram tracks (the wheels pull to one side or the other as they fall into the groove). Right-of-Way is a Misidentifed Difference. Driver behavior is a Cultural Feedback Effect.
- In buses you’re still jostled by every pothole and sway at every bus stop. I thought bus rapid transit would be a significant improvement – there’s still a bit of sway and they concrete was not installed as smoothly as line of steel rail. This is a duplicate of Item 2, which I scored 25% Misidentified Difference and 75% intrinsic.
- With buses transit planners are pushed by funding formulas to capture every pocket of riders thus you can get a very wiggly route – something that’s less practical on a fixed rail system. Misidentifed Difference, arising from a Cultural Feedback Effect. Tell your planners you don't want wiggly routes, and they'll be happy not to draw them.
- Buses lurch unpredictably from side to side as they weave in and out of traffic and as they move from the traffic lane to the curb lane to pick up passengers. In streetcars turns occur at the same location on every trip, so that even standees can more or less relax knowing the car is not going to perform any unpredictable lateral maneuvers. Score this 50% a Misidentified Difference, because much can be done to reduce lateral motion in buses (bus bulbs rather than indented stops for example.) Guided busways are also out there as an option, one that's only now really developing. Score 50% an Intrinsic Difference.
- Most streetcar riders don’t consciously think about the differences between a bus ride and a streetcar ride. But their unconscious minds–the spinal cord, the solar plexus, the inner ear and the seat of the pants–quickly tally the differences and deliver an impressionistic conclusion: The streetcar ride is physiologically less stressful. This is a complex mixture of propulsion issues — which are Misidentified Differences — and the Intrinsic Difference of ride quality. Score 50% intrinsic.
- An internal-combustion engine is constantly engaged in hammering itself to death and buses tend to vibrate themselves into a sort of metallurgical dishevelment. Interior fittings–window frames, handrails, floor coverings, seats–tend to work loose and make the interior look frowzy and uncared-for. By age 12 the bus is a piece of junk and has to be retired. A streetcar the same age is barely into its adolescence. Propulsion is a Misidentified Difference.
- Streetcar stops are typically given more attention than most bus routes and the information system is more advanced. In Portland, the shelters even have VMS diplays that tell you the times of the next two streetcar arrivals. This valuable information gives people the option to wait, do something else to pass the time, or walk to their destination. Customer information is a Misidentified Difference. (Some major Portland bus stops also have real-time arrival displays.)
- One great advantage of streetcars is that the infrastructure serves as an orienting and wayfinding device. The track alerts folks to the route and leads them to stops. Because they are a permanent feature of the streetscape, the routing is predictable and stable (unlike bus routes). So unlike a bus, a streetcar informs and helps citizens to formulate an image of their city, even if folks don’t ride it. It is a feature of their public realm. Because of this, these streets get greater public attention. Cultural Feedback Effect.
- When you ride one of the remaining historic cars in Toronto or San Francisco you can tell they’re “old” in the sense of “out of style,” but when you look around the interior everything still seems shipshape, nothing rattles, the windows open and close without binding. The rider experiences a sense of solid quality associated with Grandma’s solid-oak dining table and 1847 Rodgers Brothers silver. And that makes everybody feel good. Unlike, say, an aging bus. "Historic" is a Misindentifed Difference. Maintenance effort is a Cultural Feedback Effect.
- For those of you who cannot see the difference between a bus and a streetcar, I suggest riding a streetcar when you get the chance. Then, if you can locate a bus that more or less follows the same route, give that a try. Compare the two experiences. This, indeed, is the starting point for this entire exercise. Your bus and rail system have lots of differences, but most are not intrinsic differences between bus and rail.
That's how I got to the statement that six of the 36 are intrinsic. There are many duplicates, which I counted, and many items that are mixtures. There's nothing scientific about this analysis, just as there was nothing scientific about the process of developing the list of 36. But I think the overall conclusion, that about a sixth of our impression of bus-rail differences is based on real and intrinsic bus-rail differences, is about right in my professional experience.
I feel the need to say, one last time, that to call something a Cultural Feedback Effect is not to imply that it's unimportant today. These emotional factors may be supremely important, and if you weigh them consciously and decide that they should prevail, I have no reason to argue with you. But when you decide to weigh a Cultural Feedback benefit above a geometric disbenefit (such as maneuverability in traffic), you're gambling that culture will be as constant as geometry and physics are. And I wonder if that's true.