If a carpenter can’t be a hammer opponent, then I can’t be a streetcar opponent

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.

26 Responses to If a carpenter can’t be a hammer opponent, then I can’t be a streetcar opponent

  1. Jason August 1, 2014 at 11:01 am #

    One point of contention is that streetcars are no better than buses in mixed traffic. While this might be true of streetcars with a similar capacity to buses, in Toronto our new generation of streetcars will hold some 251 passengers, equal to some 4.5 city buses. Considering we have streetcar lines that move 50,000+ people per day, the increased capacity of these streetcars will both move more passengers, and be cheaper (1 driver vs 4.5 drivers, 1 vehicle to maintain vs 4.5).

  2. Jarrett August 1, 2014 at 11:55 am #

    The issue about mixed traffic is unrelated to the capacity benefits of streetcars. Mixed traffic means that things happen in your lane: accidents, slow parking movements, double parked delivery vans. Buses can often go around minor obstructions that arise in their lane, but streetcars are always trapped behind them.

  3. david vartanoff August 1, 2014 at 12:10 pm #

    Jarrett, neither defending or attacking the Toronto paper, your view of bus v rail has always been way too favorable to buses for my taste. Auto sabotage of non auto users–bikes, peds, buses, streetcars–IS a serious issue, but unless the route in question only needs an occasional van, streetcars are inherently better for the long list of reasons oft cited. As noted recently, the anti transit folks in city traffic departments have been disabling (or in SF never turning on) the traffic signal priority systems. Implementing these and seriously enforcing more transit only lanes is necessary for a functional transit operation. I would fire the folks who turned them off on the grounds that the FTA full funding agreement for the project (bus or rail) included $$ for the system and assumed it would make the entire project more functional.

  4. Morgan Wick August 1, 2014 at 12:15 pm #

    And is there a difference between streetcar TSP and bus TSP?

  5. Jason August 1, 2014 at 12:51 pm #

    Jarrett, have you ever witnessed 4 or 5 buses all moving together on a downtown road during rush hour???
    It is an epic disaster… worse than a single streetcar. Too many buses running down the road tend to get bunched up, they do move around and pass each other which creates its own set of problems. One will lead while other picks up passengers, than the next passes and leads and so forth, a constant stream of buses passing each other. It is dangerous in downtown for pedestrians to have buses passing each other back and forth like this, and ends up blocking all lanes of traffic for cars.
    Further about streetcars getting stuck behind broken vehicles… I have used streetcars daily for many years on my commute to work and back… it was a relatively rare occurrence to get stuck.
    While I agree that separating streetcars out of traffic is far more beneficial (or even banning cars on certain roads during rush hour to allow streetcars to flow), it does not mean that buses holding 50 people per, can keep up with vehicles capable of carrying 4.5 to 5 times as much.
    Never mind all the exhaust all these buses are blasting into the faces of pedestrians… never mind the additional costs of hiring 4 to 5 times as many drivers, or maintaining 4 to 5 times as many vehicles… also keeping in mind, diesel engines are far more complex and far less efficient than electric ones.

  6. Paul August 1, 2014 at 2:25 pm #

    I would like to thank Jarred for his blog and thinking process. I started out as a rail fan with only thinking of how we put rail in. I’m originally from Melbourne, Australia so grew up with buses, trams, and suburban rail.
    After reading Jarred, Kunstler, Charles Marohn (Strong Towns) and a few others I have expanded my thinking to look at the issues with a holistic approach. Start with the basics on analysing the problem. People want to get from one place to another is the first point. How many, what is the distance and what is the time frame for travel need to be defined at the start. Then you can ask what tool needs to be used. I’m finding a lot of news articles don’t talk about the analysis phase of any project but then I can’t really blame them because most of the government planning documents don’t really do the analysis phase correctly or give out that basic information. It seems to me that a number of major projects are seen as economic stimulus projects rather than transport and doing as little as possible to upset the car drivers. They constitute the majority of voters.

  7. Jarrett August 1, 2014 at 2:53 pm #

    Where there is a clear capacity advantage for rail, as in the situation you are describing, then there may be an access-based case for rail. Again, none of my comments apply to that situation, which also makes a strong case for exclusive lanes
    Obviously I’ve witnessed plenty of bus traffic jams, and the first solution is exclusive lanes. Double width bus lanes like those in Portland and Minneapolis easily move 180 buses/hour with no significant delay. If buses are congested because they’re stuck in traffic with insufficient priority, that’s a problem with allocation of street space, not a problem with buses.
    And if you are going to be in mixed traffic, I’d much rather be in a bus, which has a fighting chance of getting around all the obstructions that arise.

  8. Rob Fellows August 1, 2014 at 3:38 pm #

    It’s funny that your sole point in this post was to use the right transit tool for the job, and the comments are already back to arguing about which tool is best.

  9. Andrew August 1, 2014 at 4:18 pm #

    The trouble with Toronto’s streetcars is that they are slow, extremely overcrowded, and unreliable. Replacing the streetcars with new ones will only be a minor improvement. What needs to happen is that the long proposed but never built downtown relief line needs to be built, then large portions of the streetcar system would be redundant and parts of the King and Queen lines could be removed.

  10. Shaun Cleaver August 2, 2014 at 3:37 am #

    Rob Fellows said: “[The] sole point in this post was to use the right transit tool for the job, and the comments are already back to arguing about which tool is best.”
    The irony is telling, especially since it occurs on a blog with an international audience that is overwhelmingly pro-transit. The general popular discourse in Toronto is even more troubling (and likely the reason why the Star is trying to box people into the dichotomies that we recognize). I could not agree more with a recent quote from Chris Selley, a good columnist in a paper that I otherwise find terrible:
    “Streetcars are a perfect example [of our dysfunctional civic conversation]. Do they cause congestion, or do all the cars in their way cause congestion? It’s one of Toronto’s perennial transit debates — just check any comment section — and it’s frustrating as all get out. Sooner than concede the obvious fact that Toronto has not set up its streetcar system to succeed, you’ll find many people defending the system as it stands now.”
    Andrew: The oft-discussed relief line and the King and Queen streetcars are effectively different tools. Check Steve Munro’s blog (http://stevemunro.ca/) just about any day to see the ongoing debate about how these interface (or compete, if you’re into that).
    Jason: Your point seems to be based entirely upon the merits of vehicle size. Fair enough, as this SHOULD positively influence bunching. But evidence from the recent move to larger vehicles on Dufferin suggests that fewer larger vehicles has not improved the bunching situation. Meanwhile, since the TTC’s main justification for larger vehicles has been cost and not increased capacity (a “virtue” you’ve extolled here) there are fewer vehicles, and riders are waiting longer for the flotilla of 29’s to arrive.
    See http://stevemunro.ca/?p=7691 for the evidence
    I know that you might be thinking “but of course, the 29 is a bus!” If you are presenting bunching as a characteristic of rubber-tired vehicles, or even smaller ones, I am wondering if you are riding the same streetcars that I am. Any regular Toronto streetcar rider can attest to the madness of fighting to squeeze onto the first car in a pack, fully knowing that at very least cars 2 and 4 will short-turn within the next few km’s and that the pack can only move at the speed of the lead car anyways.
    Does the situation above make me hope that TO scraps its streetcars in favour of buses, ‘subways, subways, subways’ or bike lanes? Heck no. But it does make me hope that we can get on the “many simple things we could do to help human traffic move more efficiently” (thank you Chris Selley), including line management, regardless of vehicle type.

  11. Glenn August 2, 2014 at 9:40 am #

    Jared,I think this is a reporter problem and not a newspaper problem. Tess Kalinowski is the Star’s transportation reporter and I can tell you, as a Toronto resident and reader of the Star, she is quite good.

  12. anonymouse August 2, 2014 at 10:57 am #

    Buses can often go around minor obstructions that arise in their lane, but streetcars are always trapped behind them.
    Buses are also very, very often forced to pull out of traffic to make stops, which means that they have to wait for cars to pass to start moving again. Which actually happens rather more often than “minor obstacles” that streetcars can’t get around, and a 10 second delay seems like a small thing but having one at every single stop does add up. Also, the “minor obstacles”, double parked cars, etc. tend to be predominantly in the curb lanes where buses run, rather than in the center lanes where streetcars are generally found. Which means that the “modern American streetcar” style of running in the curb lane is the worst of all worlds in every possible way.

  13. EngineerScotty August 3, 2014 at 4:22 pm #

    Cowcatchers. 🙂

  14. Jarrett August 3, 2014 at 10:31 pm #

    Anonymous. Note the distinction between cultural generalizations and geometric certainties. Buses will be as fast and reliable as we want them to be.

  15. Jeffrey Jakucyk August 4, 2014 at 10:40 am #

    I rode streetcars in Helsinki and in Rome about 12 years ago, and the difference was startling. In Helsinki it’s their primary transit network. It’s not a new system either, having been continuously expanded, revamped, and optimized since the 19th century. On major streets there’s some separation from surrounding traffic, but mostly it’s in the form of rougher granite block paving or simple painted lines that don’t explicitly exclude traffic from sharing the space, though it’s discouraged. Most other streets are typical mixed-running with no separation. As I recall there were special signals on the main trunk lines on major streets, but little signalization at all on the side streets.
    They run these streetcars pretty fast, and because the system is so comprehensive and well-utilized there’s not much traffic to interfere with them. As I recall they weren’t particularly long either, seeming to have shorter cars run more frequently, which is a better service, and it allows them to be more nimble and quick accelerating too. That’s the catch-22 you get with any transit system though. It’s better when it’s well-used and frequent and gets enough people out of their cars that the transit vehicles aren’t stuck in traffic. That’s how streetcars here in the US operated 100 years ago, and they worked well in that context. Getting to that point in a mixed traffic situation today where the street is already swamped with automobiles is more difficult, but not impossible.
    Anyway, the streetcar in Rome was the exact opposite. Frequency was low, the cars were long and lumbering, and there was a lot of automobile traffic and little signal prioritization. It was still a comfortable and quiet ride, but the slowness was frustrating. I don’t remember sitting and waiting for much time at all in Helsinki, but I know there were several times in Rome we’d be sitting at a stop light for no good reason and for a significant amount of time. Even in Prague, which is an old system that hasn’t been upgraded for a while, they felt faster than in Rome, though not as zippy as in Helsinki.
    So just like buses can operate at near streetcar or light rail levels of performance and comfort, streetcars too can operate at a higher level of service in mixed traffic situations. The devil is in the details is all.

  16. Mikko August 5, 2014 at 1:36 am #

    “In Helsinki it’s their primary transit network.”
    The tram network only covers the central parts of the city. The area of service currently houses probably less than 200 000 people and the largest concentrations of workplaces. The population of the whole municipality of Helsinki is 600 000, and the urban area about 1.3 million. By passenger numbers, the heavy-rail metro (one branched line) carries about as many people daily as do the trams. The bus lines, as a whole, probably carry more than any one form of rail transport taken separately (Helsinki is a sprawled, low-density city by European standards). Of course, lots of passengers make a connection to the trams in order to go the “last mile” in the center.
    “they weren’t particularly long either”
    In the last 12 years, most of the older articulated units (a GT6 version from the 70s and 80s) have had a low-floor middle section installed. The current rolling stock is mostly 24.4 – 27.6 m long units, and they’re never operated as trains of multiple units in passenger traffic, because the network and platforms are not set up for it. Helsinki is currently receiving a delivery of 40 new Finnish-made trams from Transtech. Two prototype units are currently in use. The units are 27.6 m long and have 74 seats (+14 foldable) and are rated for 125 standees. The new units are fully set up to be operated as trains of two units, but as I wrote, the track network is not.
    The average speed across the network is something like 15 km/h, which I’ve seen listed as the slowest among comparable cities in Western Europe, along with Amsterdam, whose trams are nearly as slow. There are some stretches of fully separated track that are nearly up to modern light rail standards. However, mixed traffic, poor signal priorities, bunching and small units are major problems for the Helsinki tram system, and the city is finally taking action to speed things up, after producing reports on what should be done for years and years. There are actually lots of low-hanging fruit that can be picked, e.g. widening the tram lanes just slightly and putting in stone curbs, removing the most problematic parking spaces that are right next to tracks, signal priority improvements etc. Some of these projects are under construction right now.
    The Helsinki tram network is actually being expanded, very gradually but significantly, after decades in a kind of a maintenance mode. The city is developing four large brownfield sites near the center, three of them former harbors and one a former railyard that served said harbors, and all of them are getting new tram tracks. The total number of new residents in these areas should be ultimately something like 80 000. Some are already there, some of the construction won’t be completed until 2030. Then there’s an overcrowded orbital bus line that is to be converted to light rail as well. All of these will likely force a major modernization of the tram system at some point (larger units, longer platforms, better signal priority and separation).

  17. Jim D. August 6, 2014 at 6:31 am #

    I love this quote – “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 couldn’t agree more, which is why it is so frustrating that some transit advocates have become so pro-rail that any suggestion in favor of a bus must be immediately disparaged. Why not work together to push for rider-friendly strategies and solutions like transit-priority signaling that will improve the travel of all riders instead of seeing everything as a zero-sum game?

  18. anonymouse August 6, 2014 at 12:58 pm #

    Note the distinction between cultural generalizations and geometric certainties. Buses will be as fast and reliable as we want them to be.
    I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make here? If you have the political will to build bulb-outs at every single bus stop and give buses priority and queue-jump lanes, then you probably have the political will to have steep fines and speedy towing for cars blocking the streetcar tracks. The geometric certainty here is that curb lanes tend to have more “friction” than center lanes, and pulling out of the general stream of traffic to serve a stop leads to delays, neither of which is mode-specific.

  19. Jase August 7, 2014 at 7:42 pm #

    Hot tip for talking to journalists.
    Go off the record for moment:
    “mind if we speak off the record for a moment?”
    and tell them their way of looking at the issue is not only wrong but it has been done a million times, and will bore readers.
    “Here’s a sharp new angle: the bus vs streetcar debate is dead!”
    The terminology of “a new angle” is one that all reporters know their editor will like. Our old editor was constantly banging on about finding sharp new angles. For a generalist reporter, it’s hard to find one because you’re not always a subject matter expert.
    Then go back on the record and give your quotes. Do not give them screeds of material on the record, because they can sift it for their own purposes. Give two or three carefully chosen killer quotes.

  20. Robert Wightman August 9, 2014 at 12:53 pm #

    I agree that some US street car plans are not going to improve transit much but on Toronto’s 4 lane downtown streets they manage a higher average speed than buses do. This is do to the fact that buses need to pull into and out of traffic while the street cars just sit in the middle of the road and also to the fact that electric propulsion accelerates better than diesel buses do. That being said the street cars on Bay street ran at a higher average speed than either the diesel or trolley buses that replaced them. Also the auto traffic had a higher average speed with the street cars than with the buses which could pull over to the curb and get out of their rode.
    Street cars are an improvement over buses, even in mixed traffic, when the conditions are right as they are in downtown Toronto. If the street cars operate at walking speed as someone said in an e-mail of the week then the line is not designed properly.
    Given all that, if people prefer the ride of street cars over the ride of buses and are willing to ride street car but not buses then there is something to be said in favour of buses. Despite what you say street cars and buses do not give the same ride. On a 10 minute headway they will provide the same level of service but not the same quality of ride. The question is whether or not the extra cost is worth it for street cars or would it be better used in improving headways and buying a better quality of bus. When you are carrying 54,000 passengers per day on a four lane road buses will not hack it.

  21. Nathanael August 11, 2014 at 9:47 pm #

    “Buses can often go around minor obstructions that arise in their lane”
    This is magical thinking in many cities. In Ithaca, NY, for instance, I have NEVER EVER seen a bus go around an obstruction in its lane…
    …but I have seen a six-block traffic jam caused by a bus. The bus was supposed to turn right but there was a traffic accident on the block to the right. The driver did not detour by turning left (which he theoretically could have), he just blocked traffic sitting still for half an hour at least.

  22. Nathanael August 11, 2014 at 9:51 pm #

    Regarding Toronto’s streetcars, Steve Munro has repeatedly pointed out that Toronto seems to be incapable of originating the streetcars from their home bases on consistent headways. The same problem happens with the buses. This is actually the cause of a vast number of the Toronto problems.

  23. Ernie August 12, 2014 at 3:29 pm #

    As a Torontonian, I think this should be the soundbite you should have given to Eric Andrew Gee: “The technology is the wrapper, the freedom and opportunity is the food”.
    P.S. Don’t eat the wrapper, you might just choke on it (as the Sheppard subway shows with its high lost and low ridership)!

  24. ComradeFrana August 14, 2014 at 4:06 am #

    @Jeffrey Jakucyk:
    “Even in Prague, which is an old system that hasn’t been upgraded for a while”
    That’s not entirely fair to Prague. Just in the area of signal priority, there has been much progress in the last 20 years. In 1993, only 2 out of 183 (1%) signalized intersections in the network had priority. In 2012, 164 out of 238 (69%) had.

  25. daodao August 23, 2014 at 4:53 am #

    Streetcar systems have been re-introduced in a couple of major Northern English cities (Manchester & Sheffield) in the last 25 years, and the surviving line in Blackpool modernised in 2012. There is a distinct contrast in speed between street sections (e.g. the Ashton/Eccles lines in Manchester & the Malin Bridge/Middlewood route in Sheffield, which in many ways are resurrections of routes from yesteryear and in 2 instances even pass former depots en route) and other lines running on reserved track (in Manchester mostly on former heavy rail alignments).
    Short sections of street running are acceptable to avoid major engineering works, but long sections of street track or tight curvature should be avoided, because otherwise the high cost of rail infrastructure and vehicles doesn’t lead to significant benefits.

  26. Ivor Tossell September 3, 2014 at 9:32 am #

    I don’t think it’s fair or accurate to call Toronto’s downtown streetcars “nearly inoperable.” Speaking as someone who lives on one of the lines, they provide reliable and frequent service that I can depend on.
    The big caveat, I think, is that they choke at rush hour: The big routes are overcrowded at peak hours, just when vehicle traffic is at its worst. It’s a huge challenge, but there are options – like using heavy rail on nearby lines to alleviate peak demand – that might help. Remember that Toronto is a 24-hour city, and transit doesn’t just exist to move the rush hour crowds around here.