Streetcars (Trams)

that second on-board employee

A reader asks:
My question relates to the relationship between frequency and capacity.  In Boston on the MBTA … for many of the trains, there are 2 employees running the train.  On the Green line, trains are 2 cars long, with a driver in the first, and in the second an operator responsible for opening and closing doors and making sure no one gets on without paying.  For the other lines, the 2nd operator only has to open and close doors because you need to pay to get into the stations.
To me, it seems like a waste to have to pay a second individual to open and close the doors.  Outside of the highest frequency travel times, and even possibly during those, wouldn't it be better for travelers to have service twice as often even at half the capacity?  Outside of the truly busy travel times, trains rarely run anywhere near capacity.  Especially on weekends and in the evening, trains are never full but the less frequent service does not encourage those spontaneous transit trips that are so vital to urban life.
This is not my core expertise, but my understanding is that generally this is right:  the second employee is usually a holdover from days when fare collection and monitoring of doors had to be done manually.  The job often survives because it's coded into labor contracts and sometimes also into regulations.

I am unaware of anything that non-driving on-board employees do that would be utterly impractical to automate today, the best evidence for which is that trams, streetcars, light rail, and heavy rail can be found operating with a single employee all over the world.   (Fully grade separated heavy rail, of course, can also be run with zero on-board employees, liberating the agency to operate intense frequency even late in the evening.)  Fare collection is increasingly handled by Proof of Payment systems which feature roving fare inspectors.  While these fare inspectors have a cost, their number is not directly related to the number of vehicles in service, so they are not such a direct barrier to increases in service. 

Frequency is driven by staffing requirements rather than vehicles, so the number of employees on board is the dominant variable determining how frequently any line can be run.  Only during the peak commute period is the availability of vehicles a significant element of the frequency decision.
As you would expect, however, any local debate about turning second employees into drivers of additional service will be fraught.  It is very easy for opponents (usually including the unions) to make generalized allegations about safety and security because most people feel safer and more secure if there's an employee nearby.  So it's politically hard to do.

This is one of those issues that is intensely local, and where examples of experience from other cities just have trouble penetrating a local debate.  It happens even in Europe.  See for example the peculiar fare-collector job that exists on Amsterdam trams.  A little cubicle placed at the middle of each tram contains an employee who serves as a cashier, selling tickets.  Boarding and circulation on Amsterdam trams is awkward, and effective capacity much reduced, because you're required to board only at certain doors and exit at certain others.

This second employee on Amsterdam trams is, as near as I can tell, unique in Europe; everywhere else trams run with one employee (the driver) and roving fare inspection.  Get a European transit professional going on how bizarre this Amsterdam practice is.  It's great fun over a beer.  But they can also explain, politically, why it will probably never change. 

If readers know of recent stories where second employees have been successfully removed and retrained as drivers, thus allowing more service, please post a link in the comments.

sorting out rail-bus differences: endnotes

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. 

  1. New streetcar lines always, always, get more passengers than the bus routes they replace.  Cultural Feedback Effect.
  2. 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.
  3. Streetcars don’t feel “low status” to transit riders. Buses often do.  Cultural Feedback Effect.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. There is a compelling “coolness” and “newness” factor attached to streetcars.  Cultural Feedback Effect.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. Streetcars don’t smell like diesel.  Propulsion is a Misidentified Difference.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. Streetcars have an air of nostalgia.  Cultural Feedback Effect.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
  16. 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.
  17. 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.
  18. 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.
  19. 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.
  20. 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. 
  21. 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.
  22. 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.
  23. 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.
  24. 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.
  25. 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.
  26. 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.
  27. 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. 
  28. 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.
  29. 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. 
  30. 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. 
  31. 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. 
  32. 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.
  33. 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.) 
  34. 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.
  35. 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.  
  36. 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.

    sorting out rail-bus differences

    Here's a crucial passage from the book I'm working on, though it may will end up in the next book rather than this one [Human Transit].  The topic is emotive, so I'm trying to be very carefully factual here.  I welcome your critiques in comments.  If you disagree on a matter of fact, please provide a reference to a source. 

    In 2009, the then-popular [but now defunct] blog the Infrastructurist asked its readers whether streetcars are better than buses, and why.  Readers came up with 36 responses (listed verbatim here) that formed a good summary of popular perceptions about the rail-bus distinction.

    Of the 36 reasons, only six refer to an intrinsic difference between bus and rail technologies.  All the others fall into two categories, which I’ll call misidentified differences and cultural feedback effects

    Misindentified Differences

    In your city, the rail system has lots of differences from the buses, including technological differences. But that doesn’t mean that all these distinctions are true rail-bus distinctions.  For example:

    • Propulsion: electric vs internal combustion.   In most North American cities that have both bus and rail, the rail is electric but the buses use internal combustion (diesel, “clean diesel,” or various forms of natural gas).  Electric motors have obvious advantages – in emissions, noise, acceleration, and comfort – but none of these are true rail vs. bus differences.  Rail can be run by internal combustion, and buses can be electric.  If you want to compare your electric rail option with a bus option, compare it to electric trolleybuses.  If you want to compare your internal-combustion buses with a rail option, compare them to internal-combustion rail options such as the Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU).
    • Mixed-flow vs exclusive-lane operation.  Transit speed and reliability are mostly a result of how much you stop and what can get in the way.  Rail is more often run in exclusive rights of way, but some streetcars run in mixed traffic and some buses run in exclusive lanes.  Monorails never get stuck in traffic, but neither do buses in Brisbane, Australia’s busway system.  Most city buses can get stuck in traffic, but so can any streetcar, tram, or light rail vehicle that runs in a mixed traffic lane.  (A major problem for BRT in North America is that people keep taking junkets to Latin America, where BRT is powerful but the economic context is too different, rather than to Brisbane, where they could see high-end BRT working in a wealthy city.)
    • Off-board “proof of payment” fare collection vs. “pay the driver” fare collection.  Fare-collection style has big psychological effects.  “Pay the driver” slows down boarding and is a greater hassle for all concerned.  Some rapid transit sytstems (rail and bus) provide paid areas with faregates, eliminating this delay.  The other solution is “proof of payment,” which means that you buy a ticket on the platform (or already have a valid ticket) but you only show it if a roving “fare inspector” asks to see it.  If you don’t have one, you pay a fine.  Rail is more likely to use “proof of payment” than buses, but there are exceptions both ways, and there’s no necessary link between the rail-vs-bus choice and the fare collection system.  High-capacity bus systems are beginning to shift to “proof of payment” fare collection to eliminate fare-related boarding delay.  UPDATE: San Francisco now uses proof of payment on its entire bus system.
    • Frequency and Span.  Your whole rail transit system may be frequent, while some your buses aren’t, and in that case, you’ll naturally associate frequency with rail.  As we saw here, a good Frequent Network map, which shows both frequent rail and frequent buses, will clear up that confusion.  Buses can be very frequent, while some rail services can run infrequently or peak-only.  (We usually call those commuter rail.)

    Cultural Feedback Effects

    A community’s attitudes toward rail and bus technologies can easily affect they way they are operated and presented.  In short, people who believe that rail is better than buses will tend to act in ways that make that belief true.  For example;

    • Differences in investment or care.  A community that believes that buses are only for poor people, or that rail is the mode of the future, will under-invest in buses as opposed to rail, producing a difference in quality that will reinforce that belief.  It may also hold bus operations staff to lower standards than rail staff, and encourage other cultural differences between bus and rail operations that become real for the customer, but are not intrinsic to the bus-rail distinction.
    • Perceptions of permanence.  If you don’t stop to think about it, rails in the street will make a service feel permanent, especially if you’re used to hearing people tell you that rails imply permanence.  History clearly shows that rail systems do stop running if their market disappears.  True permanence lies in the permanence of the market, and that lies in the pattern of development [See Human Transit Chapter 14].
    • Perceptions of legibility.  The notion that a bus might do something unpredictable and a railcar won’t is also a cultural feedback effect, typically the result of insufficiently clear and compelling information about the bus network.  It is quite possible to build bus services with such a high level of investment in infrastructure, such as stops and stations, that the routing is as obvious as a rail line’s would be; the Los Angeles Orange Line bus rapid transit system is a good example. 
    • Regulatory differences.  Government regulation often enforces different rules for road transport as opposed to rail transport.  These regulations are themselves a kind of cultural feedback, differences in habit and history between agencies that regulate roads and those that regulate rail.  By enforcing different standards and safety requirements, these regulations can cause outcomes that amplify the apparent difference between road-based and rail-based transit. 
    • Different potential for mission-creep.  If you build a stretch of road for a busway, there’s always a danger that somebody might try to open it to cars.  If you don’t trust your government to protect the stated purpose of a facility, this can be a major decision factor.  This issue applies, however, to the narrow range of cases in which a road or lane is being built that could be useful to cars but is closed to them.  It is not an issue where the proposal is to reallocate existing roadspace from cars to transit, nor when building a higher-end busway whose design makes it useless to cars even if they were allowed on it.

    Intrinsic Bus-Rail Differences

    When we set aside those two categories and look at the differences that really follow, intrinsically, from the rail-bus distinction, there appear to be seven, and only the first three of them are always to rail’s advantage:

    • Capacity.  Where demand is high, rail can serve that demand at a higher ratio of passengers to on-board staff, which means that once you absorb the (often large) construction cost, you will be able to offer greater capacity for a given operating cost.  A transit vehicle that’s too crowded to board doesn’t meet any of our seven desires for useful service, so this point is often decisive in favor of rail.
    • Ride quality.   Ride quality in buses is improving, and guided busways may give buses an even more rail-like feel, but new rail systems will probably always have an advantage with their smoother running surface.   Is the smooth ride of rail indispensible to a useful network?  This can be a tough question whose answer may vary from one community to another.
    • Limited energy-efficiency and emissions consequences tied to the difference between tires and steel wheels.  Again, the primary factor governing energy-efficiency and emissions is propulsion (electric vs internal combustion), which is not intrinsic to the rail-bus difference.  However, there is a small range of differences that arise from the physics of steel-on-steel vs tire-on-road operation, and that favor the former.
    • Noise from wheel friction.  Most noise impacts are due to internal combustion, which either rail or buses may use, so that’s a misidentified difference.  Rail transit lines that intersect streets may be required to install noisy crossing signals — a valid response to the extreme weight of commuter rail trains but more controversial as applied to light rail.  These regulatory requirements may be cultural feedback effects.  But rail has a further noise disadvantage that really is intrinsic: the tight fit between steel wheel and rail causes noisy friction when going around curves, especially when going fast. 
    • Some variable cost differences.  Broadly speaking, bus-based projects that use portions of existing roadway will be much cheaper than building rail for those same segments would be.  Beyond that, costs for bus vs. rail projects can be hard to compare.  Capital costs for rail include vehicles, while a busway is sometimes run with an existing bus fleet.  Certain bus-rail comparisons in certain corridors may turn up significant differences in operating cost that may be valid in that situation, but need to be checked carefully to ensure that they assume the same factors on both sides.
    • Maneuverability around obstacles is a specific issue for rail in mixed traffic, usually light rail or streetcars.  In mixed traffic, minor obstructions routinely occur in a lane, especially if the lane is adjacent to on-street parking.  People stop in the lane to make deliveries, get into and out of taxis, and parallel-park.  Accidents and breakdowns happen.  If these events block a streetcar, the streetcar is stuck.  A bus, in the same situation, can often go around the obstruction and continue.
    • Ability to extend existing infrastructure.  If you’ve already built rail on a large portion the length of a travel corridor, it may be logical to build rail on the rest, so as not to create a technologically required connection.  On the other hand, busways can often eliminate extra connections because buses can run through the busway but then flow out onto ordinary streets.  In each case, an advantage goes to the technology that makes better use of the infrastructure that already exists, whether road or rail.

    Of course, in a particular transit debate, you may not have all of the choices that I’ve articulated here.   Still, it’s important to remember that most of the things you hear about why rail is better than buses are not true in the abstract, as facts of geometry or physics that follow from intrinsic differences between roads and rails. 

    It may very well be that rail is culturally better than buses in your city, in which case all you’re really saying is that people in your city think rail is better than buses and will therefore tend to act in ways that make that true.  If you’re interested in appealing to your current population, and motivating them to make investment decisions based on their current perceptions about the benefits of rail, that may even be a good reason to build rail even if you don’t need its intrinsic benefits. 

    But if you’re thinking in longer-range terms, don’t forget:  Attitudes, assumptions and perceptions will change over time.  Physics and geometry won’t.

    UPDATE!  See endnotes for this post here!

    edmonton: strasbourg of the prairie?

    A Guest Post by David Marlor

    David Marlor was raised in the UK and is currently a regional planning manager working on the coast of British Columbia, Canada in a coastal rural setting.  He holds a planning degree from the School of Community and Regional Planning at UBC, where his thesis was on an integrated approach to transportation planning in the lower mainland.

    In the past couple of years, led by Bob Boutilier (general manager of transportation) the City has been planning the expansion of the LRT using low-floor technology.  Edmonton is credited with leading in transit innovation twice in the past. In the mid-1960s, transit superintendent Don MacDonald introduced an early version of a hub and spoke [or pulse] transit system. This is still widely used in Edmonton and in many other North American cities. The second was the introduction of the modern LRT to North America in 1978.

    What’s different about the current LRT plans in Edmonton is that instead of fast LRT trains moving commuters from suburbs to the city, the LRT will be a European style system, still in its own right of way, but with stops closer together, smaller and more intimate with the community, low floor vehicles and replacing car lanes with LRT lanes. That last is a paradigm shift for Edmonton.  LRT up until now has been about building it without removing road capacity for private automobiles. The new LRT lines, the cost of which is currently pegged at about Cdn$3.4 billion, will see extension of the existing high-floor system to the north-west north-east and south as demand warrants, but the lines will fit the community better than before.

    The approved plans includes a completely new low-floor network running on the street, even in the city centre. It is a system designed to support future TOD at the stations, to encourage higher densities. Unlike the existing system, only five stations on the proposed 29 station low floor line have bus stations attached to them and only two have park and ride facilities, both adjacent to freeways. This is about shaping the city, not moving commuters from the suburbs to the city (although that is part of it, it is not the focus).  The plan includes future low-floor line linking the downtown with the Old Strathcona business district on the Southside of the river and a line out to the eastern suburbs.

    In fact, the proposed the proposed Edmonton system may remind some readers of Strasbourg. Like Strasbourg, Edmonton is envisioning completely remodeling the streets the trams run on – in many cases removing lanes of traffic, restricting turn movements, closing or redesigning intersections, and where possible, widening and improving the pedestrian infrastructure. Like Strasbourg, the stations (stops) will be located every 3-4 blocks (300-400 metres) in the city centre and further apart outside the core. The aim is around every 800 m, but in reality the stops will be placed at convenient nodes or logical locations that best fit the fabric of the city.

    The City of Edmonton website has extensive information, including design details, routing, and illustrations. Unfortunately, the project is not funded yet, but City Council and the Mayor are keen to see it happen and want to get it built in the next 6-8 years. The plans are ambitious, and it's exciting to see a car-oriented oil producing city like Edmonton be thinking and supportive of this direction.

    Illustration: Simulated image by City of Edmonton


    bicycle vs transit problems

    Bicycles have always had an anxious relationship with local-stop street-running transit, both bus and streetcar.  On a street without separate bike lanes, bikes and local-stop transit tend to end up sharing the "slow" traffic lane — typically a lane that's either next to the curb or next to a row of parked cars.  The difficulty lies not just in the obvious ability of rail tracks to throw a cyclist, but more generally in the fact that many cyclists like to move at something close to the average speed of local-stop transit — generally 10-20 mph.  With buses at least, the pattern is often for a local bus and a cyclist to "leapfrog," passing each other over and over, an uncomfortable and mildly risky move for both parties. 

    Streetcars are much less likely to pass a cyclist than a bus is, and this, come to think of it, may be one of the many little reasons that streetcars often end up being slower than buses when you control for other differences (in right of way, fare handling, signaling, enforcement, etc).  Cyclist friends have often told me that they prefer cycling alongside streetcars rather than buses becuase streetcars don't make surprising lateral moves.  This is true, though of course the lateral motion of buses is a normal part of how they get through traffic, and how they often keep moving in situations where a streetcar would get stuck.

    Mia Birk has a good article today arguing that bicycles and streetcars can be friends.  So far, though, the only examples she cites of really successful bicycle-transit integration are from streets where there's plenty of space to separate the two modes, such as Portland's King/Grand couplet.  She's involved now in a consulting team looking at how streetcars will interact with cyclists along a proposed line on Seattle's Broadway, and I look forward to seeing what they come up with. 

    Birk is clear that the basic design of the starter streetcar lines in Portland in Seattle — operation in the right-hand (slow) lane next to a row of parked cars — didn't provide good options for cyclists needing to avoid the hazard of the streetcar tracks.  She wants to see better separation, but when looking at a dense urban street like Seattle's Broadway, it's hard to see how they'll deliver that without undermining either on-street parking or pedestrian circulation.  She notes one situation in Portland (14th & Lovejoy) where the streetcar-cyclist conflict was arguably resolved at the pedestrian's expense:

    … and she's clear that this isn't the outcome she's after.  (This idea of a bike lane that passes between a transit stop and the sidewalk is common in the Netherlands.  It can work well as long as there's ample sidewalk width.  It's less nice in situations like this one where the remaining sidewalk is constrained.)

    If I sound a little cynical about the prospects for harmony between local-stop transit and cyclists, it's because this is a geometry problem, and geometry tends to endure in the face of even the most brilliant innovation.  The examples in Mia's post seem to confirm that if the street is wide enough, it's easy to separate cycles and transit, but that if it isn't, it isn't. 

    When the problem is this simple, it's not hard to reach a point where you're sure you've exhausted all the geometric possibilities.  At that point, you to make hard choices about competing goods, producing something that all sides will see as a compromise.  Hoping for new innovative solutions can become a distraction at that point, since no innovation in human history has ever changed a fact of geometry. 

    Finally, if a streetcar ever does go down Seattle's Broadway, it had better be compatible with buses as well.  Broadway is an important link in the frequent transit network, with lines that extend far beyond the local area and thus make direct links that a starter streetcar line cannot replace.  What will happen to these buses?  If they share the streetcar lane, what will their role be in the streetcar-bicycle dance?

    Photo: Mia Birk

    Dissent of the Week: My Alleged “Bias” Against Rail

    I’m relieved to report that commenters who actually saw me give the presentation “A Field Guide to Transit Quarrels” seem to agree that I wasn’t displaying a bias toward or against particular projects, except perhaps for projects that were based on misunderstanding or ignoring some basic geometry.

    However, finally I have a comment that attacks me full-on, which gives me yet another opportunity to think about whether I do have a “modal bias.”  It’s from commenter Carl, who I believe saw the presentation in Seattle: Continue Reading →

    Munich: Do Trams Cause Ridership? Vice Versa?

    800px-Munichtramr33 My tour of Germany, France, and the Netherlands in July brought me to numerous situations where trams are used to great effect in handling high volumes of passengers moving in exclusive rights-of-way.  (I cannot emphasize too often that these are usually more like light rail than like US streetcars or Australian trams, which are often compromised by having to share a traffic lane.) Continue Reading →

    Dissent of the Week I: Bus vs Rail in “This Country”

    From reader M1EK:

    I continue, like many it seems, to be amazed at how often you feel the need to tell us we’re wrong about bus vs. rail in this country. Perhaps the fact that you need to keep telling us is itself telling?

    I guess it depends on your view of international examples.  Assuming the reference to “this country” means the USA, well, US culture is especially prone to exceptionalism, which we could define as a stubborn disinterest in innovations and experience from outside one’s borders.  For example, the US is the only country where people often comment on international blogs without making clear that they’re talking about the US, a violation of the comment policy but in this case, an instructive one.
    Continue Reading →