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All Aboard the Great Streetcar Debate

Streetcars provoke strong emotions in transpo geeks. A recent post on Human Transit called "Streetcars: An Inconvenient Truth" precipitated a very informed and sometimes heated thread of discussion on the relative virtues of light rail vs. bus rapid transit (a mode that got its moment in the limelight just this morning).

3327872868_bf8fb17b97_m.jpgStreetcars: Everybody’s got an opinion. Photo by adamscarroll via Flickr.

The Human Transit thread, which features several members of the Streetsblog Network,
elucidates many of the most important arguments for each mode: cost of
infrastructure; access for wheelchairs, strollers and the like; speed;
and perceived desirability as a chosen transport mode (that part is all
about class). It’s a conversation well worth reading, and joining, for
anyone interested in the topic.

Here’s what Jarrett Walker, the blog’s author, wrote in part:

I’m not saying that the bus will ever be a perfect replica of the streetcar. It won’t. But they key fact is that buses are not just improving, they’re improving in the direction of emulating rail.
 This
should suggest that the difference between bus and rail, as perceived
by ordinary people who don’t know which features are intrinsic, is
going to diminish over time, as it has been doing for the
past two decades. Doesn’t this suggest that while the short-term
urban-development advantage of streetcars is undeniable, the long-term
advantage may be much less? Big capital spending has to make sense for the long term.
 Speed
and reliability are eternal values; I’m quite confident that in 2050,
people will still choose a faster service over a slower one.  I’m not
sure that in 2050, people will choose an electric vehicle on rails over
an electric/hydrogen/whatever vehicle of the same size and shape, with
many of the same characteristics, running on tires.  Are you?

Head on over and join the debate if you will.

For network member UrbanReview STL,
the issue is not streetcar vs. bus, but vintage reproduction streetcar
vs. modern streetcar. Blog author Steve Patterson is concerned that the
Loop Trolley route
being proposed in St. Louis will be running old-timey replicas rather
than up-to-date cars that allow for ease of boarding — and also send
the message that this mode is not simply some quaint artifact, but a
step into the future:

The
Loop Trolley folks want that vintage look rather than providing the
best transportation for the 21st Century. They are looking backward
rather than forward.

They are looking at a system like
they have in Little Rock AR. Little Rock’s vehicles are new but have a
vintage look and feel. Filming a period movie? Great, use these.
Investing tens of
millions in a modern transportation system that will last into the
second half of the 21st Century? Wrong choice! The Loop Trolley folks
are stuck in 1904. The World’s Fair is over, guys. So what is the
right choice?

Modern “low-floor” vehicles such as the
[ones] in Portland. The same type was used in Seattle. The vehicle’s
low-floor center design with wide doors make entry/exit easy for
everyone.  Stroller & packages? No problem…

To make
the reproduction cars accessible they’d have a ramp like our buses do.
As a frequent wheelchair user I can tell you I would not use such a
system. It works most of the time but it would set me apart from
everyone else.  The ramp would take time to extend & retract –
holding up traffic in the meantime. Why not just build an accessible
system with low-floor vehicles?

The trick is the modern low-floor vehicles cost roughly three times the price of a reproduction vehicle.

Other provocative items from around the network: Exquisite Struggle
picks up on a mind-blowing story about a school system that forbids its
students from coming to school by bike or foot, pointing out the
ironies of trying to "protect" our children by moving them to suburban
settings. (Bonus irony: the town in question is Saratoga Springs, home
of anti-sprawl guru James Howard Kunstler.) Ecovelo decides to open up the always-contentious "vehicular cycling" debate. And The Transport Politic argues against using the promise of congestion reduction as a way of promoting transit.

Less controversial: Austin on Two Wheels features a really cool program that is using bikes to improve people’s lives in Kenya.