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.
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.
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:

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.

  • “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. ”


    A ride on the rails is just more comfortable. Try riding the 720 as it makes the “pothole run” between Beverly Hills and Westwood.

    It’s not only about getting from point A to point B. Buses just don’t create the same street life or permancy that attracts walkable development. They just don’t. Call it classist or whatever. Why would be expect anyone in 2050 to be any different than now or 1950?

    They probably had these same arguments when they were ripping up the red car tracks promising a golden age of bus service.

    There are many places in Southern California which may never see heavy or light grade separate rail and streetcars/trams are appropriate.

  • From the link:


    Doug Allen said…

    The Sunday Oregonian (a Portland newspaper) of August 1, 1948 published a picture spread entitled “Three East Side Streetcar Lines Discontinued”.

    Among the captions:

    “DANGEROUS Center of street loading requirement of streetcars is a constant danger to passengers, traffic engineers point out. This photograph demonstrates possibility of cars striking passengers.”

    “COMFORT More room, better seats, less dirt are among advantages of busses and trackless trolleys over ancient, poorly arranged, slow-moving, dirty and dangersous streetcars. East side lines were changed over to busses from cars Sunday.”

    “SAFER Busses — and trackless trolleys — can pull over to the curb to let off and take on passengers, thus cutting down hazard and lessening traffic congestion. This is a big reason streecars are going.”

    “NEW TERRITORY Broadway cars, the most modern on the Portland Traction company’s streetcar lines, will be changed over to the 23rd avenue line and their old runs taken over by busses as a part of the modernization plan.”

    “TRAFFIC BLOCKS After August 1, these scenes will become fewer in Portland with three east side trolley lines being replaced with faster, cleaner busses as the Portland Traction company and city coun[cil] move to modernize city’s mass transportation.”

    I guess that 60 years later, it is still true that when it comes to transit, perception IS reality, and we just have to deal with that fact as best we can.


    It’s ironic to see those arguments used when streetcar systems were being ripped up 60 years ago.

  • 3 more comments I like to get this discussion rolling:


    Nathanael said…

    Ride quality. Ride quality. Ride quality.

    No matter how good your roads and busses, the ride is better on the streetcar. I say this as someone who has ridden very nice buses on recently paved roads — and old streetcars on old, poorly maintained track. (Boston!) The streetcar was *still* a smoother ride.

    I get motion-sick in buses. Not in streetcars.

    The greater “visibility”/”certainty of route” is also a huge issue, but to be fair trolleybuses provide that too (the overhead wires are a dead giveaway). But they don’t provide the ride quality.

    That is huge. And that is probably one reason why streetcars consistently attract people who won’t ride buses.

    To be fair, on the rare occasions when it’s been examined, trolleybuses do seem to attract people who won’t ride diesel buses, as well, so the “visible clear route” and quiet running is probably important too.


    James Taylor said…

    The thing that streetcars have and that bus routes do not is permanence. And permanence begets investments. Businesses will open along a streetcar route or near a streetcar stop where they would not invest to be near a bus route or a bus stop. Cities need to include this in consideration of public transit because density of potential riders is critical to long term viability and streetcars may do better in this measure.


    EngineerScotty said…

    Perhaps a bit off-topic, but—

    The advantage of steel wheels on steel rails is lower friction–meaning it takes less energy to keep the wheels rolling. All else being equal, a traincar will require less fuel or electricity to maintain speed on a flat surface than a bus of the same size and weight. (Of courses, trains and busses aren’t of the same size and weight, but this is merely a pedagogical point).

    The advantage of rubber tyres, or tires as we yankees like to call ’em, on pavement, is higher friction–which adds traction–aiding in things like acceleration, breaking, and operation on steeper grades. Nothing beats an electric trolleybus for climbing steep hills; as the combination of tires with electric motors (generating high torque at idle) is ideal for this application.

    Depending on what you are doing, rolling friction is either your friend or your foe.

    In many cases, streetcars ride on tracks embedded in pavement, as opposed to tracks laid on crossties on a railbed. For such applications, has anybody ever considered building a streetcar with the equivalent of landing gear–a motor-driven tire or two which can be raised or lowered as necessary to aid with acceleration, breaking, or climbing? Or has this idea been tried somewhere and discarded as impractical or useless?

  • There is a lot in this article to sort through. This section sums up what the author of the blog is trying to say:


    Let me review carefully what I’m not saying about this incredibly sensitive topic.

    – I’m not disputing the ridership benefits of streetcars. Streetcars do attract more ridership than the buses they replace, though it’s not always clear why. There’s an urgent need for more research on how much of the ridership benefits of a streetcar are truly results of intrinsic benefits of the streetcar (such as the ride quality, the legibility provided by tracks in the street, etc) as opposed to results of other improvements introduced at the same time (including speed and reliability improvements, better public information, off-board fare collection, and possible differences in operations culture).

    – I’m not saying that streetcars don’t promote urban development; clearly they seem to be doing that, though there’s room for disagreement about how much the development really requires the streetcar.

    – I’m not saying that electric streetcars aren’t quieter and more environmentally friendly than diesel buses; clearly they are, but if this is your only reason for wanting streetcars, electric trolleybuses may meet your need less expensively.

    – I’m not saying that streetcars aren’t fun to ride. They are.

    – Most important, I’m not saying in the abstract that streetcars are good or bad. I’m saying that they are a major capital expense that requires a justification other than mobility when we compare them to the bus routes they replace, or that could be developed instead. If you want a streetcar because it will make your city a better place, then build it for that reason. If you want a streetcar because of the development it will attract, fine, though this suggests that (as in Portland) the landowners who will benefit when the streetcar raises their property values should probably be one the main sources of the money. But you want a streetcar because it’s intrinsically faster and more reliable than a bus — well, that’s just not true.

    Both Portland and Seattle started with streetcars that don’t directly replace any existing bus services, which helped them avoid this issue. As these networks expand, though, the issue of how to compare streetcars to existing frequent buses will come to the fore. So let’s be clear about what we’re doing, and why.

  • All things considered, Streetcars are a valuable tool in transit planning.

    There are people in Los Angeles who will never board a bus but would board a modern streetcar such as those in Portland — primarily because of the issue of ride quality.

    They would send a signal that the move towards having viable quality public transit for everyone, not just as a last resort for “those too poor to own cars”, is lasting with long term commitment.

    They would attract development and with millions more coming to Los Angeles over the next 30 years there will be development and, it should be responsibly planned for.

    They can go online quicker than traditional grade separated rail.

    It’s not a replacement for proposed heavy and light rail projects and we will still need a vibrant comprehensive bus system. It’s just another tool in our transit planning and advocacy arsenal.

  • DJB

    Doing bus service really well requires a lot of capital spending, just like doing rail well.

    If you have a dedicated right-of-way in either case, it’s expensive.
    If you have grade separations in either case it’s expensive.
    If you have stations with amenities in either case it’s expensive.

    My favorite buses in LA are the ones that run in restricted access lanes on freeways with stations (e.g. on the 110 and the 10) followed by the Orange Line. My favorite rail is the subway. None of that was cheap to build.

    In the end, whether you prefer bus or rail, we need to be prepared to invest significant sums in capital improvements (not just in the transportation itself, but also in the surrounding land uses) to make either a world-class, serious competitor to the car.

  • Mattlos

    I think the point of the article is completely missed.

    My understanding of the state of the art in travel behavior research is that travelers make route and mode decisions based on travel time and the direct costs of the trip.

    street cars are slow. When visiting, I found that for short trips, the seattle and portland streetcars were only slightly faster than walking.

    Definitely slower than biking or busing.

    I think this is Mr. Walker’s point, and it deserves to be addressed.

    And operationally, buses can do things streetcars never will.

  • Dan Wentzel

    It is true that he said streetcars are not inherenlty quicker than buses that are given the same infrastructure improvements..

    However, he did not say that people choose only on the basis of speed or direct costs of the trip.

    He clearly states for some reason people will ride a streetcar who will not ride a bus. Clearly that’s because of the quality of the ride itself.

    What he is calling for is clarity of what we are building and why. That is a worthy goal for every mode of transportation.

    Streetcars do not bring any more speed than buses would bring with the same improvements. However, if they attract choice riders and development along transit corridors, that itself may be a worthy enough depending on the goal.

    If a bus can attract more riders if it has more streetcar like qualities, that can be a worthy enough too depending on the goal.

    For the Broadway example, nothing would do more to move transit riders through Downtown than building the Regional Connector. Simply closing Broadway down to cars with buses only wouldn’t attract any development or gentrification. However, there could be transit corridors where no one want development or street life, but speed getting to and through, and grade separated rail is unlikely — in that case infrastructure upgrades to bus service may be the way to go.

  • The other question is, what does $25-50 million a mile bring you, and can you get more bang for the buck elsewhere? I would argue that in most cities, you can get more bang for the buck simply by dumping all position status information for your bus fleet online and via phone, so you can tell when the next bus is going to show up; implement multiple classes of services, such as local, limited, and “rapid express” service; and improving the pedestrian environment.

  • Masonite

    For me, the streetcar gives downtown a sense of place and its main goal is to provide a positive force for Broadway including its historic theaters and buildings which have been in a state of gradual decay for the last 60 years. Also, it can provide an easy way to get up bunker hill from the subway, which is a huge impendiment as many people don’t want to walk up it.

  • Correction to Sarah’s original post: the conversation at my blog is specifically about local-stop services, so it’s not about “light rail” or “bus rapid transit,” which are both rapid or limited-stop services as usually understood.

    To stay abreast of this issue at Human Transit, see this category:

    Thanks, Jarrett



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