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.

  • JSD

    The modern city is not, and should not be some time machine for transit. Public funds shouldn’t be going towards a backwards looking tourist trap that deliberately avoid modern efficiencies for the sake of a vintage look and feel.

    I understand preservation and historical context. But truly honoring the past means acknowledging the benefits and farsightedness of previous modes of transportation and updating them to be relevant and useful for the modern population.

    If cities are truly interested in streetcars, they should be of the best possible quality, with the best possible technology. Anything else is just a ride built for tourists.

  • I \v/ NY

    its great to talk about bogata but look at the avenues they run down. luckily theres nothing like it in the US… these surface streets look like an atlanta freeway. bogata-style brt system can only work in places where they have so many lanes that they can give up 4 lanes for exclusive buses, the bogata road without brt would otherwise be like 16 lanes wide. its a hell of a lot harder if not impossible to give up 4 lanes to buses in the US when the widest streets here are 6 lanes wide total.

  • its great to talk about bogata but look at the avenues they run down. luckily theres nothing like it in the US…

    Have you seen Queens Boulevard lately?

  • I’d rather have a quality ride than retro chic.

  • Adam

    I was originally against the idea of streetcars as a glorified bus of sorts (and buses are NOT efficient; just ask someone who has to wait 15 minutes for about 3 buses to all come up next to each other, let alone have to share the road with traffic), but I now conditionally support streetcars. I am still very much against heritage streetcars (because they’re basically the same thing as buses), but I am very much for modern low floor LRVs being used to run on the street. The other condition is they must get their own lane which cars can’t go in and stall them (defeats the purpose of transit, no?)

    Also, I don’t like the dangerous notion that people say streetcars are an adequate replacement for subways. They’re not. They work within a neighborhood or to get from one side of Manhattan to the other (on 34th Street, for instance). However, to get from, say, Forest Hills to Greenpoint, a subway is the only thing that will work, let alone for travel across a river (between Flushing and Fordham, let’s say).

  • Sarah.

    Thanks for the link, but there’s one very important correction: The streetcar discussion at my blog is very specifically about local-stop services (stopping every block or two) not rapid or limited-stop services (which usually stop only every 1/4 mile and usually more). The difference is explained, in technology-neutral terms, here:

    http://www.humantransit.org/2009/06/slippery-word-watch-express.html

    “Streetcar” in North American English seems to mean “light rail technology used for local-stop service”, while the term “light rail” by itself usually seems to imply rapid or limited-stop applications.

    So we’re NOT talking about “light rail” vs “bus rapid transit.” Those terms would signal a conversation about rapid or limited-stop services for longer distances of travel, and that’s a very different conversation.

    Feel free to delete this comment if you correct the text. Thanks again for the link!

    Cheers, Jarrett

  • So for example your second sentence would be correct if revised like this:

    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 streetcars vs frequent local bus services.

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