I just don’t get it — why the obsession with streetcars? Why pay zillions of dollars to create what is essentially a bus line on rails, a bus line that costs orders of magnitude more per passenger to operate and is completely inflexible. It can never be rerouted or moved or easily shut down if changes in demand warrant. And, unlike with heavy rail on dedicated tracks, there is not even a gain in mobility since the streetcars have to wallow through traffic and intersections like everyone else.
What we see over and over again is that by consuming 10-100x more resources per passenger, rail systems starve other parts of the transit system of money and eventually lead to less, rather than more, total ridership (even in Portland, by the way).
Warren Meyer, “I Can’t Understand the Obsession with Streetcars”, Coyote Blog, 2014-10-23.
November 8, 2014
August 7, 2014
In addition to my already admitted train fetish, I’m also a low-key fan of the streetcar. Some of that, I’m sure, is that a streetcar is really just a one-car passenger train on a short journey with frequent stops. But I recognize that streetcars and trams are not a realistic solution to urban transit needs today … unlike far too many city and regional transportation planners. The Economist has a short explainer this week, backup up this argument:
Streetcars — otherwise known as trolleys or trams — had their golden age around 100 years ago, carrying urban workers to nascent suburbs around Europe and America. But commuters had little love for these rickety, crowded electric trains, and by 1910 many were abandoning them for the convenience of cars or buses. Streetcars have been making a comeback, however, with new lines rumbling to life in at least 16 American cities, and dozens more in the works. Tucson, Arizona, inaugurated its new streetcar service in late July, and streetcar operators in Washington, DC, begin training this week—the city’s much-delayed service is expected to start later this year. But for all their nostalgic charm, streetcars are also increasingly controversial: a number of cities, such as San Antonio, Texas, are now rethinking their plans, complaining of high costs and limited public support. Critics grumble that streetcars gobble up scarce transit funds for a slow, silly service used mainly by tourists.
Streetcars are also incredibly expensive to build and maintain, with huge up-front capital costs in laying down rails and buying cars. Tucson’s project ultimately cost nearly $200m and opened years late, in part because the city needed to clear utilities from under the tracks, install overhead electrical connections and repave much of the four-mile route. A 3.6-mile line in Cincinnati, Ohio, now under construction is expected to cost at least $133m. Federal grants have gone some way to help pay for these projects, but cash spent on streetcars displaces spending on other, more cost-effective forms of public transport like buses, which offer cheaper and more-efficient service but are considerably less sexy. The capital cost per mile of a streetcar is between $30m and $75m, while a rapid bus service costs anywhere between $3m and $30m, according to the American Public Transportation Association.
All this investment might make some sense if streetcars offered an efficient way to move people around. But here, too, the evidence is flimsy. Riders — and especially tourists — may find streetcars less intimidating than buses, but these vehicles tend to offer slow journeys across walkable distances. European tramlines tend to be fairly long and isolated from other traffic, which ensures a swifter journey. But in America streetcars travel shorter distances along rails that mix with other traffic, so streetcars invariably inch along. And while these tracks may be reassuring to developers, they make it impossible to navigate busy streets: buses can ride around obstacles but trams must stay put and wait. Indeed, their slow speeds and frequent stops mean they often add to congestion. This may not bother tourists keen on a novelty ride, but it is no solution to America’s public transport problems.
If you want to include light or heavy rail in your city’s public transit network, it has to be either grade-separated from cars and pedestrians or it needs to be buried underground or raised in the air: mixing streetcars with cars and trucks — even if you manage to rebrand them with a more modern-sounding moniker — worsens traffic, creates unhappy interactions between the rail and non-rail vehicles, costs vast amounts of money, and rarely draws enough passenger traffic to come close to breaking even. I’m no fan of buses, but in almost every case, the economic case for buses is far more sound than the case for streetcars.
July 2, 2014
April 21, 2014
No, I don’t really get it either:
UPDATE: Customers will experience longer than normal wait times between Sheppard and Don Mills due to graffiti on exterior of 1 train. #TTC
— Official TTC Tweets (@TTCnotices) April 21, 2014
December 2, 2013
H/T to Eric Kirkland for the link.
June 23, 2013
In the Independent, James Young reports from Rio de Janeiro:
The most recent wave of protests began at the beginning of the month in Sao Paulo over what may seem an insignificant 20 centavo (7p) bus-fare hike. But the level of the increase was less important than what it represented. Once again, Brazilians felt they were being asked to pay an onerous price for a shoddy service. Buses in big cities are overcrowded, infrequent and journeys can take hours.
Now the leaderless, non-politically affiliated protest movement has a variety of goals. Better public healthcare is one. “I recently spent eight hours in a hospital waiting room with dengue,” says Lee, a bank worker protesting on Friday. “People were sleeping on the floor.” Another is an improved education system. “We work hard and pay high taxes. And we get nothing in return,” he continues.
Frustration over the country’s institutionalised corruption has attracted many to the protests. Influence-peddling scandals such as 2005’s Mensalao (“big monthly allowance”) affair and, more recently, the saga of Carlinhos Cachoeira, accused of running a political bribery network, have left many desperate for change.
Some protesters have focused on the £8bn spent on stadium and infrastructure work for next year’s World Cup, seen as indefensible in a country with so many more pressing needs. The brutal tactics employed by the police have added to the indignation. Rubber bullets and tear gas have been used, often indiscriminately and at close range.
June 6, 2013
The Economist looks at innovation in the railway business:
Compared with other modes of transport, train technology might seem to be progressing as slowly as a suburban commuter service rattling its way from one station to another. Automotive technology, by contrast, changes constantly: in the past decade satellite-navigation systems, hybrid power trains, proximity sensors and other innovations have proliferated. Each time you buy a new car, you will notice a host of new features. Progress is apparent in aircraft, too, with advances in in-flight entertainment and communication, fancy seats that turn into beds, and quieter and more efficient engines. Trains, meanwhile, appear to have changed a lot less.
Actually, the perception of change is much greater for cars and airplanes, but there are few changes in those areas that are not merely evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Incremental changes are the rule of the day, as neither cars nor planes travel significantly faster than they did thirty years ago … but they do it safer and more comfortably now.
This comparison is not entirely fair. For one thing, people buy their own cars, so they pay more attention to automotive innovation. Carmakers are engaged in a constant arms race, trumpeting new features as a way to differentiate their products. Nobody buys their own trains. Similarly, air passengers have a choice of competing airlines and are far more likely to be aware of the merits of rival fleets than they are of different types of train. In addition, notes Paul Priestman of Priestmangoode, a design consultancy that specialises in transport, trains have longer lives, so technology takes longer to become widespread. The planning horizon for one rail project he is working on extends to 2050. “You have to think about longevity, whereas the car industry wants you to buy a new car in two years,” he says.
Another big difference is that the way railways operate — with a small number of powered units (locomotives) and a very large number of unpowered units (freight cars and passenger cars) that have to be reliably connected to one another and operate successfully. A car can go on any kind of road (or even none, in many places) and a plane can fly in any part of the sky, but a train needs an engineered right-of-way that falls within established standards of curvature, elevation change, and overhead and side clearance. Because of this, any piece of railway equipment that does not run on its own isolated track (like monorails or the various flavours of high speed railways) must always meet the existing standards … which have been slowly evolving since the mid-nineteenth century. With so much capital invested in existing right-of-way and rolling stock, the costs for introducing significant changes can be astronomical.
There’s also the fact that unlike other forms of transportation, passenger and freight trains operate in different and sometimes conflicting ways. Passenger trains need to operate on a known schedule between high population centres at relatively high speed. With higher speed goes a need for better braking systems and more capable signalling methods. Unlike a train full of new cars or iron ore, you can’t just park a train full of living human beings on a siding for a few hours to allow slower trains to clear the way (unless you’re Amtrak or VIA). Passenger trains have to have top priority, which often means the railways have to delay freight traffic to ensure that the passengers are not unduly delayed.
One solution to the problem is to provide separate tracks for the passenger trains, but this can be very expensive, as the places where the extra tracks would be most effective is also where the land is at peak cost: in and around major cities. Most passenger trains are now run by government agencies or corporations acting as agents for local, regional, or state governments, so they sometimes use the power of eminent domain to gain access to the land. This is a politically fraught area, as the more land they need to take, the tougher the process will get.
Brakes are also getting an upgrade. Stopping a train can take so long that locomotive-operators, also known as engineers, often have time to contemplate their fate before an impact. “Your life races before you,” says a former operator who, years ago in Alabama, helplessly watched as his freight train, its emergency brakes screeching, headed towards a stalled truck that ultimately managed to pull off the tracks in time. Stopping a train pulling a hundred cars at 80kph can require 2km of track. Road accidents take far more lives, but 1,239 people were killed in more than 2,300 railway accidents in 2011 in the European Union alone.
Much of the problem is that the faster a train’s wheels are spinning, the hotter its brake shoes get when engaged. This reduces friction and hence braking power, a predicament known as “heat fade”. Moreover, nearly all trains power their brakes with compressed air. When switched on, air brakes activate car by car, from the locomotive to the back of the train. It can take more than two minutes for the signal to travel via air tubes to the last car.
Again, it’s not physically or financially possible to switch over all existing cars to newer technology in one fell swoop, so any updated brake technology must be 100% compatible with what is already in use, or you risk creating more dangerous situations because some brakes may operate out of sequence which will increase the chances of accidents.
Norfolk Southern, an American rail operator, now pulls roughly one-sixth of its freight using locomotives equipped with “route optimisation” software. By crunching numbers on a train’s weight distribution and a route’s curves, grades and speed limits, the software, called Leader, can instruct operators on optimum accelerating and braking to minimise fuel costs. Installing the software and linking it wirelessly to back-office computers is expensive, says Coleman Lawrence, head of the company’s 4,000-strong locomotive fleet. But the software cuts costs dramatically, reducing fuel consumption by about 5%. That is a big deal for a firm that spent $1.6 billion on diesel in 2012. Mr Lawrence reckons that by 2016 Norfolk Southern may be pulling half its freight with Leader-upgraded locomotives. A competing system sold by GE, Trip Optimizer, goes further and operates the throttle and brakes automatically.
This is a good use of computer technology: you add the software on top of the existing infrastructure and use it to detect operational gains without needing to make system-wide changes to all freight cars.
May 27, 2013
680 News is reporting on the latest attempt by Metrolinx to fund their mass transit pipe dreams:
Metrolinx is asking drivers to pay more to fund transit expansion across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA).
The transportation agency handed over its funding report to Queen’s Park on Monday.
The 25-year, $50-billion Big Move plan includes:
- 1 per cent increase to HST (generating $1.3 billion/year)
- 5-cent/litre gas tax (generating $330 million/year)
- Parking space levy (generating $350 million/year)
- 15 per cent development charge
Metrolinx CEO Bruce McCuaig said that will generate $2 billion annually for the transit expansion plan.
“Metrolinx is recommending that we have dedicated funds,” he said.
“We are also recommending that these funds be placed into a transportation trust fund to create certainty that The Big Move projects are delivered and to provide the accountability and transparency GTHA residents demand and deserve.”
Someone really should do a version of “The Monorail Song” from The Simpsons for the light rail fan club in Toronto.
August 31, 2012
At sp!ked, Neil Davenport reviews a new book about London’s iconic underground:
The closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics was notable for its groaning reliance on tourist-shop icons — all black cabs, bowler hats, Houses of Parliament, red pillar-boxes and Mini Coopers. In a dreary way, what could we expect? A tourist-shop portrayal of Britain is still internationally recognisable and, for the organisers, safe enough to avoid party-pooping controversy. Curiously, though, one famous figure of the capital was noticeable by its absence: the London Underground. With its roundel logo, distinctive trains and elegantly functional map, few landmarks of London are as richly iconic as this. Indeed, as a character player in umpteen films, novels and pop songs, no London setting would be complete without the Underground.
Throughout the network’s history, though, Londoners’ relationship with the Tube has often been uneasy and aggravating: overcrowding, delays, cancellations, the fare’s dent on the wallet and, for the middle classes, striking tube workers and their ‘inflated’ salary. Nevertheless, it is only when the Tube is not working properly that we become aware of its magnitude. Unlike Tower Bridge or Beefeaters, the Tube isn’t a remote or mythical symbol of London. It’s the living, working and organic lifeblood of the capital. It is the way in which millions of Londoners are able to work and play and thus, unlike Parliament, has meaning to ordinary people’s lives.
The boons and banes of the tube for Londoners (and visitors) are warmly captured in Andrew Martin’s Underground, Overground: A Passenger’s History of the Tube. A novelist and former ‘Tube Talk’ columnist for the London Evening Standard, Yorkshireman Martin pithily combines an authoritative history of the network’s development with personal reflections on his daily journeys. People can say they have become Londoners when they can navigate the vast system and reflect on its highs and lows, quirks and anomalies. Whether we admit it or not, Londoners will have their favourite stations and lines (the author’s is the Central line, mine the Victoria). They will notice the art décor splendour of Arnos Grove station or the beautifully rich tiles at Baker Street. They will curse themselves for falling asleep on the last tube (it’s that gentle rocking motion that sends you off to the Land of Nod) and waking up, as I have on numerous occasions, in High Barnet.
March 4, 2012
A post at Coyote Blog from last month looks at the eye-popping financial arrangements keeping the New Mexico “Railrunner” passenger service in operation:
Of course, as is typical, the Republic article had absolutely no information on costs or revenues, as for some reason the media has adopted an attitude that such things don’t matter for rail projects — all that matters is finding a few people to interview who “like it.” So I attempted to run some numbers based on some guesses from other similar rail lines, and made an educated guess that it had revenues of about $1.8 million and operating costs of at least $20 million, excluding capital charges. I got a lot of grief for making up numbers — surely it could not be that bad. Hang on for a few paragraphs, because we are going to see that its actually worse.
The equipment used in the New Mexico Railrunner operation looks remarkably similar to what GO Transit runs in the GTA:
Anyway, I got interested in checking back on the line to see how it was doing. I actually respected them somewhat for not running mid-day trains that would lose money, but my guess is that only running a few trains a day made the initial capital costs of the line unsustainable. After all, high fixed cost projects like rail require that one run the hell out of them to cover the original capital costs.
As it turns out, I no longer have to guess at revenues and expenses, they now seem to have crept into the public domain. Here is a recent article from the Albuquerque Journal. Initially, my eye was attracted to an excerpt that said the line was $4 million in the black.
[. . .]
Now it looks like taxes are covering over half the rail’s costs. But this implies that perhaps $10 million might be coming from users, right? Nope, keep reading all the way down to paragraph 11
The Rail Runner collects about $3.2 million a year in fares and has an annual operating budget of about $23.6 million. That does not include about $41.7 million a year in debt service on the bonds — a figure that include eventual balloon payments.
So it turns out that I was actually pretty close, particularly since my guess was four years ago and they have had some ridership increases and fare increases since.
At the end of the day, riders are paying $3.2 million of the total $65.3 million annual cost. Again, I repeat my reaction from four years ago to hearing that riders really loved the train. Of course they do — taxpayers (read: non-riders) are subsidizing 95.1% of the service they get. I wonder if they paid the full cost of the train ride — ie if their ticket prices were increased 20x — how they would feel about the service?
If all of that wasn’t enough, the financing arrangement has a nasty sting in the tail: in the mid 2020’s, the state will owe two separate payments of over $200 million. Enjoy the subsidized rides now, folks … the payment comes due just in time for your kids to face as they graduate.
May 27, 2011
I shared the link with Jon, my former virtual landlord, who responded:
Tonight’s nightmares are going to leave a mark.
I can only imagine what the flashbacks must be like for you, though. I suspect that these stations look remarkably like Sherway Gardens did to you and your friend after you guys went drinkin’ at the Steak’n’Burger.
If there is a 1970’s-era Sherway Gardens in Hell, this is what it looks like.
I had a similar reaction to the photos . . . strikingly ugly where they’re not just flat-out disturbing. But what else could we expect from publicly funded artists selected by public transit officials?
April 17, 2011
Ilkka is usually a pedestrian/public transit rider, so it’s quite a surprise when he looks at the world from the driver’s perspective:
It’s always good to see things from the other guy’s perspective, and today we went on errand to the city on a car, very different from my usual public transit and pedestrian viewpoint. I understand not just the complaints of drivers much better now, but also the notion of “high cost of free parking”. I thought it was absurd how the city of Toronto, by allowing curbside parking, effectively turns its perfectly good four-lane streets into narrow two-lane bottlenecks that massively throttle the traffic. And then all those freaking pedestrians crossing the streets wherever they feel like, something I basically never do. It actually wouldn’t be a bad idea to impose a law that not only is it never a crime to hit a pedestrian who is on the street anywhere else than the sidewalk or a crosswalk, but the city would actually pay a small reward for this service to society, bit like the “kill money” bounty that hunters traditionally get for putting down pests. The problem of pedestrians running around in the traffic would vanish within a week.
I think he’s kidding . . .
April 10, 2011
Could it be that the bike lobby actually has alienated the rest of America (and even New York), playing into stereotypes (Stuff White People Like #61) of spandex-wearing, pasty-legged effete liberals who think that the bicycle is a reasonable tool for, say, intra-Brooklyn house moves? No, says Streetsblog — it must be some sort of advertiser-driven conspiracy. (Does The New Yorker even have an auto section? How many car ads are there in the latest issue?) This article is of course absurd, but I think it’s a symptom of the way that many bike advocates lionize their preferred mode of transit, perhaps unknowingly prioritizing it above even other non-automobile modes.
Don’t get me wrong — I have no problem with bikes, and even bike lanes. I’ve seen the stats on the Prospect Park West lane, about how it’s improved safety without slowing down auto commutes, and I don’t doubt it for a second. But as much as we wish it weren’t so, political capital is an exhaustible resource, and only so many reforms can be made before voters and citizens start to punish the politicians making them. Janette Sadik-Khan is, realistically, only allowed to anger so many people by changes to the status quo — every bike lane she stripes is a Select Bus Service route that won’t be implemented, a Haitian dollar van driver who will be fined and imprisoned, an outer-borough resident who won’t be able to catch a cab because of the medallion system. The fundamental problem, in my opinion, is that bike lanes are very culturally-loaded, and the anger they produce — which translates directly into other projects being shot down — is out of proportion with their benefits.
December 21, 2010
July 6, 2010
Toronto’s traffic, recently noted as being the 2nd worst in the developed world, has had a string of one-off events recently to slow down our already sclerotic commutes:
Toronto, are you crying uncle yet?
First, the G20 Summit ground the downtown core to a halt, landing hundreds of people in jail and crippling all kinds of business.
And then came the Queen, laden with her dainty hats, her fancy BlackBerry, her 3D glasses and her entourage, stopping traffic wherever she goes. She brought with her the heat, the hot, hot heat so hot that even the sidewalks are sweating. And then a power outage plunged our beleaguered city into darkness.
And now: Bring on the Shriners.
Both the Queen and the Shriners will converge on Queen’s Park today, shutting down traffic all around the provincial legislature. More than 10,000 well-meaning men in their little red hats and teeny-weeny cars will parade down University Avenue at 1 p.m. Road closures are expected to last until 7 p.m., meaning they will still be in effect during the nightly commute.
Knowing that my usual parking lot would be inaccessible by the time I got downtown, I took the GO train in to Toronto’s Union Station. Last summer, when I took the train in, I just walked up University Avenue . . . which was swarming with Shriners today. I risked getting totally lost in the PATH underground system instead. Fortunately, I had a guide: I met my accountant walking into the Whitby GO station, so I just followed him up as far as Adelaide before venturing out into the muggy air. In the couple of blocks I walked north, I felt I was nearing the end of a marathon — I’m not a hot weather fan.