Published on 1 Jul 2015
Meet the Thighmaster of urban public policy: Streetcars.
Municipal politicians all across the country have convinced themselves that this costly, clunky hardware can revitalize their flabby downtown economies.
That includes the fearless leaders of America’s capital city. The DC government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the last decade trying to erect a streetcar line in the up-and-coming neighborhood of H Street. The project has been an epic disaster, perfectly demonstrating how ill-suited streetcars are to modern urban life.
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July 4, 2015
June 16, 2015
At Coyote Blog, a look at the new Phoenix light rail system’s miraculous ability to stall the growth in public transit usage:
As I have written before, Phoenix has seen its total transit ridership flat to down since it built its light rail line. This after years of 6-10% a year increases in ridership. Most cities, even the oft-worshipped Portland, has seen the same thing. Here is the chart for Phoenix (if you look closely, you can see how they fudged the bar scaling to make light rail ridership increases look better).
The reason is that per passenger, or per mile, or per route, or whatever way you want to look at it, rail systems are 1-2 orders of magnitude more expensive than buses. Since most cities are reluctant to increase their spending on transit 10-100x when they build trains (and to be fair, proponents of rail projects frequently make this worse by fibbing about future costs and revenue expectations), what happens is that bus routes are cut to fund rail lines. But since buses are so much cheaper, 10 units of bus capacity, or more, must be cut for each one unit of rail capacity.
By the way, beyond the obvious harm to taxpayers, the other people hurt by this are the poor who are disproportionately bus users. Rail systems almost always go from middle/upper class suburbs to business districts and seldom mirror the transit patterns of the poor. Middle class folks who wouldn’t be caught dead on a bus love the trains, but these same folks already have transportation alternatives. The bus lines that get cut to fund the trains almost always serve much lower income folks with fewer alternatives.
This comment from slocum may show the hidden intent in many cities’ drive to replace bus routes with light rail services:
BTW, am I the only one who suspects that there might be a little method to the madness of building light rail and cutting back on bus service? Isn’t it a pretty effective way to drive gentrification by making cities more attractive to the well-off and less so to the poor?
Come for the shiny new light rail system. Stay for the snobbery and active shunning of the poor!
March 15, 2015
In a post somewhat misleadingly titled “Narrow-gauge railways”, David Warren comments on Toronto’s still-extant streetcars:
We have trolleys still, in Toronto. For decades the bureaucrats have been trying to get rid of them, and replace them with “environmental” buses, but praise the Lord, He has always put something in their way. I mentioned gauge earlier, and I wanted to explain what makes the city so special. It is the unique gauge of our trolley tracks: four feet, ten and seven-eighths. Our new, articulated, “environmental” streetcars — high-tech and incredibly expensive, compared even to the last round of million-dollar cars — had to be specially adapted to this gauge. It was selected in the nineteenth century by the city fathers, and for good reason: so that no other train in Canada, or on the planet for that matter, could ride on our rails. They were prissy, these fine old Orangemen: they didn’t want freight trains shunting downtown, the way they then did in Hamilton and elsewhere, with their steam and coal-dust billowing everywhere. They wanted electric, “environmental” streetcars. The Greater Parkdale Area has been under the tyranny of the do-goods for a long time.
Actually, if I remember correctly, the streetcar gauge was adopted more to keep out the radial railway companies than to prevent freight from intruding into Toronto’s urban streets.
February 11, 2015
At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum looks at the image problem of buses compared to the seemingly irresistable pull of light rail (at least to municipal politicians looking to overspend and under-deliver):
Josh Barro thinks our cities are building too much light rail. It’s expensive, often slow, and offers virtually no advantage over simply opening up a bus line. The problem, according to a 2009 report from the Federal Transit Administration, is that “Bus-based public transit in the United States suffers from an image problem.” But what if transit agencies tackled that image problem head on?
So perhaps we need a two-pronged marketing campaign if we want to attract more suburbanites onto buses. They need to be convinced that new bus lines are both bourgeois1 and safe. I might add that although Barro doesn’t highlight this particular feature, the Orange Line mentioned in the report also has “high frequencies.” That’s a key feature too, and it costs money. But it still costs less to run a high-frequency bus than an above-ground light rail system.
Maybe we need more celebrities to ride the bus. I’ll bet if George Clooney took the bus to work, it would suddenly become a lot more popular. You’d probably need to increase service to accommodate all the paparazzi, but surely that’s a small price to pay?
1I confess to some curiosity here. Did focus group participants really refer to the Orange Line as a “bourgeois bus”? That seems a bit unlikely to me.
February 8, 2015
Randal O’Toole on the problems with directing your infrastructure spending on the basis of ideology rather than economic efficiency:
For the past two decades or so, however, much of our transportation spending has focused on infrastructure that is slower, more expensive, less convenient, and often more dangerous than before. Too many cities have given up on trying to relieve congestion. Instead, they have allowed it to grow while they spend transportation dollars (nearly all paid by auto users) on other forms of travel such as rail transit. Such transportation is:
- Slower: Where highway speeds even in congested cities average 35 miles per hour or more, the rail transit lines built with federal dollars mostly average 15 to 20 mph.
- More expensive: In 2013, Americans auto users spent less than 45 cents per vehicle mile (which means, at average occupanies of 1.67 people per car, about 26 cents per passenger mile), and subsidies to roads average under a penny per passenger mile. By comparison, transit fares are also about 26 cents per passenger mile, but subsidies are 75 cents per passenger mile.
- Less convenient: Autos can go door to door, while transit requires people to walk or use other forms of travel, often at both ends of the transit trip.
- Less safe: For every billion passenger miles carried, urban auto accidents kill about 5 people, while light rail kills about 12 people and commuter trains kill 9. Only subways and elevateds are marginally safer than auto travel, at 4.5, but we haven’t built many of those lately.
Not surprisingly, most transit projects lead to almost no new travel. Yet their backers claim this is a virtue. They have demonized the new travel generated by the interstates by calling it “induced demand.” They have celebrated transportation projects that generate no new travel but merely get people to shift from one mode to another, usually more expensive, mode as “sustainable.”
Even when cities spend money on roads, they often spent it making travel slower, less convenient, and more dangerous. Many cities are doing various forms of what planners euphemistically called “traffic calming,” meaning narrowing streets, putting barriers in roads, and turning one-way streets into two-way streets. The overt goal is to slow down traffic, and it often has the side effect of making it more dangerous for both auto users and pedestrians.
A very simple test can determine whether any particular transportation project will be faster, cheaper, more convenient, and/or safer than before: Will the users themselves pay for it? Users will pay for real improvements in transportation; they won’t pay for slower, more expensive, less convenient, and more dangerous transportation.
January 7, 2015
Over at The Register, someone accidentally let Simon Rockman get up on his hobby horse and start yelling nasty things about buses:
A bus is a fantastically efficient way to move a large number of people. Buses however are not. They are a dreadful system for getting people to work.
The difference is not as subtle as that sentence may make it seem. What lies behind it is that when you want to move a large number of people from one place to another all at once, a works outing for instance, a Charabanc makes perfect sense.
But it doesn’t scale. If you want to travel by bus there needs to be a regular service. That means lots of buses have to waft up and down a route in anticipation of there being someone who wants to get on. In a major city, and I live in London, that’s good for some of the time. So long as there is a steady supply of people there can be a good number on the bus. This of course doesn’t work very early in the morning or late at night when there are not enough people.
What’s worse is that buses don’t go from where people live to where they work. Unless you live by a bus stop, in which case you have the kinds of people who hang around bus stops hanging around your house, you’ll have to walk to it. The same is true at the other end. Then you have to wait for the bus. If I walk down to my nearest bus stop and a bus arrives as I get there I think it’s a fantastic, special happening. If I walk out of my house and my car is there I think “that’s normal”.
December 11, 2014
Published on 31 Mar 2013
Filmed after the start of the Blitz, ‘City Bound’ is an exploration of the daily commute into London from the suburbs in 1941.
‘Between half past five and ten o’clock each morning five million people are moved from home to work by London’s transport system. Before this can be done, underground and overground transport must be cleaned and refuelled. Then from the outer ring of London, past green fields and suburban gardens, the move into London begins. Trains, motor omnibuses, and electric trams bring hundreds of thousands into the centre of the city, to work in the shops, offices, and factories of the largest city in the world.’
(Films of Britain – British Council Film Department Catalogue – 1941)
December 5, 2014
If you live in a city, chances are that the politicians of your ‘burgh are talking light rail. Unless, of course, you already are suffering under the burden of a light rail project snarling traffic during construction … and snarling traffic in operation. Light rail, in general, is an attempt to resurrect the streetcar era by vast infusions of tax dollars. It’s an attempt to solve a traffic management problem in one of the more inefficient ways possible: to get a few people out of their cars and into modern streetcars instead.
I’m not anti-rail by any means. I travel five days a week on a heavy rail commuter train that does a pretty fair job of getting me where I need to go in a timely and economical fashion. Worse than that, I’m a railway fan — as I’ve mentioned before, I founded a railway historical society. I’m not against light rail due to some sort of anti-rail bias … I’m against it because it’s almost always too expensive, too inflexible, and too politicized.
Georgi Boorman wonders why so many cities are still falling into the light rail trap:
In a previous piece, I discussed the radical ideological roots of the mass transit scam. There are some, such as Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant (who urged Boeing factory workers to seize control of the plant and begin building mass transit) who believe centralization and a complete shift to mass transit are crucial for cities’ futures. Others simply buy into this myth that light rail and trolleys will somehow elevate their cities to the next level of sophistication — the very prospect of which is ignorant, at best, and self-indulgent, at worst.
The overwhelming evidence shows that these mass transit projects do little to improve our quality of life, in terms of easing congestion and expanding access to jobs and, despite popular perception, have no significant net environmental benefits since they rarely succeed in their express goal of removing cars from the road or decreasing congestion-induced idle times, a frequently cited contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions. As the satirical online newspaper The Onion reported, “98% of Americans favor public transportation for others.” That statistic may be fake, but we’ve all experienced the sentiment.
Even the writers of The Simpsons seem to understand the comical nature of light-rail adoption in American cities, brilliantly satirizing the salesmanship by transit authorities. The salesman, “Lyle Lanley,” begins by comparing the Simpsons’ town of Springfield to Shelbyville. “This is more of a Shelbyville idea,” he says slowly, turning his back to the crowd. “Now, wait a minute!” the Springfield mayor responds hastily, “We’re just as smart as the people of Shelbyville—just tell us your idea and we’ll vote for it!”
Gleefully, Lanley begins his presentation; with a grand sweeping gesture, the salesman uncovers a model of the city, complete with buildings, trees, and a brand new Springfield Monorail zooming through the town on its miniature tracks. Holding up a map labeled with all the towns to which he’s sold monorails, he exclaims, “By gum, it put them on the map!” Continuing his pitch, Langley heightens the townspeople’s imaginations and sells them on the “novel” idea of their very own monorail.
In other words, the buy-in had nothing to do with demand for a certain kind of transportation, and everything to do with wanting do the same as other cities that have, or are building, the same thing. Of course, 50 years ago the Seattle Center monorail (built by the German company Alweg) could easily have been said to have elevated the Emerald City at the 1962 World’s Fair, being the cutting-edge of rail technology at the time; but building monorails, light rails, and streetcars in 2014 is a regressive move that mirrors the past rather than engages with the present while leaving room for future innovation.
November 8, 2014
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.
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.