Warren Meyer isn’t a fan of streetcars in general, but he views the Washington DC streetcar project as being particularly deserving of scorn:
I am increasingly convinced that the appeal of streetcars and light rail has everything to do with class. From any rational perspective, these systems make no sense — they are 10-100x more expensive than buses and lack the flexibility that buses have to adjust to shifting demand patterns over time. A single extra lane of highway adds more capacity than any light rail line.
Streetcar’s single, solitary advantage is that middle and upper class whites who would not be caught dead on a bus seem to be willing to ride streetcars. I don’t know if this is because of some feature of the streetcars (they are shiny and painted pretty) or if it is some sort of self-segregation (the upper classes want to ride on something that is not filled with “riffraff”).
He also points out that even Vox.com can’t make the case for streetcars particularly well:
The arguments are:
- Tourists like them, because you can’t get lost like you can on buses. My response is, “so what.” Unless you are one of a very few unique cities, tourists are a trivial percentage of transit riders anyway. Why build a huge system just to serve out-of-town visitors? I would add that many of these same cities (e.g. Las Vegas) considering streetcars are the same ones banning Uber, which tourists REALLY love.
- Developers like them. Ahh, now we are getting somewhere. So they are corporate welfare? But not so fast, they are not even very good corporate welfare. Because most of the studies they cite are total BS, of the same quality as studies that say sports stadium construction spurs all sorts of business. In fact, most cities have linked huge tax abatement and subsidy programs to their streetcars, such that the development you get with the subsidy and the streetcar is about what you would expect from the subsidies alone. Reminds me of the old joke that mimicked cereal commercials: “As part of a breakfast with juice, toast, and milk, Trix cereal has all the nutrition of juice, toast, and milk.”
- Good for the environment. But even Vox asks, “as compared to what.” Since they are generally an alternative buses, as compared to buses that have little environmental advantage and often are worse (they have a lot more weight to drag around when empty).
- The Obama Administration likes them. LOL, that’s a recommendation? When you read the text, what they actually say is that mayors like the fact that the Obama Administration likes them, for it means the Feds will throw lots of Federal money at these projects to help mayors look good using other peoples’ money.
- Jobs. This is hilarious Keynesianism, trying to make the fact that streetcars are 10-100x more expensive than buses some sort of positive. Because they are more inefficient, they employ more people! One could make the exact same argument for banning mechanical harvesters and going back to scythes. Left unquestioned, as Bastiat would tell us, is how many people that money would have employed if it had not been seized by the government for streetcar use.
- Je ne sais quoi. I kid you not, that is their final argument, that streetcars add that special something to a neighborhood. In my mind, this is Vox’s way of saying the same thing I did the other day — that the streetcar’s appeal is primarily based on class, in that middle and upper class folks don’t want to ride on a bus with the masses. The streetcar feels more upscale than buses. The poor of course, for whom public transit is most vital, don’t want to pay 10 times more for sexiness.
Every argument I have ever been in on streetcars always boils down to something like “well, all the cool kids like them.”