Quotulatiousness

July 14, 2015

Washington’s streetcars

Filed under: Economics,Government,Railways,USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

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.”

July 4, 2015

Reason.tv – The Secret Scam of Streetcars

Filed under: Bureaucracy,Government,Railways,USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

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.

Watch the full video above, or click below for downloadable versions. And subscribe to Reason TV’s YouTube channel for daily content like this.

June 16, 2015

Light rail is usually not the solution you need for better public transit

Filed under: Economics,Railways,USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

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).

Phoenix light rail ridership

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

Toronto’s streetcars

Filed under: Cancon,Railways — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

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

Light rail – cool but ultra-expensive. Buses – cheap and flexible but lack glamour

Filed under: Economics,Government,Railways,USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

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

Misallocating infrastructure spending

Filed under: Economics,Government,USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

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

In praise of the bus, but not “the buses”

Filed under: Britain,Economics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

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

London’s Transport System During World War Two – 1941

Filed under: Britain,History,Railways — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

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

The urban light-rail mania

Filed under: Economics,Environment,Politics,Railways,Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:04

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

QotD: The light rail obsession among municipal politicians

Filed under: Government,Quotations,Railways — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

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

Streetcars – trying to use 19th century technology for 21st century problems

Filed under: Economics,Railways,USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 07:13

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

Toronto transit map, with real-world station descriptions

Filed under: Cancon,Humour,Railways — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 10:56

Tyler Snowden tweeted this last year and Andrew Coyne retweeted it today:

TTC map in real life

April 21, 2014

Toronto subway delay due to “graffiti on exterior” of one train

Filed under: Cancon — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 08:27

No, I don’t really get it either:

December 2, 2013

London’s Underground system

Filed under: Britain,History,Railways — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 09:07

H/T to Eric Kirkland for the link.

June 23, 2013

Brazilian protests were triggered by bus fare hike, but sustained by many more grievances

Filed under: Americas,Government,Soccer — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:09

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.

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress