Charlie Hales is the Portland city commissioner who admitted that rail transit doesn’t lead to economic development, so he demanded that the city subsidize such development. Then, he persuaded the rest of the city council to build a streetcar line, subsidized development along that line, and proudly proclaimed that streetcars led to economic development. He spun that line into a high-paying job for a consulting firm convincing Atlanta, Cincinnati, and other cities to build streetcar lines, and is now back in Portland running for mayor.
In his campaign, he says, “streetcars carry more people than buses. Because you attract more riders who don’t ride transit now. And actually the operating costs are not any greater than the bus.” The Oregonian‘s PolitiFact column decided to check this out.
“On whether streetcars carry more people than buses, there is no ambiguity,” claims PolitiFact. “Streetcars have a maximum capacity of 92 riders, according to Fetsch. Thatâ€™s nearly double the 51 or so riders who can fit on a single bus.” That’s dead wrong because, in addition to the capacity of individual vehicles, you have to consider frequency. For safety reasons, streetcars must be separated at least two or three minutes apart. Buses can run on downtown streets every 22 seconds. That means, even if a single bus has only half the capacity of the streetcar, a bus line has three more times the capacity of a streetcar line.
On the question of operating cost, the paper also claims little ambiguity: “the streetcar operations cost $1.50 per boarding ride, while the bus costs $2.82.” Again, dead wrong. They are comparing a streetcar that connects the most densely populated residential neighborhood in the city with the greatest concentration of jobs in the city with buses that run deep into low-density suburbs. This is simply not a valid comparison. If they compared bus routes in the urban core, the average ridership of those buses would only have to be a little higher than the region-wide average for buses to be more efficient.
On the question of whether streetcars attract more riders than buses, the paper admits there is some ambiguity and cites a two-decade-old report and some current data that is rather inconclusive. It doesn’t mention that Eugene, Oregon managed to more than double bus ridership by simply painting some buses some bright colors and calling them “bus-rapid transit” even though they were no more rapid than the previous buses. In other words, the ambiance of rails can be achieved just as well with buses.
In any case, the paper gives Hales a pass. Too bad they didn’t consult any real experts. Oh wait, they did: they called John Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute. But they ignored all of the facts he presented refuting Hales’ claims. (He says he is going to post his response here but hasn’t done it as of this writing.)