PolitiFact Gets the Facts Wrong

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. That’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.)

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11 thoughts on “PolitiFact Gets the Facts Wrong

  1. JimKarlock

    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.
    Say What!
    The average street car ride is just a few blocks and free!
    It appears to cost about $1.67 per passenger-mile while the bus averages $0.85 with the lowest cost bus costing $0.34. Light rail costs $0.43 without capital costs and around $1 when you include capital costs. see:

    Thanks
    JK

    JimKarlock Reply:

    see: http://www.portlandfacts.com/transit/cost-cars-transit%282005%29b.htm

    and

    portlandfacts.com/top10bus.html

    Thanks
    JK

    the highwayman Reply:

    Karlock that’s bullshit, if government treated railroads the same way they treat roads, we wouldn’t have as many problems today!

    prk166 Reply:

    What problems would we not have? Would we still have democracy in Mali? Would after 100+ years of trying would we have a found a means to efficiently produce cellulosic ethanol? Cancer would be cured? I’m curious how near 100% ownership by the government would solve problems.

    the highwayman Reply:

    You, O’Toole and Karlock haven’t got any thing to complain about.

  2. bennett

    “On whether streetcars carry more people than buses, there is no ambiguity…”

    You both got it wrong. The question was not, “Which mode has the ‘potential’ to carry the most people,” but “whether streetcars carry more people than buses.” I would think a data hound such as yourself wouldn’t jump so quickly to hypothetical and theoretical examples when the real world proves your point much more clearly. There’s so many more functionality issues involved in the real world application of public transit that it drives me nuts when all we focus on is capacity.

    Capacity only matters if the seats are filled.

  3. transitboy

    The claim that streetcars can only operate every 2 to 3 minutes is completely false. Toronto streetcars, especially on the 510 Spadina Line, routinely operate at headways less than every 2 minutes. As for buses – sure, as long as they do not have to stop anywhere they can be 22 seconds apart. But if you expect them to stop to load and unload passengers there is no way you can have them operate that frequently. In any case, if we regularly schedule transit vehicles less than 5 minutes apart we are going to have lots of vehicle bunching, and altogether slower running times, unless we can ensure 2 or more loading bays at each stop, which is highly unlikely in an urban environment where the loss of parking spaces is looked down upon.

    Andrew Reply:

    SEPTA in Philadelphia schedules 70 trolley cars per hour in the Market Street Tunnel in each direction.

    Apparently 60 minutes divided by 70 trolleys = 2 or 3 minutes between trolleys in Anti-Planner math.

  4. MJ

    “Streetcars have a maximum capacity of 92 riders, according to Fetsch. That’s nearly double the 51 or so riders who can fit on a single bus.”

    I don’t know what kind of buses Portland is using, but I have been on a bus with more than 92 people before.

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