Tag Archives: streetcars

Streetcars and Commuter Trains Are Hot

Ridership on Atlanta’s new streetcar is 18 percent below projections–and the projections assumed patrons would be charged a $1 fare, but (as of the date of the ridership numbers) the city was still offering free introductory rides. Meanwhile, operating costs have proven to be a mere 50 percent more than projected.

Washington, DC’s new streetcar hasn’t yet opened for business, but it has already proven to be hot–as in one of the streetcars being tested on H Street caught fire the other day. DC residents aren’t exactly looking forward to the streetcar, which is increasing traffic congestion and slowing bus service in the corridor. This is just one more example, locals note, of “corporate welfare and the edifice complex.”

Just outside of DC, a new report reveals that the Maryland Transit Administration has done a poor job of tracking consultant costs on the proposed Purple and Red lines. This doesn’t bode well for taxpayers if construction ever begins on these two lines, both of which are expected to cost more than $2 billion.

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Cities Want Federal Grants

Here’s another article claiming that the fact that cities are foolish enough to accept federal grants to build streetcars proves that “America has a renewed desire for streetcars.” The article then lists eleven streetcar projects–some of them under construction, others still in early planning phases–as evidence.

One of the projects is in Kansas City, where less than a year ago voters rejected a plan to expand the starter-system funded by the feds. Another city was Milwaukee, where voters have repeatedly rejected light rail, commuter trains, and other rail boondoggles. A third city was Cincinnati, where voters elected a mayor who promised to cancel the streetcar–but was unable to override the majority of the city council. Considering opposition to streetcars in Arlington, San Antonio, and other cities, there is hardly a groundswell of support for these obsolete systems.

The pro-streetcar article is on a website called FutureStructure, which is basically a rah-rah site for people interested in profiting off of government infrastructure spending. Many readers no doubt drooled over the 11 streetcar projects in the article whose average cost was $37 million per mile, ranging as high as $79 million in one case. Considering that it costs less than a quarter of that average to build a mile of four-lane urban freeway and that streetcars are slower than buses and have far lower capacities, these are insane amounts to spend–unless of course, you are the one profiting from government contracts.

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Transportation Views

A couple of the Antiplanner’s faithful allies have presented recent research that is worth noting. First, Alan Pisarski, perhaps the nation’s leading expert on commuting trends, takes a look at highway use and the induced demand myth.

His first conclusion is that the recent halt in the growth of driving is due to the economy. Inflation-adjusted per capita incomes today are still below what they were in 2007, so it is natural to expect that driving would be lower. In 2013, however, auto purchases grew and he anticipates that miles of driving will soon start growing at least in pace with the population.

Second, Pisarski points out that new highways may result in more driving, but this is a positive benefit, not an argument for not building more roads. Highway “expansion improves and expands choice for both previous and new users,” he says. “Wouldn’t it be nice if transportation did not impede people from acting on their economic and social interests?”

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More Rail Fail

Two more rail transit lines are following in the tracks of so many others that have failed to live up to planners’ promises. First, Orlando’s SunRail commuter train is “losing riders at an increasing pace.” The project, which cost a billion dollars and was built partly to persuade the federal government that Florida was serious about supporting an Orlando-Tampa high-speed rail line, has lost 27 percent of its riders since it opened.


SunRail Fail. Flickr photo by Buddahbless.

Second, Seattle’s seven-year-old South Lake Union Transit (SLUT) streetcar has continually failed to attracted the predicted number of riders. Both the SLUT and SunRail were counting on rider fares to help pay operating costs; the SLUT’s shortfall has required repeated bailouts of the line.

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Living in a Fantasy World

Here’s more evidence that rail transit advocates–in this case, streetcar supporters–are totally delusional: proponents of a 7.4-mile Columbia Pike streetcar in Arlington, Virginia, estimate that the streetcar line will carry 42,800 people per day in 2035. That’s nearly 5,800 daily boardings per mile of streetcar line, which is more than twice as great than the most heavily used streetcar lines in the country. It is even greater than all but one light-rail line and only 20 percent less than the Washington MetroRail system.

According to the 2012 National Transit Database, the most heavily used lines that the Federal Transit Administration currently defines as streetcars are in Philadelphia, which carried nearly 85,000 people per weekday (see the service spreadsheet for weekday trips and the fixed guideway spreadsheet for directional route miles–divide directional route miles by 2 to get route miles). But there are 108 route miles of such lines for an average of just 780 boardings per mile. The streetcar line that attracted the most passengers per mile in 2012 was in Portland (probably because it was nearly free), and it attracted 2,670 weekday riders per mile–less than half of the projection for the Arlington streetcar.

“The Columbia Pike corridor currently has the highest transit ridership within the Commonwealth for a corridor without fixed guideway service,” say streetcar supporters. They think the “high-capacity” streetcar will handle this ridership and attract even more riders. But not even most light-rail lines, whose capacities are several times greater than streetcars, attract 5,000 riders per day.

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Coping With Too Much Money

According to pro-rail transit Metro magazine, American cities face a dilemma: the demand for rail transit continues to grow, yet there is a scarcity of federal dollars to pay for it. Fortunately, writer Cliff Henke continues, cities have come up with innovative ways to get around this scarcity.

In fact, most of the things the article says are wrong or, at least, they indicate that cities have too much money, not a shortage. If it weren’t for this surfeit of funds, cities wouldn’t plan ridiculously expensive rail lines that, in most cases, do nothing for transit riders or transportation users in general. This is shown by all of the examples in his article.

The Overpriced Los Angeles Subway: The first example in the article is Los Angeles’ Westside Subway, which will be less than four miles long yet is expected to cost well over $2.8 billion, or more than $725 million per mile. This insane project is expected to attract just 7,700 new transit riders per day. That means the cost of getting one person out of their car for one trip on the subway will be $65. (I calculated this by amortizing the capital costs over 30 years at 2 percent interest, multiplying the daily new trips by 315, which is the average weekday trips per year on L.A.’s existing subway, and dividing annual new trips into the sum of the annual operating and annualized capital costs.)

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Left-Wing Streetcar Skeptics Don’t Get It

More left-wing writers are expressing skepticism of the streetcars that have been infecting so many American cities. They aren’t anti-rail transit, they say, just anti-bad rail transit.

“Too many new streetcars are being deployed as economic engines first and mobility tools second (if at all)” says Atlantic writer Eric Jaffe. However, “if they run in dedicated lanes and with high frequencies as part of a wider network, they can perform quite well.” That all depends on how you define “perform.”

Streetcars have a huge disadvantage over almost all other transit: their extremely low capacities. Dedicated lanes or not, they can only move about 2,000 people per hour (about 100 people per streetcar about 20 times per hour). Combine this limited capacity with their high cost and streetcars are a huge waste compared with buses that can easily move 10,000 or more people per hour at a much lower cost.

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Farewell to an Honest Planner

I never met Sir Peter Hall, who died last week, but I feel like I’ve lost an old friend. His books helped guide me through the history of urban planning and its growing obsession with densification.

Cities in Civilization is his most-frequently mentioned book, mainly because its 1,129 pages made it such a formidable reference. Though I have two copies of that book, the book I really love is Cities of Tomorrow, which traced the history of the urban planning profession.

In it, Hall noted that the earliest urban planners were anarchists who sought to free the working class from their high-density hovels. But that changed when Le Corbusier, who Hall called “the Rasputin of the tale” of urban planning, proposed that all cities should consist solely of high-rises. Planners flocked to this idea, and after World War II, nations all over the world rebuilt their slums or bombed-out areas into high rises. Far from freeing the working class from density, planning became all about forcing the working class into density.

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Streetcar Skeptics

The Antiplanner and Matt Yglesias don’t agree on a lot, but we agree that streetcars are a stupid idea. He points out that the Washington DC streetcar now under construction “will make mass transit slower and less convenient” and that it is not only slow, but it “slows the buses down.”

Similarly, Seattle transit advocate Bruce Nourish calls streetcars “a momentary lapse of reason.” Both Yglesias and Nourish dislike streetcars partly because they fear they divert resources from their goal of building rail transit lines that have exclusive rights of way, like Seattle’s $626 million per mile University Link light-rail line or Northern Virginia’s $3,900 per inch Silver Line.

On the other hand, Robert Steuteville, who believes in “better cities and towns” (meaning, presumably, ones with fewer automobiles) argues that streetcars are good even though they are slow and expensive. Why? Because they “can result in billions of dollars in economic development.” His evidence for this is, of course, Portland, which (he fails to mention) spent nearly a billion dollars subsidizing the development along most of its streetcar line–and got virtually no economic development on the part of the line where it didn’t offer developers any subsidies.

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Streetcars Pro and Con

Last week, the San Antonio Express News published a pair of op eds for and against construction of a downtown streetcar. In opposition was Representative Lamar Smith, whose congressional district includes parts of both San Antonio and Austin.

A streetcar, he wrote, would be expensive, impractical, and would “likely make congestion worse.” “There are better uses for the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars now slated for streetcars,” Smith observed, adding that most residents of San Antonio seem to oppose it and should at least have the chance to vote on it.

Writing in support of the streetcar was planner Bill Barker of Imagine San Antonio, a smart-growth group. Barker was previously the Senior Management Analyst in the City of San Antonio‚Äôs Office of Sustainability. Barker’s argument in favor of the streetcar was simple: the people who oppose the streetcar are evil, so should be ignored.

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