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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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’s 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.
Another day; another city getting scammed by the streetcar mafia. In this case, it is Sacramento, a city that has built 37 miles of light-rail lines and seen transit’s share of commuting fall from 4.1 percent in 1980, before light rail, to 3.2 percent in 2010.
In 2006, Sacramento’s metropolitan transportation plan admitted that, despite past plans focusing on “luring drivers out of their autos,” the share of transit riders was decreasing; and despite building no new roads and seeing huge increases in congestion, the amount of auto driving had doubled since 1980 (see page 3). So naturally, the plan recommended more of the same.
Apparently, that still didn’t work, because now they want to try something new. Since light rail wasn’t fixing any problems, they want to build 18 miles of streetcar lines costing $816 million, or $45 million a mile. The plan calls for a $125-$135 million “starter line” of 2.55 miles that will also share 0.75 miles of rails with light rail, reducing the light-rail line’s capacity to move people, which isn’t an issue because so few people ride the light rail.
Garl Boyd Latham, of the Texas Association of Railroad Passengers, predicts that San Antonians will be “pleased by streetcars once they are running.” His response to the Antiplanner’s op ed critiquing the city’s streetcar plan basically amounts to, “don’t confuse me with the facts; I know what I believe.”
To be precise, Latham says, “An astute man can prove anything he wanted with facts and figures,” then argues that the Antiplanner “manufactured an artificial reality through the manipulation of facts.”
One of those supposed manipulations is my claim that streetcars cost more than buses. Latham admits the capital costs are high but claims that, once built, streetcars have “a minimum life expectancy of a half-century or longer,” which will be surprise to the Federal Transit Administration (or just about anyone in the transit industry), which says streetcar vehicles last about 25 years, and other streetcar infrastructure lasts no more than 30 years. Not even counting maintenance, FTA data clearly show that streetcars cost far more to operate–either per vehicle mile or per passenger mile–than buses.
The Antiplanner spent much of last week in San Antonio releasing a review of the city’s plans for a downtown streetcar. The trip turned out to be a lot more hectic (and with a lot less Internet access) than I expected, which is why I made so few posts last week.
Sometimes I wonder if streetcars are tests of intelligence or gullibility, as they are such bad ideas it is hard to believe that cities are falling all over themselves to fund them. As I point out in my report, 100 years ago, both streetcars and automobiles went at average speeds of about 8 miles per hour. Today, autos routinely cruise at 80 mph (at least in Texas), but San Antonio’s proposed streetcar will still go at just 8 mph.
The Antiplanner’s report for San Antonio is called “The Streetcar Fantasy,” partly because the feasibility study for the San Antonio streetcar is filled with fabrications and imaginary data. For example, page 68 the study discusses how the Boise streetcar was financed and page 69 discusses how the Arlington, Virginia streetcar contributed to economic development–yet neither Boise or Arlington have streetcars.