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.
Yesterday, the MacIver Institute published the Antiplanner’s study of a proposed streetcar line in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In response, I received the following intriguing email.
I know this letter will come as a surprise to you, but I hope you will read it in detail. My name is Chuck Hails, and I am the executor of the estate of a man who has the same last name as yours. When he passed away recently without any heirs, he left an estate of $2 billion. I am willing to share this estate with you by investing, in your name, in a blighted area of your city.
The late billionaire whose estate I represent was very fond of streetcars, so to make this investment appear legitimate, all you will have to do is buy some streetcars; four or five will do. I happen to know of a factory in the Czech Republic that can sell you these streetcars for less than $2 million each.
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.
Arlington County, Virginia wants to spend $261 million building a streetcar line that, just four years ago, was expected to cost $100 million less. The streetcar’s costs are now expected to average $50 million a mile.
That’s quite literally insane. When San Diego built the first modern light-rail line, which opened in 1981, it cost about $15 million a mile in today’s dollars. But as more cities built light rail, costs soon rose to $50 million a mile on the average, with some coming in at more than $200 a mile.
Then, in 1999, Portland decided to built a streetcar line, which was billed as a “low-cost alternative” to light rail. Yet Portland’s original line cost $20 million a mile, more than San Diego’s original light-rail line. Now $50 million a mile is considered “comparable to similar projects across the nation.”