Friday, January 9, 2015

Undernews: The problem with today's streetcars

Undernews: The problem with today's streetcars

The problem with today's streetcars

This is the first article taking on the real streetcar problem that we've seen in the major media. Forty years ago we were enthusiastic about streetcars (which had once thrived in our DC and then were destroyed) as a more pragmatic, less costly, and more citizen friendly form of mass transit. But as time went on, we became much more favorable to designated bus lanes as cheaper and more practical than either a subway or streetcars. One of the things that moved us in this direction was the enormous increase in the cost of streetcars. As Washington's Metro showed the cost and transit disadvantages of new subway systems, attention turned to light rail. And as attention turned its way, its costs soared. For example, a 2.2 mile light rail system planned for St. Louis was to cost a quarter as much a similar length DC subway expansion did a few years back.So the light rail advantage has dropped from ten to one to four to one. 

Kevin Robillard, Politico - The Obama administration has sent more than a half-billion dollars to cities and counties in hopes of reviving the venerable American streetcar. But the renaissance is threatening to run off the tracks — imperiled by cost overruns, lower-than-expected ridership in some places and pockets of local resistance.

From D.C. to Atlanta, from San Antonio to Salt Lake City, streetcar projects have run into delays, cutbacks and other snags, and some have been scrapped altogether. The most dramatic recent example was November's demise of a $550 million, state-aided streetcar project in the liberal, traditionally pro-transit D.C. suburb of Arlington County, Va., which had turned politically toxic as its price tag more than doubled...

Supporters view streetcars as not just a method of transportation but as a means to fostering urban redevelopment and "livable," pedestrian-friendly communities, and local officials in cities like Tucson, Ariz., and Dallas credit the projects with revitalizing urban life.

Besides costs, critics point to other shortcomings in the projects. For example, they question whether streetcar lines that lack dedicated lanes — like the one on the way for Washington, D.C.'s H Street Northeast — are any better than buses that also must jockey with stop-and-go traffic.

[In DC, there have already been nine accidents involving the newly launched streetcar line - TPR]

In D.C., the H Street line is three years late in opening, marred by missteps like a test run in which the streetcar had to stand still for 15 minutes while an ambulance blocked its path. This fall, the District cut the size of its planned streetcar network from 20 miles to eight miles.

In Atlanta, a streetcar had two crashes in five days during its testing period, though passenger service was finally scheduled to start serving passengers Tuesday. Even in Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx's hometown of Charlotte, N.C., the mayor pro tem has openly predicted he expects the streetcar to "struggle." ...

An audit of the Portland streetcar system in December found the city had overestimated ridership by 19 percent and falsely claimed a perfect on-time record. In reality, the streetcar was on time only 82 percent of the time.

Sam Smith, DC Gazette 1975 -  Subways are the most expensive form of local mass transit.  For example, it costs over fifteen times as much per mile to  build a subway as it does to construct streetcar lines. .. Further, Robert Keith  of Alan Voorhees & Associates, who was one of the original  subway planners, says now that Metro's "rail costs would be  the highest [for a transit system] in the US on a cost-per-car-mile basis."   Besides serving as a luxury system for the downtown white  collar worker at the expense of mass transit for others, the  subway has other bad social effects. Since it requires high  density, it inevitably becomes a tail wagging the dog. Once committed to building a subway in a less than dense area like  Washington, people must be crowded around subway stops in a  'frantic effort to make the subway system pay for itself.' The  current mania for overdeveloping subway stops would have been  unnecessary had there been justification for the subway in the  first place. Instead, the neighborhoods Metro was supposed to  serve are being destroyed in order to serve Metro. 

Rather than competing with the auto, the subway is virtually unique among mass transit systems in that it offers no physical opposition to the car. Buses, jitneys and streetcars all  deprive the auto of street space and thereby help to encourage  transit ridership  What- the subway does compete with, and effectively, is other forms of mass transit. The .subway is designed to serve the same routes as the most profitable bus  lines. It drains off bus patronage thereby creating additional  bus deficits on top of its own losses.

Sam Smith, Progressive Review, 1993 - The city of Curitiba, Brazil, is using exclusive bus lanes  to speed mass transit. This idea, which we  unsuccessfully proposed for DC back in the 70s, allows  Curitiba's buses to travel at an average speed of 20 mph,  carrying 3.2 times as many passengers per hour as standard  buses. The system took six months to install. Says Mayor Jaime Lerner, "That means you don't have to waste a  generation building a subway." Curitiba's bus system  carries 1.3 million passengers annually, reports the  Brazilian Monthly, four times the number as Rio's subway.  The system uses boarding tubes and advance payment  of fares and has resulted in 28% of the city's car drivers  switching to mass transit.

Sam Smith, Great American Political Repair Manual, 1997 - Exclusive bus lanes can be easily and cheaply created on major arteries, especially if they run counter to the flow of automobile traffic. Buses can be made more efficient by giving them priority (through use of school bus-type flashing stop lights) when pulling in and out of bus stops.  Buses can have exterior bike racks to encourage mixed-mode use as they do in Portland, Seattle, and a number of California cities. Buses can be equipped with zappers to control signal lights. Through such efforts, urban bus transportation might become as least as good as the shuttle service at the average airport or theme park.

"Let's live on the planet as if we intend to stay."

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