I don’t always agree with Tony the Economist, but he usually brings a unique and intelligent perspective. In this comment, he lays out the main points in the argument for streetcars with characteristic deftness. I don’t agree with his characterization of the SLUT as “ridiculous”, or its ridership as “poor“, but regardless this is a great read:
“The investment in streetcars, as with ETBs, is capital costs vs operating costs since the vehicles are more efficient and last longer than a diesel bus.”
Actually, it’s not. Streetcars have higher operating costs than buses per service hour. Streetcars have slightly higher capacity than articulated buses, so it is conceivable that they could have slightly lower operating costs per passenger hour than an equivalent bus, but there are currently no routes with high enough ridership to make that theoretical possibility relevant.
No, streetcars are not cheaper. The justification for streetcars lies in the fact that they generate greater benefits than equivalent bus, not in lower operating costs.
The benefits of streetcars relative to buses are higher ridership, in particular, the ability to attract a different kind of rider: the middle class choice rider, and the ability to catalyze development. These advantages do not, as you suggest, stem from the fact that streetcars are a “novelty”.
More after the jump…
Middle Class Riders
Streetcars have the following advantages:
1.) Smoother, quieter, and more comfortable.
2.) Easier to understand given the visual cue provided by the tracks and stations.
3.) A cultural perception that they are “classy”. Buses are perceived by many to be a social service for the chronically poor. This results in a cultural stigma against buses. Many potential riders do not ride buses because of this stigma. Subtle racism is also a part of the equation.
Each of these advantages could, in principle, be achieved with rubber-tired vehicles. Buses are uncomfortable primarily because of poorly maintained streets, aging vehicles and poor interior vehicle design. One need only ride one of Vancouver’s new electric trolly buses on a well maintained road to see how close a bus can be brought to the “streetcar experience”.
With respect to ease of understanding, a number of visual cues can be employed with buses including streetcar style stations, banners, electric trolley wires and, at the most extreme, painting “tracks” in the pavement.
However, even optimized electric buses are not quite as smooth, comfortable and easy to understand as streetcars. Furthermore, the level of capital investment necessary to make a bus line that comfortable is actually fairly close to the investment you would need to make to build a streetcar. So if you’re committed to making a multimillion dollar investment anyway, why not go all the way?
The cultural bias against buses can be overcome slowly as the quality of bus service increases, particularly with respect to comfort. As quality improves, more middle class riders are attracted, which creates a bit of a transit line gentrification cycle, in which the greater proportion of middle class riders makes the service more attractive to even more middle class riders. However, as I said this is a slow process. Streetcars, because they are perceived as being fundamentally different from buses, make it possible to short-circuit this process and attract middle class riders immediately, and again, if you’re willing to spend enough money to really make a bus route competitive, why not just spend a bit more and jump to the end?
The other major advantage of streetcars is that they are catalysts for development. The primary reason for this is precisely because they attract middle class choice riders. Developers build for the middle class, not for the poor. Thus, they gravitate toward public investments that are attractive to the middle class.
While the ability to attract the middle class is the primary reason streetcars drive development, there are two other reasons: permanence and signaling.
The permanence of Streetcars reduces risk, which is attractive to developers for obvious reasons. Streetcars are more permanent than trolley buses precisely because they are expensive. The SLUT’s ridership is so poor that it would easily be on the top of the chopping block given metro’s current budget crisis, but the city is willing to continue to subsidize this ridiculous route for the same reason that people hang on to falling stocks: the irrational perception that you haven’t really wasted the money until you “give up” and sell, or in the case of the city “give up” and cut service on the streetcar line you just spent millions to build. Of course it is possible to cut streetcar service, just look at the waterfront streetcar, but it remains less likely, all else being equal.
More importantly than permanence, however, is a phenomenon that economists call “signaling”. Because a streetcar represents a major public investment in an area, it acts as a “signal” to developers and to potential tenants that the city is committed to making further investments in said area. It signals that the city has made an informed judgement that the area has tremendous potential and is thus worthy of significant investment. The city is essentially placing a $50 million bet on South Lake Union. If Warren Buffet was buying thousands of shares of a particular stock, wouldn’t you want to buy some too? You might think: “I may not know what he know, but he wouldn’t waste his money if there wasn’t something going on here. Even if I don’t understand it, I am willing to bet that he does.” The same applies to South Lake Union and the city’s investment there.
This, in essence is the “logic” of streetcars. Notice that it has nothing to do with dedicated right of way or speed. Speed certainly helps, but it is not the only reasons to build rail.
Light rail is a more potent investment than a streetcar, precisely because speed does help, but if speed were all that mattered, express buses / bus rapid transit would give you the same speed for much less money. Light rail, however, combines all the advantages of streetcars, discussed above, with the advantages of BRT (speed), creating the “ultimate” transit infrastructure investment combination, and also the ultimate expense.
Which is more important, the comfort / development advantages of rail or the speed advantage of BRT (if for some reason one were to have to choose)?
The answer depends on the length of the corridor under consideration. The importance of speed increases with distance. The difference between 20 mph and 40 mph is less than 5 minutes if your trip is less than three miles, so for these kind of distances, a streetcar in mixed traffic beats a bus with dedicated ROW, but for longer trips, speed makes a bigger difference. A streetcar to Fremont makes a lot of sense, a streetcar to Northgate does not. This is not to say that three miles is the magic cutoff; I only mean to highlight the [principle]: the relative importance of speed increases with distance.