There’s something about modern streetcars that causes people — many of whom have sensible things to say about transit, and some of whom I know personally and respect greatly — to start spouting peculiar and contorted arguments in favor of building more of them. The last few days have brought a couple of new entries in this genre: this defense of slower-than-walking streetcars from New Urbanist writer Robert Steuteville, and this Seattle-focused post from Scott Bonjukian.
For a thorough and fair parsing of those arguments, this (sadly anonymous) letter written to Jarrett Walker makes excellent reading, but the denouement deserves to be carved onto the wall of Seattle City Hall (emphasis mine):
If, as admitted in the article, mixed-traffic streetcars don’t particularly offer useful transit, nor are they necessarily the only/best/cheapest placemaking tool, then I have to wonder if 30 years from now we’ll look back on them as yet another expensive urban renewal fad. (American cities are still littered with half-dead “game changing” fads from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s.) We ultimately need rapid transit and “place mobility,” but mixed-traffic streetcars are hardly a prerequisite for creating the latter.
So far I’ve hesitated voicing these opinions to fellow urbanists because I don’t want to alienate any friends, but I’m increasingly skeptical of the streetcar fervor. Given that (A) mixed-traffic streetcars are simply slower and less-flexible than mixed-traffic buses, and (B) that the benefits that are packaged with properly-prioritized streetcars (dedicated lanes, signal priority, durable shelters, etc.) could just as easily be packaged with buses, I wonder if the streetcar fervor is an example of simple “technograndiosity.” At the end of the day, I’d rather have ten bus lines reaching twenty useful places than one streetcar line reaching two useful places.
Fortunately for me, upsetting the orthodoxy of my follow urbanists will not hurt my career, but I hope, for the sake of America’s younger cities, that the writer will not have to silently endure for too many more years. The primary public policy problem of teeming, traffic-strangled West Coast cities like Seattle is to keep buses moving while we build out fast, high-capacity systems, permanently endowed with their own right-of-way. Streetcars — especially of the short-line, not-very-frequent variety we’ve built in Seattle — do not meaningfully bear on that goal, and it pains me to tally all the money that is misspent in building them, and the effort misplaced justifying and defending them.