If you have "no place to go," come here!

Sunday Train: Fast and Slow Transit Should be Friends

BruceMcF's picture

As noted this week at The Overhead Wire:

There has been a lot of chatter recently on the issue of fast vs slow transit. This week is the perfect time for this discussion as two major United States transit projects of differing stripes opened up; the Metro Silver Line in Washington DC and the Tucson Streetcar.

On the one hand you have neoliberal Matthew Yglesias as the neoliberal "let us explain to you why There Are No Alternatives (TINA)" site Vox saying:

Without a dedicated lane, a streetcar can't really run much faster than a bus under ideal conditions. And since unlike a bus, a streetcar can't shift out of its lane to avoid an obstacle, in real-world circumstances it's likely to move slower than a bus. There are some objectives related to real estate development and tourism that this kind of project can serve, but they're nearly useless in terms of transportation.

And on the other hand you have the piece by Robert Steuteville at Better Cities and Towns, Place Mobility: Sometimes good transportation is slow, which observes:

The Portland streetcar has been a catalyst for $4 billion-plus investment and up to 10,000 housing units in the Pearl District and other neighborhoods close to downtown. All of these people and businesses have Place Mobility. They use the streetcar for quick trips and to make connections — it doesn't matter that it moves very slowly because they don't have to go far. But the new people and businesses in the Pearl and downtown are not the only beneficiaries. All of the existing businesses and residences also benefit from rising Place Mobility.

When a streetcar -- or other catalyst -- creates a compact, dynamic place, other kinds of mobility become possible. The densest concentrations of bike-share and car-share stations in Portland are located in the area served by the streetcar. That's no coincidence. You can literally get anywhere without a car.

Of course, much of the "debate" falls into the logical fallacy of the false dichotomy, as if there is a choice between either having slow transit or having fast transit, when the reality is that we not only need both, but that improving either one improves the utility of the other.

The "Case for Streetcars" and the Actual Case for Streetcars

While neoliberal Matt Yglesias airily dismisses some of the benefits of streetcars, he simply ignores their Place Mobility benefits: "There are some objectives related to real estate development and tourism that this kind of project can serve, but they're nearly useless in terms of transportation."

The question that he does not pose, and which is critical if one is going to avoid becoming aware of the transport benefits of streetcars, is how do streetcar lines boost property values if they are useless as a transportation project? The default utilitarian assumption is that people place a premium on property with access to a transport corridor because there is some transport benefit to having that corridor.

Indeed, a similar question can be raised regarding the benefit of streetcars to tourism: why are there benefits to tourism to having a streetcar if it does not involve the tourists gaining some transport benefit from the streetcar?

This is a lack of curiosity that seems to be common at Vox: in its "explainer" about why streetcars are bad, they have a "Case for Streetcars" card consisting of two longer paragraphs on cost and a shorter sentence on everything else. The card would be better titled, "how to snipe at the case for streetcars", as the paragraph on the lower cost-per-ride of streetcars versus buses dismisses the savings based on the capital cost of streetcars, the paragraph on the longer life of streetcar vehicles hypothesizes that the useful life of buses could be extended to undermine the point, and as far as every other part of the case for streetcars only says:

Advocates also say that streetcars confer all sorts of other benefits, like being environmentally friendly, giving cities a "sense of place," and boosting economic development.

Beyond DC gives a far more informative "Case for Streetcars when it lists streetcar advantages and bus advantages. I will summarize the points ... click through for the details. Streetcar advantages include:

  • More capacity -- streetcars can have about twice the capacity of regular city buses, with multiple entry doors, and can run in trains of multiple streetcars if more capacity is needed.
  • Lower cost over the long term, when operating on corridors where they will have good load factors
  • They reassure riders that they are on the right route -- urban bus routes are more confusing for those who are not regular riders of that route (even for regular riders of other routes)
  • Streetcars stand out -- they have a simpler route network to understand, and more people in areas served by streetcars know places that you can get to on the streetcar through the area
  • They give a more comfortable ride than buses -- something which becomes increasingly important to those on public transport so they can engage in social media, ebooks, online videos and other activities that are risky to engage in while driving
  • They are a development magnet -- buses are often too flexible to be a substantial factor in buying residential real estate, since many bus lines are just one city financial crisis away from a cancellation or re-route, but the greater visibility and permanence of streetcars make them a selling point in most areas where they are available.
  • They are quieter and cleaner than buses -- this is also largely true of trolley buses, but compared to diesel buses streetcars remove pollution from city streets, typically have lower greenhouse gas emissions per passenger mile due to their greater energy efficiency, and automatically inherit all reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from upgrading to more sustainable electrical generating systems.
  • They are sometimes faster than buses -- while neoliberal Matt Yglesias only considers the inability of streetcars to negotiate around obstacles in their way to presume that they are slower than buses, he ignores the fact that with three or four doors per vehicle and especially with ultra-low-floor level boarding streetcars, they can load faster than city buses, so where passenger embarking and debarking is a substantial constraint on bus speeds, streetcars are faster
  • They attract more riders than buses -- ridership gains of streetcars versus the bus routes that they replace are the ultimate empirical test of neoliberal Matt Yglesias' hypothesis that they are useless as transport ... since if they are useless of transport, why are they favored by prospective riders?

Of course, asking whether we should build streetcars or improve buses is like asking whether we should have a serving of fruit each day or a serving of vegetables. They are both good for us, and rather than having one serving of one of the two, we ought to be having multiple servings of each. The advantages of streetcars do not imply that they are a "one size fits all" transport solution, and in many corridors buses are an appropriate choice, based on their advantages of:

  • low up-front capital cost, and lower operating cost on corridors with less demand for transport
  • ability to put in more service in more places
  • greater flexibility -- the inflexibility of streetcars is the source of many of their advantages, but it also means a system built on nothing but streetcars would be inflexible
  • buses have an ability to skip ahead, so when operating in mixed traffic on corridors where passenger load time is not a substantial transit speed constraint, buses are often faster than streetcars in mixed traffic, and can more easily mix express and all-stops services.

The Real Focus of the Attack: Mixed Use Streetcar Routes

The primary focus for Matt Yglesias' attack are on streetcars in mixed traffic:

The problem is that securing funding for a boondoggle often seems more politically realistic than the harder problem of tackling the entrenched interests of (heavily subsidized) frequent car drivers.

The only way to make a new surface rail project work is for it to have its own dedicated lane over significant portions of its route. To achieve that requires seizing road space from drivers and allocating it to transit instead.

This is of course the flaw of making the best the enemy of the better, though Yglesias tries to hide it by a one-sided critique of streetcars in mixed traffic, which ignores the fact that the the streetcar actually is better for a number of people, as demonstrated by the greater ridership of many streetcars operating in mixed traffic.

And even worse, while calling upon a move to do what is often politically infeasible, taking lanes away from cars ... he offers no strategy for making it easier to take lanes away from cars, while advocating against investments which will do just that.

After all, there is no physical difference between the streetcar operating in mixed traffic and one operating in a dedicated lane. There is no difference in the track. The difference is you make it against the law to drive in the streetcar lane. So all that is required to convert a streetcar in mixed traffic to a streetcar in a dedicated lane ... is to dedicate its lane to the streetcar. And whether or not the extra ridership of the streetcar makes that politically feasible, it surely moves it closer to politically feasible.

And the speculation that Yglesias engages in regarding streetcars slowing down bus routes (though he states them as facts, he never offers any empirical observations to back the speculation up) is stood on its head if car traffic can be taken off of the streetcar lane, since it is straightforward for low-entry-boarding buses to share a formerly mixed-traffic streetcar lane with the streetcars themselves.

What is Place Mobility and what does it have to do with Streetcars?

So, streetcars empirically must be providing improved transport service to people, even when operating in mixed traffic, because many of them attract more riders than buses do. Yet when Yglesias evaluates them with his mental model, he is unable to see the transport benefit that the riders are, evidently, experiencing.

And when someone wears blinkers regarding an entire class of benefit, then the normal result is that they bungle their efficiency comparisons. After all, efficiency is the ratio of a measure of benefit to a measure of cost. As such, efficiency comparisons are quite useful when comparing two alternatives which are both equally effective at providing a benefit. However, this implies that an analysis ought to begin with effectiveness, with efficiency coming into the analysis when multiple effective solutions have been found.

Those that begin their analysis at efficiency and skip the analysis of effectiveness all too often end up choosing the precisely incorrect over the roughly correct. Starting with efficiency is assuming that the benefits are comparable, which leads quite easily to assuming that the measures that you have available are effective comparisons of all relevant benefits. After all, in complex systems, real benefits tend to occur in multiple distinct categories, which cannot be reduced to any single quantitative measure.

What category of benefit is being overlooked in Yglesias analysis. He is viewing transit as a tool to get from one "place" to a different "place" ... and not as a means of getting around a place. So when the improvement in transport services lies primarily in the way it helps in getting around a place ... he is blind to that improvement. As Robert Steuteville explains:

Place Mobility is not just a vague, airy concept. It now can be measured with Walk Score. As an investment like a streetcar is installed, and new businesses and people move in, the Walk Score ( rises. The values, activities, and efficiency in moving between these activities rise. That's tangible evidence of Place Mobility.

Place Mobility gets people where they need to go quickly and efficiently, but just not very fast. The not-very-fast part drives people like Yglesias nuts.

In effect, in focusing on miles per hour, Yglesias is making an unstated assumption that there are a constant number of attractive destinations per mile, so a 30mph service is three times more effective at getting you to an attractive destination as a 10mph service.

But the development impacts of streetcars that he has dismissed as having nothing to do with transport implies that this is an invalid assumption. And the greater capacity of streetcars over buses interacts with with the place-making impact of development to make his unstated assumption less and less accurate over time:

  • A streetcar is established, which many people like enough to start riding
  • The greater appeal of the streetcar makes it more attractive for people to reside in walking distance to the streetcar corridor
  • That ridership plus those extra residents makes it more attractive to establish retail and commercial businesses along the streetcar ride
  • Those new destinations means that there are more destinations per mile, and so the speed of the streetcar in terms of destinations per hour steadily increases.

Indeed, if you have a transit corridor that operates at 30mph with five destinations of interest per mile, that is a destination transit speed of 150 destinations per hour, while a mixed traffic streetcar that operates at 10mph with twenty destinations of interest per mile has a destination transit speed of 200 destinations per hour. So the 67% slower service, in terms of miles per hour, can be 33% faster, in terms of destinations of interest per hour.

The Interactive Benefits of Fast Transit and Slow Transit

Now, this certainly does not mean that "all transit should be slow in terms of miles per hour." Once we start our analysis based on the fact that there complex systems often involve multiple distinct types of benefits, then we start moving away from a one-size-fits-all mindset to a "best fit for the problem at hand" mindset.

Yglesias is making a false, one-size-fits-all assumption when treating all transit as a means of getting from one "place" to another "place", and ignoring the role of transit in increasing mobility within a place. And this is a crucial mistake in his call for reclaiming transport space from cars, since it is primarily by providing "place-making" transport combined with place-making changes in zoning and other place-defining social institutions that it becomes possible to live without a car at all. And having a constituency that lives without a car at all is a key part of remaking the political terrain so that it becomes possible to reclaim transport space that is presently being egregiously wasted in subsidizing car transport.

But, clearly, offering services that get people from one place to another remains a useful thing to do, which is something that Yonah Freemark at Transport Politic has been making.

With its Grand Paris Express program announced in 2009, the Paris region is proposing an alternative. With 127 miles of metro lines and 72 new stations planned, the program will completely alter the landscape of this large metropolitan area, offering new circumferential connections around the city center, making it possible to travel between suburbs without having to pass through the city center. The project entered the construction phase this summer and will eventually serve two million daily riders by the time it is completed in 2030 at a cost of more than $35 billion; it is the second-largest single transportation project in the western world, after the California high-speed rail project. ...

Consider these isochrone maps produced by Paris regional planning agency APUR:

The figures show the areas of the Paris region accessible within 45 minutes today (orange), and after completion of the Grand Paris Express program (pink), from Bry Villiers Champigny (left) and Pont de Sèvres (right).

Of course, this program is in part leveraging substantial investment in the greater Paris region in local transport alternatives. In addition to the Metro and RER, which is a system of regional rail corridors that become metropolitan subway lines in urban Paris and the extensive bus network, the first modern tram (light rail) system, the T1, was opened in 1992, with the T2 opening in 1997, the T3a, the first serving downtown Paris, and T4 in 2006, the T3b in 2012, the T5 and T7 in 2013, and the T6 busway due to be opened this year.

The Grand Paris Express program is, of course, not proposing to close any of these services to replace them with express service, but rather is integrating with these services to leverage the existing lines for greater mobility across the region as a whole.

So while Yonah opened up his piece by decrying the speed of the newly opened Twin Cities light rail service:

Residents of the Twin Cities greeted the opening of the new Green Line light rail link last month with joy and excitement, finally able to take advantage of a train connection between downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. The 11-mile rail line runs through a relatively densely populated area, serves two business districts, and travels through the heart of a university.

It’s also alarmingly slow. Green Line trains are taking up to an hour to complete their journeys, and even optimistic schedules released by the local transit agency put running times at 48 minutes, or less than 14 mph on average.

... the alternative that he is pointing to is not, in fact, an alternative to a system like the Twin Cities Green Line ... it is a complement to it.

The 11 mile stretch between the heart of the Minneapolis and St. Paul business districts and through a major University justifies having a light rail corridor with an average of a stop every half mile. But it also justifies having an express transit corridor that connects to the Green Line on both the St. Paul side and on the Minneapolis side.

And having the service-every-ten-minutes Green Line in operation increases the opportunities for having an effective express transit service between Minneapolis and St. Paul (and likely farther, in both directions), since the Green Line provides effective service into downtown Minneapolis, downtown St. Paul, and to the University of Minnesota, so a handful of transfer stations opens up access to the twenty two local stops of the Green Line corridor.

For example, after the Northstar Commuter rail line, the second priority commuter rail corridor identified for the greater Twin Cities region is the Red Rock Corridor. This would connect to the Green Line on both ends, at the St. Paul Union Depot and at the Minneapolis Interchange at Target Field Station. It also proposes to include a station serving the University of Minnesota. It is difficult to get effective access to the East Bank and West Bank of the University of Minnesota campus from a single station on an existing rail corridor ... but with the Green Line in place providing an effective connection to the West Bank Campus from Target Field Station, and with the Union Depot transfer providing access to the Stadium Village and East Bank Campus, the location of a Red Rock line "U of M" station can be made where it best complements those existing transport options.

And where synchronizing schedules between two connecting transit services is sometimes a challenge, the Green Line runs at ten minute intervals through much of the day. That means that any Red Rock line schedule will work reasonably well, and there are ample opportunities for very well timed transfers at both ends of the Green Line.

Not All Streetcars are Created Equal

Regarding the general point that a dedicated corridor streetcar is superior to a mixed traffic streetcar ... this is generally true. But a dedicated corridor is not a silver bullet design solution either. As The Overhead Wire points out:

To me this points to the first place where urbanism and fast transit disagree with each other, block sizes and stop spacing. By trying to maximize connections to the community, the transit line has to stop more often, slowing speeds. And if built into a legacy urban fabric, this also includes negotiation with tons of cross streets where designers don't give priority to the transit line. This happens in Cleveland on the Health Line BRT as well as the Orange Line in Los Angeles, even though it has its own very separated right of way. The Gold Line Light Rail in LA and the Orange Line originally had the same distance, yet one was 15 minutes faster end to end. A lot of this had to do with less priority on cross streets given to the Orange Line, not because it was a bus or rail line.

... and yet, the Health Line BRT proved to be a successful corridor in terms of increasing ridership ... and would have been even more effective if it could have been built as a streetcar corridor.

But it would be a mistake to adopt "streetcar = development" as a magic formula as well. Effective placemaking may be assisted by an effective high-stop-frequency local transit corridor ... but that corridor won't be able to do the job all on its own.

And while a mixed-used streetcar is sometimes the "lowest cost to buy" upgrade to existing transit available, that is not always the case. Consider the case of Newcastle, the second city of New South Wales. The current Liberal state government (which in Australian means "conservative") has announced that it will be closing the existing express heavy rail corridor into the Newcastle Central Business District (CBD), and replacing it with a streetcar system.

Only spotty details of the proposed system are available ... because it appears that the decision was made in order to allow development on the existing rail corridor, so that many of the critical design details were still in the "to be decided" box when the decision was made ... but it if it desired to convert to some form of light rail, operating a dedicated light rail service on the existing rail corridor could be done at under half the proposed project cost, providing more effective transit connections for existing heavy rail commuters, while providing a more effective local transit service.

The focus of new development has been the development of the former gritty industrial working docks of the Hunter River foreshore into high value added residential, commercial and professional properties, with the existing rail corridor running between the new Foreshore development area and the existing CBD, so that new light rail platforms on the existing corridor would serve both the CBD side of the corridor and the Foreshore side of the corridor.

But this is the latest stage in a long standing fight to close the heavy rail corridor, and all through the fight the desire to develop on the existing rail corridor has been repeatedly denied, with repeated projected uses of the corridor for a bikeway, public plazas, and car parking. However, now that the decision has been made, it has been admitted that development might be allowed on the former heavy rail corridor.

This is an issue for Newcastle since it was originally established to exploit coal seams near the Pacific Ocean and the banks of the Hunter River, so that construction of tall buildings in much of Newcastle would require an expensive process of checking for, and if necessary filling in, abandoned coal mines. However, the coal mines were not allowed to undermine the rail corridor, so the rail corridor offers one downtown location where taller buildings can be built without worrying about being undermined.

A serious consideration of transport alternatives that are compatible with building tall buildings on the extreme end of the rail corridor was never undertaken, because the goal of releasing the lane at the extreme end of the rail corridor for development of tall buildings has been consistently denied. However, the more effective and less expensive dedicated light rail service on the existing rail corridor would free up a substantial part of the rail corridor for ground level development, and as an all-electric system, there would be no obstacle to extending the development into the airspace over the top of the light rail corridor.

So when considering the Newcastle case, if you already have an existing dedicated corridor which is well placed to serve a place-making role with the provision of high frequency local transport service, and which can host a new light rail service at under half of the cost of a streetcar alternative ... and with better transit speed between stops ... in that case it seems clear that a dedicated corridor is superior to a streetcar alignment.

Conclusions and Conversations

As always, the Sunday Train does not finish with the end of the essay ... that is just the prelude to the conversation. So feel free to introduce any issue involving sustainable energy and transport into the mix.

And in light of this week's essays, where would be your ideal upgrade from a bus corridor to a light rail corridor, and would it be workable as a mixed use streetcar, or would it have to run on a dedicated corridor to work well?

No votes yet


mellon's picture
Submitted by mellon on

At a huge national cost. We went from having the best public transport in the developed world to close to the worst in just 30 years.

So, now they are putting them back? Wouldn't it have been much smarter if we had not let GM privatize the public systems to covertly-aggressively destroy them, in the first place?

"The company was formed in 1920, operating two buses in Minnesota[n 1] by E. Roy Fitzgerald and his brother[4] transporting miners and schoolchildren.[5] In 1936 the company was organized into a holding company.[n 2] In 1938, National City Lines wished to purchase transportation systems in cities "where street cars were no longer practicable" and replace them with passenger buses. To fund this expansion the company obtained equity funding from companies seeking to increase sales of commercial buses and supplies, including General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California and Phillips Petroleum.[n 3]
In 1936, they bought 13 transit companies in Illinois, Oklahoma and Michigan, then in 1937, they replaced streetcars in Butte, Montana and made purchases in Mississippi and Texas. Sometimes these systems were already run down, but not always. Major investment had recently been made with improvements to the streetcars systems in Butte and Beaumont, Texas.[4]
In 1938 the company entered into exclusive dealing arrangements and obtained equity funding from companies seeking to increase sales of commercial buses and supplies, including General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California and Phillips Petroleum. The company was indicted in 1947 and was later convicted in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois of conspiring to monopolize the sale of buses and related products to the local transit companies that they controlled.
Over 1938 and 1939 the company made purchases in Alabama, Indiana and Ohio.[4] and by 1939, it owned or controlled 29 local transportation companies in 27 different cities in 10 states.[n 1]
By 1947 the company owned or controlled more than 100 electric streetcar systems in 45 cities including, but not limited to, Baltimore, St. Louis, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, Oakland, Philadelphia and Tulsa. The company ultimately dismantled these systems and replaced them with bus systems in what became known as the 'Great American streetcar scandal' and formed the inspiration for the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit.[6]
American City Lines, which had been organized to acquire local transportation systems in the larger metropolitan areas in various parts of the country in 1943 merged with NCL in 1946.[n 2] By 1947 the company owned or controlled 46 systems in 45 cities in 16 states.[n 4]
In 1947 National City Lines, with others was indicted in the Federal District Court of Southern California on two counts: 'conspiring to acquire control of a number of transit companies, forming a transportation monopolize' and 'Conspiring to monopolize sales of buses and supplies to companies owned by National City Lines' in what became known as the Great American streetcar scandal (or 'General Motors streetcar conspiracy', 'National City Lines conspiracy').[7][n 5]
In 1948, the United States Supreme Court (in United States v. National City Lines Inc.) permitted a change in venue to the Federal District Court in Northern Illinois.[8] National City Lines merged with Pacific City Lines the same year.[9]
In 1949, General Motors, Standard Oil of California, Firestone and others were convicted of conspiring to monopolize the sale of buses and related products to local transit companies controlled by NCL and other companies; they were acquitted of conspiring to monopolize the ownership of these companies. The verdicts were upheld on appeal in 1951.[n 6] The corporations involved were fined $5000, their executives $1 apiece.[10]
Operating areas and companies[edit]
There is considerable uncertainty and variability amongst sources as to where National City Lines operated.

(I've seen a list of over 150 cities where they did this)

BruceMcF's picture
Submitted by BruceMcF on

... in transportation is that so many Europeans pursued policies after WWII that did not rip up what they already had ... and taxed gasoline like they were petroleum importing nations ... so even though they went through a big wave of road building and sprawl suburban expansion in many European nations, it was against a background of less of the one-sided hidden subsidy for cars and hidden penalties on public transport that we adopted in most of the US.

Indeed, in the two most populous states of Australia, two powerful Minister of Transport made the decision on the "trams", as they call them ... in Sydney, the trams were pulled out, and in Victoria, the trams were kept. And the result is that Melbourne has a network of trams around the city, while Sydney has just one "light rail" train that they have recently built, and efforts to build a second underway.

The history is what it is, and is useful in reminding us that these were not "natural trends" that decided our transport system, but we've got to start with the transport system we have. As galling as it is to have to build from scratch what we used to have ... its better than not rebuilding what we used to have.

BruceMcF's picture
Submitted by BruceMcF on

Yes! That's one of the big differences between the typical sprawl suburban development and actual small towns that they are in some ways simulating ... while it is true that there are many things you have to leave the small town to do, you don't have to leave the small town to do everything. And, in many cases, when you are leaving the small town to do something, there are different ways you can go to do different things.

If you have someplace local that its worthwhile to go, then you not only have a target for "slow transit" to improve place mobility, but also have a target for "fast transit" to connect to.