By David Alpert, October 1, 2014
American streetcar projects have gotten some tough love recently. Writers who advocate for walkable, transit-oriented urban neighborhoods are questioning whether streetcar investments really enhance mobility, and whether they’re worth the money, if, as is often the case in the U.S., a new line has no dedicated lane or runs infrequently.
Matthew Yglesias wrote at Vox that streetcars aren’t worthwhile unless they have a dedicated lane. He called the streetcar on H Street in Washington, D.C. “the worst transit project in America.” Respected transit expert Jarrett Walker agrees, proclaiming that “streetcars mixed with private car traffic are overrated.”
And on this very website, Eric Jaffe pointed out that most of the newer U.S. streetcar systems, with a few exceptions, aren’t running frequently enough to meet the usual standards of good mass transit.
Still others criticize new streetcar lines that don’t seem long enough. Kriston Capps wrote here at CityLab that Washington D.C.’s H Street streetcar, 2.4 miles at first, takes people “from where they aren’t to where they don’t need to go.”
Jaffe is certainly right that more frequent streetcars are better than less frequent ones. Yglesias and Capps are right that streetcars with dedicated lanes and longer routes are better than short, mixed-traffic streetcars. Both, however, omit the fact that the H Street project is the first piece of a longer line spanning the city, one that will in fact eventually have dedicated lanes downtown.
Jaffe, Walker, Yglesias, and Capps have no duty to support Team Transit no matter what. They should speak their minds. And anyone who supports mass transit expansion should want it to be as close to perfect as possible.
But streetcars also have another set of opponents: Those who simply don’t want to fund any transit at all, regardless of its specifics. They seize on any flaw to stop projects that might change their street or interfere with their driving.
So I worry about the effects of this latest trend in streetcar criticism. While streetcar projects can and should be better, many of these articles go further and either imply or outright state that a streetcar without every desirable feature is worse than nothing.
That’s not right. Perfect transit is absolutely a goal, but the perfect must not be the enemy of the good. There are plenty of reasons why a streetcar might be worth supporting, even if it isn't as long, frequent, or speedy as we might like. Here are five.
Imperfect transit can still be good for cities.Millennials, empty nesters, and others want walkable, livable urban places. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough of those in the United States, which is why they’re increasingly expensive.
There are plenty of places on the edges of cities that could become more walkable, more urban, and have more of a sense of place. To do that, they need better transit, more amenities, and more residents—which generally means more density. When such a place achieves greater walkability and urbanization, the factors making it so strengthen over time. Yet the reverse also applies, creating a self-reinforcing cycle in either direction:
It’s a momentum game, and even an expensive, sub-optimal transit solution—such as a less-frequent streetcar with no dedicated lane —can push the cycle in the right direction. If it draws population and turns car drivers into transit riders even part of the time, then it will build political support for even better transit systems down the road (more on this later).
An imperfect streetcar might be all your city can afford—for now.Most cities that build streetcars would probably love to build a longer line with more frequent service. Unfortunately, in the United States, transit projects compete for very limited state and federal funding, and even the most worthy projects often have to cut back, then cut back again, and again and again before they ultimately get funded—if ever.
Incentives to be thrifty are a good thing. Nobody (except maybe construction contractors) wants any project to spend more than necessary. But since you can’t build a rail project without rail ties, pushing transit projects to cut costs often means buying fewer vehicles (and therefore offering less-frequent service), or starting with a much shorter line than is really appropriate.
In Minneapolis, the need to cut costs led to building light rail stops only two cars long rather than three. Initial ridership estimates said two were enough. But ridership exploded almost right away. Just five years after Minneapolis’ first light rail line opened, the city had to spend more money to lengthen its stations.
Penny-wise and pound-foolish, yes. But with fierce competition for scarce federal transit dollars, cities often have to resort to this very approach in order to get projects built. In many cases, the alternative is no project at all.
Funding won’t get redirected towards a “better” transit project.Wondering If we had a billion dollars, how could we build the ideal transit that helps the most people? can be a useful thought experiment. However, funding rarely works like that. Transit projects vie with myriad other spending options.
For example, Virginia’s Silver Line Metro project extends from Washington D.C. to Tysons Corner and (eventually) Dulles Airport. Its funding came from state coffers, profits from the Dulles Toll Road, and an outright chunk of $900 million from the federal government for the first phase.
Theoretically, the $6.8 billion that went to the Silver Line could have been spent on a rail or BRT network all over Northern Virginia, which could have added more transit service in more communities. But that was never the tradeoff. The Silver Line’s funding was cobbled together specifically for the Silver Line, and only with great political effort across many years. Eliminate the Silver Line, and most of its funding disappears from transit’s coffers.
Or take Cincinnati, one of America’s most transit-poor large cities. It’s one of the biggest metros with zero rail service, and a bus network that carries only a tiny trickle of riders. Plans for expensive light rail or subway systems have failed repeatedly. Their short, mixed-traffic streetcar, slated to open in 2016, is a baby step that’s actually accomplishable. Still, Mayor John Cranley tried to kill the project even after it was under construction. In his 2013 campaign, he pledged to redirect the money not to better bus service or other transit, but to highway interchanges, which would have further cemented the city as a place where no one takes transit because there’s so little.
Yet the project was saved. For one thing, even with a short route and non-dedicated lanes, it’s projected to carry 10 percent of all riders in the region, enormously increasing the number of people for whom transit as an option. For another, officials discovered that the city would have to pay back substantial federal grants it had already received and spent. So much for redirected funds.
Streetcars Can Outperform Buses, Even Without Dedicated Lanes.No doubt, a streetcar with a dedicated lane is ideal. But not having one doesn’t make a streetcar useless. In fact, in Arlington, Virginia, the streetcar will generate $2.2 to 3 billion more benefit than a bus, even though the Virginia Department of Transportation rejected options to give up a car lane for it due to the narrowness of the roads.
After all, streetcars can make up for lack of lane space with their length, since they can be much longer than buses and carry more people more efficiently. And no, that’s not the same as adding buses infinitely to a corridor. Too many buses at once can form a traffic jam, seriously reducing service efficiency. Streetcars offer a way to keep adding transit capacity in the busiest corridors, without hitting that diminishing-return scenario.
To say that it’s wrong to build a line without a dedicated lane is oversimplifying the situation.
Your city can make it better later, and may even plan to.Once a city gets the first streetcar line in the ground, it’s easier to convince politicians to buy more railcars. Extensions are simpler after it starts running.
In fact, it’s even possible to create a dedicated lane once there are riders finding themselves stuck in traffic. Suddenly, they become a political constituency, willing to write legislators in support of a dedicated lane. That’s what happened in Toronto, where in 2005 the city upgraded its 512 Saint Clair streetcar route from mixed traffic to a dedicated right-of-way. The same thing happened in Baltimore, where the light rail system was originally built with only a single track in many areas, resulting in delays and limited service. Ten years later, with a transit constituency in place, Maryland went back and added a second track.
I’m not saying anyone should start cheering for infrequent, short, mixed-traffic streetcar lines. I’m pushing for dedicated lanes, high frequencies, and a complete system in my home city of D.C.
But writers who think more transit is good for cities should bear in mind that not all readers necessarily agree with that basic premise. When writers give tough love to imperfect transit, it would at least help to put things in context—say, by criticizing one of the vast number of bad, non-transit projects (highways for nobody, bridges to nowhere) that this country has also seen.