The argument that streetcars are "good enough" but "imperfect transit" is flawed
Image from Simplon.
David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington is now writing for CityLab, where he has a piece "Hey, Streetcar Critics: Stop Making 'Perfect' the Enemy of 'Good': Even when they're not ideal, streetcar projects can still benefit cities. Here are five ways how," that argues that yes, based on the arguments of people like Matthew Yglesias and transit consultant Jarrett Walker streetcars are imperfect when they don't have a dedicated right of way (nn a slightly different context, I cited those pieces, "Transit stuff #3: bus rapid transit vs. the creation of foundational suburban mass transit systems") but that's okay because they are a good start.
David's arguments are:
- Imperfect transit can still be good for cities.
- An imperfect streetcar might be all your city can afford—for now.
- Funding won't get redirected towards a "better" transit project.
- Streetcars can outperform buses, even without dedicated lanes.
- Your city can make it better later, and may even plan to.
Such arguments are beside the point because streetcars are about intra-city transit service not inter-city transit service.
In short, streetcars enable access, while light rail and heavy rail are focused on enabling speedy trips between comparatively distant locations.
The "imperfect transit is okay" trope is flawed and doesn't push the argument forward in a solid way. The writings by Yglesias, Walker et al. are similarly flawed because they judge streetcars against criteria not fully appropriate for streetcars or attribute benefits to bus service that haven't been demonstrated to be true.
Failure to plan transportation at the metropolitan, suburban and center city scales is a problem. I'll start by pointing out that there is a real problem in "epistemology" in transportation planning because we don't have much of a systematic approach to planning transit at the metropolitan, regional and larger scales.
Plus, most people writing about transportation don't employ a systems approach to the subject.
I offer such a framework (presentation, "Metropolitan Mass Transit Planning: Towards a Hierarchical and Conceptual Framework;" general discussion, "Without the right transportation planning framework, metropolitan areas are screwed, and that includes the DC area") based on the analysis of such failures to plan adequately in the Washington-Baltimore region (in my model a region is defined as two or more metropolitan areas).
Note that when you talk to people who know transportation, the consensus is that the DC area's "Metropolitan Planning Organization," which is tasked by the Federal Government to do metropolitan transportation planning, is one of the least innovative MPOs across the nation's major cities.
Streetcars are intra-city transit and should be judged on that basis. The point of streetcars isn't to provide fast trips between cities over long distances, it's to service shorter trips within cities, and more narrowly, within sub-districts of cities, as part of what I call intra-city and intra-district transit ("Making the case for intra-city vs. inter-city transit planning").
Another way to think about it is that streetcars complement inter-city transit.
Sreetcars aren't the only way to provide such services, bus circulators are too in theory (and in what I call "tertiary" transit subnetworks, of which Tempe Arizona's Orbit system is the best example), although for a variety of reasons, compared to buses streetcars are more likely to spur additional economic development.
Streetcars are devices for repositioning communities. As importantly, today's streetcar deployments are designed to foster sustainable transportation modes of all types, with the end game of reducing automobile use, while simultaneously fostering economic revitalization.
In the context of the metropolitan landscape (a/k/a "the suburbs"),* streetcar systems are key elements in the process of re-branding cities, districts and neighborhoods as places worth living, working, and playing in as well as visiting.
Streetcars reposition the attractiveness of center city residential and commercial districts making these places attractive, and shifting locational choices and business back to the center city.
Night time view, new streetcar system in Tucson. Flickr photo by Chris Conforti.
The deployment of streetcars in Portland and Seattle and more recently Tucson are the best examples of this in practice.
New apartments, development poised to reshape Sugar House," Salt Lake Deseret News).
And Atlanta is about to join this group, as their streetcar service is in testing now and will begin revenue service later in the year ("Atlanta Streetcar enters new testing phase," Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
I wrote about the economic development argument here, "STREETCARS ARE ABOUT TRANSIT, just in a different way from how most people are accustomed to thinking about it."
On that basis, "imperfect transit" isn't the issue, what matters is the facilitation of the ability to get around, preferably not by automobile, in places where work, school, and other activity centers are close to home, and the greater likelihood of choosing such locations as a place to live or work or locate commerce vis-a-vis other locations across the metropoolitan landscape.
Flickr photo by Paul Bingman of a Portland streetcar arriving at NW 23rd & Marshall Streets in the Nob Hill neighborhood.
Portland Streetcar no. 007 inbound at SW 5th/Montgomery. Photo by Peter Ehrlich, September 2009.
Frankly, I can't believe that anyone who has ever seen how the transit system works in Portland could doubt the potential and effectiveness of streetcars.
While the Pearl District is a national example of urban revitalization facilitated by streetcar service, the increased success of Nob Hill as a neighborhood served by the streetcar with a thriving commercial district (with multiple independent cinemas) is unheralded, but no less important as an example of the streetcar's success.
CAT: Making More with Less" from Mass Transit Magazine. Photo above from Rail Preservation.
Bilbao is another good example, especially in how the trams have a different purpose than the subway system..
The streetcar's place in the development of cities and urban form is nothing new. And as I've said before, it's not like streetcars are new to the city and close-in suburbs. And in cities like Philadelphia, Toronto, and Boston, streetcar service never entirely went away. San Francisco too, although its surface transit system--separate from the Market Street Railway heritage streetcar operation--is considered to be light rail.
Another classic example is Shaker Heights and Cleveland Heights by the Van Swearingen Brothers, who bought a railroad to get access to the right of way they needed for a streetcar system.
But there are hundreds and hundreds of examples in cities across the country.
Portland between Downtown, the abutting "Pearl District" and Nob Hill is only the most prominent, modern, interpretation of this approach.
pictured at left) adopted streetcar service to accelerate repositioning and revitalization of the SoDo district--the system launched in 2007 and is being expanded with service to Capitol Hill, among other places, although service has been delayed because of manufacturing delays.
Note that with streetcar service, Amazon moved their headquarters to Seattle, from its original suburban location in Bellevue.
DC's streetcar planning failures shouldn't be held against streetcars as a mode and system. A lot of the discussion about streetcars being imperfect but that's okay has resulted from problems with DC's development of a streetcar program.
The first attempt, in Anacostia, seems to have failed over right of way and community opposition issues. On H Street NE, the program has taken a long time to deploy, because of certain failures in planning. Plus you could argue that H Street "doesn't need" a streetcar to foster revitalization, although I would argue that the development of streetcar service has accelerated revitalization and will facilitate the district again becoming a major retail center.
On the other hand, the H Street line is "imperfect" because of planning failures, and years ago I argued ("Will streetcars really return to the Capital City?") that it would be better to start streetcar service in a part of the city with inadequate transit service, like between Woodley Park and Brookland, with service to the Washington Hospital Center, where the benefits would be readily apparent.
But that's not what happened.
Again, Portland, Seattle, Tucson--where the commitment to build the system was initiated by citizen activism not developers--and probably Atlanta provide better examples of how to plan, build, and benefit from streetcar service.
Academic resources. In 2010, University of British Columbia's Patrick Condon authored a book, Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities, touting the historic streetcar city model. "Why a Streetcar Is Something to Be Desired: Rule 1 for sustainable communities: Restore the streetcar city," from The Tyee, Vancouver's alternative weekly, highlights that element of the book.
Streetcar in Media, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia.
Of course, there are many good histories about streetcar suburbs and the development process, such as books by Sam Bass Warner.
Geographer Peter Muller's journal article on transportation and urban form is also very good ("Transportation and Urban Form: Stages in the Evolution of the American Metropolis").
For urban design elements, the out-of-print DC Office of Planning publication, Trans-Formation: Recreating Transit-Oriented Neighborhood Centers in DC: Design Handbook, covers the application of those historic urban design principles to today's neighborhoods.
[* Interestingly, in the Washington metropolitan area, the prime motivation for creating the Silver Line in Fairfax and Loudoun Counties isn't to provide service to the Dulles International Airport, it's to provide those counties with a way to compete with the core of the metro by also providing high quality transit service. See "Short term vs. long term thinking: transit, the Washington Examiner, Fairfax/Loudoun Counties vs. DC."]
Modern light rail/streetcar service in San Francisco. Flickr photo by CurleyR.
Heritage streetcar service in San Francisco. Photo: Jason Henry, San Francisco Chronicle. San Francisco's electric trolley buses also service Market Street and are visible in this photo.
The route for the Atlanta Streetcar demonstrates a kind of directness and purpose not fully evident from the upcoming deployment in Washington, DC's H Street NE neighborhood.