The Magic of Streetcars, The Logic of Buses

Vancouver-Transit T sign

Stockholm T-Sign

The City of Minneapolis is promoting Streetcars in a number of corridors, including one in North along Broadway to compensate for the rerouting of Bottineau LRT to avoid North. Promoters of Minneapolis Streetcars, including Mayor R.T. Rybak, are engaged in magical thinking in their assertion that streetcars will have transformative effects.

Famously, Minneapolis and St. Paul saw their streetcars bustituted by 1954, and many mourned their loss. But Minneapolis and St. Paul were not alone. Streetcars were obsoleted worldwide. We don’t go to London to visit their famous double-decker streetcars (at least not since the 1920s). We don’t see them in New York or lots of other world cities. There are reasons for this.

Streetcars are overall a less effective means of transportation than buses.

That is, centrally-powered steel wheels on steel tracks in the middle of traffic are less efficient across most dimensions than self-powered rubber tires on streets in the middle of traffic.

Oh, I can see the streetcar advocates foaming to say why streetcars are better:

  • They have lower operating costs for both energy and labor per passenger and lower emissions
  • They have a smoother ride
  • People know where they are going
  • Developers believe in their permanence, and will make commitments. As the Oakland promoter says ” Unlike buses, streetcars have had a measurable impact on property values due to their permanence, connectivity, and marketability.”

Let’s go at these in reverse order.

The simple fact that after 1954 there were no more streetcars in the Twin Cities belies their permanence. Yet on almost every former streetcar route, today we see continued bus transit service indicates that it is the service that is permanent if the demand is there, not the physical instance or particular technology. We can further look at the built form of cities which have made significant commitment to bus rapid transit (Ottawa, Curitiba) to see evidence of development following the service, not the technology. BRT of course is more comparable to LRT if it runs in its own right-of-way. Arterial BRT is more like streetcars. According to a report published by the Transportation Research Board, the link between land development and streetcars has not been substantiated by empirical evidence. Most of the evidence that does exist comes from project promoters or advocates, who obviously have a stake in the outcome.

In the 1880s and 1890s when the first generation of streetcars were built, they provided a huge increment of accessibility over competing modes (walking, horse). Today, they provide no increment of accessibility over cars and buses. They allow no one to get anywhere faster than before. The entire argument rests on qualitative improvements.

The navigability problem with streetcars is solved by the oh-so-attractive wires in the air and tracks on the ground, which tell you where the service is going. Buses on undifferentiated blacktop have no such obvious signals. In one sense this is correct, Twin Cities buses are not obviously navigable, and I have railed at this before. But again, this is easily solved with better signage, and more importantly, tall lights with “T” on them as in the adjoining images from Vancouver and Stockholm, lights which can be seen from several stops away.

The ride quality issue I think is more one of new infrastructure than of streetcar infrastructure. In the waning days of streetcars, people praised the new buses (presumably on relatively new streets, for from what I can tell, almost nothing in Minneapolis has been resurfaced since the middle of the last century) for their ride quality.

“Clang, clang, clang” went the trolley
“Ding, ding, ding” went the bell
“Zing, zing, zing” went my heartstrings
For the moment I saw him I fell

“Chug, chug, chug” went the motor
“Bump, bump, bump” went the brake
“Thump, thump, thump” went my heartstrings
When he smiled, I could feel the car shake

He tipped his hat, and took a seat
He said he hoped he hadn’t stepped upon my feet
He asked my name I held my breath
I couldn’t speak because he scared me half to death

“Buzz, buzz, buzz” went the buzzer
“Plop, plop, plop” went the wheels
“Stop, stop, stop” went my heartstrings
As he started to leave I took hold of his sleeve with my hand

And as if it were planned
He stayed on with me and it was grand
Just to stand with his hand holding mine
All the way to the end of the line

The Trolley Song speaks to the smoothness of the ride. For a young romantic, even a bus can be idealized. For the regular commuter or the harried shopper, bump, bump, bump is far from romance.

The operating cost question is partially correct. Clean electricity powering a streetcar will save energy and reduce environmental impacts compared to a diesel, or even an electric, bus in traffic. We do not have clean electricity (yet) in the Twin Cities in general, so while the energy claim may remain, the environmental one is weak at best. The labor argument may also hold if you have a long streetcar that carries more passengers per driver than a bus. Germany has double-decker buses that hold 128 passengers (wikipedia), while streetcars by Skoda hold 157 (wikipedia), as with all things, it depends on configuration, but it is not the knock-out punch. And it is only critical on routes with that level of demand, at times with that level of demand. And if to achieve that demand, you lower frequency, you are worsening service.

Offsetting the operating cost advantage is the major capital cost disadvantage. Buses can effectively free-ride on streets paid for out of property and gas taxes, while streetcars are responsible for their own tracks (and BRT on exclusive right-of-way similarly are responsible for their own pavement). Does the $100 or $200 million dollars spent per line garner any new passengers? Are the existing passengers qualitatively better off in a way that they would actually pay for? Is the trip any faster? If the service is indeed better, it should be able to charge a premium and retain its customers.

Further offsetting this is scale economies. We have, and will long have, lots of buses. At best we will have a few streetcars. The buses will have lots of people working on them, a collection of spare parts, expertise, and so on to keep them maintained efficiently. Streetcars will, especially at first, be rare, without the library of spare parts, without the staff maintenance expertise, and without any of the other advantages of buses. Either costly redundant vehicles will need to be provided, or the system will be “out” more frequently than buses. The Twin Cities in the last decade has invested in two new rail technologies (commuter trains and LRT), neither of which are cheap. A third seems to add to the system complexity with few advantages.

Like magicians, streetcar promoters are engaging in diversion and distraction, attributing all success to streetcars and covering up the mistakes. The benefits of streetcars are illusory, the costs are real.

The Twin Cities does like its toys: new stadiums, trains, convention centers, and the like are the most egregious examples. If money were free, this would not be a problem. Where I live, money is not free.

41 thoughts on “The Magic of Streetcars, The Logic of Buses

  1. Alex

    Thanks for smashing some of the technology myths. The less money we spend on unnecessary capital projects, the more we have to spend on necessary ones, like upgraded waiting facilities.

    Personally I'd put more emphasis on capacity than you do, though. At least two routes, the 16 and the 18, currently have enough ridership to justify some kind of upgrade, and probably the 21, 10, and 5 do as well. Double decker buses won't help for the 16, because that route currently is overcapacity despite using articulated coaches, which I believe have a higher capacity than double deckers. Also, I wonder whether double deckers will require some modifications to the skyway network. Running overcapacity causes issues like bus bunching and crush loads that likely erode farebox recovery ratios as well. Sure, it won't meet your standard of being able to pay for its own capital costs, but it will likely reduce operating (and thereby subsidy) costs locally and mostly be paid for with free federal money.

    1. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

      Well the 16 is getting replaced by LRT, so the point is sort of moot there, but in any case, you could increase frequency in addition to getting larger vehicles if capacity is truly binding. My sense is that it is only for a very short part of the day, which is why no investment in even larger vehicles has been made. There was a test a few years ago on double-deckers in downtown… and while they may or may not have been economical or legal or politically feasible, none of the skyways fell down.

      The 18 parallels the I-35W BRT, so if the powers that be make that work (Lake Street station, etc.), it should relieve some of the longer distance demand.

      1. Mike Hicks

        The frequency of the 16 is fairly flat throughout the day — much of the capacity increase comes from ramping up runs of the 50 limited-stop bus. At times, there are actually a few more route 50 buses running than on the 16.

        When LRT comes, the train (I'm expecting to use 50 as its route number) will run a couple times more frequently than the 16, which will have frequency reduced from what it has today.

  2. Clay W.

    Interesting perspective that I have not heard before. Don't you also think that what this comes down to is the fact that the Bottineau LRT line is just not being routed correctly? If it actually went through North, where the riders are, there would be no need for a street car to 'feed' it. The bus system could probably be adjusted just as they are now doing with Central Corridor to more efficiently work with the LRT line. I don't know, it just seems like with the expense of Bottineau, it should not require another line to load it up. After all, Hiawatha doesn't depend on a street car line.

    1. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

      I believe Bottineau is being routed arbitrarily so the suburbanites don't have to mix with the urban residents of North (is that the most polite way to say it?). The street routing proposed in North was a totally false set of alternatives.

      1. Mike Hicks

        LRT projects have had an affinity for being routed along freight rail corridors, which tend to be pretty industrial, not very well populated, and sometimes not well-suited to intense development. Hiawatha, Southwest, and Bottineau are all built along what have been freight rail corridors (Hiawatha jumps over the highway near Lake Street, but the highway itself brings similar issues).

        While rules have changed somewhat in recent years, the decisionmaking for all of those lines (plus the Central Corridor) was heavily biased toward travel-time savings. High ridership at busy stations is something of an enemy to speed, so rules biased toward getting suburbanites into town faster caused many of the higher-ridership options to be cut years ago.

        I guess I would have preferred there to be a dual-track process for transit development over the past several decades versus what we've had. One set of rules for handling the suburban-to-urban commuter type systems, and another for upgrading existing busy urban routes. That has sort of developed with New Starts vs. Small Starts, but the amount of money available seems to be upside-down.

        People act irrationally now about rail, but they were also acting irrationally in the 1950s — A few core routes should have been kept and eventually upgraded with longer trains (I think the Twin Cities system was a bit unusual for operating almost exclusively with individual vehicles. They experimented a little with multiple-unit operation here, but it never caught on unlike in some other places.).

  3. Reuben CollinsReuben

    David, what I don't see in your list of things railfans might say is that buses suffer from a negative social stigma about the vehicles themselves or the people that ride them, but that this same stigma is not always attached to rail. For example, people (suburbanites?) will gladly park at MOA and take LRT to a Twins game, but you'd never convince the same folks to take a bus, even if it offered identical travel times, ridability, etc.

    So what is the rational decision for a public official to make, if it's true that the general public has an entirely irrational preference for rail? Which is a better investment, a rational bus system that few people ride, or an irrational rail system that many people ride? Is there an optimization exercise in here somewhere?

    1. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

      It is a point that some rail fans make. However, I think the State Fair provides contrary evidence for events. It has to be cheaper to destigmatize buses than build a new rail system. Have we even tried seriously to do this?

      1. Paul

        De-stigmatizing buses may be a long shot. Having ridden these things in my daily life while I lived in Prague and Amsterdam (and to a lesser extent in Portland, OR) I saw the main benefits over buses as being faster, more comfortable, enjoyable, more nimble, and of course a higher capacity than buses in a dense city. While they are largely separated from auto traffic except in the Prague and A'dam, Portland's is not – save for a small stretch – which in turn suffers from much slower speeds. But these trams in my opinion contribute to a much nicer city than buses. And they don't hit potholes!

  4. stlplanr

    If a bus route already has high frequency (less than 10 minutes) and/or articulated (larger) vehicles, then streetcar may be a logical upgrade for capacity's sake.

    This is especially the case where ridership is largely short-distance trips. In that situation, an overlapping, limited-stop bus route would not relieve the capacity needs of the at-/over-capacity, local bus route.

  5. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins

    Also, a follow-up is the question about what is the rational decision for a public official to make if the Federal government will pay the capital costs for rail, but not for buses? If something is a bad investment, but it's somebody else's money, does that make it a good investment for us? (of course it's ultimately our money… but that's a separate discussion)…

    1. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

      Yes, there is the locally optimal, globally irrational aspect. The federal government will pay in part for bus capital but not bus operating costs (as I understand it, and I am sure there are exceptions), which biases the system. My former student Wenling Chen wrote about this in Analysis of Rail Transit Project Selection Bias With an Incentive Approach ( ) Planning Theory March 2007 vol. 6 no. 1 69-94. But in the long term, this simply means more local capital will need to be maintained and overhauled, and this cost is not properly capitalized when making decisions.

  6. Andrew

    In my mind it boils down to having a dedicated right-of-way or not. Once you have the road shared with cars & trucks the streetcars lose. They can't go around obstacles and their track infrastructure is getting wear and tear from auto traffic. In both cases the bus wins out.

    Maybe on a route like Nicollet Ave where the streetcar would have almost exclusive right-of-way it could work as sort of a mini-LRT. But the current argument that streetcars are going to provide connections and ridership to Bottineau LRT is just political handwringing because they can't make the smart choice and route Bottineau through North where it should be.

  7. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    For me, the main difference b/w a streetcar and a bus is the traffic calming. Streetcars create a different kind of environment, one that de-prioritizes the automobile. Driving along / next to street car tracks just feels different. Drivers are continually made aware that they don't have priority over the space, that pedestrians and transit are primary users of the space.

    Now, I'm not arguing that streetcars are a good investment. They may be, and may not be, depending on context. But much like the piece I wrote on Portland and Park cycle tracks, a streetcar down a main commercial corridor would have a simultaneous two-fold impact of investing in a comfortable transit and calming auto traffic with one project.

    1. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

      History however shows that mixing autos and streetcars resulted in streetcar calming rather than vice versa. Cars took space away from streetcars and made them operate worse.

      There are of course policy solutions to such situations besides eliminating streetcars, but unless DOTs are actually willing got regulate the car radically, those solutions won't be implemented, and nowhere in the US (to the best of my knowledge) did streetcars beat back cars. Only in a few places did streetcars not die.

        1. David LevinsonDavid Levinson Post author

          Cars on tracks block the streetcar, the untracked bus can go around. This is in principle regulatory, if you keep cars off the streetcar tracks entirely, no problem. That doesn't happen because you are using streetcars, not LRT, when you don't have exclusive RoW.

    2. Andrew

      Having tracks in the road did make me pay more attention and drive slower in San Francisco because it wasn't something I was use to seeing. But in terms of traffic calming parked cars, zebra crossings, and fewer driving lanes seem to have a much better effect at a lot less cost.

  8. Morten

    As an urban planner I feel that this article completely misses the most central argument in favour of street cars from an urban planning perspective, which is the integration options with the urban spaces. A piece of road is a piece of road, while rail based surface transport can easily run on a mix of surfaces, including grass. This makes it much more interesting to create urban spaces around LRT than BRT for example, and I can't think of many cities that aren't aiming to improve the quality of urban spaces these days. If we just want transit versions of urban highways, by all means go for the bus solutions. As an urban planner I think that would be a huge mistake.

    1. David LevinsonDavid Levinson Post author

      A bus can easily run on any road, creating all sorts of collector/feeder options to serve customers, while streetcars only go where the few tracks run. The mix of surfaces between the tracks seems entirely minor compared to the flexibility afforded a more robust vehicle-network technology.

  9. Dan

    Why is it always assumed streetcars won't have their own right of way? Why would we spend that much money on any kind of transit and then let it get stuck in traffic?

    1. Jeb

      Mainly because almost all implementations of streetcars use the road's ROW, not their own. If you're using separate ROW, why wouldn't you go with LRT? I don't know much about the economics of the two, but it seems that the largest cost would be the ROW, not the actual technology (assuming both use the same setup for ROW, i.e. both would run at ground level with their own ROW.)

  10. RP

    I've always heard and read that in the United States, rail is markedly superior when it comes to attracting riders – especially new riders – to buses. Let me get this out of the way: I can't point to research that shows that unequivocally. Perhaps I need to read up. Though I struggle to get my head around exactly how one might either "prove" or "disprove" such an assertion in the real world.

    I am certainly aware of examples elsewhere in the world that show when you build a robust bus/BRT system, you can attract a critical mass and build a broad system – Curbitia and Bogota being among the poster-children for that. But while comprehensive BRT efforts have been wildly successful in many other countries, and in particular less affluent but developing countries, there is a strong skepticism about realizing anything truly similar here.

    Chalk that up, one might suppose, to American attitudes – the complex historical intermingling of unfortunate socioeconomic biases among Americans that leads too many to believe busses are for "other" people. Or to the utter dominance of cars in American culture over the last fifty years, and resulting reality that all but a small minority of people have been able to afford their own car, at least to this point in history, essentially leaving a small "underclass" relegated to and stigmatized on the bus. Or the fact that without BRT, rail, or dedicated lanes, buses are basically nothing more than very slow, clumsy, stinky cars.

    There's plenty of signs that that those attitudes and realities have begun to soften in recent years – thank God (or whatever force is responsible) – so perhaps the distinction between bus and rail in American culture will become less pronounced. But it's an important strain that seemed like it deserved to be added to an already-spirited discussion.

    Talk on!

  11. RP

    Just to clarify my clumsy wording in the reply directly above: my understanding is that rail is better at attracting riders – especially new riders – than busses.

  12. Morten

    Minor if the only concern is transport perhaps. Rarely, if ever, is that the case in urban areas.

    For example, a bus route would never allow this type of urban space.

    If transport was the only thing that mattered to policy makers I would agree with many of the points that are being raised here. However, most of them are (thankfully) chiefly concerned with the quality of the spaces we inhabit and move around in. After all, if we cover everything in asphalt just to move around, where would we want to go?

      1. Morten

        That is a very poor replication then, especially due to the barrier effects for not being at grade. The main source of greenery in that photo comes from the trees, so if the solution is to place all our infrastructure in forests then it might work. Again, urban spaces…

  13. Mike Hicks

    Well, there are two main types of blockages in my mind: Immobile vehicles and obstacles (parked cars, broken cars, random large objects that have fallen off a truck, etc.), and traffic congestion.

    I doubt that immobile vehicles/objects pop up nearly as often as critics suggest. It's illegal to park on or otherwise obstruct tracks. Plus, while liability issues would generally prevent it these days, the car owner still runs the risk of picking a fight with a vehicle that is many times heavier than the car.

    Then there's traffic. Center-running streetcars have to deal with left-turning traffic, but standard buses have to wait for an opening in traffic as they pull away from stops. Both streetcars and buses would probably work best these days with bulb-out platforms along the right side of the street.

    Buses don't pass other vehicles all that often either, though that's partly due to stopping patterns. It doesn't do much good to pass someone if the next stop is in less than 600 feet anyway.

    1. David LevinsonDavid Levinson Post author

      There is one more blockage, which is broken down streetcars (and I have encountered more than once in Portland), which can shut the whole system (if single-tracked or without cross-overs), while a broken bus does nothing like that. Of course buses can then be run instead of streetcars. I don't know the frequency objectively, but it seems non-trivial.

  14. Philip F

    I wonder what the public's opinion of the streetcars is in Toronto, where the streetcars do not consist of just 1 or 2 lines, but instead a whole system of 11 lines.
    How do they score in terms of speed and ridership next to other nearby bus lines? Are people more likely to take them or not? Since they have been in operation for over 100 years, are people more biased in favor of them?

    Alternatively, I would like to raise the topic of peak oil/resource depletion. If, in the future, we experience very high prices and/or shortages of LIQUID FUELS (ie: diesel), would it not be a good idea to have transit networks in place that can be fed with a multitude of fuel sources? Coal, nuclear, natural gas, solar, wind, and geothermal energy can be used to create electricity to power streetcars. There is more redundancy in a system like this, and therefore a reduced possibility of service disruptions.

    PS: I don't know the cost of electric traction, but why don't we consider trolleybuses an alternative to streetcars if our goal is to reduce operating costs? Not all routes need re-routing, so why not implement some sort of electric traction on routes we know will not change for a long time – like the 5, 10, 18… or what about the 2 – Franklin Ave bus – this would work great as a trolleybus, no?

    1. Ian Bicking

      Berlin has a large number of streetcars (in what was formerly East Berlin, they were removed from West Berlin). I will note than once you get a good system in place the idea that rails-in-the-ground makes a system comprehensible is definitely incorrect, I found the streetcar system very hard to comprehend. In some ways I think it can be worse than buses, because there is pressure to have routes share tracks whenever possible, so different routes become intertwined in many places.

  15. Ian Bicking

    If a bus has reached capacity, instead of increasing capacity why not create another bus route that serves some portion of the riders? Overcrowded transportation infrastructure often means too many people are being funneled through one route, rather than that the route is undersized – same for transit as highways.

  16. Ian Bicking

    Rails in the road don't just affect drivers psychologically, they are also dangerous for bikers.

    Steel-on-steel wheels also can't break as quickly as rubber-on-concrete. This makes people rightly afraid of rails, which in a crude sort of way is "calming," but as much or more so for pedestrians and bikers as cars.

  17. kantor

    It always surprises me how a country as technological as the US of A would fall back on medioeval thinking so often.

    These streetcar-bashing arguments are neither new, nor sensible; honestly I am not going to debate, since I suspect that it would be a waste of time. I wish merely to point out that EVERYWHERE in the world, buses are "railstituted" in one way or another with increasing frequency; the only places in which this does not happen (but it is changing) are some third world country with very very low labor costs.

    Of course I am painfully aware of the American exceptionalism; but I never thought it would make acceptable (even preferable) such an inferior mode of transit.

  18. Alex

    I remember hearing one of the people working to convert the 16 into an enhanced streetcar say that they had reached (exceeded, I'd say) the limit of what added frequency could do for capacity on that corridor and the only option was to go to a higher-capacity vehicle. The reason being, I assume, that if you have 10 people boarding, it doesn't matter if there's another bus coming 2 minutes later. Presumably improved boarding procedures and off-board payment mitigates that to some degree, though.

    Certainly the Twin Cities have few if any other routes that have reached that point – I'd guess the 21 might be the only other contender. But it's worth considering that adding frequency likely leads to a positive feedback cycle, where more riders are attracted by the frequency itself (and the better avg speeds, if you implement the boarding improvements), so some routes that haven't reached the limits of adding frequency yet may do so shortly if you add frequency.

    But I agree that a double-decker will probably do about as much at that point as a streetcar. I think that one of the reasons that few routes use articulated buses is parking – they need a lot more curb space at stops.

  19. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins

    Relevant alternative viewpoint from Cap'n Transit:

    Cap'n Transit: The Lurch

    One of the reasons I asked is that bus advocates so often come off as scolds, telling us that in this new economy we're going to have to make do with less, so we should all get used to buses. Then they try to tell us that buses are really just as good as trains. Yeah, right.

  20. Froggie

    Jumping in way late here, but in recent history, the 5 has had the highest ridership of the Metro Transit bus route, surpassed only by Hiawatha LRT. Because getting ridership data from Metro Transit is like pulling teeth, though, I'm not sure if that's still the case.

Comments are closed.