Six Less Obvious Benefits to Streetcars

Image CC licensed by Flickr user BeyondDC

Streetcars are trending in North American cities these days. Portland, Seattle, Toronto, Charlotte and Cincinnati are all on board. Minneapolis has a streetcar plan for Nicollet and Central Avenues, and Saint Paul is just a step or two behind.

Still, though, whether or not it’s a good idea to build streetcar systems is one of the more debatable transit ideas you’ll come across when urbanist heads collide. See, for example, this excellent discussion in the comment thread of Brendon’s gondola post, from a few months ago. The subject of streetcars came up, and here’s one critique:

They may be great as tourist attractions or “tourist” transportation, but if we’re making lines primarily for transit use, I’m worried. Especially if that line we’re looking at is one that many residents would use. In order for transit to be useful, it needs to value people’s time, and streetcars as they’re normally set up do not do that as well as other modes available to us (LRT, aBRT, dedicated lanes, etc.)

In a world of efficiency, we can easily treat streetcars as if they’re some sort of development talisman. It’s as if they have magical properties. They don’t go any faster than buses, they’re less flexible, and they sure cost a lot more. From a transit planning perspective, they don’t have obvious advantages.

But somehow, for some reason, people like them. They bestow economic growth like faerie dust wherever they’re constructed (except Tampa). It’s a mystery, but it works… I guess.

Well, I happen to like riding on streetcars. And its not just because I perceive them as being “more permanent” than buses, less likely to disappear from my small urban world. Some of my favorite memories in cities around the US come from riding streetcars. Here are some of the reasons:


Capacity – Many of you probably know this, but streetcars can carry more people than buses. They have a wide variety of designs and sizes, and you can even hook two of them up together when you need to, for events or along dense corridors. Toronto has new streetcars with 85 seats, and open floorplan streetcars can expand that even farther.

Electricity – Streetcars run on electricity. In a world of volatile energy prices, I can only imagine that transitioning to electricity as a fuel source will give transit agencies some sorely needed cost predictability. (The same reasoning applies to electrifying our rail system, or our auto fleet.)

Noise – The role of noise in cities is often overlooked. Our downtowns and neighborhoods are continually polluted by the sounds of combustion engines, and this daily harangue not only makes our streets unpleasant, but actually raises stress levels in strikingly unhealthy ways. Because they’re electric and run on rails, streetcars are quiet. The sound of a grunting diesel bus has a Pavolovian effect on me. That farting grumble instantly makes me more depressed. I feel like Charlie Brown on a bad day, slumping my shoulders and staring at my shoes. I imagine many others feel the same way.

Smooth Ride – The engine connects to ride quality. Yesterday I was riding in the standing room only express bus between Minneapolis and Saint Paul, wedged far back atop the engine. You feel every bump and pothole. The vibrations of the diesel shakes you like a paintcan. The bus rocks around corners and people cling to the waggling straps. Contrast that with the relaxing sway of a vehicle on rails.

Accessibility – For those with mobility challenges, streetcars are a godsend. They have flat floorplans [see the above photo], and boarding them thorugh wide doors from raised platforms makes life on unsteady feet, in a wheelchair, or perched on an electric scooter far more bearable.

Streetcar tracks on Lake Street, Minneapolis. 1920. [Img Our Uptown.]

Traffic Calming – This one’s my favorite. Streetcar rails signal to drivers that the street has more than one function. Streetcar tracks, and streetcars themselves, cause drivers to move more cautiously and carefully, to really be aware as they move through the city. Exactly that traffic calming function was a key reasons they were removed in the first place. Whether you ride them or not, everyone benefits from a safer street.


All of these things are less tangible than a stopwatch or a traffic study, but they add up to a big difference when you compare a streetcar to a bus (even one with “benefits”). How much are these things worth? How can we measure and weigh these factors when doing a cost-benefit analysis?

That’s a difficult question, but one worth thinking about. In the end, the decision to build a streetcar is probably an inexact science, a judgment call that depends on the local situation. But its worth remembering that streetcars aren’t magic. They don’t work in mysterious ways. Their advantages are real, if less obvious. As a regular transit user, I can’t wait until I can ride one in my city.

One of Toronto’s new streetcars.

54 thoughts on “Six Less Obvious Benefits to Streetcars

  1. Andrew OwenAndrew Owen

    This is a great look at some of the ingredients that make up rail’s “fairy dust.” (“fairrail dust?”) I wonder how far this analogy can go — in “the literature,” fairy dust is always hard to get, very precious (expensive), and best used in very small quantities. Also, it can only be obtained by currying favor with a secretive group of capricious beings whose motives are inscrutable and who wield power disproportionate to their physical size. Seems to hold up so far 🙂

    But I really want to talk about your “smooth ride” ingredient — I think you still have some disentangling to do here. You talk about experiencing “bumps and potholes” and the way a bus “rocks.” But what causes these bumps? Surely you are not arguing that the potholes are a component of the bus itself; I think you will agree that they are a feature of a poorly-maintained running surface.

    A bus running on smooth pavement will provide a smooth ride, and a streetcar or train running on bumpy rails will provide a bumpy ride. Just ask any Chicago transit user:

    “Such a force of 2.5 Gs, if applied quickly like the jerky motion of a CTA train, would lift an egg off a seat and cause it to break upon landing, Adams said.” (

    In the case of Chicago’s ‘L’, the solution to bumpiness isn’t to replace the bumpy lines with a new technology, but rather to invest in rail maintenance. If our buses are bumpy, perhaps we should try addressing that through road surface maintenance?

    In fact, considering why we don’t already do this — that is, why roads which carry buses are not prioritized for surface maintenance — is itself an interesting exercise in transportation economics and politics.

    1. Mike Hicks

      LRT is meant to fit in the space between streetcars and subway/elevated lines. Streetcars run in the street in mixed traffic, LRT usually runs at grade level in a dedicated guideway but with level crossings of streets, and subway/elevated lines typically don’t interact with the street at all.

      The added width of an LRT guideway means that it typically gets built along wide streets, old railroad corridors, or along highways. Streetcars can go along existing streets without rebuilding the whole thing, although I think it’s becoming more common for people to accept the idea of removing lanes in exchange for an LRT-style dedicated guideway. Subways and elevated lines have different restrictions.

      Streetcars tend to have simpler station designs, typically like a nicer bus stop. LRT tends to have much more heavily-built stations, though they don’t get as complicated as subway/el stations, which need to have tunnels or bridges for passengers to get to the correct platform without having to cross tracks.

      For reasons that I don’t really understand, new American streetcar lines are being built so that each train is only a single vehicle long. LRT lines typically run vehicles in pairs or triples, limited in length by the size of stations and the length of city blocks. Subway/elevated lines can have trains significantly longer since they don’t interact with the street at all. Subway/elevated trains also usually have doors to allow people to move from one car to the next.

      Streetcars are usually built to be slower, perhaps maxing out at 25 mph or less. LRT is more likely to be built with maximum speeds of 35-55 mph. Subway/elevated lines can go 70 mph in some cases.

  2. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins

    Bill, are you sure about all of these? I don’t know a lot about either of these modes, but aren’t some of these concerns easily overcome?

    Capacity is important, and I’ll accept the assertion that streetcars can carry more people (though I’m pretty sure I’ve heard arguments against this as well), but couldn’t we reach the same capacity with shorter headway on buses. This would add operating costs, but of course we’d save major capital costs. In addition, I’m not really sure that capacity is really a relevant issue in the Twin Cities.

    Can buses not be electric? Doesn’t seattle run electric buses with catenary in their downtown? I’m sure there are other examples. What about hybrid buses?

    Noise seems to be a combination of the smooth ride and electricity issues, which andrew addressed. If we invested in pavement half as much as we would need to invest in rails, they’d be smooth too.

    And accessibility… can’t we do this with buses as well? In fact, isn’t that more or less the plan for the aBRT system MetroTransit is working on right now?

    These are genuine questions. I’m not trying to torpedo your thoughts, and I’m no expert on bus or rail technologies.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      Buses can certainly be electric the way streetcars are, with a pretty large gain in capital (suspending wires and providing electricity to them for the entire route, higher bus costs because they’re electric) and an equalized degree of ‘flexibility’ (those buses can’t continue on to other routes that don’t have the wires).

      Accessibility, I agree we CAN have aBRT buses that have low boarding, wide doors that open in front and back, and platforms on the sidewalk with off-board payment, etc. The thing is, as Matt points out, we don’t have the political capital to get every one of these things done when discussing buses (can always nickel and dime down a bus project) vs rails (those things are a necessity to the operation and set a price floor).

      Even with a perfectly smooth street the ride on a bus will be jerkier than a streetcar. The benefit of the bus is it can maneuver congestion in multiple lanes, which is the downside to rider comfort (plus manual braking on buses has higher G ratings than on rails).

      I agree on the headway discussion… difficult choice between frequency and capacity. A streetcar’s value is serving the extension of the pedestrian’s capability on short/local trips, but if headways are 15+ minutes people could choose to walk and reach the destinations just as fast. But given a streetcar’s base capacity no one would propose running at 5-10 minute headways (Jarrett Walker’s responses regarding the Vancouver streetcar are spot on here). Tough call. People certainly prefer streetcars to buses (the way people prefer a BMW over a Chevy), but we need to be very specific about what lines get what mode based on their intended uses.

    2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      I’m going to visit my brother in Boston this weekend, and he lives right next to an electric bus barn on Massachusetts Avenue. So yes, there are electric buses with catenaries. They’re quiet and pollution free.

      But other than Boston or Canada, I don’t know anywhere else they exist. Certainly nobody is building them these days when streetcars are on the table at a similar price. I guess its possible, but I’d say that if you don’t already have an electric bus in your city, you’re not likely to get one.

      As for hybrid buses, I understand they get better milage. But they don’t seem much quieter to me. Maybe I’m wrong about that…

  3. Matt SteeleMatt

    I think this is right on. While I agree with Jarrett Walker and Andrew that nearly all of the perceived differences about streetcars and buses are related to other decisions and are not mode-specific, I think it still misses the political reality of our auto-dependent world. I wish we could build high-quality transit using rubber-tired buses, but that doesn’t seem to happen. See: “Red Line” BRT where much of its nine figure budget went to “improving” highway engineering (traffic flow, safety, all those gushy engineering metrics) at the expense of turning a road that’s hostile to people into a road that’s even more hostile to people.

    Now, the real issue in our metro is aBRT vs Streetcar, since the two modes are being studied for many of the same corridors. The shame here is how there are two study tracks going on, rather than figuring out what we want and which mode is the best and most efficient way to meet those requirements. For example, there are the obvious cost advantages to buses. There’s the ability to be more incremental with buses, since buses can run on any existing street or highway in addition to any dedicated service for part of their route. Likewise, grade separation and new infrastructure seems to benefit a streetcar (such as on the Greenway). Finally, streetcars have the advantage to have portions of dedicated ROW built over time which could not be commandeered by car users.

    Part of that discussion would need to be the political reality that there are certain amenities which are optional for bus services but required for rail services. And unfortunately we seem incapable of building bus services that are LRT or streetcar on tires. There are just too many areas to compromise on cost or exclusivity when building high-amenity bus services.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      I very much agree with your criticisms of the Red Line, Matt. Cedar is now even worse than it was before. Even more absurd, the road was completely reconstructed for transit from the southern edge of the Cedar freeway at 138th to Dodd Rd, just north of Lakeville Cedar station. The type of reconstruction was questionable no matter what — even more questionable since they decided last year that service will end at Apple Valley Transit Station, almost 3 miles to the north of the end of those “transit improvements”.

      Then again, this situation is not isolated to buses. In preparation for light rail, Hiawatha Ave between Minnehaha Pkwy and Crosstown Hwy was rerouted onto new land, to create a wider, faster, de facto expressway, all in the name of “making room” for the light rail. (The old Hiawatha was renamed Minnehaha Ave — kind of a non sequitur.)

      Point being: if we’re going to do transit, we should do transit. It’s easy to cheat and use it as an excuse for more auto improvements. Certainly, that was done for both Cedar and Hiawatha.

      1. Jeb

        But maybe that’s required to get wider public support for the projects. While the Red Line seems like wasted money, even to someone who likes to see transit work well and am pretty technology-agnostic (heck, I’m the commenter that was quoted in this article,) the Hiawatha was a solid investment in public transit. Frankly, I think it took the Twin Cities from transit being an option mainly for those who can’t own cars to making it an option for everyone.

        But, at the time Hiawatha was built, we couldn’t prove that. Throwing some bones to increasing the road’s auto-centricity while having a very successful light rail system built is a trade worth making, in my book. I don’t think Minnesota politics is at the point where we can make huge investments in public transit without throwing a bone to automobile drivers, and the improvements to 55 may have been that bone.

      2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        Fair enough, but there’s the other side of it, too, where the auto-centric world doesn’t realize the bone it’s been thrown. When they were talking about the cost of the Hiawatha Line, that was a total price tag, including a number of things that either avoided inconveniencing cars, or (like that portion of Hiawatha) went above and beyond in making things better for cars.

        On the Red Line, the vast majority of the costs of the line were, in fact, roadway improvements, yet so many south-of-the-river folks whine about wasting all kind of money on transit. Even for the actual money spent on transit facilities, the vast majority of that cost goes to building park and ride structures. (Then again, since they’ve made Cedar Avenue even more dangerous and unpleasant to walk or bike on, very few would dare to access the bus any other way.) The Red Line is particularly grating, since the roadway was reconstructed for the entire aforementioned portion, yet the line will terminate early. Imagine if they’d built that Hiawatha expressway, but then decided to terminate the actual light rail at 46th Street.

        So it’s possible we can toss a bone to drivers, but at the least, that bone should not make other modes (especially modes that support transit usage) less desirable or les safe. And the benefits of the project to car drivers should be very clearly expressed. Unfortunately, there’s been very little communication at all about the Red Line.

  4. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    Jeff Speck points out in his new book Walkable City ( that streetcars are “pedestrian accelerators.” I think that is apt. Streetcars must be accompanied with a relatively consistent active walkable environment and the lines shouldn’t be much more than a couple miles long (think Pearl District in Portland). Running Minneapolis streetcars past Lake Street is a mistake, and are we ready for the upzoning along Nicollet and Central to support ridership?

    Adding to Mike’s description, LRT station spacing is ideally about a mile apart and very nodal in terms of best development pattern, with a lot of uses right near the station and oozing out like a melted candle the farther away you get.

    These questions must always be accompanied by what land use pattern is around them.

    I’d love to live along a streetcar line if the neighborhood was like the Pearl District. Buses don’t thrill me for the reasons Bill cites. Well done!

  5. Janne

    You missed one, although you got close. Right by noise, add “air pollution.” Diesel smells bad, but even worse it creates particles that exacerbate asthma.

    Of course, electrified buses would also solve that.

    (And there is also the less geographically-specific issue of how you’re generating that electricity. Wind/PV? No problem. Coal, more particulate pollution, although more widely dispersed rather than right next to the bus stop.)

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      Yeah, where electricity comes from is a whole big can of kahuna tuna.

      Still, electric transportation takes care of the other big pollution issue. Small particulates in cities is a matter of environmental justice.

  6. Karl Carter

    Pothole season has arrived and I can’t help but think that street cars provide an advantage over buses by slowing pothole growth and prolonging street surface life. Frequent bus surivce is rough on streets. Buses are large heavy vehicles. There are numerous examples around town of enormous potholes developing at bus stops. I don’t know that one could argue that streetcars represent a cost savings, but shifting all of that weight from the street surface to rails would prolong the life of the street.

  7. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

    1. Read this (again) The Magic of Streetcars, The Logic of Buses

    2. Noise is readily quantified. Normally this is done at the property level, when I last looked at this, a 1% increase in noise leads on average to a 0.62% decrease in property value. (See The social costs of intercity transportation: a review and comparison of air and highway).

    3. The capacity argument is flawed, and not just because of headway. There are some pretty big buses in the world, we just don’t use them here. Whether the world’s largest bus is bigger than the world’s largest streetcar is mostly irrelevant, since neither is what is on offer.

    4. I wish the evidence was that streetcars led to safer streets. I am not sure if that is true now. It certainly was not true historically (Devil in the White City) . “Anonymous death came early and often. Each of the thousand trains that entered and left the city did so at grade level. You could step from a curb and be killed by the Chicago Limited. Every day on average two people were destroyed at the city’s rail crossings. Their injuries were grotesque. Pedestrians retrieved severed heads. There were other hazards. Streetcars fell from drawbridges. Horses bolted and dragged carriages into crowds. …”

    LRTs are still deadlier than buses.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      I can’t believe I forgot about your article David. It’s one of the most popular posts of all time! (I guess that’s bound to happen on this site, that we start writing the same articles over and over again, the eternal return of planning issues.) Your descriptions of streetcars as “magic” are the perfect illustration of one side of this debate.

      I haven’t seen studies about traffic calming / safety effects of modern streetcar tracks. Surely safety concerns today are far different than 1893. I’m just describing what I see in places like Portland, Seattle, San Francisco and New Orleans. I appreciate anyone w/ expertise offering up evidence one way or the other.

      Noise might be quantifiable, but can a decibel meter tell the difference between noise and music?

      1. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

        Noise is just unwanted sound, sound that annoys. It shows up in the property values like any (dis)amenity. If people like the sound, they would pay more to be near it. If people dislike the sound, they pay less to be near it. The market arbitrates this.

        I remember visiting York England, which had these bells, which I am sure someone at the church thought were music, but clearly were noise. I am guessing people living near an open-air concert venue get a discount on their houses, all else equal.

        1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

          Yeah, I retract my earlier statement. It’s very subjective.

          Still, it reminds me of this wonderful study:

          […] Among the urban sounds researchers have found to be surprisingly agreeable are car tyres on wet, bumpy asphalt, the distant roar of a motorway flyover, the rumble of an overground train and the thud of heavy bass heard on the street outside a nightclub.

          Other sounds that are apparently kind to the ear include a baby laughing, skateboarders practising in underground car parks and orchestras tuning up.

          ‘Sound in the environment, especially that made by other people, has overwhelmingly been considered purely as a matter of volume and generally in negative terms, as both intrusive and undesirable,’ said Dr Bill Davies of Salford University, who is leading the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council-funded project Positive Soundscapes.

          ‘The strong focus of traditional engineering acoustics is on reducing noise level,’ added Davies. ‘But not only is that failing, it is also ignoring the many possibilities for creating positive soundscapes in the environments in which we live.’ […]

  8. Ian Bicking

    I find the smooth ride advantage a little questionable. It’s the incredible lack of flexibility that makes streetcars smooth – traditional rail is incapable of significant grades and turns and generally cannot navigate the road. So streetcars have to barrel right through the middle of everything, and the environment has to bend to match their straight lines. I guess as a negotiating tactic streetcars have a certain advantage, because they are technologically incapable of compromise. Putting a metal wheel on a metal rail isn’t fundamentally a smoother ride than a rubber wheel on concrete.

    Electricity is a similar issue. Buses can do the same things – and more! – by using electricity, natural gas, hybrid engines, etc. But because buses are flexible they are compromised. Streetcars aren’t flexible, so you are certain to get electric power. As far as I can tell, electric buses are as quiet or quieter than a streetcar (if there’s any rail maintenance issues streetcars can start getting loud – and sharp turns are particularly grating).

    For traffic calming, could you achieve the same things with some paint?

    The one really solid advantage is the relatively spacious nature of the cars themselves. I’m not exactly sure why buses can’t be as nice, but they aren’t. Perhaps because buses have to be narrower, because streetcars can be wider since they travel down a very defined path where their right of way will definitely support the wider vehicle?

    The negotiating advantages of a streetcar are real, all transit by its nature is political so we can’t pretend to be unconstrained by negotiation. But I’m just not a fan of ultimatums, which is what streetcars come down to. And it feels like throwing away the potential for progress, as streetcars haven’t changed much and don’t look to be changing much in the future. The perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good – except streetcars can only possibly be justified by expecting decades of successful service. All this for a transit mode that shies away from any discussion of “mobility” or “efficiency”.

  9. Andrew OwenAndrew Owen

    Ian: “I guess as a negotiating tactic streetcars have a certain advantage, because they are technologically incapable of compromise.”

    Alex: “we don’t have the political capital to get every one of these things done when discussing buses (can always nickel and dime down a bus project) vs rails (those things are a necessity to the operation and set a price floor).”

    This is an excellent point that I hadn’t thought much about. From a technical perspective, flexibility is a clear benefit. From a political perspective, flexibility can be a liability.

  10. Faith

    From what I gleaned talking to an engineer on a transit project, there are differences when it comes to accessibility with streetcars and buses. Wheelchair users do not need to be buckled in by the driver on a streetcar. For a bus, Metro Transit would need to apply for and recieve a waiver from the FTA to not offer the wheelchair-belt service. That process can take around 60 seconds each time, which adds up.

    Level boarding requires the driver to pull up flush with the curb, which happens every time with a streetcar since it is on rails. For a bus it requires a skillful driver. It would be interesting to see if differences in plowing that could have an effect on how well a bus can pull up to a curb… it would take a lot of vigilance with snow removal to keep streets clean.

    It would be interesting to see a life cycle cost comparison. Buses are assumed to last 12 years and streetcars are assumed to last 25, although there are still a lot of 50+ year old streetcars in still in use.

  11. helsinki

    Technical refutations of streetcar benefits can sometimes veer off into the somewhat silly. Buses can be gigantic, electric, and with low floor boarding. But at that point the cost differential decreases and other streetcar benefits remain unaddressed. Why not just build streetcars, which people prefer?

    1. Jeb

      I worry about the lack of flexibility in streetcar routes. Unless we’re giving them a dedicated lane (in which case we’re looking at a different cost/benefit analysis) the streetcar is stuck in the lane that it’s tied to, even if it’s more efficient for them to reroute.

      If there’s an accident on the line, or traffic is really heavy on that particular lane, or something of that nature, a streetcar is stuck. (Especially in the accident situation.) Either people are stuck waiting until the accident is cleared or they have to switch modes. A bus, on the other hand, can reroute around it without too much fuss.

      Plus, capital costs can be lower. We don’t have to hire (or retrain) people to maintain the streetcars for one or two lines. We don’t have to have as many spare buses as we will need spare streetcars (if we have too many aBRT buses broken down, a regular bus could serve as a temporary replacement.)

      They do have many advantages, as stated in this article. But I still can’t get past the time and flexibility aspect that streetcars will ultimately lack unless we treat them differently than we’re planning on treating the enhanced bus service. And then we’re comparing apples to oranges.

  12. Clayton

    Great article, Bill!
    I would like to add that for a northern climate like ours, winter weather and its effect on performance of these two should be compared. While LRT is quite different from street cars, neither one will jackknife, spin-out on icy roads, or have to rely on plows to stay on schedule and maintain safety.
    In terms of energy consumption, I still think street cars have buses beat. “The technology of rail transit using electric motors and steel wheels on rails is quite different than that of highway vehicles with their energy-absorbing rubber tires. The rubber tire has several times the rolling resistance of the steel wheel on a rail.” As for the stopping [extra weight] of street cars, we can use regenerative braking like the LRT cars do.
    Even if the buses are propelled through an overhead catenary system (Mexico City), the rails are still more efficient, and quieter.
    If one wants to mix BRT with LRT or street cars, you need a lot more space for layover of the buses. (Just) one of the reasons why the Bottineau Corridor is not well suited for BRT is because that would require a lot more space at the station for large bus layovers. Comparing street cars to buses is appropriate, but comparing street cars to true BRT is not an ”apples-apples” comparison since true BRT is actually more like LRT.

    1. Janne

      If you’re going to include rolling resistance in the energy efficiency equation, you also need to include the embedded energy of the tracks, cars, catenarys and construction in your equation. I have no idea whether that changes the net energy comparison of the two, but leaving out those sunk energy costs is a disingenuous comparison.

  13. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I am very much not sold on the streetcars. Part of it comes from the fact that I reside in Richfield and use the 18 line quite regularly. The streetcars would disrupt the line, and prevent the Rapid Bus improvements that Metro Transit proposed for the 18 between downtown and American Blvd. (Rapid bus is essentially streetcars on rubber wheels… less frequent stops than buses, level boarding at stations, no option to pay the driver on-board, and 7.5 minute frequency.) The likely outcome of the streetcars is that, save for a few express buses in the morning, there would be a forced transfer at 46th Street. The 46th Street cutoff is even more infuriating, since the actual feasibility study discusses the Nicollet corridor from downtown to 66th. It’s cut off 20 blocks early for no apparent reason — even though 66th is a more logical terminus, since the 515 bus line is a much busier and more frequent east-west line than the 46.

    But, besides that personal axe to grind, I have some real hesitation about streetcars. I lived in Oslo, Norway for two years, which has an extensive downtown streetcar network. Streetcars may slow down cars, but they are extremely hazardous to bikes — they are slower to stop than buses and their tracks are a menace to bike tires. The differences in expansion/contraction of the rails versus the surrounding paving material mean that streets with tracks need repair much more often (especially if that material is asphalt). And they’re also just as slow as buses.

    I do like the aesthetic effect of them, of course, and I acknowledge that they would spur more development than a new bus lines. However, I still think the Metro Transit Rapid Bus proposal makes more sense, provides an equally good transit experience, and would be less disruptive to the bus lines affected.

  14. minneapolisite

    Of course, a less obvious setback is that the tracks are bad new for cyclists riding parallel near them. *edit: I see someone else beat me to it!* Unless, and I never saw this offered as an option as a response to the concern for the Nicollet-Central streetcar line, unless a special rubber infill is used so that the indents of the tracks are level except for when the heavy weight of the streetcar wheels push it down. I would hope this is considered, otherwise the city will end up having to spend money on lots of signs warning cyclists not to ride to close to the tracks.

    I’m for streetcar lines where a street needs an extra push, and Central in NE certainly fits the bill and Nicollet south of Kroger and between Loring Park and Eat Street certainly could use a little extra help. W Broadway is the most needy for economic development and I think should be the 1st line. The investment would be huge at a tangible and very much so at a symbolic level that the city is serious about stabilizing (revitalization is a ways off) this commercial street which serves as the face of North, which doesn’t give the best impression.

  15. ben

    Can you not have both streetcars and arterial BRT?

    The aBRT system could get built out in a much faster time frame then streetcars, and it is clearly cheaper for capital costs, as well as probably operating. But if Minneapolis really wants a streetcar then why not let them — just require that if they do so it must meet certain shared standards with the arterial BRT in terms of brand and marketing, as well as station design, etc. Meanwhile, the Met Council can continue its plan for buses. The Met Council could say, we’ll give you the baseline amount it costs to build arterial BRT. If you want a streetcar, then you pay the extra cost.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      The terminology is a little strange, but let’s remember that arterial “Rapid Bus” is not intended to be the same thing as regional BRT. Put simply, BRT is “LRT on rubber wheels”, while Rapid Bus is more like a streetcar. BRT would have stops as far apart as 2 miles, while Rapid Bus would have stops about every 3rd block. Rapid Bus would generally not run on freeways, while BRT would prefer freeways.

      Both would have improved stops/stations, more like a streetcar stop, with level boarding, shelter, and an opportunity to pay/validate at the station.

      I believe that the streetcar line is highly compatible with regional BRT (in fact, the southern terminus of the Nicollet streetcar would be at the 46th St Orange Line BRT station). I do not believe it is compatible with Rapid Bus — at least not without forced transfers.

  16. Brendon SlotterbackBrendon Slotterback

    As a cyclist, I’m interested in the interaction of these modes. In Toronto, one third of cyclist injuries may be caused by streetcar tracks.

    The existing plans for streetcars downtown make no specific mention off how cyclists will be accommodated on Ncollet Mall after tracks are installed. Taking additional right of way from sidewalks isn’t likely, so it seems we’ll lose our only good north-south connection through downtown that feels safe to a cyclist.

    I haven’t really seen a benefit mentioned that can’t be accomplished with buses. The economic development argument remains unproven.

    If we want better transit now, what is more likely to get built: something that requires a giant federal government payment, or something Met Council is already building in St. Paul? What cost are we willing to pay to wait the 10 years it might take to get this improvement?

  17. helsinki

    If a chief motivating concern is immediacy, then no – streetcars are perhaps not the best option.

    Whatever transit improvement is eventually agreed upon and funded, however, will likely be with us for a long time to come. The Hiawatha Line was decades in the making, but now that it’s here the effort and argument seems to have been worthwhile. This is primarily because it is a superior product. Not necessarily technically – undoubtedly BRT could have carried a similar number of passengers over the same distance with the same frequency for a lower price – but qualitatively.

    Streetcars are qualitatively better than buses. People just like them more. Is that entirely rational? Perhaps not. Arguably, “enhanced” buses could be just as good as streetcars (and cheaper, to boot). But then, I suppose Sweet’N Low is just as good as sugar.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      Your comment about buses being “entirely rational” triggered something I’ve been thinking about more fixedly in the past few months. Here’s my streetcar of thought,” and I’d be curious what you think:

      I suggest we need to take pains to avoid this reduced conception of “rationality.” If nobody actually makes decisions “rationally,” then it’s not people who are the problem. In that case, “rationality” isn’t “rational.”

      Microeconomic models that reduce decision-making to a simple few rules are at best reductive (at worst, epistemologically fascist). If “rational” decision making is based only on measurable things like time and money, then anything else quickly becomes “less rational” and less relevant. But our experience of the city, of space, of society, hinge precisely on these things: sound, beauty, feeling, social comfort, desire. Just because they’re difficult or impossible to measure doesn’t mean that they aren’t important. On the contrary, these are the things that motivate human action, that generate our everyday life. How much of why we drive is because we love the way we feel about our cars? How much of our home buying decisions are “rational”?

      The point I was making is that reducing the streetcar v. bus debate to David’s binary of “magic v. logic” doesn’t reflect the reality of urban experience. Positing a “rational” transportation system composed of generating efficiencies out of time and money only makes sense if you’re dealing with computerized automata, not actual people. Terms like “rationality” and “common sense” so many things to each of us, and many problems stem from the desire to universalize one particular idea of rationality. Yet if actually including variables like the ones listed above for streetcars would impossibly complicate rational models, where does that leave us?

      1. helsinki

        I think we must include the variables you describe – sound, beauty, comfort – when making decisions about transportation. Everything about the built environment flows from the mode of transportation we use to navigate that environment. The sound, beauty, and comfort of our surroundings can only be judged from up close and in person.

        Aesthetics are of course subjective. But some aesthetic opinions are so widely held, that we shouldn’t be shy about insisting that they be incorporated into planning decisions. Traffic is noisy, smelly, and dangerous. Anyone arguing the contrary probably has a specific agenda. Buses, despite their innumerable benefits vis-a-vis automobiles, share with automobiles these disadvantages. They are loud, they belch diesel fumes, and you will probably die if you get hit by one. Streetcars are aesthetically superior on all of three counts (well, maybe not third as much – but since they are “static” – on a fixed route – if you’re not standing on the tracks, you won’t get hit; they therefore feel safer).

        Quality costs a bit more, especially upfront. A Patek Phillipe watch costs more than the average American earns in a year. But it will last forever. As an avid ‘Strong Towns’ reader, I’m fully aware of the arguments against wasteful infrastructure investment. The thing is, I think streetcars are a wise infrastructure investment. They will last. The decision to rip out the system in the 1950’s was a political choice, not the result of an outdated technology being replaced by a newer, better one (as an aside, it’s bizarre when people rant about trains being a 19th century technology. When do they think the internal combustion engine was invented?).

        Finally, I think the “magic vs logic” dichotomy fails for a simpler reason: without magic, what’s the point? Aesthetics are part of the logic of life. If a city is ugly and the transportation system purely utilitarian, nobody would care about it and the point would be moot. The things people love about Minneapolis, though (and that perennially reap financial benefit for the city) like the chain of lakes, while perhaps whimsical at the time they were conceived, are now our most treasured assets. I think streetcars fall into the same category.

        1. Brendon SlotterbackBrendon

          I have no problem with including aesthetics or some sense of “experience of a city” in a decision about transit mode. Of course, that requires a method to determine whose aesthetics we will value and how we will make choices between competing interests. The aesthetics of an urban corridor that remains without a significant transit upgrade for 10 years more than it needs to certainly has an impact on everyone, no?

          If we build A-BRT, we can always go back and put in streetcars (or LRT) later if we want. If you think we need to significantly change the carbon impact of transportation in the short term, as I do, you might put a lot of weight on immediacy, perhaps even more weight than your desire for a mode that you find more aesthetically pleasing.

          Let’s please also remember that buses are as loud and diesel-belching as we want them to be in the design stage of the project. They can have catenary wires and/or be hybrid or even natural gas-powered (which is significantly quieter). They can even run underground and act like trains!

  18. Ian Bicking

    So we really need to think at least 10-20 years out if we’re talking about streetcars, because it’s hard to justify them without that perspective. In that range of time it seems extremely likely to me that we’ll have dynamic routing. We could have it now, but there’s not quite enough smart phone penetration to calculate the routes. But that’s all we need, all the other pieces are in place – we can calculate optimal routes, we can guide drivers (all stuff UPS is doing).

    Dynamic routing has the potential to increase travel speed significantly, increase predictability of time, improve utilization (both avoiding empty and overloaded vehicles). All significant issues in transit. And streetcars aren’t going to be able to participate in this change at all.

    1. Jeb

      Assuming you’re referring to this type of idea:

      No. Please, no. I don’t want to have to rely on my smartphone to be working in order to catch a bus. (Or any device, for that matter.) Packages are inherently different from people, even in routing. A package just has to be there by a specific time, it enters the system from specific known points, and the time variable is a lot more flexible.

    2. Allen

      If we’re going down “think of the future route”, don’t forget self-driving cars.

  19. Evan RobertsEvan

    Running high-capacity transit in mixed traffic is at least somewhat self-defeating. All the slowness of a car in congestion without the privacy and choice of radio station. Thus, ideally one wants dedicated lanes for transit, if not all day, then at least at certain times of the day. That is, bus lanes. There’s a great series of posts on the Auckland transport blog about this ( Similar issues there.

    But although bus lanes can be achieved for a few million dollars of paint (probably more re-painting in Minnesota than Auckland or Brisbane), I suspect they’re politically difficult. Not only are you “taking” a traffic lane or two, you’re doing it in a way that leaves this tempting driveable lane still there. Street cars and LRT can take the lanes away just as much but don’t taunt the drivers still on the road.

    Brisbane (Australia) did a big bus lane push a few years ago, and I think the lesson from there is something along the lines of go big or go home. They put in a lot, and made major improvements in the network, including frequency on the bus-laned routes. So people could see the benefits of it straight away. Same with London, in the early 2000s. Here, I could just about see the point of a street car in the Greenway, since the space is there and you just gotta lay the track.

    But otherwise street cars are years of ridiculous four-or-five levels of government consultation and aggravating construction away. A bus lane is a few million dollars of paint and some signs away. Except, of course, for the difficult politics of taking away people’s precious parking and driving lanes …

    1. Evan RobertsEvan

      I should add that because one could fund the paint and signs from local budgets, one might get down to “just” having to involve a couple of cities and counties (and the Met Council) to get some of the obvious bus-lane routes built in the Twin Cities. Keep the bus lanes off the state highways (where they already have shoulder travel = bus lane in effect) and that should simplify things

      Bringing in federal or state dollars sounds appealing by taking it off the city or county budgets, but I suspect adds months, if not years, of dicking around with those processes. The benefits are local, so lets admit that and pay for it with our own city/county money.

    2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      Creating bus lanes by taking away car lanes is a great idea. Honestly, that’s a great idea that I’d totally get behind. No problem. I think that would require a massive level of political capital from the top down. How do we get there from here? Look at Mayor Bloomberg failing to get his congestion charge plan passed in New York.

      (Or look at the mediocre “bus lane” on Hennepin currently… It’s sort of great that the city tried, but the status quo makes a mockery of the entire concept. Good example of your ‘go big or go home’ principle.)

      1. Nathaniel

        In regards to the New York Congestion Pricing attempt; it was my understanding that the “no” vote came from the State Assembly and not necessarily from locals? It seems odd, and somewhat troubling, that a city can’t have control of such a local policy (if indeed it was shut down by the State).

    3. Allen

      It was a great move by the Milwaukee Road to sink their freight line below grade. They benefited from it greatly but so did everyone else. I’m not so certain it would make for a great street car route because of being below grade.

  20. Matt B

    1. Would it be a correct assumption that all it would take is a majority vote of the Mpls City Council to get ACTUAL exclusive bus lanes on Hennepin (from Uptown Station to Washington). Hennepin Ave S is not a County Road. Same story for Nicollet, Chicago, and Emerson-Fremont. These are all Minneapolis city streets without any higher jurisdiction. Obviously the old cranky engineers in Public Works would be opposed, but the City Council are the deciders, are they not?

    Save for an immediate reversal of the boneheaded, shortsighted, and wrong Southwest LRT decision, the only way we’re going to get better transit between Uptown & Downtown is truly exclusive lanes on Hennepin. This means buy-in from the PD and willingness to enforce the “bikes, buses, & right turns only”. We may even need forward-facing cameras on buses that are authorized to issue tickets to lane violators. I seem to remember hearing that they were doing that in San Francisco now.

    2. The other issue, of course, is Metro Transit’s stubbornness with regards to bus stop spacing. We simply cannot stop every block in dense areas where there is likely to be a stop request every block. It’s fine to have stops every block when you get out into the less dense areas of the city, because the stop requests happen less frequently. What I’m saying is that there should be an inverse relationship between density/ridership and bus stop spacing. Out in the less walkable areas, say in Richfield or far south Minneapolis, it’s fine to have a bus stop on every corner, because many of those stops will be passed by with no riders. In the area between Lake Street and downtown, we should be stopping at every other block. These areas are super walkable and have frequent service, so walking the extra 1/8-mile is no big deal.

    The other component of having stops every other block is that we would have HALF the number of bus stops/shelters to maintain. Clearly our ability to provide decent (or even humane) transit amenities is lacking. I won’t get into the lack of signage, heating, lighting, etc. It’s safe to say that if we had half the number of facilities to improve and then maintain, we might have a fighting shot at actually doing it.

    Until recently, I was a total aBRT guy, until I heard that Minneapolis’ plan for the Nicollet streetcar to REPLACE ALL BUS SERVICE IN THE CORRIDOR. Yes, there would be no local bus service on Nicollet between Lake Street and downtown. Only the streetcar that stops every other block, or every 1/4-mile. Now that is something that Rapid Bus would never, ever do in these corridors. This is totally anecdotal, but the project manager for the Nicollet-Central AA at the City, Anna Flintoft, told me that they had not received a single complaint with regards to the proposed stop spacing, as of the last open house. I’m truly excited for the precedent that this could set for bus stop spacing city-wide. It will be exciting to watch anyways, how that all plays out, as more people hear that there will no longer be stops at 27th, 25th, 22nd, etc. on Nicollet. Will anyone even complain? Or will they just think “Finally, I can get downtown in a reasonable amount of time and I didn’t mind the extra walk because there was a heated shelter with a real-time Nextrip sign waiting for me”

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      This means buy-in from the PD and willingness to enforce the “bikes, buses, & right turns only”.

      I was told by Shaun Murphy and Hokan that these signs are intentionally not enforced, because the city attorney believed they were legally unenforceable. You’ll actually notice that the “ONLY” has been covered over. However, this seems highly dubious, since bus-only shoulders are a widespread concept, and the exact same sign (with “ONLY” uncovered) is used on two Hennepin County roads in Edina — York Ave and W 66th St. I think this is a Minneapolis issue to overcome, first.

      Only the streetcar that stops every other block, or every 1/4-mile. Now that is something that Rapid Bus would never, ever do in these corridors.

      I don’t know why you think this. Changing to every 2nd, or even every 3rd block is a key part of the proposed Rapid Bus system. Unfortunately, there are still a lot of stops clustered downtown, but in more suburban areas of the city, stops are as infrequent as a half mile. You can clearly see the proposed stops on the corridor concepts page.

      What I’m saying is that there should be an inverse relationship between density/ridership and bus stop spacing. Out in the less walkable areas, say in Richfield or far south Minneapolis, it’s fine to have a bus stop on every corner, because many of those stops will be passed by with no riders. In the area between Lake Street and downtown, we should be stopping at every other block.

      This sort of makes sense. I ride the 18 frequently from Richfield to downtown, and it takes about 15 minutes to go from 73rd Street, where I board, to Lake Street — about five miles. And about 25 minutes from Lake St to 5th St, where I disembark — about two miles. However, what you describe would sound extremely unfair to those living closer to downtown — as if they’re being punished for having higher ridership. I would like to see 2-4 block spacing throughout the whole corridor, especially as pedestrian improvements come to the areas farther out. (Richfield and Hennepin County will be reconstructing Portland Ave, part of the proposed Rapid Bus line in just two years.)

      One other factor in terms of efficient bus movement: the undivided four-lane streets in Richfield, Bloomington, and Edina make for much faster bus service, since the buses simply stop in the travel lane and can go straight forward when they leave the stop. As soon as they hit Minneapolis, they’re forced to dive in and out of parking lanes, hoping cars abide by the “yield to buses” sign on the back. That’s not to say we should go build more of those 4-lane undivideds — they’re unsafe and highly unpleasant. But they are one factor that makes for faster bus service south of the Mpls city limits.

      1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

        The only part of this I don’t quite agree with is the idea that people are being “punished” by trading a snort walk for faster service. I think most people, at least those without stark mobility problems, would gladly take that trade. There are a number of stops that are far too close together. Metro Transit can easily correct that.

        1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

          Well I don’t mean to say that in general people are being punished by trading better service for longer walks — I agree, most people would take that trade. What I was trying to say is that treating stop spacing differently for areas of higher ridership seems unfair. (With a possible exception where the street itself can’t support walking to the station — the sidewalks along Nicollet and Portland Aves in Richfield are not traversable by wheelchair, due to narrow width, obstructions, old curb ramps, and very severe cross slope problems at driveways.)

          Having every 2nd or 3rd block throughout the whole line (with those possible accessibility exceptions) seems quite reasonable.

  21. Paul Udstrand

    Just a quick correction for Sean H. The Hiawatha Reroute actually had nothing to with the light rail line. If you go back and look at the original plans in the environmental Impact statement from 1985 (if I remember correctly) you’ll see that the re-route is there even if there is no light rail. All of the plans for Hiawatha except for the “do nothing” option included the re-route.

    In fact it was the lack off coordination between the light rail and the re-route that undid MNDOT’s claims that the new Hiawatha would shorten travel times. In theory it could have, but in reality problems coordinating all the new stop lights with the light rail actually slowed traffic down and lengthened time of travel. Not only that, but the number of traffic accidents actually increased. One of the rationals for the re-route had been that it would the road safer.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      Thanks for the info, Paul. The website I refer to talks about the light rail line (that without the reroute, the light rail would be impossible, etc) — but perhaps that was just a later technique used by MnDOT to market the controversial new route. And despite the early planning, it was indeed the light rail project that allowed this planned change to move ahead, correct? The portion of old Hiawatha south of Minnehaha Pkwy was significantly different in character and capacity from the highway-style roadway to the north, so it’s unsurprising MnDOT wanted this.

      Do you know if the grade separation at Lake St was due to the light rail, or was that also planned regardless?

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