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.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.