The Land of Make-Believe

Minneapolis and St. Paul are considering a number of streetcar lines. Three have risen to the forefront. The Central/Nicollet Line in Minneapolis, the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis, and the Seventh Street Streetcar in St. Paul. In part this is viewed as an economic development tool. In part this nostalgia for an earlier simpler time, when we were all children, growing up in Pittsburgh.

Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. Life in pre-war Pittsburgh.

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Life in pre-war Pittsburgh.

We at have gone back and forth and back and forth on whether streetcars are a good idea. Obviously it is context dependent, and some ideas are better (less bad) than others.

As with anything, resources are not infinite (I wish they were, but if wishes were horses we would all be riding around on horses). Thus there are trade-offs.

The general trade-off is that streetcars are more expensive than buses, particularly in initial capital expenditures. Thus with a finite amount of resources you can do fewer streetcars or more buses. Those rail-based rides are slightly nicer (particularly smoother) (since with streetcars you are building some of your own infrastructure, while with buses you are literally free-riding on infrastructure built by someone else, in various stages of disrepair).

Streetcars do have a number of other properties in the current world that makes them less advantageous in many situations. They are starting from a base of zero lines. Thus until they are as ubiquitous as the bus, you are more likely to be able to have single-seat ride on a bus than a streetcar if you want to go anywhere past where the initial streetcar lines go. In a world with a near ubiquitous streetcar network, building an extension is potentially a better decision than in a world with a near ubiquitous bus network. Thus while it may or may not have made sense to dismantle the streetcar system, if it didn’t doesn’t imply it makes sense to build one now. The contexts are different.

Bus lines can also branch. Sometimes a city is a tree (in contrast to the famous Christopher Alexander article), and branching systems coming together on an exclusive bus-way provide high frequency in high demand areas and lower frequency (but a single seat) in lower demand areas farther from the center, as illustrated by this schematic map of the Ottawa BRT.

Ottawa Busway - Sometimes a City is a Tree

Ottawa Busway – Sometimes a City is a Tree

However if you are going to put a line in a place somewhere, you probably want to find a corridor where there is a lot of local short-distance demand so that transfers are not the main issue.


Now I am dubious of the specific forecasting results (like why does Enhanced Bus have fewer corridor riders than No Build – Table 2, or why is the thumb on the scale for rail up to 25 minutes of In-Vehicle Time (p.2) when average journey-to-work time in the Twin Cities is less than 25 minutes, among others) that have been presented, and am in general skeptical of forecasts (having spent the first five years of my career building such models, hopefully less internally inconsistent), but nevertheless, even if the modeling doesn’t show it, this is obviously one of the best corridors in the region to make a transit investment of some kind. It is plausibly the main North-South spine of Minneapolis, certainly downtown and Northeast. So if you were going to build a streetcar, this would not be the worst place you could do it. In addition to the conventional home-to-work and shopping and restaurant markets, there is a large entertainment market (sports, theater, museums) and tourism market (conventioneers) which this serves.

But we run into the general problem of streetcars (as opposed to LRT), shared right-of-way.

Imagine instead we extended the car-free Nicollet Mall south of 12th Street down to Lake Street (yes, through the K-Mart). Local merchants and restauranteurs would undoubtedly scream for a while, since clearly many of their customers do arrive by automobile (hence the crowded parking lots). But there are many cross streets, and a number of alleys, which could be used to access parking (structured if necessary), while keeping Nicollet (Eat Street) clear of cars and better for transit (which would operate at somewhat higher effective speeds with less auto-interference, pedestrians, and bicyclists. 1st and Blaisdell would of course get more traffic. So this solution is not without consequences.

Extending the car-free Nicollet Transit Mall deserves its own post.

Even then, it runs into many at-grade crossings, which can be assisted with transit signal priority or preemption, but still creates conflicts. Given the grand visions we do have in this city, it is surprising that the (arguably) fifth densest downtown in the United States doesn’t have a subterranean transit line either existing or in the plans.

In other cities, there are of course subways, which are not cheap, as well as bus tunnels, as in Seattle, which are also not cheap. But then you can go fast. Studies in the 1970s considered this option, and it was also considered for Washington Avenue at the University, and perhaps for one of the rejected alternatives of the SWLRT, but nothing I have seen recently even raises this option. Now I am not the type to say “Go Big or Go Home”, I am surprised no one else is saying it aside from a few forum posts at UrbanMSP.

So while I am not advocating a subway, or a streetcar, this is among the least bad routes if you win the lottery and are somehow flush with cash.

Midtown Greenway

If there did not exist an almost fully grade separated corridor between the proposed Southwest LRT and the existing Hiawatha Corridors, planners would be dreaming of one. So given there is one, this isn’t really a question of if, but when. Something will be done here. For all the usual reasons, this should be a busway (with e.g. electric buses), but it will (for all the usual political reasons) of course be an LRT of some kind (perhaps using streetcar sized vehicles). There can be some interesting multi-modalconnections to the Hiawatha Line. There might also be opportunities to extend this to St. Paul.

Seventh Street

Schmidt's Brewery Castle, via Google Streetview

Schmidt’s Brewery Castle, via Google Streetview

If Minneapolis gets it, St. Paul wants it. Seventh is St. Paul’s Main Street, so this is a plausible corridor to do something.

The problem here is implied reading between the lines of Bill’s recent post, there isn’t enough demand in St. Paul. Somehow streetcars are supposed to solve that. For all the usual reasons this should be an arterial BRT (as the Metropolitan Council has proposed), but even more so, since the demand here is so much lower than the demand on the Central/Nicollet corridor. That is, Minneapolis has a line that connects to St. Paul (dubbed Green) and Bloomington (dubbed Bloo). While there is some dumbbell-like shape to the demand patterns (higher at the ends than the middle), they are asymmetric dumbbells, the Minneapolis weight is far greater than St. Paul or Bloomington. So though there is a certain triangular symmetry to completing a “Yellow” (Yellow+Blue=Green) rail connection between Bloomington and St. Paul, it’s demand will inevitably be lower than the other two so long as Minneapolis is larger than the other two cities in the Triplex. There is no guarantee that a Seventh Street line would connect to the Bloo Line. (To be fair, the Midtown Greenway might also be called Yellow, since it connects the Bloo and Green lines as well, maybe one can be the Turquoise route). [There is I recall a fantasy transit map to interline the 7th Street Streetcar with the Midtown Greenway, via Ayd Mill Road, thus enabling there to be a single Yellow Line, but it won’t do well for the Bloomington to St. Paul market].

The Land of Make Believe, the other end of the Streetcar in Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood

The Land of Make Believe, the other end of the Streetcar in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood

Just like Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, the streetcar would go to a castle, in this case the Kingdom of Schmidt’s. There are differences: Schmidt’s produced beer, the Castle in Land of Make-Believe intoxicated children with something else — visions of streetcars.

38 thoughts on “The Land of Make-Believe

  1. Jeremy MendelsonJeremy Mendelson

    Aside from the astronomical cost, let’s remember that streetcars are slower than buses. Yes, SLOWER than our existing slow bus lines. That’s because when you’re operating in mixed traffic and can’t change lanes, it’s the worst of everything. I can’t understand why people want transit to be slower.

    Make buses faster and you’ll find that the vast majority of people simply want to go from A to B quickly, safely and efficiently. Far more people will use them. But the problem is we’ve always run good train service and lousy bus service, so people assume rail is always better. It’s all about the service quality, not the vehicle type. We can successfully build on our busy transit routes by adding infrastructure like bus lanes and signal priority that they can all use. And by limiting parking so more people are forced to give transit a try.

    If you’re obsessed with this myth of economic development requiring streetcars, run something that looks like the free 16th Street Mall Bus in Denver: — just run it frequently and in a sensible route.

    1. Adam MillerAdam

      I think this is really the disconnect. People who already regularly ride buses think what keeps people who aren’t riding buses off the bus is that the bus is slow.

      Meanwhile, people who don’t ride buses might tell you that what keeps them of the bus is a major lack of signage that means you can’t walk up to the stop and figure out what bus you want or when it will arrive, payment systems that are inflexible, confusingly numbered routes, and many other things, not least of which is if it’s not rush hour and you own a car it’s a lot more convenient to drive.

      So yes, service quality is the issue. Give us train-like routing and signage and payment systems and maybe people will ride the bus more. Or maybe they do really prefer trains.

        1. Adam MillerAdam

          Maybe, but tracks are harder to take away or reroute. And tracks really do have a history of spurring development.

          Maybe BRT can too. I don’t know. But there is something to be said for permanence.

          1. Jeremy MendelsonJeremy Mendelson

            Whenever someone says “permanence” I hear “symbolic transit”. It’s okay to adapt and change, and when someone makes a trip it doesn’t matter if they think their chosen mode will be there in 20 years. Developers need only good transit because it has to be useful to potential users, and I’ll remind you that we don’t have a tourist transit market in Minneapolis.

                1. Morgan

                  Minneapolis is a large regional center. People do come here from all over the region for entertainment, healthcare, and other amenities. And we do compete for large conferences.

                  I would agree with you that Minneapolis probably does not have a very large share of the national “urban tourism” market. But I would say that’s because Minneapolis really isn’t a very nice city – in terms of transit and walk-ability in particular. Streetcars will help with that.

                  Like any market, urban tourism is competitive and share is won through investment and hard work.

                  1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

                    What percent of NYC’s subway and bus system riders are tourists? My guess: extremely small. Even if we did create an urban tourism market, it shouldn’t be the government’s job to do it. And the ridership of tourists on transit should be the result of getting around our city to see stuff, not the goal. Otherwise we’re just another city with a fancy convention center/streetcar/etc competing with the many others who have them. Transit should be useful for residents and businesses first, with tourism maybe #48 on the list.

                    1. Morgan

                      Sure. I was just saying that there isn’t any reason for us to think that we should have much urban tourism because our city isn’t very nice. We have some pretty good amenities: museums, performing arts, parks, breweries. But the actual city that ties them together, not so much.

                      And the government does have at least some role in economic development. How much depends on a lot of factors.

            1. Adam MillerAdam

              It’s good to adapt and change. But your new housing development is worth more if you know there’s going to be high quality transit next to it in perpetuity.

    2. valar84

      Good service attracts riders, yes, but all studies show that, for the same exact service, rail-based transit attracts 33 to 50% more riders than buses. Rail is inherently better, a badly thought out rail system may be worse than a well thought out bus system, but overall, rail is a significant improvement.

      As to streetcars being slower… Not so. Transit activist Steve Munro pointed out that when streetcars are replaced by buses in Toronto, the buses can’t keep up with the streetcar schedule and fall behind. One of the reasons is that streetcars occupy the left lane, so they don’t have to pull out of and pull in to traffic every time they stop. Plus, electric motors have better acceleration from a stop than buses.

      Finally, the idea that it’s always better to invest in buses than rail because the initial investment cost is lower is penny wise but pound foolish. Rail-based transit offers significantly lower operating costs per passenger than buses, because of their ability to lengthen trains by linking up vehicles together. Since most of the cost of transit is labor, rail is much cheaper to operate. A good proof of that is that the transit operator in Ottawa has to spend 3,90$ per passenger with its BRT, but that cost is only 3,10$ in Calgary, which instead has an LRT, despite lower transit use in Calgary.

      In fact, Ottawa is converting the central part of its transitway into an underground LRT, because the move is estimated to save the operator up to 100 millions a year in operating costs.

      When you opt for buses, you quickly get bogged down by very high operating costs. With rail, you can increase ridership while keeping operating costs low.

      If you want to add infrastructure to buses to make the service better, making an LRT isn’t that much more expensive and will save money in the long run.

  2. Alex

    I enjoyed this overview, but I think your dismissal of the justification for rail on the Midtown Greenway is a bit superficial. This corridor, as with most crosstowns, has lumpy demand, and rail vehicles do better than bus vehicles at accommodating this, in part because of standard vehicle design, but also because rail has smoother acceleration, which helps when you’re part of a crowd of people who have just boarded and are looking for seats.

    1. Jeremy MendelsonJeremy Mendelson

      All of those things have nothing to do with rail. The bottom line is by fixating on streetcars (or light rail) we’re ignoring all the things we need to figure out first — passenger trip demand, routing, span, frequency, — if we want a useful and successful transportation service.

      Smoother acceleration? Really? Have you even taken a subway train?
      Lumpy demand? If you have uneven ridership, you just need sufficient overall capacity in a given time period, and that depends on how many people you’re serving. The Metro Transit high frequency network has very uneven demand — do you always take the 1:40 trip, or just get the next bus whenever you need to travel? — but there is no place in Minneapolis where a 60-foot bus every 7-8 minutes cannot handle passenger demand. Except perhaps route 55 LRT but that’s because it’s fast and attractive (not because it has steel wheels).

      Sorry to be a broken record but I just get tired of the same old myths purporting to favor one particular vehicle type.

      1. Al Davison

        I think it’s more on how people would rather have rail versus buses in the Greenway even if they are trolleybuses. I’m fine with streetcars in the Greenway given there already is a lot of grade-seperation minus near both ends of the line. Questioning Nicollet/Central’s streetcar is more understandable. Honestly I’d rather have single-car LRV’s on the Greenway instead of streetcars with a single-track connection to both the Green and Blue Line so they can move the Greenway LRVs to access the already existing maintenance/control center on Franklin.

      2. Alex

        Take a breath, dude. I have taken a subway train. Are you a certified mechanic of both electric traction and internal combustion engines? They certainly have different operations characteristics, and I always assumed that contributed to The Lurch detailed here: I am not a mechanic, though, so I could be wrong.

        And have you ever taken a 21 bus? If you have, you might know that it already has short-term capacity issues related to lumpy demand despite have headways less than 7-8 minutes. Think about it, when 20 people are transferring from an 18, does it matter if another bus is coming 7 minutes later or even 3 minutes later? Most people won’t choose to wait several minutes to avoid a crushload bus, and many don’t have the luxury to do so either.

      3. valar84

        It always strikes me that the lack of ridership demand is a dishonest argument. Of course the ridership of a current bus line can be satisfied by the capacity of the current line… because if it’s not, people are going to be left on the curb and not counted in the statistics, and then they’re not going to take the bus the next day or week!

        So of course a line with a 600 passengers per direction per hour capacity will not have a ridership of 1 000 passengers per direction per hour! The capacity of the current line, if it’s too low, will repress current demand for the line. But if you put in a better service with better capacity, maybe the potential riders that have been put off by the crowded, slow, unreliable buses will instead take a more comfortable and bigger line instead.

        That doesn’t necessarily mean rail though, you could get some of this repressed ridership to hop on by running longer buses with a higher frequency and with less bus stops.

      4. Mike Hicks

        One major difference between buses and rail vehicles is that buses (aside perhaps from trolleybuses) have automatic transmissions with multiple gear ratios to shift through, while rail vehicles have motors directly geared into the axles. There are multiple lurches during acceleration and deceleration on buses because of the shifting between gears — hybrids can help with that, though they can also hurt depending on when the motor engages (both to help accelerate the bus and to recapture energy when slowing).

        But I agree that there are rail vehicles which don’t accelerate smoothly — I can’t say how common or uncommon they are. I remember riding Boston’s Green Line, which is kind of a weird streetcar / light-rail / subway hybrid, and that was pretty jerky. With electronic controls, those jerky motions can be smoothed out with appropriate circuits or software. But on a regular internal combustion engined vehicle, the builders have to fight a fundamental behavior.

        I’m becoming less and less fond of 60-foot articulated buses these days. They have significantly worse ride quality than standard 40-footers, making riders feel like yo-yos. The articulation point seems to be unbalanced. I suspect putting an axle under the articulation point might be a solution, but I’ve never seen a bus built that way (some rail vehicles are, but they’re in the minority).

        1. Alex

          Yes – I was ruminating on why hybrid buses don’t seem to have the same smooth acceleration as a good rail vehicle, when my lurchy hybrid route 4 bus this morning spat the answer in my face. Hybrid buses (at least the ones Metro Transit buys) don’t seem to have the all-electric mode that a lot of hybrid cars have, so they still cycle lurchily through the gears.

          As an aside, it would be amazing if we could find a transit vehicle mechanic to write a short piece for on the differences.

  3. Morgan

    Interesting article. I would say that while cost is important, it’s not really what streetcars are about. An investment in streetcars instead of buses is about the kind of city that we want to be and have.

    In my view, streetcars are an investment in the urban realm. High quality rolling stock, high quality station design, traffic calmed streets, using rail to help shape people’s mental maps of the city, etc. What we want streetcars to help do in Minneapolis is create a concentric ring of dense neighborhoods around downtown that feel like real downtown adjacent neighborhoods, the Pearl District in Portland being the best example. The North Loop, Loring Park, Whitter, St. Anthony Main, do not yet rise to this standard. The further development of these neighborhoods will do so much to further Minneapolis’s walk-ability and therefore property market.

    Maybe we can liken it to investing in one’s living room. There comes a point where the comfort of the individual chairs and sofas become less important than how the furniture looks. If one wants to have a really nice living room then the look and design of the furniture is probably the most important factor, not there comfort. Same with streetcars over buses, even if buses are cheaper and faster.

    Like Bill has said in the past, a city is a place to be and not a place to travel through. Streetcars make cities nicer places to be than buses.

    1. Kyle Burrows

      “Maybe we can liken it to investing in one’s living room. There comes a point where the comfort of the individual chairs and sofas become less important than how the furniture looks. If one wants to have a really nice living room then the look and design of the furniture is probably the most important factor, not there comfort. Same with streetcars over buses, even if buses are cheaper and faster.”

      Except the trade-off isn’t between a complete set of OK chairs and a complete set of really nice-looking chairs, it’s between a complete set of OK chairs and one super-nice chair. In the later scenario only one person gets to sit down.

      1. Morgan

        Obviously the investment is made incrementally overtime. Yes, collecting housewares and furniture, especially nice pieces, is like this.

      2. Eric SaathoffEric S

        While it’s true that buses are much less expensive, is it true that we would be able to have all the money either way? Are there some federal dollars that we would only get in a nice big project and would be unavailable to us in a lot of little improvements?

        I concur with the point about disruption (a sea change), but of course there is the possibility that it turns out to be the wrong kind of disruption, and there is no incremental (or rapid) improvement of the network. It is a risk.

        “when someone makes a trip it doesn’t matter if they think their chosen mode will be there in 20 years”
        – It does matter to someone who doesn’t ride frequently to not have to worry about things having changed. And it does matter to businesses who want to locate near a transit line that will not be going away.

        It does seem like many of the improvements rails bring can be done with buses, but will they be done? Being that they are not sexy, not as easily tied to potential economic development, is there a will to improve the system we currently have. Will people go out of their way to move by a BRT line? Relocate their business?

        1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

          This is how I feel. I had a post outlined out about it, comparing streetcars to panda bears and transit to zoo attendance. Maybe I’ll still write that post.

        2. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

          David has another post here ( detailing that a well done BRT system does bring economic benefits with it… however, the penny pinching can get out of hand ( and create transit that won’t deliver benefits.

          There are different funding pools, however I have no idea how the aBRT lines would be funded, however it looks like there is no federal monies to be gained with them.

        3. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

          We need a law to keep bus projects from being watered down. I’m not arguing that rail in the streets and hanging wire don’t calm traffic, or that the ride experience isn’t substantially better. But our bus system has so many problems that it just seems so unfair to pick a few winning streetcar lines if they truly do compete for funding. FTR, I’m 100% on board with Midtown Greenway rail – too many potential future extensions and upgrades to go for bus in the short-term..

          I know the city or Met Council can’t fix our broken system of federal funding being such a large part of transit capital investments (since that seems to drive what we can and can’t do, even if we did pass some giant sales tax increase).

          Also, I still don’t understand the take that rails in the ground make a better mental map for system users. No one can see or comprehend where subway lines are from the street (aside from station signage and stairs). Streetcar tracks disappear from view a few blocks away (or closer if cars are riding on them). Effective system legibility and branding at stations and key wayfinding points in the city should help this, bus or rail.

    2. Jeff Klein

      I agree, and I think it’s hard to put the proper weight on the more subtle and less quantitative effects. By looking at everything in strictly economic terms, you’re really allowing the dominant pro-car culture to shape the debate, that is, how can we make transit incrementally better without upsetting the status quo and without approaching even the most minute fraction of the money spent on car infrastructure. Street cars are truly disruptive, and I mean that as a compliment. It’s an opportunity to start fresh and get it right, to remake our cities for density, transit, and walkability with the same investment and vigor that they were summarily dismantled and gutted to make way for the automobile.

      Related, I believe there was a post that I can’t find a year ago or so that pointed out that the reason “enhanced buses” are cheaper is simply because you’re not comparing apples to apples; as you make them more and more train-like — that is, better, with smoother, electric buses and right of ways and pre-paid, door-height stations, the costs begin to approach that of trains anyhow. And that stands to reason — there’s no magical secret cost intrinsic to a train, you just get what you pay for. The buses are just half-measures.

    3. minneapolisite

      If “a city is a place to be and not a place to travel through”, then why not look at removing a street from cars and let it be a sort of Open Streets kind of street for a trial run? That would certainly make buses run smoothly along Hennepin between Downtown and Uptown, if they were allowed then you have to figure out how to allow buses access and not cars). Maybe the city could do it as a “study” for a certain amount of time before committing to it. This option wouldn’t require several months of rail line construction and buses wouldn’t be moving at a snail’s pace stuck behind cars like they are now over there.

      1. Morgan

        First, are you being sarcastic or serious? I can’t tell. There are very few roads or streets that are designed with the intention of getting people from point A to point B. The vast majority, including city streets, are designed to provide access to property. Access can be provided to pedestrians, bicycles, buses, streetcars, and automobiles. All of these modes need to be considered but what we want most is for people to travel on foot and then by bike. Transit needs to enable, and basically lengthen, pedestrian trips. Streetcars do this better than buses because of rail preference, mental mapping, and better facilitating dense multi-use development.

  4. Nathanael

    If you have the choice between a grade-separated busway and a rail line, you choose the rail line. Ottawa learned this the hard way. Advantages include: smoother ride, narrower right-of-way, better handicapped accessbility, more passengers per driver, and longer-lasting vehicles (30-40 years vs. 20 years). Disadvantages include: nothing.

    Midtown Greenway was a rail corridor. It should be a rail corridor again. There’s a little bit of irrational bus bias in this writer’s column.

    If you’ve got on-street running, it’s another matter entirely. If you’re going to mix with traffic for more than very short distances, you lose most of the advantages of rail in the traffic delays. If you’re putting a streetcar down Nicollet, you had better extend the car-free Nicollet mall first!

    The 7th Street / Fort Road corridor seems like an artifact of wanting to “cut the corner” of the triangle. I actually think an LRT down here would do tolerably well, *if* it were integrated with the Blue and Green Lines and therefore made use of what was already constructed, and of course if it had exclusive Right-of-Way. It would be a useful part of the network, replacing the #54 but being cheaper to operate and more reliable.

    But a streetcar which didn’t continue onto the LRT tracks and which ran in mixed traffic? Please don’t do that.

    The basic principle is that mixed traffic sucks. If you have enough all-day demand to justify good mass transit service, then your roads are crowded enough that running in mixed traffic will be sloooow. If your roads are uncrowded enough that you can easily run fast and on time in mixed traffic, then you probably can’t really justify a lot of mass transit….

    The second principle is that a rail right-of-way is cheaper to maintain than a bus lane, and much cheaper than an elevated or submerged busway. Of course, if you can create a bus lane just by putting up some paint, that’s cheaper and you should probably do it; but when the road falls apart in five years, it’s time to build a rail line.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      That’s a good question… buses obviously wear out roads at a far faster rate than regular cars. Anyone looking at the pavement or concrete at a high-frequency bus stop can see that. What is the difference between road maintenance lifecycles v. rail lifecycles for buses v. streetcars?

  5. Nathanael

    Using the illustration of Ottawa is hilarious, by the way.

    Mr. Levison, *are* you aware that Ottawa is replacing its busway with LRT, because the busway was determined to suck too much?

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