Two recent news reports illustrate once again that streetcars and buses are not fungible. They carry different kinds of people, they serve different purposes and prospective riders regard them differently.
The first story, from the October 15th edition of The New York Times [ http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/15/world/asia/trams-slow-and-sweaty-draw-riders-despite-modern-subways-prowling-below.html ] summarizes itself in its headline: “Trams, Slow and Sweaty, Draw Riders despite Modern Subways Prowling Below.” Hong Kong has one of the world’s best subway systems, the M.T.R. [ http://www.mtr.com.hk/eng/overview/profile_index.html ]. Above the subways run a network of streetcars known there as in much of the world as trams (also locally called ding-dings because of the trams’ distinct bell used to warn traffic (cars and pedestrians) of their approach). Hong Kong’s trams are double-deckers, reflecting British influence. They are as un-modern as New Orleans’ St. Charles line. Like that streetcar line’s Perley-Thomas cars built in 1923-24, Hong Kong’s trams are made of wood and have no air conditioning. They carry about 200,000 people a day, and the privately-owned system makes a profit.
It was widely assumed that when the M.T.R. opened, the trams would disappear. Why haven’t they? People like riding them. The Times reported that
The trams may be old and slow, with typical speeds of six miles per hour, but their popularity shows how in this ever-modernizing city, old habits survive. . .
Studies show that it is not just longtime Hong Kong residents who rely on the 109-year-old system.
“We’re very representative of Hong Kong,” said Emmanuel Vivant, the general manager of the system, “the old and young use us. And a lot of white-collar people take trams during lunchtime,” . . .
Like streetcars elsewhere, Hong Kong’s trams complement the subway system, serving the important collection and distribution functions. More important for the city as a whole, they act as pedestrian facilitators, encouraging people to provide the urban life-giving critical mass of customers on sidewalks. If your feet get tired or bags get heavy, you can just jump on a tram.
The other report, from Systemic Failure [ http://systemicfailure.wordpress.com/2013/10/05/pittsburgh-to-eliminate-buses-in-downtown-core/ ] also tells its tale in its headline: “Pittsburgh to Eliminate Buses in Downtown Core.” The story is not quite as shocking as the headlines – - the area in question is quite small – but it points to a basic fact about buses, at least in the U.S. Most of the people they carry have small, disposable incomes, so their presence on city sidewalks does little to boost business. As the story puts it in somewhat tongue-in-cheek fashion,
People who ride buses are total losers, so the businesses in downtown Pittsburgh don’t want them out in front of their properties: . . .
Mr. (Rich) Fitzgerald (Allegheny County Executive) said Downtown building and business owners have been pushing for relocation of bus routes and stops for years to ease traffic congestion and eliminate crowding on sidewalks in front of their buildings. “It’s not just the buses, it’s the bus stops” that are perceived as a problem, he said.
I think removing the buses from Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle is a bad idea. Though the people on them may have little money to spend, many are trying to get to or from their jobs and their labor has real value.
However, you can bet if those bus routes were streetcar lines, the local businessmen would be clamoring for more streetcars, not fewer. On-board ridership surveys in one city after another show that rail transit riders are much more likely to be upper-middle class people with money to spend. Their presence on sidewalks is vital to a city’s health, and streetcars help put them there. I am willing to bet that riders on Pittsburgh’s own rail transit lines (light rail) show very different demographic profiles from those riding the city’s buses.
Two cities half a world apart illustrate our point: streetcars draw a broad cross-section of the public, because people like riding streetcars. Buses carry only those who have no other way to get around, because no one likes riding a bus. Buses and streetcars are no more fungible than chalk and cheese.
William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation based in Washington, DC
Below is an excerpt, please click this link to download the full document of the paper.
High-Speed Rail: A Conservative Appraisal
By Glen D. Bottoms and William S. Lind
In 2009, President Barack Obama proposed building a national system of high-speed passenger trains, a network dense enough to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail. The President’s proposal began a healthy debate on whether high-speed rail was desirable or practical in this country,
Is it desirable? Yes. Is it practical? No, at least not the way the Obama administration may want to go about creating it.
In this study, we will propose a conservative alternative to high-speed rail, an alternative that is both desirable and practical: higher-speed rail. What is the difference? Higher-speed rail focuses not on top speed, which is expensive, but on average speed and travel time. It grows incrementally, rather than being created out of nothing at vast cost. Its goal is to provide people a desirable alternative to driving, not to compete with the airplane.
What is high-speed rail? The generally-agreed international definition is electrically-powered passenger trains running mostly on dedicated tracks that attain a top speed of at least 250 kilometers per hour, which is roughly 150 mph. The first such line in the world was Japan’s Tokaido Shinkansen (literally New Trunk Line) connecting Tokyo with Osaka, which opened in 1964. The Tokaido Shinkansen, which today carries 386,000 people daily, has never had a fatal accident. Now running at a top speed of 180 mph (300 kph) and covering the 320 miles between its end points (Tokyo-Osaka) in 2 hours and 25 minutes, the Shinkansen has been successful in every respect, including financially. Not only does it make an operating profit, it has earned enough to pay its original construction costs in full.
One of the nice things about the libertarian transit critics, aka, the anti-transit troubadours, is that they make the same arguments wherever they go. Paul Weyrich and I answered their criticisms some years ago in a chapter of our book, Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation, “Twelve Anti-transit Myths.” Their arguments have changed little over the years and our replies are still relevant.
But cities that want to expand rail transit need to do more than reply when the anti-transit troubadours come to town. If they want to win, they need to pre-empt! Over and over, I have advised cities facing transit referenda to get out in front of the critics. Because they always say the same things, that is easy to do. Tell the voters, “Here is what these guys are going to say and here’s why it’s wrong” before they get there. Then, they run into abuzz-saw from the local press. If you wait until they have come and gone, your replies never catch up to the charges and they can you a lot of damage.
The transit authority in Charlotte, North Carolina, has recently found a creative and effective way to pre-empt the critics. According to a piece in The Atlantic Cities, “Charlotte Fights Its Anti-Transit Foes . . With Infographics,”
the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) has taken the libertarian’s arguments, answered them, and turned the answers into simple graphics people can easily read and understand. Now, it is finding ways to draw attention to the graphics, which so far have been just been used on line and in flyers. According to The Atlantic Cities, the city may soon start placing the graphics on the exterior ad spaces on its buses. They are easy enough to grasp that someone can do so as a bus goes by.
This is exactly the sort of thing other cities that want more rail transit need to be doing. It is an excellent way to pre-empt the critics, to answer their flawed arguments even before they can make them. In politics as in medicine, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation