Pigs Fly

October 25, 2012 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Car Stop 

Pigs are flying, the sky is green and down has become up. Even more miraculously, the Reason Foundation has put out a paper on rail transit that is not completely unreasonable. The Rapture must be close at hand.

Despite a typical Unreason title, The Streetcar Swindle, Samuel L. Scheib’s recent paper on reason.com is an intelligent and informative look at streetcars. Usually, anything from the Reason Foundation simply dismisses all rail transit. Scheib’s paper does not. It acknowledges the historic importance of streetcars, writing that “You would have to go all the way back to the invention of the wheel . . . to find a transport technology that made a more significant impact on the lives of regular folks.” It praises Germany’s Stadtbahnen, which we know as Light Rail. It notes that some recently-built streetcar lines, both in this country and in Europe, have been successful. It even discusses one way to make streetcar lines work, in a paragraph worthy of quoting in full:

The highest and best use for a streetcar system is to connect dense student housing, a university, a functioning downtown, and regional shopping venue, hospital, or other large attractor in a community of about 100,000. Athens, Gainesville, Norman, and Bloomington are ideal for this type of alignment (as is Lansing, which opted to build a bus rapid transit system). We already have models for how to do this kind of service: Le Mans, Orleans, and Reims [France] carry between 35,000 and 48,000 tips daily on systems that have between 6.9 and 11.2 miles of track. These streetcars – – called tramways there – – not only serve universities and downtowns but also take advantage of the tram’s small footprint by wending between buildings, using rights of way that are useless to larger mass transit vehicles or automobiles.

Of course, in the end Mr. Scheib’s paper comes out against streetcars. I doubt the Reason Foundation would have published it otherwise. Specifically, it opposes using streetcar lines for urban development or re-development. Scheib writes, “Nostalgia is the main power source of the streetcar craze. How else do we explain the use of historic reproductions and expensive old Birney and PCC streetcars (WSL: which cost a lot less than modern streetcars) in so many systems? Still, these projects roll on a pair of rails called ‘downtown development’ and ‘tourism’.”

Oddly, Mr. Scheib’s first example of such misuse of historic streetcars is San Francisco, where it has been wildly successful. The city’s F-line, which uses Peter Witts from Milan and vintage American PCCs (among others), now carries in excess of 20,000 riders daily. Most are local residents, not tourists.

Mr. Scheib also acknowledges the success of the Portland Streetcar. In doing so, he reveals his fundamental error: he does not understand streetcars’ transportation purpose. He writes of Portland, “The urban street cred of Portland notwithstanding, even there the streetcar is not really mass transit. The Portland Streetcar’s raison d’etre is, like the Tampa TECO line’s, downtown development and tourism, not transportation.”

Mr. Scheib in effect argues that unless a transit system moves people from the suburbs to the central city and back, it is not transportation. Quoting Florida State University professor and TRB Light Rail Committee chairman Gregory Thompson, Mr. Scheib writes, “ ‘an effective light rail or streetcar has to be operated like a subway, but most modern streetcars are not.’ “

This confuses two transportation functions and two transit modes. The functions are line-haul, suburb-to-city movement and local transportation within the central city. Each is served by a different mode: light rail for line-haul and streetcar within the CBD. Both functions are necessary for a city to succeed.

It is useful here to furnish an updated chart based on the study Paul Weyrich and I wrote (which is a chapter in our book Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation), “Bring Back the Streetcars!” The chart was originally titled “Differences between Light Rail and Streetcars,” and the updated version shows why Mr. Scheib and Professor Thompson are wrong.


Characteristic Light Rail Streetcar
Right-of Way Uses a variety of rights-of-way, mostly exclusive (at grade, tunnel, elevated, etc.) Mixed traffic but can also use a variety of rights-of-way
Materials More extensive construction Less elaborate specs
Overhead Wire Large, high performance multi-section articulated vehicles built for MU operation With or w/o simple articulation; can be modern or vintage style
Vehicles Large, high performance multi-section articulated vehicles built for MU operation With or w/o simple articulation; can be modern or vintage style
Stations Variable, from simple stops to substantial stations to accommodate multiple LRVs Simple stops with sign “Streetcar Stop”
Labor Efficient use of labor Efficient use of labor
Capital Cost Should not exceed $30-40 million/mile Should average less than $20 million/mile
Functions Line-Haul; Distribution Distribution; Located in the urban core
Route Length Usually 10 miles or more Less than 10 miles
Peak Use Rush hour No real “peak” ridership; distributed throughout the day
Main Users Commuters Local traffic, i.e., urban dwellers, shoppers, etc.

Based on chart in “Bring Back the Streetcars!” in Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation.

In effect, streetcars are pedestrian facilitators. Mr. Scheib acknowledges the central role pedestrians play in the life of cities, writing that “Proprietors need pedestrians to access their businesses; for them the money for urban circulators would be better spent on bringing people to the urban core or improving the streetscape.” But these elements are all necessary to encourage pedestrian traffic; they are not alternatives to each other. Streetcars’ role is to make it easy for pedestrians to get around downtown by carrying them for distances too long for Americans to walk. Ideally, the streetcar is either fare-free or with a ticket validity of several hours in the CBD, so pedestrians have no hesitation about getting on and off frequently.

Of course, since this is a Reason Foundation publication, it has to repeat the old canard that streetcars and buses are interchangeable. Mr. Scheib quotes Professor Thompson as saying, “The (contemporary) streetcar is like a bus on rails, but it has no advantage over a bus.” From the standpoint of urban development, it has an absolutely critical advantage over a bus: middle class people with disposable income like riding streetcars but most will not ride a bus. To thrive, cities need more than just “pedestrians.” If those pedestrians have little or no disposable income, their presence may blight a city rather than help it. Cities need pedestrians who buy in shops, eat in restaurants, and go to shows. Those people want streetcars, not buses.

Mr. Scheib writes,

There is nothing inherently wrong with streetcars as transit. The problem is how they are deployed. The original streetcar systems were largely straight-line routes serving the central business district. The point was to get people to the CBD, where they would move around on foot.

That statement is correct. But that was then, and this is now. Today, that function of moving people from where they live to the CBD is performed best by light rail or commuter rail. Streetcars are now primarily a mobility facilitator within the CBD, which is a transportation as well as a development function. We still want people to walk in the CBD, but today’s Americans are less willing to walk than were their forefathers. Streetcars fill the resulting gap. That is why 60-plus cities now are constructing or planning streetcar projects, and why they are smart to bring back the streetcars.

William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation