A Tale of Two Contemporary Cities: Hong Kong, China and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

October 29, 2013 by
Filed under: Car Stop 

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

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