I recently fled the Cleveland winter for the happier climate of San Diego traveling as God intended by train. The trip was enjoyable, as trips by air are not. Even off-season the sleeping cars were largely full, a sign others are seeking alternatives to airlines that spit in their customers’ faces. All the crews were very good, a change from Amtrak experiences past. Westbound everything was late, the Southwest Chief by nine hours into LA. But sudden attention by the Surface Transportation Board (STB) to the problem of freight interference seems to have thrown the fear of Mammon into the railroads, as the return trip both the Chief and the Lake Shore Limited ran early. It will be interesting to see if that continues.
The future of the Southwest Chief lies on a knife’s edge because BNSF runs little freight over the old Santa Fe main line. I don’t know why, because their new main line through Texas is congested. In any case, BNSF wants Amtrak to kick in money for track maintenance, which Amtrak doesn’t have, meaning it has turned to the states for help. All have agreed except New Mexico, but if it does not come on board the whole project collapses and the Chief dies. Riding the route both directions shows the heavy dependence of communities along the line on the train, as without it they have no connection to the outside world but driving vast distances, sometimes under dangerously bad weather conditions. Pray that New Mexico comes through.
I cannot pass over the one stupid blunder by Amtrak that is reminiscent of its worst old days. One of my sleepers had just been reconditioned, and idiotically they eliminated the volume control on the speaker in the bedroom as part of the rebuild. What were they thinking? I was almost asleep when “Conductor to the dining car” blasted me awake. Almost asleep again when “announcements” started, again at deafening volume. Could someone kindly inform whoever is in charge of sleeping car rebuilds that we buy sleeper space to sleep, not to listen to a loud squawk box that suggests we are traveling in North Korea?
I finally arrived in San Diego. The San Diego Trolley is one of that city’s amenities and I made good use of it. I bought a three-day pass, once I found the downtown office, which was not easy because signs put it a long way from where it is actually located. I had ridden the Blue and Orange lines before, so I focused on the new (to me) Green Line. The concierge of my very nice Gaslamp District (and restaurant district) hotel, The Horton Grand, told me See’s Candies had closed their downtown store (why?) but that I could easily get to another of their outlets by taking the Green Line to Fashion Valley Mall. She was right, and I made the trip by trolley on and on foot more easily than I could have driven and parked. If friends or family know of See’s, don’t plan on coming home without some.
A three car train (typical consist on the system) pulls into San Diego’s Santa Fe Depot (William S. Lind Photo)
I then took the Orange Line to La Mesa and looped back on the new-construction segment of the Green Line. The engineering and the ride are spectacular, reminding me of Italian highways through the Alps. So was the price tag for its construction. It is built to heavy rail, not light rail standards. Was that made necessary by the terrain? I do not know the area well enough to judge. Has it priced itself out of the market, in terms of more extensions? I would not be surprised, although an extension has recently been approved (the 11 mile project, dubbed the Mid-Coast extension, extends the Blue Line to the University City area north of San Diego). The higher construction cost per mile, the fewer miles we can build. It seems the philosophy behind San Diego’s first line to the Mexican border has been forgotten.
My Green Line train had mechanical problems which brought periodic emergency stops – - the doors seemed to be the difficulty – - and it was taken out of service at the Santa Fe depot. All the trains I saw had two new low-floor Siemens cars fore and aft sandwiching an older high-floor Siemens/Duewag, an obvious U-2 descendent. The new cars rode well and have a classic Railfan seat where you can see forward, but the high-floor cars had more leg room and more comfortable seats. Why does transit equipment design so often take two steps forward and one back? Americans are not getting smaller. If you give them transit equipment that is not comfortable, they will drive.
When it was time to head home to Cleveland and snow, I was easily able to walk the short way to the Convention Center stop on the Green Line and take the trolley to the Santa Fe depot. That saved me a taxi fare and reminded me why cities with good public transit are more pleasant to visit than those without.
William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation
The return of streetcars to a growing number of American (and European) cities is a good thing. New streetcar lines have brought development, increased use of public transport by the middle and upper-middle classes and new attention to the rise of inner cities.
If those of us who welcome streetcar and want to see their presence spread and move forward, we must do more than cheerlead. We must also look at what still needs to be done to return streetcars to the central role they once played in cities.
An article by Eric Jaffe, “Overall, U. S. Streetcars Just Aren’t Meeting the Standards of Good Transit,” published by Citylab on September 3, 2014, addresses some of the actions that need to be taken to make streetcars real transit. Mr. Jaffe identifies three shortcomings: the short length of streetcar lines, their slow speed – a function of the fact that most run in mixed traffic – and insufficiently frequent service. I think he is right on all counts.
As Jaffe notes, frequent service could help mitigate the problems of slow speeds or short lines. Both of those problems require long-term, expensive fixes. Running frequent service is not all that expensive. New Orleans’ St. Charles Avenue line can afford to do it: it offers a car every 9 minutes during morning peak, every 8 minutes at midday and every 10 minutes at night, according to Jaffe’s article. I have ridden that line a number of times and it almost exemplifies the old slogan of many streetcar systems, “Always a car in sight.” That slogan sets the standard modern streetcar lines should aim for.
But as Jaffe notes, looking at streetcar systems opened since 2000,
“few U.S. streetcars run every 15 minutes, or four times an hour, which is generally considered the minimum standard for true show-up-and-go service that eliminates the need to check a schedule. Three systems (Little Rock, Salt Lake City and Tampa) never hit that mark. Two others (Dallas and Portland, Oregon) only hit it at one of three travel periods. The one (Seattle) that does meet the every-fifteen-minutes threshold at each period never exceeds it.
And again, that’s the minimum standard. Good public transportation requires trains or buses to run every 10 0r 12 minutes, five or six times an hour. Only two streetcars (Tacoma and Tucson) hit this mark.”
In all fairness, Little Rock and Tampa are clearly tourist-oriented services, Salt Lake City’s Sugar House streetcar has been up and running for less than a year and Dallas was originally an all-volunteer operation that has just recently grown into a significant downtown circulator. Portland and Seattle should increase frequencies as those systems continue to expand and ridership grows.
For the reintroduction of streetcars to be a long-term success, they must once again perform the large role they had in our cities 100 years ago. That role is central to bringing the cities themselves back. If we content ourselves with lines a mile or so long, running infrequent service and running no faster than urban street traffic, streetcars will be nice to have but not all that important. So here’s what we need to do in order of priority (and difficulty):
- Running streetcars at 10 minute intervals, at most; the goal should be “always a car in sight.” That may require buying more streetcars, which are not all that expensive, and adding more passing loops, which cost a good deal more. But streetcars will not play the role in restoring our cites we want them to play if people can walk the line faster (including wait time) than they can ride it.
- Give streetcars traffic light pre-emption. This too does not cost much, but it significantly raises line speed. Ideally streetcars should get more right-of-way where they do not have to compete with cars; making downtown streets with streetcars in conjunction with pedestrianization can also spur retail sales and spur development.
- Once a successful starter line has shown the community what streetcars bring, start to build a system. A system has many lines, service all the important parts of the city. That costs a lot of money, but if FTA were to get serious about reducing construction costs if could cost less that it does now. If streetcars are to be more than a “ride,” we need streetcars systems, not just streetcar lines.
I can and do endlessly lament the wonderful streetcar systems our cities had and threw away. We did not know it at the time, but we were also throwing away our cities. Their return must also be in tandem, because cities need streetcars. Cars are inimical to the city, and no one wants to ride a bus. For those of us who know what streetcars can do and once did, it’s time to think big.
William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation
A June 4 story in Bacon’s Rebellion discussed a recent speech by Andres Duany, the founder of New Urbanism, calling a “lean urbanism.” Duany noticed that in parts of Detroit, renewal is taking place not because of government but because there is less government. Speaking to the 22nd Congress on the New Urbanism (I have attended the CNU off and on since CNU III), Duany said, “When Detroit went bankrupt, they couldn’t maintain the regulators.” Freed of endless, stifling regulations and red tape – all of it both expensive and time-consuming to deal with – people simply went ahead and began to rebuild. The lesson Duany drew is that we need “to strip away all but the most essential regulations to encourage more urban re-development.”
Duany is correct. We need “lean urbanism” that can produce and protect urban communities with less resources. Nothing soaks up resources faster or more uselessly than over-regulation, which is endemic in cities. But much of that over-regulation does not originate in cities themselves; it starts at the federal and state levels.
One of the regulatory burdens Duany referenced was ADA, the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. According to Bacon, “the last building he designed was so festooned with regulations, he (Duany) said he had to hire a consultant who specialized in handicap-accessibility code. That one set of requirements contains as many rules and specifications as the entire development code when he got started!”
Here we begin to see a tie-in with transit. ADA has proven the single most expensive, least useful mandate ever leveled on public transit. Serving a small number of disabled people takes a large chunk of transit systems’ budgets, both capital and operating. Many of the special facilities ADA demands of transit systems are seldom if ever used. If something intended to serve the disabled is frequently used, including by people who are not disabled but nonetheless find it helpful, I’m all for it. But millions have been spent entirely uselessly.
ADA is only the beginning of expensive and generally useless over-regulation of transit. One environmental revue of a proposed project makes sense, but often multiple such reviews are required. FRA’s outdated buffer strength requirements have greatly increased the cost of rail transit equipment, with no benefit. A single commuter train accident in California led Congress to mandate positive transit control for all railroads, at a cost in billions and with no technology yet available to do the job. The list is endless.
New urbanism, requires rail transit if it is to be successful. Streetcars are essential to cities. It is not coincidental that America’s cities began to decline about the time the streetcar lines were being abandoned. Because no one likes riding a bus, substituting buses for streetcars made more people drive, which in turn led them to live and shop in distant suburbs rather than downtown.
In turn, lean urbanism requires lean rail transit. We need to be able to build streetcar and light rail lines much more cheaply if cities are to afford them. The problem is not technical; the technologies of the last 100 years ago worked fine, and were not expensive. Successful streetcar lines such as New Orleans’ St. Charles Avenue line and San Francisco’s F Market line still use standard streetcars of yesteryear, carrying respectively 15,000 and 20,000 people each workday.
Lean rail transit, like lean urbanism, requires deregulation, and it also requires an end to fascination with complex, expensive technology that is not needed. The goal should be streetcar lines built for not more than $10 million per mile and light rail built for not more than $20 million per mile. At those prices, what might be possible for Detroit and other cities trying to recover their past greatness? Now, they struggle to fund lines only a couple of miles in length. At affordable prices, they could rebuild the extensive streetcar systems they once had, systems to serve the whole city, some of it surface-separated and reasonably fast.
A marriage of lean urbanism and lean rail transit could do wonders. Can we get anyone in government to think about either?
William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation based in Washington, DC.