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
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
One of the many ways in which some libertarian transit critics falsify statistics about public transportation is to take initial ridership of a new rail transit line and compare it to projected ridership years in the future. An article on Los Angeles’ Expo Light Rail line by Axel Hellman in the May 1, 2013 Annenberg digital news edition caught them again at that dishonest game. It reported,
When the Expo line, Los Angeles Metro’s newest light rail line, opened in April, 2012, initial ridership numbers were low, starting at about 11,000 per average weekday . . . One libertarian think tank even used these numbers to argue that light rail systems in general should not be built.
But now, one year later, the picture is very different. Ridership on weekdays has been increasing at a steady clip of about 1,000 per month, reaching an estimated 26,000 per day during the week. Given that Metro projected about 27,000 riders per day by the year 2020, that number is very good. The number of people riding the Expo line may pass that benchmark in the coming months.
Quelle surprise! The libertarians will, no doubt, be quick to admit their mistake and correct their statements about the failure of the Expo line. Sadly, they won’t, because like all ideologues, “truth” is determined by their ideology, not by facts.
As bad numbers, distortions, and at times bald-faced lies about rail transit continue to pour forth from some libertarian transit critics, the question should be, why does anyone take these people’s work seriously? The sad answer is that it is all too easy to fool the press and the public on issues they know little or nothing about. Just roll into town, spew lots of wrong numbers and then leave before anyone can say, “Wait a minute . . .”
The reality of rising rail transit ridership, even in car-centric LA, is a fact. The Annenberg article states,
A Metro spokesperson [ed: that’s “spokesman” in English], Jesse Simon, disputed the line’s naysayers, cautioning that ridership will rise with time. “A favorite tactic of rail critics used to be [ed: they still do it] to take statistics from a year or two after the opening date of a rail [line] to show that out-year estimates of rail patronage were grossly exaggerated. But changing to rail involves a longer process of changing habits. Our experience with rail patronage, and I believe experience elsewhere, is that rail growth is incremental.”
Simon said that in the long term, ridership has been slowly increasing on Metro‘s other rail lines. “Rail patronage has increased steadily almost every year since the first line opened in 1990; and not only because more lines came on line – – within each line then growth has been steady and it has not reached a stable endpoint.”
Could LA’s Metro perhaps coax Jack Webb of Dragnet fame to make an earthly appearance to say to libertarian rail critics, “Just the facts, ma’am?”