Buses vs. streetcars

Matt Yglesias,in an otherwise good VOX explainer about the high cost of transportation infrastructure in the United States, is getting something very wrong as to why street cars have more political support from relevant local actors than expanded bus services:

7. The clearest case is the growing popularity of mixed-traffic  streetcar projects. These are much cheaper than grade-separated light- or heavy-rail, but still far more expensive than a conventional bus without actually moving people any faster. In terms of offering a transportation service, spending money on a streetcar is much worse than spending the same amount of money on multiple new bus routes or upgrades to existing ones.

8. Streetcars appeal, however, because those high costs create construction jobs and because the aura of classiness around them appeals to real estate developers and other would-be drivers of gentrification. So cities across America are opening stub streetcar lines rather than investing in improving the transit experience of bus riders.

Classiness may or may not be a significant part of the developpers’ value proposition.  However the dominant reason why urban developpers who have the choice of supporting either bus mass transit or street car mass transit is permanance.  Once tracks are laid down, the route is fixed and the political inertia is to continue to run streetcars on a route for as long as feasible.  Buses are much more flexible.  That is their advantage, but that also means that a transit orientated development built with bus transit in mind is at the whims of the regional transit agency deciding not to move 75% of the buses to other, higher priority lines.

Street cars and other rail transit systems allow developpers to plan with a much higher degree of certainty than bus transit.  That is their value proposition to local developpers, not the implied classiness.

129 replies
  1. 1
    burnspbesq says:

    The elephant in the room in any discussion of mass transit is race. With a handful of exceptions, buses, trains, and trollies exist primarily to move minority workers from substandard housing to substandard jobs and back. The failure of MARTA to extend to Atlanta’s more affluent, mostly white northern suburbs is only the most infamous case.

    And since the people who have political clout generally don’t use mass transit, it’s always likely to suck hind teat when resources are being allocated.

  2. 2
    Tommy says:

    I read that story by Matt. Bus is superior IMHO. I live in a pretty rural area, but also pretty progressive. I can walk two blocks from my house and catch a bus. Four miles rail service. I grew up where I live now, but lived for 15 years in DC. I kind of got used to using public transportation. Now it is just something I do. Oh and parking at a Metro line is fucking free. Let me say that again, parking is free. When I travel, and our rail line ends at the airport, I pay nothing to park for a week or so. How cool is that?

  3. 3
    SatanicPanic says:

    This is a good point. If you move someone with the expectation that you’ll have a good bus route and they change it, it sucks. Urban developers can also mean apartment complexes, which can use good bus transit as a selling point. Heck, even office and retail developers do that.

  4. 4
    bargal20 says:

    I live in a double storey former storefront along a main street tram (streetcar) route. Nothing classy about it.

  5. 5
    Calouste says:

    So, where’s the data behind that point number 7?

    You can’t convince me that this hasn’t been studied extensively, specially in Europe. Maybe you’re not moving people faster strictly speaking, but you’re definitely moving more of them per hour on the same line.

  6. 6
    hoodie says:

    Yglesias’ in his young David Brooks mode. The article talks about how other countries build rail more efficiently than the US, but throws in that nonsense about buses. His biggest flaw is that he sometimes can’t fathom that there may be rational bases for things he finds silly while creating the world from his armchair, and he’s too eager to attribute them to some variety of liberal elitism. It also may be:

    – electric street cars emit no exhaust and thus lead to a more appealing environment for residents and pedestrians and generally improve air quality in congested areas (granted, there are now hybrid buses, but they still use fossil fuels)
    – streetcars only occupy one fixed lane and are thus more predictable in their maneuvers for other drivers
    – streetcars are not as vulnerable to the vagaries of driver competence

    Buses are fine when you’re talking about more dispersed ridership, but I imagine there are plenty of places where streetcars are clearly superior. The problem, as Yglesias suggests, is that we don’t build this infrastructure in a cost effective manner. That includes the roads that buses operate on. I’m also not sure if Yglegias is taking into account lifecycle costs. I would imagine the average street car lasts longer than the average bus and uses less energy.

  7. 7
    David Fud says:

    @Tommy: Bus is superior, if you don’t already have a traffic jam. I would argue that putting additional bus routes into a two or four lane traffic jam doesn’t really change much in terms of fixing the problem.

    Just my .02 from ATL. Probably should go read the article now that I have made an uninformed comment.

  8. 8
    Alex S. says:

    You’re right, Mr. Mayhew. Yglesias didn’t bother to read another Vox.com article that makes your point:

    http://www.vox.com/cards/us-st.....of-transit (point 7)

    It’s hard to find hard evidence on this, as the Atlantic Cities noted last year, but advocates argue that putting in a streetcar draws economic development because streetcars are more permanent than a new bus line: once the track is laid, it’s not going anywhere.

  9. 9
    Shakezula says:

    Perhaps MattY’s musings are influenced by the boondoggle of a clusterfuck that D.C. has made of its attempt to bring in streetcars. Honestly, the entire reasoning for it seems to boil down to “Aw, it’ll be cute.”

    Also, what burnspbesq said, with economic factors also being a strong driver in D.C.


    Parking is free on weekends and holidays. No line ends at an airport but two do go by National, which does not have Metro parking.


  10. 10
    dedc79 says:

    Yglesias, who I believe lives in DC, should also realize that there’s a serious traffic congestion issue to be dealt with. the 16th street bus lines in dc, as full as they are, still end up stuck in the same traffic with the people who drive to work in cars all by themselves.

  11. 11
    different-church-lady says:

    @David Fud:

    Probably should go read the article now that I have made an uninformed comment.

    Are you kidding? This is the point in the process where the pros double down instead!

  12. 12
    Hal says:

    I lived in Atlanta a few years ago and some coworkers told me all about marta after I noticed mostly black riders waiting for buses. White suburbanites did not want a mostly black workforce moving through easily via public transport out of fear that people would come to the suburbs to rob homes. Which was hilarious to me because I can’t imagine you can carry that much stuff on a bus or train.

  13. 13
    SatanicPanic says:

    That being said, San Diego and Los Angeles used to have streetcars, and they were removed.

    I read Matt’s article but he never really gets around to explaining why it costs so much for us to build them. Anyone know?

  14. 14
    different-church-lady says:

    @dedc79: As would the streetcars, unless they got a separated right-of-way.

  15. 15
    🌷 Martin says:

    He doesn’t seem to address Bus Rapid Transit, which is odd considering it’s the en vogue approach now, being considered in Chicago.

    It’s designed to address the shortcomings of both systems:

    1) It uses dedicated lanes as light rail typically does – usually center aligned, also like light rail.
    2) It uses dedicated platforms so people pay to enter the platform, and don’t need to slow down the bus departure when boarding.
    3) The platforms are level with the bus so its easier for seniors, kids, and people with disabilities to board/unboard
    4) It’s still a bus, so it’s cheaper to deploy than light rail (though more than traditional bus) and the infrastructure is relatively lightweight. Routes can be changed much more inexpensively than light rail, and adding capacity to a line means driving a new bus to it.

    There’s a number of BRT systems in the US, and of course they’re popular outside the US as well.

  16. 16
    C.V. Danes says:

    Also, I suspect that street cars will be less susceptible to variabilities due to traffic and weather, and will be much more likely to be on time.

  17. 17
    Tommy says:

    @David Fud: LOL. When I say I live in a rural area I mean I live in a rural area. I don’t have a four lane highway anywhere around me. We’ve embraced both rail and buses. It is slow going, cause most people are not used to it. But starting to work. Where I live it is free to use mass transit if you are a senior citizen. They tried to change this a few years ago and there was a huge push back. Don’t mess with old people :)!

  18. 18
    Hal says:

    I should also say I lived for years in San Francisco, and my last apartment was along the N Judah line, which broke down constantly, and was regularly late, though I think with muni call ins and shift changes contributed enormously to that scenario.

  19. 19
    Motivated Seller says:

    The “Permanence” of rails in the roadway was undone easily in Detroit, which by the middle of the last century had one of America’s most developed public transportation (trolley) system. It was ripped up by the US Automotive industry.

    And to @burnspbesq point, the Detroit system served majority of minority residents.

  20. 20
    The Other Chuck says:

    Streetcars are classy, eh? Tell ya what, take the eastbound T line in San Francisco all the way to the end and tell me what you think. Hell, it’s the newest line too.

    Then again, the rail car probably stops bullets better than a bus.

  21. 21
    Higgs Boson's Mate says:


    – electric street cars emit no exhaust and thus lead to a more appealing environment for residents and pedestrians and generally improve air quality in congested areas (granted, there are now hybrid buses, but they still use fossil fuels)

    Electrically powered buses have been around forever. They are (Were?) powered via a trolley setup.

  22. 22
    Matt McIrvin says:

    @different-church-lady: Yeah, there are streetcars and streetcars. Are we thinking about light rail lines that have a grade-separated right of way (Boston D line), or lines down the median that stop for traffic lights but aren’t in the same lanes as traffic (Boston B, C, most of E line), or streetcars that share lanes with general traffic (much of the San Francisco Muni, Boston E line past Brigham Circle)?

  23. 23
    brendancalling says:

    @Tommy: That’s in a rural area. I live in Philadelphia, which still runs 5 streetcar lines. In the city, the streetcar is more efficient than the bus because it’s as vulnerable to getting caught in traffic (trackless trolleys are even more flexible: they run on the same wires, but can go around some obstacles). Trolleys are also a LOT faster than buses.

    Philly, for all the ragging I do on it, has an excellent transit system that’s about to get a lot better with 24/7 service on the broad Street subway and the El, to complement the 3 trolley lines (and gazillions of buses) that also run 24/7.

    Worth noting is that in the 1920s-1950s, Pennsylvania also had interurban streetcar lines that ran alongside roads built for cars. Nice article about interurbans here.

  24. 24
    slag says:

    As a transit rider, give me a train or a streetcar over a bus any day. I want that feeling of certainty and permanence in my own transportation and often will go out of my way to get it.

  25. 25
    Matt McIrvin says:

    @Higgs Boson’s Mate: Electric trolley buses still run in parts of Cambridge and Watertown, Mass. They’re really quiet.

  26. 26
    scav says:

    @🌷 Martin: Oh, that could be fun. Dedicated platforms in igh use areas, high salience ares, (so provides the neighborhood achoring help / stability needed for planning your commute etc around it), cut down on waits, flexibility along the routes, nice.

  27. 27
    🌷 Martin says:

    @SatanicPanic: Mainly it’s a problem with right-of-ways and safety. Light rail have large turning radiuses and tend to require more width than a standard vehicle lane. Retrofitting them into existing road networks, even very good ones, is costly because curves will need to be significantly redesigned, street crossings usually need to be completely redesigned for safety, etc.

    If you build the light rail before the people arrive, it’s pretty cost effective. But if you do it after they arrive, in the near term you’re going to make congestion worse during construction (as it only removes capacity, rather than add) and in the first few years of operation until people incorporate it into their routine. And then, do you build it where the congestion is, or in anticipation of gentrification around the new stops? So, it really makes a hash of things for a period of 5 years or so.

    That’s one benefit of the BRT. Since it uses standard buses, you can get by with bollarding off a lane and at a minimum only need to find space and right of way to the stations. Ideally you will integrate the traffic control system with the buses (so they routinely avoid cross-traffic).

    And the traffic control is another big obstacle in the US. Unlike other cities that avoided traffic control for solutions like roundabouts, we went all in with traffic control (lights) decades ago. These old analogue systems are often very inefficient now. Modern systems use dynamic modeling and cameras to manage traffic not just at one intersection but across an entire city. Integrating mass transit into that is straightforward with a modern system, but the old system isn’t really cut out for it, so that’s an added cost.

  28. 28
    dedc79 says:

    @different-church-lady: I believe they will have right-of-way for portions of the line, but not the entire line.

  29. 29
    SatanicPanic says:

    @Motivated Seller: I brought this up too, but then again, will we ever see a point where US automakers are that strong of a force in our economy?

  30. 30
    RaflW says:

    Street cars and LRT also offer a perceived level of reliability and predictability that busses do not. Yes, trams and light rail trains can be late. But they are less subject to the whims of traffic.

    And the quality of the ride itself is often quite different. While newer busses often have low entry and aisle (before the 2nd axle at least), I still think of dragging my 36 lb. rolling bag up and thru the insanely crowded #6 bus in Minneapolis to connect to the quiet, smooth, level-entry LRT line to the airport. 180 degree different rider experience!

    Third, and I don’t like this but it seems to be sociologically true: suburban (read white) citizens perceive busses as for those people, but see LRT (as well as commuter busses with greyhound seats, reading lights and nowadays, wifi) as being for us.

  31. 31
    KG says:

    @SatanicPanic: the LA streetcars were owned by the electric company. The Supreme Court called it a monopoly and ruled they had to be broken up. The street cars were bought by Firestone, who, let’s say, had an interest in the street cars not running.

    That said, there are still plenty of places in Southern California where the old streetcar rails are still visible in the middle of the street

  32. 32
    🌷 Martin says:

    @scav: It’s a fantastic solution that’s really only coming into its own here with clean energy buses. Remember what diesel engines were like 30-40 years ago and if you consider the maximum capacity of a city bus to be say, 70 people, moving around a million people like NYC does would require thousands of such buses, all choking out diesel fumes. That’s really what killed buses in many place – the air quality costs were higher than people now consider. Toss in air quality mandates here on the west coast, and cities couldn’t even consider adding buses. Light rail being electric took care of that problem.

    But now with electric/natgas/fuel cell, etc. or even just clean diesel, buses work very nicely. Not as efficient as light rail, and it never will be, but a good compromise.

  33. 33
    RaflW says:

    Hmm. I’m guessing Mr. Burns has not been to Dallas or Denver.

  34. 34
    Fair Economist says:

    Streetcars give a much smoother ride than buses. Most people don’t notice it consciously but try to do any physical detail work – handwriting a note is a good example – and you’ll notice it’s a lot harder on a bus. A bus sways back and forth with the driver’s steering corrections while a streetcar sways only when turning. Also, rails are much flatter than roads so there’s a lot less bouncing. The upper middle class is the target market for urban redevelopment because nobody below them can afford new urban construction, and I suspect that whether they’re aware of it or not, they just won’t put up with bus rides but they will generally put up with train rides.

  35. 35
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    Public transit, of all flavors, is bad, because blahs use it.

  36. 36
    Seanly says:


    This. I used to live in Lexington, a well-off bedroom community of Columbia, SC & I worked for a infrastructure company that had done some planning work in the region. The area has a combined regional transit authority which doesn’t include Lexington County – one of my co-workers was at a meeting where a Lex Cnty official stated that they didn’t want ‘those people’ coming into the county.

    I don’t miss the place and can’t wait until the wife & I can dump the house we still own there.

    RE: Ygleisias

    9. Shanghai has opened six new Metro lines in the past five years.

    10. In 2004, Shenzhen had no Metro system. Today it has more stations and track than Washington’s Metro or Boston’s T. Of course DC is building the Silver Line, but Shenzhen has three new lines under construction.

    The Chinese have infrastructure investments of 4% GDP vs our 2% IIRC. While I am not sure of how they pay for individual rides on their transit systems, I’d imagine that the costs aren’t amortized entirely to the ridership.

    Also, China doesn’t have near the regulatory structure that we do. Much of our process for taking land was changed after riots in Boston & issues in other metro areas due to unfair efforts & compensation for the acquiring ROW during the 60’s & early 70’s. Environmental clearances & memorandums of understanding can take a long time (fyi, environmental clearance isn’t restricted merely to natural environment but can include a host of cultural, historical & sociological considerations).

    Buses aren’t sexy but they can operate on the current streets. Light rail requires right-of-way – lots & lots of ROW. For a 5′-8″ wide rail, you’d want at least 30′ or 40′. That’ll be very hard (aka $$$$) to accommodate in most well-developed areas. Even street cars require additional infrastructure such as catenary lines & supports, transformers, and platforms.

  37. 37
    LanceThruster says:

    I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer myself so I appreciate the fixed route (once mistakenly took a local bus instead of the express to try to make jury duty downtown). I think a variety of approaches need to be pursued, but it’s clear that development picks up right away at all the rail hubs on my route. Bus routes have a definite point of diminishing returns (as with Los Angeles San Fernando Valley corridor – they have an express busway for a portion but no rail to the heart of the SFV).

    In other mass transit HOV bus corridors, the rest of the traffic slows them down considerably, and on surface streets, they’re practically at the mercy of rush hour like everyone else, even with special lanes.

  38. 38
    🌷 Martin says:

    @Higgs Boson’s Mate: We’re closing in on a point where they could be powered/charged wirelessly. An induction plate in the road at each stop, and periodically along the route if necessary (tradeoff of adding high voltage/amperage underground wiring vs adding more batteries to the bus) would allow buses to have more freedom of movement than the trolly setup and avoid the many problems that come with overhead lines. There are some existing system running like this now, but they tend to be smaller, closed systems, like at airports, etc.

  39. 39
    different-church-lady says:

    I’m a bit of transit geek, and I love trolleys. So it pains me to admit that I believe trolleys are an artifact of a time before asphalt. Rails made moving large people containers far more efficient than the other two options of the time: cobblestones or dirt.

    Jump to the mid 20th century and all of a sudden almost all the roads are asphalt paved. The transit companies (now no longer private corporations, having been sold to the municipalities or other regional public organizations) see that they can ditch the cost of their infrastructure.

    Here in the 21st century I find the considerations of bus v. trolley interesting, but they miss the point: no matter what technology we use to move people around, we don’t have a good way of addressing how many people we have packed into one place. The finer points of rubber tires v. steel wheels does nothing to mitigate the impact of too many people in too little space trying to get to too many places at once, with no end to the growth of those problems in sight.

  40. 40
    David Fud says:

    @Hal: It really doesn’t make sense, nor is it supposed to.

  41. 41
    SatanicPanic says:

    @🌷 Martin: I wonder if NIMBYism doesn’t drive tons of lawsuits too. I was just reading about protesters in one dumpy old neighborhood here in SD getting angry about raising the height limit on apartment complexes to 30 feet. 30 feet. That kind of thing makes me think we’ll never get anywhere.

  42. 42
    slag says:

    @Villago Delenda Est: Normally I would prioritize race as a motivating factor, but in this case, I suspect that class is a significantly stronger driver of transportation preferences.

    People are much more likely to tolerate the working, middle, and upper class blahs over the inebriated homeless during their ride home at the end of the day.

  43. 43
    FeudalismNow! says:

    Light rail is still easy to cut funding for and leave rotting infrastructure in place. City planning is a misnomer. It is fighting a fire in a crumbling house while the tenants and neighbors fight you. There is no plan just spastic reaction or indifference. Maybe that is just Upstate New York though.

  44. 44
    brendancalling says:

    @KG: the severe winter in Philly has had the same effect: pretty much every street once had trolley rails that have been paved over. So in almost every pothole, you can see a little chunk of rail. It’s pretty cool.

  45. 45
    Shakezula says:

    @SatanicPanic: So did D.C., the surrounding suburbs even rural areas.

    I’ve been in some really tiny towns that still have their trolley tracks, but I assume they died out and were not replaced by another form of public transit because the automobile became so prevalent.

  46. 46
    big ole hound says:

    Streetcars have a set route that traffic cannot and should not alter. They run on time because the whimsical car driver will be forced to get out of the way by that clanging bell and if cities are smart they should make them free to get people out of cars. Put a big $2 parking garage at the end of every line.

  47. 47
    different-church-lady says:

    @Matt McIrvin: A tidbit of Boston transit trivia: almost every numbered bus line we have in the Boston area today started off as a streetcar line. Almost all of them still run on the original routes the streetcars did.

  48. 48

    Nothing says “poor” like the bus.

    And that’s about 90% of the problem.

    ETA: as a former commuting cyclist, I might note that a streetcar can’t drift over and run over you, wrapping you around the wheel hub and killing you slowly for an hour and a half, as happened up in the Bay Area a while ago. So there’s that.

  49. 49
    scav says:

    @🌷 Martin: More than alternative, they’re a good part of an intelligent integrated public transportatIon network. Mixed mode is stellar. thinking in terms of inter-modal private-public hubs (eta systems) can work wonders.

  50. 50
    Matt McIrvin says:

    @different-church-lady: Which suggests that developers’ perception of permanence for light-rail lines is an illusion. At least the MBTA no longer pretends that one of these days they’re going to reopen the E from Heath Street to Arborway, like they did for many years.

  51. 51
    Tripod says:

    Fucking foamers.

  52. 52
    different-church-lady says:

    @Matt McIrvin: Yes and no: once rails are laid and wires strung, I doubt many municipalities are going to want to change those routes until the costs are written down. Rails are not permanent, but they do create less likelihood of a route change on a whim.

    Myself, I still daydream of the A line once again running to Watertown Square.

  53. 53
    Shakezula says:

    @slag: In D.C. it can get confusing because the leadership is Blah, but the poorest people are also blah or some other minority. However, even our train lines have been influenced by the fear that poor [brown] people will swarm all over places they aren’t wanted. The nearest station to the University of Maryland is one example. It is a couple of miles from the main campus.

    Compare that to the proposed route for a line that may be completed by the year 20. There will be stops right on campus.

    This line will also finally connect Prince George’s County (which I believe is the the poorest county on D.C.’s border) to Montgomery County (the wealthiest or second wealthiest), something that could have been done when they first laid out the lines but again, that would have given Those People direct access to the nice parts of town.

    What’s changed? Gas prices and congestion have made public transportation something “real” people want and use. Of course, at the rate WMATA keeps raising fares, they won’t have to worry about icky poor people cluttering up the trains.

  54. 54
    Tripod says:

    Streetcar! is the current version of turning the old main street into a busway slash pedestrian mall.

  55. 55

    I was just reading about protesters in one dumpy old neighborhood here in SD getting angry about raising the height limit on apartment complexes to 30 feet. 30 feet.

    @SatanicPanic: I’m totally with ’em. The California Coastal Commission has very strict rules on how tall anything within a certain distance of the coast can be, and for residential buildings it’s 25 feet. People have been trying to play bullshit games with building heights here since the day the Commission went into action. It may seem insane, but go look at Florida (or Honolulu) beachfront and then look at ours. The reason we don’t have a wall of beachside skyscraper hotels from TJ to Santa Barbara is because of that height rule.

  56. 56
    SatanicPanic says:

    @Shakezula: Higher gas prices and millenials tend to be less into cars. Previous streetcars were taken out, but the more I think about it (well, over the space of an hour or so) the less I think the conditions by which we got rid of our old streetcar systems will be recreated.

  57. 57
    different-church-lady says:

    I’ll also chip in that it was hella easier to build a streetcar line in the comparatively underdeveloped suburbs of the late 19th century than it is in the overly developed early 21st. You want city rails today? You gotta lay them down through existing pavement and motorized traffic.

    That could be another reason it costs less in China — they were not nearly as developed as America for a long time, and now they’re catching up fast. But they don’t have to claw their way through existing development like we do.

  58. 58
    mainmata says:

    Cuteness is beside the point. Buses have significant advantages in rural and suburban areas but as noted above by several people, in congested areas, the fixed track element of streetcars is an advantage.

    BTW, developer is spelled with just one “p”.

  59. 59
    Higgs Boson's Mate says:

    @🌷 Martin:

    Good points. Electrically powered buses might also be cheaper to maintain simply because they have far fewer moving parts than conventionally powered ones. I don’t see buses and streetcars as an either/or situation; use whatever mix is best for the area. Living here in sunny Southern California the problem is that the car culture still dominates most discussions of mass transit.

  60. 60
    EJ says:

    The whole “permanence” thing comes up constantly with streetcar advocates, as if almost every city in the US didn’t abandon massive streetcar mileage in the last century.

    Americans dislike buses, largely for reasons of class and race. In Europe, at least in my experience, people typically don’t much care whether they’re taking a tram or a bus; they just take whichever one gets them where they need to go. In some cities they’re not even branded separately and they look the same on maps.

    Heck, in London they LOVE their buses – I know more than one Londoner who avoids the tube whenever possible and takes the bus everywhere.

  61. 61
    SatanicPanic says:

    @CONGRATULATIONS!: We’ll have to agree to disagree. A couple weeks ago I was looking around for a parking space in La Jolla going, damn, if this place weren’t reserved for rich pricks like Mitt Romney there would be some parking garages built here. Neighborhood integrity and people’s “right” to maintain a view mean zero to me.

  62. 62
    Matt McIrvin says:

    @Shakezula: I was going to mention the absence of a Metro station in Georgetown, but apparently that was actually for engineering reasons, combined with the perceived lack of demand in the 1960s.

  63. 63
    mainmata says:

    @Shakezula: Correct and that is also why a station anywhere in toney Georgetown was never included. Also Montgomery Co. is 2nd wealthiest (after Fairfax Co., VA)

  64. 64
    Joel says:

    Social class and race is definitely part of it; buses are grouped in with food stamps and other services thought to be for “minorities and the destitute”.

    It doesn’t help that many cities don’t put any effort in keeping their buses clean and (aesthetically) well-maintained. Seattle actually has great buses that are well cared-for but even then, they have a useless monorail and a nearly-as-useless streetcar.

  65. 65
    Mnemosyne says:

    I think “buses vs. streetcars” is the wrong question, just like “buses vs. trains” is the wrong question. You need both — the streetcars/trains take people from one large population section to another, and the buses take care of the local routes. At least, that’s how it should work. One of the reasons the buses are such a pain in the ass here in Los Angeles is that they’re expected to cover really long distances that would be more efficiently covered by rail, so it can take 2 or 3 hours to get from Westwood to Burbank.

  66. 66
    RaflW says:

    @Martin: LRT often requires new bridges or reinforcement of existing bridges, and spans are always expensive.

    An additional signals issue is that the Feds have very tight requirements (ie: expensive), for good reason, on signal interconnect to be as certain as possible to prevent car-LRT or pedestrian-LRT conflict (aka crashes/injury/death).

    And, as you mention, LRT is usually retrofit. Not only is the ROW expensive, but construction almost always has to co-exist with existing users. No 24 hour work cycles (neighbors like to sleep), maintaining at least partial lane-openings, only blocking major intersections on weekends, etc, or one major intersection in an area, and setting up detours, etc.

    Greenfield LRT goes in much faster. I’ve been watching the new Denver line (actually electric heavy rail) and the part out by Pena Blvd is going up fast. But they are also building many bridges, which I’m sure cost.

    Finally, highway construction is jarringly expensive now, too. A billion here or there is nothing (the “big dig” in Boston ended up around $24 billion including financing costs, and that was a dozen years ago).

  67. 67
    scav says:

    @EJ: Well, you can see things on the buses, witness actual daylight. Daylight for cube rats! At least that’s a benefit when the options are underground/overground.

  68. 68
    EJ says:


    That’s true. European buses tend to be smooth running and spotless, which probably goes a long way to explaining why they don’t have the same stigma they do here. Then again, I think there is some geographic variation in the US as well. When I was in Philly recently I had the impression that a lot of middle class white people take the bus without giving it a thought.

  69. 69
    RaflW says:


    The finer points of rubber tires v. steel wheels does nothing to mitigate the impact of too many people in too little space trying to get to too many places at once, with no end to the growth of those problems in sight.

    Huh. I lived in London and we were packed in tight. 4 people living in a 16 foot wide 3 story Georgian terrace house. I rode the Tube to work every day, and while it was crowded, it was also fast and a good deal ($10/week back then).

    Urban density is usually not the problem! It’s suburban low density that is, because it requires cars for nearly everything. My partner and I live on the edge of downtown Minneapolis and we play the “can I go a day without the car” game. We walk to the store. We walk to the Y. We walk to the orchestra, park, museum, restaurants.

    I lived for 14 years in a cute neighborhood 4 miles from DT, and I drove every damn day. I could walk to some things. But not much. Ironically, I lived on a former streetcar line. I only used the bus to get to LRT to the airport. Otherwise? Bus = suckage for me. Slow, infrequent, exact change only, etc.

  70. 70
    Shakezula says:

    @Matt McIrvin: Yes, the thought of a station, particularly underground, in Gtown makes my skin crawl. The Potomac is really unruly down there.

    As for perceived interest/need in the 60’s, I must call B.S. For example, both ends of the Red Line didn’t really exist in the 60’s. Shady Grove was a massive farm owned by one family, but there may have been plans to build the hospital at that point. Glenmont was a country club and some houses. There was even a dairy farm nearby. And the neighborhood around Glenmont is still the quintessential suburban area. The tallest building for miles around is a 10 story apartment building. There are no office buildings. Local stores exist to serve the local community. The rest is churches and schools.

  71. 71
    RaflW says:

    Oh, and maybe I’m lazy, but the fact that LRT sells tickets on the platform, and takes my debit card, is a big factor. I hate that busses still require exact change.

    We now have kiosks at every block in DT and in commercial zones that sell parking, replacing the coin-op meters. Can we not have similar kiosks – at least at busy bus stops – to sell transit tickets to the cashless people we are becoming?

    Or a CC reader on the bus?

    Just one more reason LRT works better, IMO.

  72. 72
    FlipYrWhig says:

    @EJ: I last lived in Philly about a decade ago and my experience was different — bus riders were almost entirely black and brown, with the small exception of college kids. I would often have the experience of riding the bus and being the only white person aboard.

  73. 73
    Tommy says:

    @EJ: I view this as a trope that isn’t true. Where I live I hear it all the time. Public transportation is dirty. Far from it. Cleaner then my car and I am somewhat OCD about how clean things are. I got no issues with how clean the place is. I sit in folks houses and hear them say this and I want to point out, have you looked at where you live?

  74. 74
    SatanicPanic says:

    @RaflW: Or a smartphone busriding app? I’m sure this must already exist

  75. 75
    Mnemosyne says:


    I don’t know if it’s still the case, but it used to be that there was no stigma to public transportation in Chicago (either train or bus) because a lot of suburbanites would commute in.

  76. 76
    🌷 Martin says:

    @RaflW: That’s a big part of Bus Rapid Transit. The payment happens at the platform, so you have more time and options, and boarding is much faster. And with the platform and quick embark, you also don’t have the umbrella shuffle to deal with on rainy days.

    Lots of small points of friction add up to making buses unappealing. A few remain like the bumpier ride, but with electric buses and platforms, thats about all that remains.

  77. 77
    Tommy says:

    @Mnemosyne: I used to live two blocks from Union Station in DC. Just how I got around. I had a car, but alas easier to just get on the subway. Now I live in another place and I have a mass transit. Conditioned to use it. Not a foreign thing for me. I think to many it is.

  78. 78
    different-church-lady says:

    @RaflW: All fair points. However, sprawl is causing the lines between urban and suburban to blur. Here in my town on the outskirts of “the city” an abandoned industrial area is being turned into big box and condo developments. Some of the new buildings are being built right up to the sidewalk — a five story wall where there was previously an abandoned lot. Speaking practically I am watching certain streets go from suburban to urban before my eyes.

    Urban density is usually not the problem! It’s suburban low density that is, because it requires cars for nearly everything.

    Which echos an “existing infrastructure” point I was making — the suburban sprawl is firmly established and there will be no easy undoing it. There’s a mental “infrastructure” underlying all of this: you can’t get people to get out of their cars because they are trained to believe that using other modes of transport is bad. There’s a chicken and egg quality to it: are they going to the outskirts and then using cars because they have to, or are they going to the outskirts because the cars enable them to?

    It’s also fascinating to note that the streetcar was the thing that started the suburbs in the first place. In times of yore one did not commute. If you were poor and worked in the city, you lived in the poor part of the city. If you were a farmer you stayed outside of the city. Only the rich “commuted”, and did so by having a home in the country and a “town house” in the city, because transport was so slow that you didn’t make the journey every day — you went in, stayed overnight and went back out on a different day. The streetcar changed that — you could go in to the city and out again quickly, and you didn’t have to be rich to do it.

  79. 79
    Tommy says:

    @🌷 Martin: My transit system is newer. Only a decade or so old. Anytime you transfer from a rail line to a bus, it is free. They scan your card. I have a card as a frequent user and I just “wave” it.

  80. 80
    RaflW says:

    @EJ: Busses in Minneapolis-St Paul have gotten much nicer in the past decade. I don’t ride much, but when I do they are clean, have upholstered seats, the drivers are decent about announcing upcoming intersections, and most busses have the low floor front entry and aisle.

    A lot of downtown, office-employed Minneapolitans commute by both local and express bus. I think, however, that many of these same pass-carrying commuters never use transit other than the one R/T per day (and maybe one or two Twins games – those LRT cars are Japanese-looking in their sardineness after a game!)

    In Europe, people view the bus & tram as convenient for many things: shopping after work, going to a show, etc. We see them as momentary car avoidance for the commute only.

  81. 81
    different-church-lady says:


    Or a CC reader on the bus?

    Technology is eliminating some of these barriers. Example: Boston’s MBTA is pushing everyone towards plastic cards or paper tickets. With the plastic card I can use my credit card to replenish my transit card on the bus itself. I think they still take dollar bills grudgingly.

  82. 82
    slag says:

    @Shakezula: Oh, if you’re talking about deciding where transit is allocated and installed, race and class are definitely quite high up on the list of motivating factors for white people and monied interests. But I think that, if you’re talking about an individual white person deciding whether or not to use a particular mode of transit at a given moment, class plays a stronger role. They’re both motivated by self-interest but on different levels and timescales.

    Of course, I’m just basing that opinion on my own anecdotal observation of who’s riding which transit mode with me. And it may be that, because the interactive effects between race and class are so strong, my observations are completely arbitrary. It’s just the vibe I get.

  83. 83
    Roger Moore says:


    the LA streetcars were owned by the electric company.

    The streetcars were in long-term decline anyway. They reached their peak track length in the 1920s and their peak ridership (with the exception of a blip because of gasoline rationing during WWII) shortly after. People talk about how much they were loved, but people loved private cars a lot more.

  84. 84
    different-church-lady says:


    But I think that, if you’re talking about an individual white person deciding whether or not to use a particular mode of transit at a given moment, class plays a stronger role.

    It’s only one datum point, but for this individual “white” person, time is a much more important factor than class. It’s a simple fact that public transportation is going to take me two to three times longer than driving. When I have more time than money (i.e. going to a part of town where parking is expensive) I use public transportation. When I don’t have the time I pony up the money. If it’s Sunday I’m street parking. Sometimes I drive to a place where I know I can find street parking and use the bus or train the rest of the way.

  85. 85
    RaflW says:

    @different-church-lady: On your latter point, yes. My grandparents built a home in Edina, MN in the early 20s. Very far from Claude’s work at Dayton’s downtown. But the streetcar made it possible for him to easily get to work.

    As for the suburban new-town midrises, they are the thing these days. First and even second ring suburbs are sprouting all these medium density projects that are still auto-dependent.

    I have been pleased to see at least here, where we have a Met Council that has heavy influence on development policy, that the new wave apartment & condo nodes are often brownfield or poorly utilized sites close-ish to the urban core.

    They do tend to have good commuter bus service. Yes, people will switch to a car at 5:30 pm and on the weekends, but they’re not driving 40 miles from Elk River, which is where the sprawl is mind-numbing, eating up prime farmland, and residents are consuming lots more fuel per day in driving hither and non.

  86. 86
    negative 1 says:

    @slag: I agree. Also, I find from the comments, permanence is underrated. RIPTA here in Rhode Island, changes routes all of the time, basically eliminating them when they are underfunded and the state is broke and then trying to cobble together replacements by extending existing routes. The problem is that at 15 minute trip then takes 45 minutes and 2 hours of research to plan.
    Once tracks are laid you know where it’s going. Additionally, electric railcar is really cheap to run after its (admittedly) expensive construction. The unmentioned appeal to streetcar is that light rail or commuter rail dovetails to it nicely, bus services to suburbs in many areas simply don’t work.
    For everyone who has a useless streetcar in their city — where does it go? My guess is that you have people most of the way into the city on 4 tires before they’re ever waiting for a train. I can speak to seeing the City of Tampa’s, it’s really nice but it doesn’t even leave the city proper unless they expanded in the last few years.

  87. 87
    Roger Moore says:


    I was just reading about protesters in one dumpy old neighborhood here in SD getting angry about raising the height limit on apartment complexes to 30 feet. 30 feet.

    It’s surprising how much density you can get with low-rise development, especially if you can get away with fully underground parking. Replacing single family homes with low-rise apartments and townhomes will boost density a lot, even if the single family homes had tiny lots.

  88. 88
    Origuy says:

    In the SF Bay Area, all the major transit agencies except Amtrak take the Clipper Card. I can get from Santa Cruz to Santa Rosa without cash or a credit card in my pocket. When my account gets low, there’s an automatic deduction.
    I take transit fairly often. I dropped off a rental car at the San Jose Airport last night; there’s a free shuttle bus that connects with light rail and Caltrain. It could run more often, though, and they should have made light rail go right to the airport.

  89. 89
    negative 1 says:

    @different-church-lady: Yes but asphalt is relatively expensive to maintain. Repaving is not cheap, as well as total land footprint vs. rail. People think of asphalt as free once it’s laid down, when in reality it is possibly the most expensive surfacing to use.

  90. 90
    cokane says:

    Streetcars also alleviate traffic congestion more than buses, since buses take up road lanes and often block traffic when making stops. Yglesias is an idiot and I can’t believe Vox is publishing shit where he’s just pulling the “classiness” argument out of his ass, and then calling that journalism.

  91. 91
    RaflW says:

    @different-church-lady: I’d perhaps be willing to give my info to the great Google-satan if busses could take Google wallet.

    Again, I’m admitting my laziness, but if we’re talking about getting greater transit adoption then (naturally, my ego being as it is) I’m a decent stand-in for the average transit-curious person: I want major convenience to be willing to use transit. I’m giving up the convenience of a car, for the moment, so it’s gotta work for me.

    Having to buy and keep track of a transit card is just a bit of a hurdle too high. And I love urban living! Imagine I’m transitphobic, rather than willing to at least date around a bit. Purchasing, keeping tabs on, and refilling a bus card? Nope.

    Now, when I’m touristing (ie: no car!), I’m quite adept at buying a Charlie Card, or a 36 hour Vaporetto pass, or whatever. But my lazy ass sez to me, here at home: take the car. You know you love it. Sooo easy. Has NPR programmed on the radio, and Oh, it’s nice out, use the sunroof! You’ll walk/bus/bike tomorrow.

    Really. I’m that shallow. lol.

  92. 92
    RaflW says:

    @cokane: You can’t believe that Vox is following it’s business plan?

  93. 93
    brendancalling says:

    @different-church-lady: same with Philly

  94. 94
    different-church-lady says:

    @negative 1: True, but the bus lines aren’t responsible for that upkeep. And it’s going to be there, whether a bus runs on it or not. The cost of maintaining the rails and the wires is borne solely by the transit authority.

  95. 95
    Matt McIrvin says:

    @Shakezula: I was thinking about this watching, of all things, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which has some peculiar fictional Washington geography in it. Including a secret *spoiler* that I think would have played havoc with the Blue/Orange Line tunnel between Rosslyn and Foggy Bottom.

  96. 96
    different-church-lady says:

    @RaflW: It might be less shallow than you think: you paid for that car, and you spend a certain amount a year to register, insure, and maintain it. Why wouldn’t a person want to put that to use? Why would you want to spend all that money to have a car and then spend a bit more to not use it?

    Myself, I would be happy to never drive another automobile as long as I live. But as a freelancer that’s an unrealistic fantasy, because work is everywhere and I frequently have to move gear around with me. So every time I decide to use public transportation it’s an additional expense, not an alternate expense.

  97. 97
    Roger Moore says:

    All very good points. They’re expanding light rail between Pasadena and Azusa right now, which is very convenient for me because one of the stops will be right across the street from my work. I’m getting to see all this stuff first-hand. We have an advantage in terms of right of way because they were able to buy an old freight rail corridor before anyone else got to it. It’s still slow going because they can only work on a fraction of the crossings at any time to avoid traffic nightmares. Even the finished crossings get periodic stoppages as they move materials along the rail lines. It’s costing something like $100M/mile.

    That’s still pretty good compared to freeways. Expanding the 405 by one carpool lane in each direction for a span of about 10 miles took 4 years of traffic problems and over $1G. I haven’t run the figures, but I’m pretty sure the light rail will carry a lot more passengers for the money than the freeway expansion, even given that the new freeway lanes are carpool only.

  98. 98
    SatanicPanic says:

    @Roger Moore: Absolutely. And this is a old suburb just off the trolley line, no views to speak of, not even close (by San Diego standards) to the beach. I don’t know why the locals are getting to hold this up. The rent is too damn high.

  99. 99
    Goblue72 says:

    @cokane: Streetcars as implemented in the newer systems also take up traffic lanes – they are typically NOT grade separated in the newer systems. So instead of cars & buses sharing the same traffic lane, you have cars, buses & streetcars. Which is why on the newer systems they aren’t any faster point to point than a bus.

  100. 100
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Roger Moore:

    And yet the only way to get from downtown Glendale to downtown Pasadena is by car, unless you want to spend 30 to 60 minutes on a bus.

  101. 101
    cokane says:

    @RaflW: I guess you’re right and I shouldn’t be surprised. Still “explain the news” should be calling up experts on these subjects. Not some reporter just throwing down one link on some shit. Seriously, that site sucks.

  102. 102
    negative 1 says:

    @different-church-lady: I feel like that brings up an interesting point — is rapid transit there to replace cars long-term or to augment them? I grant you that my ideas are not in the mainstream, but eventually cash-strapped governments have got to take a look at the ‘intown express’ freeways that were built between WWII and the 70’s (at least here in the northeast). Some of them are utterly redundant, yet they need to be repaved and have bridges serviced etc. Could these be let go/converted to greenway if enough people commuted on rapid transit? Is that even a goal or should it be?

  103. 103
    cokane says:

    @Goblue72: Yeah i don’t agree with your over generalization.

  104. 104
    Roger Moore says:


    Can we not have similar kiosks – at least at busy bus stops – to sell transit tickets to the cashless people we are becoming?

    How about stored value cards that you can recharge? That’s what they’re doing here in LA, and it’s very nice. The card can serve for single fares or as a daily, weekly, or monthly pass. It’s contactless, so you only have to wave it- or a wallet that has the card in it- over the reader.

  105. 105
    negative 1 says:

    @cokane: I don’t think he’s pulling it out of his ass. He may have worded it less than optimally but I think you would be hard pressed to argue that buses in most major metropolitan areas have anywhere near the same public perception as streetcars or light rail. Buses, and bus service, are basically dogwhistled publicly (see the ATL issue over the new stadium, or where in the real estate section you have to be looking before bus stop proximity is a feature). The most frequently cited issue with light rail is construction cost (see anyone calling it a ‘pipe dream’ — a far cry from calling for undesirables to bus into your neighborhood). If they were the same thing in the eyes of the public, why would you need two separate arguments for them?

  106. 106
    maurinsky says:

    We have a BRT that will be coming online next year in the Hartford region, and the outrage about this project has been oddly hilarious from time to time. My favorite are people who complain about the cost of the BRT and then say they would prefer light rail, which is significantly more expensive.

    Anyway, it’s happening, and TOD is coming right along with it – one town has had a vacant property for 10 years that now has a developer with $11 million dollars and a good plan for mixed use development. And towns who are outside the BRT path are looking for expansions in their direction.

  107. 107
    Goblue72 says:

    @🌷 Martin: Unfortunately, BRT as implemented in most U.S. cities is NOT following the Latin Ametican BRT model due to lack of political will to take on the driving public. So instead of real BRT, we get:

    1. No dedicated center lane. BRT uses same lanes as other traffic but with some signal prioritization.

    2. No elevated platform boarding – instead boards like normal bus with riders having to load at the front.

    3. Due to #2, bus is not a flat subway style boarding, but a walk-up boarding like normal buses.

    Each of the above reduces the point to point efficiency of the BRT and you get a BRT system that’s basically just a regular bus with an extra car.

    Boston’s Silver Line outside its underground portion suffers from this. BRT in Oakland/Berkeley & Seattle suffers from this.

  108. 108
    Mnemosyne says:


    True, but the bus lines aren’t responsible for that upkeep.

    Responsible, no, but a portion of their budget goes towards paying for it.

  109. 109
    Paul in KY says:

    They run street cars on St. Charles St. in New Orleans. Same road as cars are on. Can be a bit intimidating to have a streetcar right on your ass, as you are trying to locate a place of business.

  110. 110
    Mnemosyne says:

    @negative 1:

    I’ve definitely heard dogwhistle arguments about rail projects, too. It’s not usually the first argument, but once you point out that the cost ones are at least somewhat bogus, it turns out that the dogwhistle ones were underlying the purportedly financial ones the whole time.

  111. 111
    different-church-lady says:

    @negative 1: Yes, the bigger picture. It’s above my pay grade to know the answers to those questions.

    As for letting the in town freeways go, that has indeed happened in certain places, most notably San Francisco. This wikipedia article about Highway Revolts is a good place to start. Meander through the linky goodness for stories about the Embarcadero Freeway, the Central Freeway (both now demolished), the strange arc I-95 takes around Greater Boston, and the “bridge to nowhere” in Milwaukee.

  112. 112
    SatanicPanic says:

    @negative 1: Cities have been doing that- Milwaukee was a famous example. In some cases I’d say it might make more sense to just sell off the land and let people develop it. I wonder how Oakland, for instance, would be today if it hadn’t been bifurcated by a giant freeway to San Francisco.

  113. 113
    Roger Moore says:

    Yeah, we probably ought to have about 12 more rail lines than we do. Lines that parallel the 405, 710 (especially if it went all the way through to Pasadena), and 605 would be great, as would one going from Memorial Park station in Pasadena to Universal City/Studio City or North Hollywood station. While we’re at it, how about one that could get you from Union Station to Bob Hope Airport, and then maybe along the northern end of The Valley?

  114. 114
    Robert Sneddon says:

    We just had our billion-dollar tram system start carrying paying passengers a couple of days ago here in Edinburgh. The trams are older than many of the buses also serving the city centre as they were ordered and paid for over five years ago (the original start date for operation was supposed to be 2008).

    The construction of the tramline involved digging up all of the pipes and cables along the route and shifting them since once the tracks were laid if the services had to be excavated for repairs that would have stopped the trams running since they couldn’t be diverted around the roadworks, unlike buses.

    Just up the road from me the tramline runs through a very busy 5-way junction and occasionally during rush hour a three-car tramset gets hung up in the middle of the intersection blocking the other road users who can’t drive around it. They may eventually get the signalling bugs out of the system and this will happen less often.

  115. 115
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Roger Moore:

    There already is a train that goes from Union Station to Bob Hope, but it’s Metrolink rather than Metro (just to make it extra confusing). That’s one of the problems, as I understand it — since Glendale already has a train line that runs north/south, there’s no need for an east/west one because reasons.

    It makes it a pain in the butt to get to CicLAvia downtown. I usually have to drive my bike to Pasadena and take the Gold Line because the Metrolink only runs about 6 times a day on Sundays.

  116. 116
    maurinsky says:

    Our BRT uses the HOV lanes, which were pretty underused since most of the traffic is single people in cars.

    Also, there is a massive project that is going to disrupt travel on 84 into Hartford (eastbound) in the next year or two, I expect that will make the BRT much more attractive to many commuters.

    I live in an urbanized suburb – a small city. I used to work in this town, which is why I moved here, but my job was outsourced, and now I work in Hartford. I took the bus every day for 2 years and a 10 mile trip took an hour most mornings, longer on the way home. Then I got divorced and I could no longer afford that time, so I had to move to commuting in a car like everyone else. I tried to find/arrange a carpool, but unless you’re going to one of the big employers, it was nigh unto impossible. I took the Express bus, but the lot was slightly more than halfway to my work already, so it seemed silly. I’m very excited about the BRT, and I can’t wait until it comes east of the river.

  117. 117
    Woodrowfan says:

    one of the arguments in Arlington VA is that trolleys have a “:cool” factor whereas buses have a stigma of being used by “them” (poor, generally non-white minimum wage workers). So there will be a larger customer base. If it gets the middle class top start using public transit then maybe it’s something to consider.

  118. 118
    Interrobang says:

    Ideally, what you want is streetcars with dedicated rights-of-way, which are way more efficient, faster, and cleaner than anything a bus can do, and the investment amortizes out over time, since a good streetcar coach should ideally have an operational lifespan of ~50 years, versus >20 for a bus. (Back in the day, the North Shore interurban line streetcars ran at 120mph.) I admit that getting the ROW is a huge logistical challenge, and a hybrid system is probably the best practical alternative.

    That said, streetcars also didn’t jump; they were pushed. Among other factors, but certainly largely contributory, starting in about 1920, General Motors spent a vast amount of money (I don’t have exact figures, but I do have the data on their ad buys) promoting cars, in large part because the market had gotten soft, and spent another vast amount of money and power destabilising strong links in the web of rail transit across the US, North America, and (to a lesser extent) around the world. Case in point, they used their position as the US’s largest freight shipper to “convince” electric railways to switch to diesel. They called this “modernization,” although I have documentation of electric locomotives only a few years old being decommissioned and scrapped. (They should still be running.)

    I’ve spent a significant amount of the last decade or so researching the question and collecting data — primary sources where I can get them, secondary sources where I can’t. (My partner and I actually own, as in physically posess, copies of some of our primary sources.)

    This could work again, if people would let it.

  119. 119
    Origuy says:

    @Goblue72: The BRT in San Jose that will run from the east side through downtown will have a dedicated line and special stations for part of the line. http://www.vta.org/projects-an.....rt-project

  120. 120
    Goblue72 says:

    @cokane: Portland’s MAX is not grade separated along its entire route – it shares the street in various locations. Seattle’s SLU & First Hill streetcars are not grade separated. San Francisco’s Muni Metro lines are not grade separated once they exit their downtown tunnels.

  121. 121
    pseudonymous in nc says:

    Atlanta’s getting a small downtown streetcar to go between convention hotels and the main downtown attractions. I can’t help thinking of it as Moving White People Slowly Through Atlanta.

  122. 122
    The Tragically Flip says:

    Streetcars are much nicer to ride on as a passenger, particularly if it’s full and you’re standing – buses lurch and jolt a lot more particularly since they have to weave in and out of the right lane to stop. They corner like they’re on rails. Because they are. They’re also much quieter, unless you’re talking about an electric bus (rare).

    Drivers like buses because they’re easier to pass once they pull over to stop, but this sucks because drivers are frequently assholes who won’t let a mass transit vehicle back into the open lane (assuming a two lane set up with the right lane used for street parking). Sorry drivers, the need of the 50+ people on that bus outweigh you (or should). In my city (Toronto) buses technically have right of way to get back into traffic, though in practice a bus driver is not going to just cut in and if there’s no cop around to issue a ticket, drivers get away with not yielding.

    Streetcars can take a lot more passengers and be a lot bigger than even articulated buses, so you can get a lot more people moved with fewer vehicles (and drivers, the big labour cost).

    It doesn’t surprise me that neoliberal technocrats (a contradiction in terms) like Yglesias don’t get the appeal of streetcars, but it is real and these advantages matter. Buses have their place too, but for something in between a bus and a subway or LRT line, streetcars aren’t bad.

  123. 123
    The Tragically Flip says:

    There’s a common view that streetcars cause traffic. No, the 50-100 people on the mass transit vehicle aren’t causing traffic the 50-100 people in 50-100 personal vehicles are the one causing traffic. Be grateful the other 50-100 took transit instead of a car.

  124. 124
    Woodrowfan says:

    @The Tragically Flip: good point

  125. 125
    sinnedbackwards says:

    The height restriction removal proposal for the trolley line extension to UTC/East La Jolla is miles from the beach.

    It is a perfectly reasonable proposal for the area around new rail stations on an expensive new transit line, which parallels an existing rail line.

    It has only become an issue because of a hotly contested city council race, in an area where the vast majority would benefit but don’t know it, and a change resistant minority is loud and attention grabbing.

    Kind of reminds me of the “insufficient parking” brouhaha here in Hillcrest. The city could increase on street parking 10-15% if they threw out the meters and went entirely to pay-and-display (because you no longer have defined limousine-sized spaces and people largely driving shorter cars will park more efficiently on their own), but when I suggest it they look at me like I have six ears. Not that we really need more parking in Hillcrest, mind you.

  126. 126
    thalarctos (not the other one) says:

    Count me as a streetcar fan. Much more pleasant to ride than a bus; they can also be much more efficient in use of manpower. How many people can you cram into a bus–75? Some of the streetcars used in Dresden are 150 feet long and can carry 260 passengers–using one driver.

  127. 127
    J R in WV says:

    We were in Spain and France last fall for the first time, and traveled from Bilbao to Paris on buses and electric trains. Mostly a tour of cave art in Basque country and SW France countryside.

    Sitting at a bistro in town, a long low silent electric train would swoosh by, no fumes, no roar, just a low rumble. Rails in the street bed, wires overhead, shiny swooping train cars, stop and start every few blocks. It can be done right.

    At a hotel in a small rural town, they told us when we checked in that they hoped the train wouldn’t bother us. It was two cars, the loudest noise was the bell at the crossing, it ran every two hours and was nearly dead silent.

    They have mass transit totally down in France. We were eating lunch, croissant with chicken and a bottle of French (natch) wine. Pretty swell to us. We told the conductor how much we liked the train, from Toulouse to Paris, not the high-speed model, he looked around, rolled his eyes and said “This?” But then he laughed… we knew there was a better model, he knew we knew, too, but the train we were on was swell. Fast, nice views, smooth track.

    And the airport in Paris, the interior finish was hand rubbed wood. Beautiful place to wait for the AirFrance plane home. Great food, too. Government does work, when it is run by people who don’t hate it so much they want to strangle it in the bathtub… I never could see the point of putting people like that in charge of anything.

  128. 128
    Tripod says:

    Permanence is neo-urbanist baloney. Urban mass transit demand ebbs and flows with the neighborhoods and populations it serves. The idea that laying some track in the street has any effect on travel demand is fucking goofy, as is the idea transit operators won’t bin a poorly performing rail line.

    All that track and wire comes with some steep capital requirements. Modern trolleys are tourist curios. This is all they will ever be, and is as true for Lisbon as it is DC. Light rail, I think, has some valid use cases, and funding LRT seems to be acceptable to the populations that eschew bus and heavy rail mass transit travel.

    Anyway, Yglesias is correct, certain segments of the population are voting themselves obscene per seat transit subsidies, at the expense of the vast majority of mass transit users stuck on the bus and subway.

  129. 129
    bago says:

    Smartphones, busses with wifi, and a population that would rather chat with their friends on facebook than play a boring game of “stay-between-the-lines” for their commute, paying environment destroying companies for the pleasure… It doesn’t add up for this generation.

    We see our parents getting fat and lazy, driving 3 blocks to the store, wasting time finding parking and think, why? I’ll save money on insurance and vehicle loans, get some excercise, and nab a zipcar, car2go, or a u-haul if something needs serious moving.

    Cars are not a growth industry, public transit assisted with web services like maps and onebusaway are the future.

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