Making Streetcars Real

October 28, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Car Stop 

The return of streetcars to a growing number of American (and European) cities is a good thing.  New streetcar liners 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

California Lifts Ban on Light Rail Transit in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley: Implications for U.S. Transit

September 21, 2014 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: The Right Answer 

Addressing the most apparent weakness in the BRT concept, the California legislature approved and Governor Brown recently signed a bill repealing a 23 year old ban on light rail development in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles. The main effect of the bill will be to permit the consideration of LRT to replace buses on the highly successful Orange Line BRT line. The prohibition was instituted in 1991 in reaction to overwrought safety concerns at grade crossings along a 3.5 mile segment of an LRT line proposed to run along an old PE right of way. The right of way last carried passenger rail traffic in 1952. Faced with this prohibition, MTA eventually moved to construct a bus only 14 mile line along the right of way, today’s Orange Line BRT, which opened in 2005 (and was extended four miles in 2012).

Fast forward to 2014, and to the Orange Line’s enormous success. The line now carries almost 30,000 weekday passengers. Unfortunately, this ridership surge has exposed BRT’s greatest weakness, that is, its inability to efficiently respond to large increases in patronage. Consequently, the line is literally strangling on its own success (The service also suffers from a lack of signal preemption at grade crossings, a concession to the local communities along the line, further degrading the service- something that will also impact light rail service if not remedied). Buses have become so overloaded during peak periods that potential customers must wait for several buses to pass before finding room to board. Unable to accommodate demand by coupling vehicles together to better tailor service to demand, as would be possible with light rail, LA Metro has tried to address the line’s popularity by increasing the number of buses. Frankly, this is their only short term option with a bus operation. This has predictably increased labor costs and reduced speeds on the busway due to bus congestion and safety concerns (maintaining safe braking distances for line of sight operations). Moreover, the constant bus traffic has caused premature wear on the paved right of way, necessitating extensive and constant repair to keep the route open.

Numerous grass root organization have already indicated that they will press for the early adoption of light rail to replace the deteriorating bus service. The LA Metro Board has jumped on the bandwagon, voting to authorize a study to examine the potential conversion of the Orange Line to Light Rail. If the line is eventually converted to light rail, it would be the second such action in North America (if you also count the conversion of the previously bus-only tunnel in Seattle to joint LRT/bus operation). Ottawa, Canada, is building its first LRT line to replace a highly successful exclusive bus operation, which like the Orange Line resulted in severe bus congestion. The Ottawa downtown was unable to cope with the weekday influx and egress of a veritable wall of buses to meet demand.

The following cite gives a good rundown on the obstacles one will likely encounter in converting a BRT facility to Light Rail. http://lightrailnow.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/bus-operations-as-precursors-of-light-rail-transit/

The situation might give localities considering a grade separated BRT service pause based on the simple fact that a successful BRT line may become dysfunctional due to increasing traffic and reach capacity when passenger volumes overload a two lane busway.

BRT proponents maintain that BRT is rail-like. While BRT is a welcome addition to the transit inventory and will find many applications in this country, it does not match LRT or even streetcars in a number of basic but crucial aspects. First, capacity: Rail always has and always will possess the ability to respond to patronage increases in the most efficient manner by adding cars to each train. While articulated buses can move large numbers of people per vehicle, they fall short in matching the ability of rail vehicles to expand capacity by training vehicles together, and, importantly, avoiding additional labor costs while meeting increasing demand. Cities considering BRT for corridors with significant ridership potential should seriously consider this aspect when making a mode selection. If BRT is selected, it should be with the recognition that the facility must be designed for easy conversion to light rail. Second, speed: Light rail vehicles (and streetcars) have superior torque in electric motors, affording them the means to accelerate to reach optimal speeds more quickly than diesel or hybrid buses. This all means that the LRV can cover more territory faster, resulting in greater productivity (reflected in cost per passenger) than BRT. Third: energy efficiency: Light rail is more energy efficient in a number of ways, some not so obvious. Like all vehicles, rubber tired buses pay an energy penalty (rolling resistance) in overcoming friction (expressed as a coefficient of friction value) to move forward. However, steel-wheeled LRVs have a much lower coefficient of friction in dry conditions, translating into lower energy requirements, while buses may need to expend up to 40% in additional energy compared to LRT to overcome rolling resistance.

Some Comments on BRT and LRT: When comparing right of way costs, if BRT-lite design standards where sections of mixed traffic are tolerated are applied, the cost per mile can be quite deceptively cheap. The trade-off of course is reduced capacity (present and future), lower average speed and the diminished usefulness of a BRT installation. This can affect the attractiveness of the proposed improvement and generate community opposition when perceived as a suboptimal (cheap) solution, rather than boldly asserting increased capacity, mobility and choice benefits for potential patrons. True BRT with exclusive rights of way and well designed stations will approach LRT prices as Cleveland’s Health Line has demonstrated. Cleveland (and the Orange Line) also demonstrates that quality service on separate rights of way will attract solid patronage numbers (and potential capacity issues).

Whether the short term advantages of BRT, mainly capital cost, outweigh the long term advantages of LRT, can be determined through dispassionate analysis. While generalities in comparing BRT and LRT are sometimes useful, every corridor will possess unique qualities that should bracket the advantages (short and long term) of either mode. The shortage of capital dollars notwithstanding, we think the potential of a corridor should inform the selection process.

Some Verities: Each locality must examine and weigh each corridor’s qualities, while withstanding the withering fire from ideologues who will disparage all rail alternatives as too expensive or not cost effective. They will champion BRT because it appears cheaper or even oppose any transit proposal based on ideological predispositions (think Nashville). Finally, highway supporters will view every non-highway capital expenditure as robbing them of their irrevocable claim to all transportation dollars (think San Antonio). While most metropolitan areas depend on healthy, vibrant downtowns to remain attractive, growing conurbations, many areas where suburban interests dominate will lose sight of this basic, but crucial fact (think Atlanta). This will be to their long term detriment.

As conservatives, we believe that light rail and streetcars represent better long term value because of their efficient and effective crowd-carrying capabilities, their ability to help spur quality economic development and solid growth, and their ability to encourage and cement neighborhood cohesion and vitality, and hence promote traditional values. An increased role for rail also lessens our reliance on the automobile, which in turn, reduces our need to make huge defense expenditures to protect our foreign sources of oil (we still import 40% of our domestic oil needs). While BRT is a good alternative, LRT (and streetcars) represents the best long term value in corridors with high potential.

Some Final Thoughts: The Orange Line dilemma has brought welcome attention to the LRT versus BRT discussion. The debate is a healthy one but must be based on the merits, an honest assessment that points to the mode best suited for a particular corridor. Based on the results attained by the Orange Line, LRT would have been the best initial choice and the region could have avoided the future expense of conversion, which may now come due.

We are confident that LA Metro will be able can hash out the issues (and find the money) and devise a conversion plan that will usher in replacement LRT in an orderly and cost effective manner. Trying to accommodate future patronage growth in the Orange Line corridor through bus-only measures will likely prove to be a frustrating and ultimately futile exercise.

Glen Bottoms serves as Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation

Lean Urbanism Needs Lean Rail Transit

July 30, 2014 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Car Stop 

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.

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