Sunday, July 29, 2012

Why streetcars don't work anymore

Many people, including Jarrett Walker, have written skeptically about the value of streetcars over buses in mixed traffic. They're right to be skeptical, but they don't explain why we can't just go back to the way things were. I've often wished we could go back to the time when there were trolleys on the streets of Long Island City and interurbans serving places like Hoosick Falls (minus the sexism, racism, and so forth). But as James Howard Kunstler is fond of saying, history is not symmetrical. There are good reasons why streetcars won't do what they did in 1912 unless we change other things.

Suppose that next year, instead of restoring passenger service on the Northern Branch, New Jersey Transit rebuilt the North Hudson County railway along Broad Street in Palisades Park and Leonia. Would people jump back on the trolleys and ride them to the ferries to the city?

Some, probably, but most would either keep driving to work or keep catching the Red and Tan buses that take the Turnpike and the XBL to the Port Authority. The simple reason is that any suburban streetcar or interurban built today would face a lot more congestion than its ancestors in the golden age of streetcars. In 1912 there were hardly any cars, and people didn't own horse-drawn carriages at anything like the numbers that they own cars today.

If we go back to our goals (see above), the reason I at least support streetcars is that they allow people to access goods and services without driving their own cars. But mixed-traffic streetcars have never competed well. They were preferable to walking or horsecars, but whenever people could take elevated or underground railroads they did. When cars and even buses came along, they abandoned the streetcars for those as well.

I am not saying that we should all love the bus. Buses lurch, they're expensive to operate, they keep losing their rights-of-way, and they are no easier to install than trains. But until private cars are few and far between, mixed-traffic streetcars will be a waste of effort. We need to be pushing for transit that can compete with cars, and that means transit with its own right-of-way. In cities, that means subways, elevateds or green tracks trolleys.

Of course, here I'm talking about transit that operates in mixed traffic for its entire length. A line that operates in mixed traffic for a segment of its route may turn out to be worth it. It all depends on how well it can compete with cars.


Matthew said...

Minor nitpick: It's Broad Avenue. Also, while Red&Tan/CoachUSA buses do serve this corridor, I would say that the majority of the local Lincoln tunnel XBL riders are on the NJTransit express buses that pass through here (e.g. 166 T and X)

Mixed-traffic streetcars are probably not worthwhile in general. But I wouldn't say there wasn't congestion in 1912. There's some famous old pictures of pretty clogged up roads, with streetcars and horsecars. Boston built the Tremont Street subway in 1897 precisely to try and alleviate the streetcar congestion aboveground.

Kevin Klinkenberg said...

2 things: as Matthew suggests, yes - don't underestimate the sheer amount of street congestion and chaos in the early decades of the 20th century. Far more mixed usage of vehicles and people than what you imply.
Second, I think this gets caught up in the notion that all transportation serves the same purpose. Mixed-traffic streetcars are not meant to compete for long-distance travel, as they are obviously so much slower. But for shorter trips in walkable cities, they serve a fantastic purpose, even if they move slowly. The key is having a walkable place to begin with.

Brad in Bergen said...

I live in Toronto, and I have to say that if they ran better streetcar service and hadn't waited so long to upgrade the track and fleet (still pending) there wouldn't be as many issues.

One property of streetcars that is always presented as a disadvantage is the inability to maneuver in traffic. Granted, on a wide street dominated by vehicles that's bad. But in narrow, downtown streets where bikes and pedestrians OUTNUMBER vehicles, streetcars make it the street much more friendly and slower/frustrating for cars.

If that doesn't make sense, just consider that Toronto's busiest cycling route is on the same street as a high-capacity, mixed traffic streetcar route (the 506 Carlton that runs mostly on College.) There is a painted bike lane part of the way but no grade separation at all. The peak streetcar headway is 3 min 45 s, equivalent bus would be closer to 3 min. I don't believe that volume and diversity of bicycle traffic can exist in mixed traffic with 20 buses/hour; the buses and bikes would play havoc with one another. Every single cyclist I've talked to, young, old, female, male, new to Toronto, etc. all prefer riding next to streetcars over bikes. Food for thought.

Mike Hicks said...

Interesting note about the bikes. Unfortunately, many modern streetcar proposals in the U.S. put them in the curbside lane rather than the center lane, so streetcars could end up being stuck behind bikes for long distances unless there are dedicated bike lanes on the street or cycletracks up on the curb.

Anyway, I'm a strong believer that streetcars can work in mixed traffic, at least up to a point.

There's probably a level of congestion at which they can't work, but that's where you have to invest in exclusive lanes or grade separation. Heck, in some cases, it's better to just close down the street to cars and make transit/pedestrian malls.

Alon said...

There was congestion in 1900, but less so than today. Average streetcar/bus speed in Manhattan then was 11 mph, vs. 6 mph today.

BruceMcF said...

Mike, I'd not be surprised if the comparison between bus and streetcar is from the perspective of a bike in a neighboring cycle lane ~ a streetcar always stays in its lane and never strays into a neighboring bike lane, a bus quite frequently strays into a neighboring bike lane, unless it is physically protected by a curb or by road furniture.

Unknown said...

Tram systems work well enough in Europe. It's true that where ever possible they either have their own lanes or run down quiet streets, But that is mostly a matter of politics.

You'd think, America with most of it's towns and cities having broad streets, it would be easy to eliminate a lane of traffic or parking to serve the greater needs of the city.

I was in Budapest a while ago and while the metro was great I loved the line 4/6 tram that ran along the main ring Boulevard. It's clear it had been upgraded in the last decade. The trams run in the centre with small humps keeping the traffic out, the tram stops are simple raised sidewalks. The trams are bout 60 meters long and can hold 300 people easily and the average time between them in peak was about 90 seconds.

A low floor tram is so much more convenient than a subway, in the time it's taken you to get to walk to a station and get down to a platform you could have been a mile down the street in a segregated tram.

3sigma said...

Streetcars can run well on center lanes (shared or not with road traffic), but only if it is possible to narrow the outer sidewalk as to make small islands where stops can be placed (usually at intersections so a traffic light for cars double as pedestrian light for tram/streetcar passengers).