June 14, 2012

The streetcar boondoggle.

Randal O'Toole explains in detail. (PDF, via Forbes.) To put it briefly: Buses do better for far less money.
Streetcars are the latest urban planning fad, stimulated partly by the Obama administration’s preference for funding transportation projects that promote “livability” (meaning living without automobiles) rather than mobility or cost-effective transportation. Toward that end, the administration wants to eliminate cost-effectiveness requirements for federal transportation grants, instead allowing non-cost-effective grants for projects promoting so-called livability. In anticipation of this change, numerous cities are preparing to apply for federal funds to build streetcar lines....

Rail transit proponents rely heavily on a myth that many people will ride railcars who won’t ride buses. They use the term “quality transit” as a euphemism for rail transit, implying that buses are not quality transit. Apparently, “livability” not only means you don’t have to have a car, but you don’t have to lower yourself by taking a bus either. Taxpayers are supposed to cater to such snobs by providing them with rail alternatives that cost many times more than buses.

67 comments:

Bender said...

Not only do these idiotic "smart growth" types want to take us all back to 19th century transportation systems with streetcars for their "urban villages," but they want to take us even further back in time, before the time of horse-transportation even, when people were born, lived, worked, and died never going beyond 10-20 miles from their homes.

Why the hell do you think that Arlington is so gung-ho on pedestrian-killing bicycling?

LFSORENS said...

Monorail! Monorail!

Hagar said...

Well, it creates jobs. Twice - once for laying the tracks and buying the equipment, then for disposing of the equioment and removing the tracks.

Dan in Philly said...

Cars do better still, other than in a very few cases.

SteveR said...

In New Mexico we have the RailRunner, paid for by everyone, everywhere, but used only in the very narrow path of the track by snobs who go from Albuquerque to Santa Fe.

Does me no good and they didn't need the RailRunner to prove they were snobs

rehajm said...

Disney learned long ago the most flexible, efficient means of transporting people is by bus, not monorail

Dustin said...

I'm a big big big fan of buses.

They are so much cheaper than trains and cooler looking trolleys.

They are more organic in nature. You can change the stops and schedule more easily.

If you have a breakdown.

They rely on the same roads as cars, but if you can't add a bunch of buses and cut traffic down, you need more roads anyway... and unlike trains, infrastructure that helps buses also helps cars... and there's nothing wrong with helping all taxpayers benefit from something.

I wish Austin had simply doubled their bus routes and never bothered with a rail system. It would have saved something like 110 million dollars if I'm informed correctly, which could have cone to adding a few lanes to our badly congested highways.

Sorun said...

Refusal to ride a city bus puts a very low threshold on "snob."

Bender said...

Even when it is clear that it is completely nonsensical (especially along narrow roads like Columbia Pike that are already crowded) and there is strong opposition, all of those smarter-than-you people will ram through streetcars no matter what, damn it!

Anti-Streetcar Resolution Narrowly Defeated in [Arlington] County Transit Committee

Balfegor said...

If they put in the Columbia Pike streetcar here in Arlington, I will probably use it, since it would stop right near to my apartment. But it's still a waste of money -- that route is already decently well covered by the 16-series buses, and we'd be better served by just covering it better. Or putting in longer loop bus routes between some of the outer-lying orange line and blue/yellow line stations, to simplify access to the interior of Arlington.

I am a great fan of buses.

Aridog said...

I wonder how many people who loudly advocate for public transportation, whether rail or bus, actually regularly ride that transportation themselves?

SteveR said...

Refusal to ride a city bus puts a very low threshold on "snob."

"Refusal" is the least of it, in any case, if the shoe fits...

Hagar said...

Steve R,
They are not snobs, just state employees who cannot afford to live in Santa Fe, and I think Richardson also added some sticks to make them move from their busses to the railRunner.

Balfegor said...

Re: Sorun:

Refusal to ride a city bus puts a very low threshold on "snob."

I ride city buses all the time. They are much nicer than they used to be. There's been a noticeable improvement in the WMATA (DC) buses since I moved to the area.

I am a crashing snob about everything else, but when it comes to buses and other opportunities to have the government rob the middle classes of their hard earned pennies to subsidize my commute, my snobbery runs in reverse.

CWJ said...

If Obama lived prior to the automobile, his transportation preference would be unicorns over horses.

Revenant said...

The San Diego trolley is a great place to meet a vibrant cross-section of the city's homeless population.

Balfegor said...

Not only do these idiotic "smart growth" types want to take us all back to 19th century transportation systems with streetcars for their "urban villages," but they want to take us even further back in time, before the time of horse-transportation even, when people were born, lived, worked, and died never going beyond 10-20 miles from their homes.

No, I think they just want us to be more like Japan and Korea, and the other civilised nations, where you can get practically anywhere by transit, through a combination of rail, intercity buses, subways, local buses, etc.

Of course, that approach makes no sense for a country like the United States, which is still mostly empty wilderness. Cars make the most sense for most people, and buses make the most sense for the rest, except for the highest volume transit corridors, where subways or rail may make sense.

bagoh20 said...

M&^%#*%*F$#@*&^C*&^S#$
SOB

Comanche Voter said...

You know if you put a horse or two in front of that tram, well you'll have the perfect Obama-Mobile.

CWJ said...

I really appreciate the pro bus comments I've read here. They are really spot-on. Even assuming that someone could design the perfect light rail net for any given metro area, who says it would still be perfect by the time it was actually built. And even so, how perfect will it be even ten years later. A bus line can be rewritten and buses rerouted. Not so rail based transport.

It only makes sense if you assume that you can control the population and their destinations and fix them in place in perpetuity. But I guess that's the point, isn't it.

edutcher said...

A Streetcar Named Stimulus.

Or is it Nowhere?

AllieOop said...

A streetcar named Undesirable.

Was and still is a dumb idea.

lemondog said...

Chicago Green Hornet streetcar anyone?

John Burgess said...

Washington, DC used to have a trolley system--as did most bigger cities. It did away with it in the 1960s because it was too expensive to maintain.

Even though the trollies left, lots of tracks remained, only being removed as new roadwork required. In some areas, the historical preservation people fell in love with them and demanded (successfully) that the tracks remain to provide color.

Well, fifty years of non-use is not good for trolley tracks. They buckle through wear-and-tear and frost heaves. The channels beneath them--where the power connections used to reside--collapse.

The streets in Georgetown that still had the tracks went through years of misery as buckled tracks would puncture tires; road collapses or missing cobblestones would break axles; ice on the tracks would send passing cars skidding into parked cars.

Eventually, things got so bad that the roads had to be seriously repaired. Patchwork wouldn't do anymore.

Planning approval took over seven years. The work, now in its second year, isn't finished yet. Entire blocks were closed off for months at a time while the work was being done.

The only smart thing about this was that all the utilities were upgraded while the roadway was open: water, sewer, gas, electric, cable, even fiber optic.

The worst thing is that they relaid new tracks to satisfy the few preservation nuts who were promising to sue if they weren't put back.

The result is a few, unconnected blocks of trolley track that will never have a trolley pass over it. But it looks historic as hell.

Peter said...

The question is always, "Who can be forced to pay for it?" For, it surely won't pay for itself.

The motivation may be "New Urbanism by other means." As in, once the streetcars are in place, highway travel can be made very costly.

Although an added feature is that if we do become dependent on transit, then the transit unions can hold us hostage (and then use their ill-got gains to buy more politicians).

CWJ said...

Indeed, during the heyday of trams, cable cars, street cars, etc., urban populations and their destinations WERE controlled by the intraurban rail lines. Once automobiles became ubiquitous, the trolleys and such were doomed.

Buses basically have the same virtues as automobiles so (duh) they survived. Why do supposedly smart planners always seem to want to push a rope uphill.

Doc Holliday's Bastard said...

Didn't we just examine this administrations green bonafides with the "cash for clunkers" boondoggle? It's not about what actually works in lowering pollution, it's about what looks good to the coastal elites.

Original Mike said...

"Rail transit proponents rely heavily on a myth that many people will ride railcars who won’t ride buses."

Buses make too much sense, I guess.

Shanna said...

In anticipation of this change, numerous cities are preparing to apply for federal funds to build streetcar lines....

Is this why they're talking about expanding the stupid, always empty tourist street car we have in LR?

I hate that thing. And I hate driving over the tracks. The only time I rode it was when some guy thought it would be fun to do on a date.

Bender said...

What with the fixed rail, streetcars are actually growth-killers. Populations are naturally fluid and dynamic, rising and falling in any given area. But fixed rail tends to force development to remain static, to remain near the rail line rather than moving where people want to move. And then, because development is static and centered around the rail line, there is the added bonus of hyper-density in populations, with more and more people packed into small areas, together with the social alienation that comes from people being stacked on top of each other.

That is why a busline is much more preferable, as a dynamic system, the routes can be altered and modified to fit natural population growth and reduction over time.

Original Mike said...

"Why do supposedly smart planners always seem to want to push a rope uphill."

In this case, exactly because:

"urban populations and their destinations WERE controlled by the intraurban rail lines."

They want to control where people live and work. The inflexibility of rail lines is a feature, not a bug.

bagoh20 said...

To hell with all that. Just open government hitchhiking schools. I'll give you a ride and pay for your transportation if I feel like it. Maybe someone will say thank you then.

Crunchy Frog said...

Well, they certainly do better than this:

http://www.nypost.com/p/news/local/big_fat_tip_1CzespSjU5uxHb1KAuO0tO?utm_medium=rss&utm_content=Local

Dante said...

The "Valley Transport Authority" in Santa Clara County spent over a billion dollars creating "Light Rail." Yesterday I was out for a walk, and as it happens I was able to see through the one way mirrors they put on the trolley so you can't see inside.

There were two cars, a smiling rail driver, and no passengers. I have a liberal friend, and some part of my mind screamed, silently, "Joe's World!" But now I know it is not only "Joe's World," but it is also "Obama's World."

Or as I like to think of it, "Mo, Bo, and Jo's" world. The three stooges playing "Waste the Taxpayer's Money!"

Actually, it might work. Enough trolleys, and no one will be able to afford a car.

Michael K said...

"No, I think they just want us to be more like Japan and Korea,"

The incredible high density is a feature to the top down folks. I ride the Underground in London and the Metro in Paris. I gave already.

Chip Ahoy said...

You know what? I would like to ride the high speed rail more often, which is actually kind of fun but not at all high speed considering all the cars all beat us in the imaginary race that I have in my mind and is REALLY slow when you add in all the stops. And REALLY REALLY REALLY slow when you add up the walking distance, or the biking distance or the driving distance to the stops. The nearest one is one mile away and there is no place to park or to stash a bicycle. With some trouble the bicycles can be taken on the train. All those things are nuisances. Handicapped people tell the driver where they're going and the driver remembers, most times, and comes out and positions a plate that covers a gap. Daunting to a handicapped person, I'm imagining, I saw one guy use his crutches to leap over but that plunked him onto the plate the driver was supposed to move which made the driver mad for the guy not waiting but the guy wasn't sure if the driver was coming out or not. So there's a communication and complacency thing happening that I saw creating problems.

They have not once checked tickets. From what I saw, tickets are irrelevant, and if you buy one then your change is in high speed rail coins. So in practice it is free unless you volunteer to buy a ticket which I think is probably a good idea. So the rail is fun, but a disappointment. At any rate, never leave the house without cab fare home.

jimspice said...

You guys are MISSING something. And it's lawsuit related so I'd've thought you'd be right on top of it.

Blue@9 said...

Trolley can make sense if there's existing rail line and it runs through a dense, heavily traveled area. But that's about it. It's not to bad in SF where the F line runs down Market St., but it wouldn't work in a city like NYC or DC.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

No, I think they just want us to be more like Japan and Korea

No. They actually do want to herd us into cities and "planned communities" where we are reliant on public transportation. They want to take away our freedom of movement and ability to go where we want, when we want. The goal is to harass and force people to give up their independence on automobiles and their ability to live on their own parcels of land.

They try to gussy it up as "sustainable development" but what they really want is to turn the countryside into a wilderness,memorial, shrine to Gaia and have us all live like lab rats in the cities.

Easier to control people who are contained. Easier to control people who have not known freedom. The serfs must be kept close otherwise they might just get uppity.

Synova said...

"The question is always, "Who can be forced to pay for it?" For, it surely won't pay for itself."

Nicely said.

I'm stealing that for my "post sneaky subversive stuff on all the campus bulletin boards" fall project.

Jay said...

Bender said...
Not only do these idiotic "smart growth" types want to take us all back to 19th century transportation systems with streetcars for their "urban villages," but they want to take us even further back in time, before the time of horse-transportation even, when people were born, lived, worked, and died never going beyond 10-20 miles from their homes.


They are PROGRESSIVES dammit!!

Just ask them!

Michael said...

The little mini buses are the way to go. Hybrid bus lines and taxis these businesses have the audacity to go pretty much where customers want to go and pretty much when. Based on the Central American model they pick people up close to where they live and drop them off close to where they work. It isnt perfect but it is not schedule driven and not based on bus stops that were determined fifty years ago.

Trolleys are more stupid than HSR

tim in vermont said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Lynch said...

This is simply single city people fantasizing about how cool a city could be if only it had even more ways to get around without cars.

It has nothing to do with reality, nothing to do with families, and nothing to do with money. Why should we have to pay for the fantasies of the lest responsible people in our society?

Larry J said...

Toward that end, the administration wants to eliminate cost-effectiveness requirements for federal transportation grants, instead allowing non-cost-effective grants for projects promoting so-called livability.

Of course Obama wants to approve non-cost effective projects. Since when has he ever cared about the price of a government boondoggle? Green energy, anyone? Throw in some cronies, contributors and corruption and you'll have a true Democrat public works project.

Carol said...

Oh for crying out loud, these streetcar advocates are so sick with nostalgia that they're neurotic. I mean I can go there, too, thinking about the streetcars that used to run around LA before I was born...meh, it's sick, for all the reasons above.

Anyway, I highly recommend Randal O'Toole's book, The Best-Laid Plans, for more of this kind of stuff. He begins with the planning model idiocy that led to our forests being overcut (he used to be a green) and then really lays into the light rail BS among other green hobby horses. Good info in that thing.

Rick Lockridge said...

Here in Atlanta, our mayor, Kasim Reed, is obsessed with his pet streetcar project (which we have nicknamed "A Streetcar Named Debacle." It would take unwitting tourists (who would only board it by accident) from one undesirable part of downtown Atlanta to a MUCH less desirable and more crime-ridden part of Atlanta. Along the way, they might get to see MLK landmarks along Auburn Ave. before being relieved of their wallets and iPhones by the local thugs. Reed can't be bothered to address the city's real obstacles to tourism (like doing something about our massive homeless camp, or razing blighted buildings) but he has a real hard-on for the streetcar.

Chip S. said...

We could solve whatever problem this is supposed to solve and we could create tons of new jobs by subsidizing rickshaws.

Michael Ryan said...

I think if you did the math on the capital cost plus operating costs of street cars, you'd probably find it was cheaper just to to give these urban nobs free cabs.

Sorun said...

I'm in favor of high-speed rail service between downtown and a block from my house. Otherwise, it's a waste of money.

pduggie said...

I wonder if its about race. Maybe buses are linked in people's minds with "urban" public transit.

Livability would be code for "not urban like you're thinking of"

Balfegor said...

Re: Michael Ryan

I think if you did the math on the capital cost plus operating costs of street cars, you'd probably find it was cheaper just to to give these urban nobs free cabs.

Oh would you? Would you pay for my cabs? Thank you my good man, that would be lovely!

Unfortunately, I can already imagine how our cabbies would cheat you. I mean, even more than you're already being cheated by having your taxes diverted to subsidize my daily commute.

leslyn said...

It would be a good idea to put a streetcar on that bridge in Alaska. Job creation!

Carnifex said...

It's time like these that makes me appreciate the Amish. Funny thing, they won't drive a car, but if you want to go to hell doing it, they'll love a ride!

And if Kentucky is a backward state, we'll just have to get by without trolleys, or light rail.(the luddites are here too).

Paley Rene said...

It 's time like these that creates me appreciate the Amish. Crazy factor, they won't generate a car, but if you want to go to terrible doing it, they'll really like a ride!

And if The condition of kentucky is a in reverse condition, we'll just have to get by without carts, or lighting track.(the luddites are here too).
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Carnifex said...

You meet th greatest people on the bus. One time, coming home from school, riding the bus from downtown(actually I was waiting at the busstop). These 2 "gentlemen", down on their luck, came staggering up the street. While the one went behind the transparent kiosk to change his pants, the second pulled a paperbag from his filthy drawers, wiped the lip, wiped his lips, and took a long drag of something that smelled strong enough to almost overcome his own prodigious BO.

Being neighborly, and me having one of those faces, he proceeded to stagger through his life story almost as well as he could stand. The narrative kept being interupted by his buddy banging on the glass and then mooning us(quite the trickster, that one)

And I don't know if it was my face, or if it was just "it takes one to know one" but he kept offering hits off his bottle. Nice guy, give you the shirt off his back, and his buddy a second pair of pants he had been wearing.

Good times...good times

Kirk Parker said...

O'Toole is also the author of an earlier piece, which won the coveted Captain Kirk Best Title Ever for a Public Policy Piece Award: "A Desire Named Streetcar".

Gabriel Hanna said...

@leslyn:It would be a good idea to put a streetcar on that bridge in Alaska. Job creation!

Is this supposed to be some sort of Sarah Palin dig? What's the point, in an article on trolleys? It was Republican Tom Coburn who led the opposition to it, and John McCain criticized it too.

I've been on Gravina Island, where the "Bridge to Nowhere" was supposed to connect. So have tens of thousands of other people, because that island Ketchikan International Airport on it. (Most people who fly between Seattle and Anchorage have to stop at Ketchikan.) Funny how that never came up in the stories on the "Bridge to Nowhere", that it was actually a bridge to the airport for a city with no land connections.

Which is not to say that the bridge needed to be built with Federal money, either.

Aridog said...

pduggie said...

I wonder if its about race. Maybe buses are linked in people's minds with "urban" public transit.

You from Detroit? [Too]

Daytime rides are fine, from those I know who commute that way, but forget about nights. The "destination" routes to suburban malls are not too swift either, at any hour.

Matthew Sablan said...

More people would ride buses in the D.C./VA area if they were reliable outside of a few areas. There are times buses do not show up for hours or never show up at all; if you're in Arlington or some areas in D.C., they keep their schedule. But the further out you get from a hub, the more unreliable they get. The Metro trains very rarely screw up, but when they do, it is epic.

Stephen St. One said...

The purpose of building street car lines, aside from bribing the builders with taxpayers' money, is the hope that people riding in cars will take them. Then the people who got the streetcars built can drive their cars more conveniently.

Peter said...

"a busline is much more preferable, as a dynamic system, the routes can be altered and modified to fit natural population growth and reduction over time."

Buses are also available for special events, and for alternate uses on weekends (when commuters aren't using them).

Buses to Summerfest? No problem. Streetcars to Summerfest? Not so likely.

Even trolley operators discovered (in the 1930s!) that people would pay to rent buses for private excursions, but would not pay to rent streetcars.

BTW, part of what's lost in the mist of history is that municipalities did more than anyone else to put streetcar companies out of business.

Municipalities used to charge streetcar operators for the exclusive right to put their tracks in the streets. Every twenty years or so the contract would come up for renewal- and the municipality would make the "traction company" pay and pay to keep operating.

Bill R said...

There have been new technical developments in streetcars that make them far more viable.

Engineers have invented "trackless streetcars" that ride on pneumatic wheels or "tires" and have a "steering" device that allows the operator to direct the streetcar over any hard surface. This "steering" eliminates the need for expensive, immovable tracks and allows the streetcar to move over ordinary streets.

There are even visionaries who have imagined "personal streetcars". These are streetcars with the "steering" device and "tires" but are miniaturized so people can own their very own streetcar. With a "personal streetcar" people don't have to wait in the rain and snow, they aren't beaten or robbed while they wait for the tracked streetcar, and they can travel with friends, relatives, baggage, and pets without paying an extra charge. Best of all, they can use their "personal streetcars" to travel to distant cities and places where the regular streetcars don't go.

Tests have shown that "personal streetcars" are wildly popular and almost everyone prefers one when given the choice.

So don't laugh. Streetcars are the way to go!

Tarzan said...

The trains and subways in Japan are phenomenal, but that could never be replicated here. If they could just make a bus that was less wretched and...well...'bus like'.

There's got to be some sort of happy medium.

Balfegor said...

Re: Matthew Sablan:

More people would ride buses in the D.C./VA area if they were reliable outside of a few areas. There are times buses do not show up for hours or never show up at all; if you're in Arlington or some areas in D.C., they keep their schedule. But the further out you get from a hub, the more unreliable they get.

One problem with the DC area bus network is that there's a huge number of lines that just run once or twice a day and if you miss it, that's that. There is a bus stop immediately in front of my apartment building, for example, but buses stop there only two or three times in the morning.

It would make much more sense to condense as many routes as possible, so they could run buses more frequently. Also, so people won't have to wonder which of the five stops in a three block radius the next bus is going to stop at.

Scalito said...

Traveling by (mostly underground) rail is much more preferable than traveling by bus in D.C. And while that is only this snob's opinion, I think it's fair to say that the metro system reduces congestion on the roads in a way that buses never could because it provides traffic-free transportation into and out of the city for commuters who would otherwise drive their own cars.

Balfegor said...

Traveling by (mostly underground) rail is much more preferable than traveling by bus in D.C.

Yes, but to get most places, you need to go by bus because there's no rail access there. And it would be ludicrously expensive to try and run rails out to most places, even if the existing system had the capacity to handle the expansion (look at the bottleneck in Rosslyn with the Blue & Orange line, and just imagine what it will be like when the extension out to Tyson's Corner comes online).

The one rail addition that I think would make sense for the DC area at this time is a huge loop line linking up outer stations of the existing lines, hopefully with the effect of reducing the load on some of the more heavily trafficked lines, as well as enabling point-to-point travel from people who live in MD and work in VA, or vice-versa. And if it's going to be built, it has to be done now, before all the land it would be built on gets built up into condos and office parks. But this will never be built.