Why streetcars are better than buses


Why streetcars are better than buses

click to enlarge
DC Circulator and Streetcar, to scale.
Not the same.

Streetcars are big in planning circles right now. DC and Arlington have grand plans for them, as do many citiesaround the US. Every time the subject comes up, however, someone poses the question what makes streetcars better than buses?

It’s a valid question, and it has a series of valid answers. Here are the most important:

  1. Streetcars have greater capacity than buses. Streetcars are bigger, longer, and can be combined into multi-car trains. They can carry many more passengers than any bus, even accordion buses. For corridors with transit ridership too high for buses but not high enough for Metro, streetcars can be a good solution.
  2. Streetcars are more affordable than buses. While it’s true that streetcars require a much larger initial capital investment than buses, that capital cost can be offset by significant operational savings year-to year, depending on the circumstances. In the long term, streetcars are more affordable as long as they are used on high ridership routes. Streetcars’ higher capacity means that if there are lots of riders on your route, you can move them with fewer vehicles. Fewer vehicles means more efficient use of fuel and fewer (unionized, pensioned) drivers to pay. Also, streetcar vehicles themselves are much more sturdy than buses, and last many decades longer. While buses must generally be retired and replacements purchased about every 10 years, streetcars typically last 40 years or more. For example, Philadelphia’s SEPTA transit system is still using streetcar vehicles built in 1947 (although they have been overhauled once since then).
  3. Streetcars are much more comfortable to ride than buses. One of the big reasons why many Americans don’t like buses is that they are so rumbly. They jerk you up, down, side to side. They’re simply not comfortable. Streetcars glide along a rail much more smoothly, offering a vastly more comfortable ride. Less motion sickness, easier to hang on. This issue isn’t often discussed in newspaper articles, and rail opponents like to pretend it’s not a big deal, but it is a really big deal. Comfort matters to passengers.
  4. Streetcar routes are easier to understand. In any big city, buses are confusing. There are so many criss-crossing and competing routes that it can be intimidating and difficult to understand. New users are turned off because they don’t want to accidentally get on the wrong bus and end up miles from their real destination. Streetcars, on the other hand, are easier to understand because the cost of constructing tracks inherently limits the size of the system. Instead of an incomprehensible jumble, you get a clean and easy to understand system map. Even if streetcar line names may be a little more complicated than “Red Line”, they’ll be a whole heckuva lot easier to figure out than “P18″.
  5. Streetcars attract more riders than buses. Partially because of the above points, streetcars are always used by more people than buses when all other things are equal. They attract more passengers, which after all is the whole point of public transit.
  6. Streetcars are economic development magnets. The presence of rail transit nearby is one of the best incentives for economic development in the world. Metro stations radically remade large swaths of the DC area, and streetcars can do the same (have done the same, in places like Portland and Toronto). Developers rarely base decisions around bus lines, but routinely follow rail investments with real estate ones. In fact, the additional taxes generated by rail-oriented development is often used to repay the initial capital investment of rail lines.
  7. Streetcars use electricity rather than gas. This potentially makes streetcars much more environmentally friendly than buses, although it depends how the electricity is generated. And while it’s true that electric busesexist, they are almost never used in the US because of BRT creep, and require the same overhead wires as streetcars.
  8. Streetcars are much quieter than buses. Because they run on electricity, streetcars are very quiet vehicles. They are much less disruptive to neighborhood life than buses.
  9. Streetcars are iconic. Trains are graphic symbols for the city in a way that buses simply are not. Every tourist knows about the DC Metro, the New York subway, and the San Francisco cable cars. Their trains are an indispensable part of those city’s brands, and streetcars will be too as soon as they’re running. With the exception of London and its double deckers, nobody ever sent a postcard featuring a picture of a bus.

Of course, buses are useful tools, and are appropriate in many situations. Nothing here should suggest that buses shouldn’t be a major part of every city’s transit network. But buses are demonstrably different than streetcars. They don’t have the same characteristics, and don’t accomplish the same goals.

May 25th, 2010

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