I Can't Understand the Obsession with Streetcars

I just don't get it -- why the obsession with streetcars?  Why pay zillions of dollars to create what is essentially a bus line on rails, a bus line that costs orders of magnitude more per passenger to operate and is completely inflexible.  It can never be rerouted or moved or easily shut down if changes in demand warrant.  And, unlike with heavy rail on dedicated tracks, there is not even a gain in mobility since the streetcars have to wallow through traffic and intersections like everyone else.

What we see over and over again is that by consuming 10-100x more resources per passenger, rail systems starve other parts of the transit system of money and eventually lead to less, rather than more, total ridership (even in Portland, by the way).

But apparently, in DC the cannibalization of buses is even worse, as the streetcars are getting in the way and slowing buses down:  (hat tip to a reader)

Three District mayors have backed plans to return streetcars to D.C. streets, following in the transit-oriented footsteps of Portland, Ore., and other cities. Officials in the nation’s capital want to build a 20-plus-mile network connecting neighborhoods from Georgetown and Takoma to Anacostia, linking richer and poorer communities, giving people an alternative to the automobile and, they argue, spurring development along the routes. Eventually they see a system stretching about 37 miles.

... The inaugural 2.2-mile line, on H Street and Benning Road NE, is viewed by some as proof that the concept will work. Others see the opposite.....

Buses are facing significant delays behind the streetcars, which are making regular practice runs meant to simulate everyday operations. “We’re having to go around them. Since H Street has narrow lanes to begin with, it’s a challenge,” Hamre said. He said he has instructed bus drivers to pass streetcars only when they are stopped.

“That reduces the risk of misjudging,” Hamre said.

But it also forces faster-moving buses to hang back and wait for the less-agile streetcars, prolonging commutes for the much larger population of bus riders.

Back in 2010, District transportation officials estimated that 1,500 people a day will ride streetcars on the H Street/Benning Road line once it opens. But the X-line Metrobuses that travel the same streets — and go farther east and west — carry more than 12,000 passengers a day.

Apparently, the line creates so much value that no one is willing to pay even a dollar to ride it, so they will not be charging for the service for now.  By the way, from the "I don't think that word means what you think it means" files, note the use of the term "revenue service":

Early plans were to charge $1 or more a ride. But now “DDOT has determined that fares will not be collected at the start of revenue service,” according to a DDOT plan dated Oct. 2.

And from the "and other than that, how was the play Mrs. Lincoln" files:

District officials said the move will solve a pair of outstanding problems: They don’t have a system in place to collect fares, and ridership is projected to be underwhelming.


  1. Onlooker from Troy:

    It's the nature of central planning. No innovation. Combine that with the ever-present cronyism and, this is what we get.

  2. DirtyJobsGuy:

    I'd guess these open the door to more federal funding. We just did a billion dollar busway here in CT between two places with no real bus ridership at present. Mere buses are too flexible (and fungible) to allow substantial graft for construction companies, unions and other fixers

  3. ErikEssig:

    I always enjoy your posts like this.

  4. Mike Powers:

    "I just don't get it -- why the obsession with streetcars?"

    Liberals are obsessed with the late 19th century. You see it with all this Steampunk bullshit (which, while supposedly Victorian, is really more based on the time from the 1870s to the early 1900s). And one of the big things in their picture of that era is streetcars (or, more properly, trains.)

  5. WillusM:

    It's simple: The Bus is a terrible brand. Generally folks associate the bus with something dirty, slow, unreliable, and filled with society's poor and undesirables. In contrast, The Train has a great brand position. It's romanticized in movies, it's European/Japanese, it's high speed, punctual, used by Serious Businesspeople to commute, and so on.

    This is not to say that any of this is rational, but perception is reality.

    Personally I believe the solution lies in these train-like buses sometimes called Bus Rapid Transit. These are buses no doubt, but running along simplified routes at small intervals, with station-like stops. And bus-like cost structures. And middle class white people will ride it.

  6. MJ:

    District officials said the move will solve a pair of outstanding
    problems: They don’t have a system in place to collect fares, and
    ridership is projected to be underwhelming.

    This is a decision they will come to regret. Financial impacts aside, operating a free transit service through downtown DC at all hours of the day is essentially an open invitation to drug dealers, pickpockets, homeless people, and other undesirables. If this moves forward, I hope one of the first lines they build goes down to Anacostia. That should teach them a lesson.

  7. Sam L.:

    Of course you can, Warren! More, much more, opportunity for graft and other corruption. Cynical? Moi? I calls it realistic, and learning from history.

  8. Guy Skoy:

    Think it through....

    The problem with buses is that they can be driven on ANY road.

    The beauty of Light Rail is once the tracks are installed it's a FIXED network, access to which can be controlled by the people with power to say "no".

    Light Rail is LOVED by local governments because it greatly enhances the role of land use policy-makers and development policy for surrounding areas accessible to the line/tracks. The people that promote these things are professional rent-seekers and they know how to enlarge their "business" by extracting concessions from supplicants that must get them to say "yes" or they're dead in the water.

    Not being cynical, just pointing out the incentives.

  9. DCSpotter:

    It's because once the rails have been laid down, from the govt perspective, it does need to be funded (if we tear them down it will cost x millions, lost jobs etc. etc. etc.). It will be yet another line in the budget that will require funding (otherwise the poor children won't be able to go to school or sth like that). Oh, and there will always be a request to extend it 2 more miles and ... well.... wash, rinse, repeat. A bus line can be created (and cancelled) pretty much at any time.
    And the greater DC area is notorious for these kind of projects. Arlington wants to build one (going from nowhere to nowhere) and the Fairfax brought it up too (again, from nowhere to nowhere).
    Aaaaannnnnd, let's not talk about the massively funded Silver line.

  10. mahtso:

    "And, unlike with heavy rail on dedicated tracks, there is not even a gain in mobility since the streetcars
    have to wallow through traffic and intersections like everyone else."

    I don't know if the Phoenix light rail meets the definition of street car, but in that system the street lights are controlled to give priority to the rail. This causes traffic to back up significantly at some intersections. And even where there is no “back-up” it also creates a situation where cars (and buses) are stuck for (relatively) long
    waits even though there is no cross traffic (i.e., my light is red for an extended period because the other light is held on green waiting for a train that is a long distance down track).

    At one intersection I frequently travel through this creates an unsafe situation, because the light will go from green to red so quickly that people are either surprised by the quick change or are expecting it and push through the intersection anyway. (And yes, we should all drive safely, but basic traffic engineering calls for reducing points of conflict and creating a safe system.)

  11. jdgalt:

    I can think of several reasons the typical lefty politician would love them:

    4. It makes him appear a hero in the eyes of shallow, selfish groups like the greens and neighborhood NIMBYs.

    3. It feeds the egos of transit-authority bureaucrats by making transit sound like something ordinary people would like to ride, while in fact it is nothing more than a welfare service for those who can't afford a car, or can't qualify for a driver's license.

    2. It buys votes (and extorted campaign funds) from powerful unions, which get to expand their membership by X number of train operators, mechanics, and support staff;

    and most importantly,

    1. It ensures that there will never be enough funds available to widen or expand the freeway network to handle the increasing population. The Bravo Sierra Club would never want that; it might mean more people want to live or work there!

  12. johncunningham:

    I talk to a lot of lefties at my local Cincinnati dog park, and they go into raptures over a trolley system under construction. it is a core tenet of the Lefty religion, since light rail is so European, where the trolleys are full of cool European lefties. the buses here are mostly used by Ghetto blacks. of course, buses are way cheaper, but the money leaves the local area. trolley lines require huge contracts with unionized construction firms, and they are a step back to the lefty utopia, where everyone lives in an apartment building, takes a trolley to the factory, and spends their evenings at Party meetings, poetry readings, and yoga sessions.