Even Vox Can't Make A Very Strong Case For Streetcars

A reader sent me a link to this Vox article on streetcars.  What I thought was interesting is just how weak the case for streetcars is, even when made by folks are are presumably sympathetic to them.  This page is entitled "Why do cities want streeetcars."  The arguments are:

  • Tourists like them, because you can't get lost like you can on buses.  My response is, "so what."  Unless you are one of a very few unique cities, tourists are a trivial percentage of transit riders anyway.  Why build a huge system just to serve out-of-town visitors?  I would add that many of these same cities (e.g. Las Vegas) considering streetcars are the same ones banning Uber, which tourists REALLY love.
  • Developers like them.  Ahh, now we are getting somewhere.  So they are corporate welfare?  But not so fast, they are not even very good corporate welfare.  Because most of the studies they cite are total BS, of the same quality as studies that say sports stadium construction spurs all sorts of business.  In fact, most cities have linked huge tax abatement and subsidy programs to their streetcars, such that the development you get with the subsidy and the streetcar is about what you would expect from the subsidies alone.  Reminds me of the old joke that mimicked cereal commercials: "As part of a breakfast with juice, toast, and milk, Trix cereal has all the nutrition of juice, toast, and milk."
  • Good for the environment.  But even Vox asks, "as compared to what."  Since they are generally an alternative buses, as compared to buses that have little environmental advantage and often are worse (they have a lot more weight to drag around when empty).
  • The Obama Administration likes them.  LOL, that's a recommendation?  When you read the text, what they actually say is that mayors like the fact that the Obama Administration likes them, for it means the Feds will throw lots of Federal money at these projects to help mayors look good using other peoples' money
  • Jobs.  This is hilarious Keynesianism, trying to make the fact that streetcars are 10-100x more expensive than buses some sort of positive.  Because they are more inefficient, they employ more people!  One could make the exact same argument for banning mechanical harvesters and going back to scythes.   Left unquestioned, as Bastiat would tell us, is how many people that money would have employed if it had not been seized by the government for streetcar use.
  • Je ne sais quoi.  I kid you not, that is their final argument, that streetcars add that special something to a neighborhood.  In my mind, this is Vox's way of saying the same thing I did the other day -- that the streetcar's appeal is primarily based on class, in that middle and upper class folks don't want to ride on a bus with the masses.   The streetcar feels more upscale than buses.   The poor of course, for whom public transit is most vital, don't want to pay 10 times more for sexiness.  Oh, and watch this video of Washington streetcars blocking traffic and crunching parked cars and tell me what it is adding to the neighborhood.

Every argument I have ever been in on streetcars always boils down to something like "well, all the cool kids like them."  Once, after defending the US approach to rail (vs. Europe and Japan) as (correctly) focusing on productivity vs. sexiness, having gone into a lot of detail on the economics of freight vs. passengers, I got a one sentence answer from Joel Epstein of the HuffPo:  “You should get out of the country more often.”  That was it -- the cool cosmopolitan kids who vacation in Gstaad but never would be caught dead driving across Nebraska were all against me.


  1. Matthew Slyfield:

    "Je ne sais quoi"

    Jenny said what?

  2. Nimrod:

    A lot of this stuff seems to boil down to the assumption that Europe is superior to the U.S. Therefore, we should always seek to emulate the utopia of Europe in every way, and the more the U.S. becomes like Europe, the better everything in the U.S. will be.

  3. Not Sure:

    Well, Europe is superior, isn't it? I mean- why else did millions of people leave everything behind in Europe to come to America a century ago? Oh- wait.... nevermind.

  4. johncunningham:

    Street cars and light rail are holy icons in the Lefty/Greenie religion. they serve several purposes 1. America sukks, and Europe is great,so we need street cars like Europe. 2. shitty Americans like to drive cars wherever they want, and this must be stopped. get those car drivers into street cars. 3. once no one has cars, they can ride their bikes or take street cars to proper destinations--their weekly Party meetings, poetry readings, and feminist gatherings.
    plus, spending all that money on street cars means money into construction union workers [recycled back into the coffers of the DemonRAT Party], hefty checks to connected consrtruction companies [recycled back to the party], and the chance to tour Europe to study their systems. the imbecilic Cincinnati system, due to open in 2016, featured a couple of dozen study trips.

  5. NL7:

    There's also a signaling benefit to laying down track for a streetcar or light rail. It allows developers to market property as being accessible to that particular form of transit in a way that is more apparent than bus lines and easier to notice. It also differentiates some areas over others, since buses are flexible and can be added or moved, but track is more permanent and visible.

    I think progressives like it for similar reasons. It ties the government into a commitment to fund that route. Sure, the government could always change hours or number of cars, but the route is relatively committed. Bus routes are less committed because they can change, even if buses are a better form of transit for low income riders. So this is a signal about government spending, and to ideological people, sometimes the signaling is more important than the efficacy.

  6. Nimrod:

    I guess they just got tired of superiority.

  7. David:

    Washington DC is one of the places the tourist argument could actually make sense, so what do they do? They put the streetcars in place to serve locals, rather than tourists. Sheesh.

  8. MJ:

    The "permanence" argument crumbles as well when you realize that most streetcars are proposed to be built in locations that already served by high-frequency bus service. Most streetcars in U.S. cities went bankrupt at least a half-century ago, yet the routes they formerly served are often still the most viable bus routes in their respective cities. There was never a threat that service would disappear. This is among the more facile arguments promoted by urban planners and their useful idiot PR flacks like Joel Epstein.

  9. NL7:

    Agreed, it's not all that permanent in the face of rapidly changing needs, living patterns, or technology. I lived and worked in several cities where paved-over streetcar tracks were peeking out from crumbling pavement, like a fossil find. Longevity comes from being relevant to people's needs. But lots of people would love to find a shortcut around that, or at least arrange for a political fail-safe.

    So it's a signal, but I agree that it is often mistaken for a far stronger signal than it is.

    It's also a pretty insulting signal. "We promise to keep transportation locked in this place, based on how we imagine people should travel, even if it terribly inconveniences people in the future who live, work and travel along different routes." Because that's really what this is supposedly signaling: commitment to a single route, even if other routes are equally or better adapted to consumer needs.

    It probably better matches property developer timelines, if they want a couple decades or more of an investment being on a good route. That also matches the needs of planners and housing activists, who tend to have many concordant interests with the developers.

  10. Eric H:

    Joel Epstein needs to get out of the country more often. In the EU, they are trying to increase the share of freight transported by railroad. The problem is the passenger trains. He might know this if he and his friends weren't sharing an echo chamber.

  11. Eric H:

    Sorry, should have put this in my earlier post, the modal shift from road to rail includes such EU programs as Eurovignette Directive, TEN-T, and something called Marco Polo.