Streetcars: A Scam That is All About Class

I am increasingly convinced that the appeal of streetcars and light rail has everything to do with class.  From any rational perspective, these systems make no sense -- they are 10-100x more expensive than buses and lack the flexibility that buses have to adjust to shifting demand patterns over time.  A single extra lane of highway adds more capacity than any light rail line.

Streetcar's single, solitary advantage is that middle and upper class whites who would not be caught dead on a bus seem to be willing to ride streetcars.   I don't know if this is because of some feature of the streetcars (they are shiny and painted pretty) or if it is some sort of self-segregation (the upper classes want to ride on something that is not filled with "riffraff").

Anyway, Reason has a really good video on streetcars, which covers a lot of topics from cronyism to the class issues I mention.  And the film of the incredibly poor design of the DC streetcar has to be seen to be believed.  (via Maggies Farm and their great daily links page)


  1. Rob McMillin:

    I was involved in urban rail control software for about five years. Leaving behind its parasitic nature (there is not one self-funding system out there; they all depend on gas taxes for operational funding), the popularity of urban rail is not hard to understand when you recognize their inflexibility is a feature, not a bug, to real estate interests. By making certain neighborhoods more desirable (to the exclusion of others), developers in particular areas benefit. One of my coworkers even participated in this, knowing where rail systems would go and then buying apartments along the way. Nice gig if you have the surplus cash to throw at the problem.

  2. mx:

    What are you talking about with a "single extra lane of highway?" This is in the middle of DC. Nobody is building a highway in the middle of the neighborhood. Even if you had one, you'd need more capacity on the surrounding streets for cars to get on/off the highway and acres of parking lots for everyone to put their cars when they aren't driving.

  3. me:

    Urban rail can be useful and efficient in the right kind of environment. Those environments pretty much don't exist in the States (yet, as cities grow and house price inflation displaces folks far from their work that may change). What we've got here is cargo cult at work (It looks just like in the cities of my dreams... ergo).

    Using buses and/or ride-sharing for public transport is a much better fit for any American city I know of. Then again, one thing I've learned is that the engineers viewpoint of efficiency and fit is not shared by policymakers (where inefficient and errorprone is typically seen as an advantage for rent seeking)

  4. MB:

    I'm not so sure the bus stigma is about class vs. a reflection of how poorly operated most bus systems are. Slow, unreliable, dirty, inconvenient, confusing - those are the first words to spring to my mind about municipal bus systems. Decades of neglect have pretty much ensured that the only people who ride the bus are those with no other options (or ability to demand better service).

    I don't think the rationality of bus over rail is as cut-and-dried as you imply either. While it's certainly true that rail is less "flexible" than buses, that's not necessarily a Bad Thing. The strength of buses is also a huge weakness - since it removes the need to design around them. That means buses are forever doomed to be a poor substitute for the major mode of transportation - cars. Trains, with their inflexible stations and railways can end up influencing layout in ways that a bus line can't. It may turn out to be a little late for most cities to
    accommodate - but I think of a light rail line as much more of an investment in the future than a solving of immediate transit problems.

    Of course streetcars are pretty much stupid - they're kind of the worst of both worlds, so I'm not sure I see any redeeming benefits there.

  5. Dan Wendlick:

    Sentence you will never hear in a city planning meeting: "We'll run the streetcar/light rail from the housing projects, through the industrial park, out to the Target and Wal-Mart".
    These things always seem to get built to connect tony and gentrifying neighborhoods to the financial district.
    Prediction: in order to deal with the traffic issues caused by the streetcar, that road is going to be made one-way and street parking will be heavily restricted, killing the businesses not adjacent to stops.

  6. Brett Nottingham:

    Replace "single extra lane of highway" with "single extra lane of road". Street cars don't operate in the sky, anywhere that there is a street car there can be a road dedicated only to cars.

  7. Ike Pigott:

    Perhaps you should interpret it this way:

    "The space required for the trolley run is equivalent to a lane of conventional traffic, but with far less flexibility -- and the conversion of an already-crowded lane to one with far less capacity and greatly increased cost is the very definition of rent-seeking boondoggle."

    Warren, how'd I do?

  8. DirtyJobsGuy:

    Always a combo of construction interests and the enviro/lefty green law firms. Buses can be extremely comfortable and convenient if not run poorly and packed. The newer bus lines on intercity service routinely outperform Amtrak on cost and schedule while offering wifi and comfortable seats. City busses are designed to be not user friendly for the casual user. This keeps the clientele poor and dependent which matters in municipal elections. You are absolutely right that street cars are a class issue. With a fixed route you can easily navigate as a visitor or casual user while their routes are never to places a regular commuter or city bus user would go

  9. xtmar:

    Light rail in general is just dumb, because it has neither the flexibility of buses, not the speed, capacity, and grade segregation that exists in proper heavy rail operations, like most subway systems. Even the DLR in London is really more of a subway system than a light rail system, so far as I can tell.

  10. markm:

    Could part of this be misplaced nostalgia? I'm old enough to foggily remember riding a streetcar through an Omaha suburb with my mother, back before GM allegedly bought out and closed all those lines. I remember this as fun and as a pleasant ride, but I was 4 years old. Clean or dirty didn't impress me - except when I made mudpies - so I have no idea how well the cars were cleaned and kept up. I have no idea how far we went and how long it took to get there - I had all day. My mother didn't, which is probably why we rode the streetcar once and drove often.

    175 years ago, rail-based public transportation was a great alternative to walking, often faster than by horse, and much, much less expensive than keeping a horse in a city. 100 years ago, streetcars were more reliable than the early automobiles, tickets cost much less, and they were probably as fast. But since the 1930's, they were just buses that could not swing out and go around a stalled or mis-parked automobile, and could not shift routes to match shifts in commuting patterns or to avoid construction and traffic jams.

    Their only economic advantage was that the rails, cars, and overhead power wires (where applicable) were sunk costs. That preserved them in the Great Depression when the capital investments to replace them with private autos and with buses were lacking, and through WWII when all new steel production was dedicated to go overseas (and usually to be blown up), but after 1945 the only things keeping them in business was inertia plus that the capital investments were already paid off. Once the systems aged enough, new buses came to cost less than keeping the old trolley going; GM merely helped this process along by giving cities some cash for the nearly defunct trolley lines, in the expectation that it would help buy GM buses.

  11. CapitalistRoader:

    Bad things can happen... ...when the haute bourgeoisie take the bus. This apparatchik also described walking down the aisle of the bus and slipping on something that I can only hope was an old burrito!

    Light rail is by definition old burrito-free.

  12. rxc:

    I grew up in Pittsburgh at the end of the streetcar era there. Where I lived there were several major streetcar lines that brought workers down to the steel mills, and then their wives into downtown PGH where they shopped for food in the central market. One of my earliest memories is tagging along with my grandmother in the central market, which was covered in sawdust - I will never forget that smell (not at all unpleasant, but still unforgetable). We also rode them out to Kennywood Park, along the edge of a cliff (I kid you not - it was almost as thrilling as the roller coaster rides). No one rode them to school - that cost money, so you walked.

    As the steel mills started to shut down, because of environmental issues and cheap competition from foreign producers and from non-unionized producers, the mills gradually shutdown. One of the mills, in Homestead, used to produce 1/3 of all steel consumed in the US. It is now a shopping mall.

    The streetcars started out as the Pittsburgh Railways Company, way back at the turn of the last century. But when PRC went bankrupt for the third and last time in the 1960s, it was taken over by the Allegheny County government, together with several bus companies. As the mills shutdown, it became apparent to the County that they needed to adjust the services provided. The economies of buses were much more favorable than streetcars, and they could be relocated to deal with demographic changes, so they discontinued the streetcars and replaced them with buses. The neighborhood where I grew up (Greenfield) lost a tremendous number of people - everyone who could, left, because there were no jobs. So, there was no reason to provide streetcar services between places where old people lived and the places where they used to work, but no longer did.

    Now, there are high-tech firms where the mills used to be, but not nearly the same number of workers, and there are children back in my neighborhood, but they don't go downtown for groceries or much of anything, Instead, they go to the malls (one of which used to be reachable by streetcar, but no longer, because the tracks were all torn up).

    Cities change, and I agree with the comments that streetcars are not flexible enough to deal with the changes. I think that the people who promote them do so because they have taken quaint vacations in European cities where there are streetcars, and they think streetcars would also work in the US. There are even cities in Europe that are falling for this, with varying degrees of success. Bordeaux, where I used to live, installed several tram lines (at enormous cost), and banned cars from the center of the city. I think it is a mixed success. Cost was not an issue because the French government LOVES these sorts of infrastructure projects(jobs, jobs, jobs, and money for supporters). I think the city has been sterilized, because there are no cars and the streets look strangely empty. We used to park outside the city and take the tram in, which was a good deal (very subsidized to encourage this behavior), unless your destination was far from the tram line, when it became a pain in the neck. And parking at the outer lots was frequently full, at 9 AM. The Swiss and the Germans have good tram networks, but I think that they are also heavily subsidized.

    I must say, though, that if you learn to drive a car in a town with streetcar tracks laid in cobblestones, in the snow, you are well prepared for difficult driving conditions elsewhere.

  13. marque2:

    These street cars frequently displace two lanes of traffic in a protected zone that cars can no longer use. The trains don't carry enough people to cover the capacity loss of the rail line.

  14. Rob McMillin:

    The stigma of "bus" is precisely because they have no well-heeled advocates.

    Rail does.

  15. Matthew Slyfield:

    "I'm not so sure the bus stigma is about class vs. a reflection of how poorly operated most bus systems are. Slow, unreliable, dirty, inconvenient, confusing - those are the first words to spring to my mind about municipal bus systems."

    All true, and yet the worst run bus system in the country can still out perform (in terms of both number of passenger miles and cost per passenger mile) the best run streetcar/light rail system.

    Things that make you go Hmm!

  16. Andrew Garland:

    Why put streetcars on rails?
    === ===
    [edited] From 1820-1880's urban transit in North America began when horse-drawn omnibus lines started to operate on unpaved city streets.

    Horsecar wagons changed to run on rails set in the unpaved street. The rails decreased rolling resistance and increased the average speed. A horse drawn wagon on rails could carry more passengers per day of operation. The wagons were improved over time into streetcars, still pulled by horses or mules.
    === ===

    Those developments were entirely rational and economic. Horses have limited power, and installing rails was worth the investment to better use that power to transport more passengers.

    Electric and gasoline engines became available around 1900. It makes sense that the investment in street cars and rights of way would be continued to horseless operation.

    The paving of city streets made the rails obsolete, and buses powered by gasoline/diesel engines became more flexible and economic. Electric/cable streetcars are now pure nostalgia and tourist attractions.

    Possibly, Dems are making their usual mistake of association. The rise of streetcars occurred during a time of rapid economic expansion. The Dems are selling the idea that more streetcars now might produce rapid economic expansion, reversing cause and effect as usual.

    Streetcars are another example of graft implemented using "The Producers" scam. It is a feature, not a bug, that streetcar projects are new and likely to fail. When they fail, no one investigates where the money went. But, the contractors for those projects make nice money, and the losses come from unrepaid loans given by the government. (See the great movie "The Producers" for more details.)

    Add on some Keynesian nonsense (government spending money creates even more value than the amount of money spent), and the scam is complete.

  17. Nimrod:

    "The Dems are selling the idea that more streetcars now might produce rapid economic expansion, reversing cause and effect as usual."

    This is called a cargo cult.

  18. Broccoli:

    My 3-year-old son would like to thank the taxpayers in Houston Metro's jurisdiction (luckily I live in one of those evil suburbs that has so far managed to not be annexed into Metro's authority) for sinking billions into the light rail lines that are overbudget, uneconomic, and actually decrease the carrying capacity of the roads they took over. However, one must not forget the joy in the eyes of 3-year-old boys who get to ride subsidized $1.50 train rides that don't have loud horns that scare him. Surely that intangible benefit justifies a couple hundred million. I wouldn't pay for it but heck apparently Houston voters are!

  19. M1EK:

    Please don't conflate streetcars (usually means buses on rails stuck behind cars) with light rail (usually longer vehicles in their own lanes or even off the street). And yes, good light rail lines can and do outperform the best bus lines and systems. Operating costs end up quite a bit lower (and to get buses as good as good light rail, you have to spend almost as much capital and far more operating dollars).

    The reason Reason loves framing the debate this way is that light rail is a threat to the suburban car model and buses aren't and never will be.

  20. MJ:

    Light rail and streetcars are the same technology. I've yet to see any serious evidence that either light rail or streetcars can be more cost-effective than the bus routes they replace. As for operating on-street versus their own right-of-way, light rail lines typically operate at-grade in the downtowns they serve, so they encounter the same kinds of problems with delays and traffic disruption that are inherent to streetcars unless they are buried underground.

    As for light rail representing a "threat" to the "suburban car model" (whatever that is), that's just not serious. People who choose to live near a light rail line in order to use it for work or non-work travel are not the same people who would otherwise choose to live in a low-density suburban environment and make the majority of their trips by car. They simply are not substitutes.

  21. M1EK:

    That's being willfully ignorant or purposefully misleading.

    Houston's METRO downtown runs in its own lane. Yes, it's subject to traffic lights. But it is not subject to cars in front of it (overall congestion).

    Compare/contrast to Seattle's dumb streetcar. Or Atlanta's. Runs in a shared lane, meaning constantly under threat of being delayed by traffic in front of it.

    The "threat to the suburban car model" means that a successful rail line degrades the political position of funding highways in a given metropolitan area.

  22. MJ:

    Light rail lines are far more useless and irrelevant. Not only do they require a downtown or other large activity center on one end to generate sufficient traffic, but they require a high density of trip origins (or simply a high-ridership bus route that they can cannibalize) along their route in order to be useful. Not surprisingly, these conditions are not met in most locations in U.S. cities, and will continue to not be met as jobs and people decentralize.

    As for light rail being an "investment in the future", unless that future features falling incomes (such that travelers don't value their time as highly) and sharply higher fuel prices -- which may not matter much anyway as vehicles become more energy efficient -- the playing field is not likely to tilt in favor of light rail.

  23. MJ:

    Why? Is the population of DC suddenly going to swell in response to the appearance of a highway?

  24. MJ:

    That's not really a solution. Instead of the rail vehicle being disrupted by other traffic, the rail vehicle gets to disrupt other traffic (by taking an entire lane or more)

    The real "threat" to highway funding is the increasing fuel economy of the vehicle fleet, which reduces the tax rate per mile of travel. Public transit, LRT or otherwise, plays essentially no role as it has no noticeable effect on the overall amount of travel. In the vast majority of cities, less than 10% of all work trips (an even fewer non-work trips) are made by public transit. However, if anyone should be concerned about the political position of highway funding, it should be transit advocates, since they rely on federal (gas tax) subsidies for their projects, and because local public transit subsidy packages are almost always tied to referenda on local highway funding.

  25. M1EK:

    I'm talking about local funding of highways (in most metro areas, the woefully inadequate fuel taxes are supplemented at various times by general funds through elections).

    And if the rail vehicle takes a lane of traffic but carries 1800 people or more per hour, it's a net plus.

    (Cue ignorant complaints that rail lines don't do this - false, just like your previous complaints that no rail line outperforms the bus - also false). Houston is a good counterexample for each.

  26. MJ:

    It is not true that in "most" metro areas general funds are used to finance highways. A handful of cities do this, mostly in California, but this is in response to the unique administrative structures they have set up in which counties have much more authority to finance and manage highway projects. These are the exception, not the rule.

    And if the rail vehicle takes a lane of traffic but carries 1800 people or more per hour, it's a net plus.

    Throughout the day? I can't think of a single light rail line that meet this criterion. I presume you're comparing to the capacity of a highway lane. But you said 1800 people. Vehicle occupancy rates are never uniformly one. Most estimates for urban areas based on all trips is somewhere around 1.5 or more. Moreover, it's not clear that at volumes of 1800 per hour rail lines would still be a 'net plus', as the removal of a lane of traffic is likely to impose greater delays in the other remaining lanes, and perhaps also on parallel streets that must absorb additional flows.

    You say that Houston is a counterexample for both. I don't see evidence of either. Houston's light rail line runs deficits of $14 million per year and has an unusually high crash rate for a light rail line. How does this compare to the bus routes it replaced?