Streetcar Folly

This article on an expansion of the already grossly under-performing Seattle trolley system has everything:  Over-optimistic ridership and revenue projections and no better service than busses while costing substantially more.  It's hard to figure out where to even excerpt this article, which is the kind of skeptical media coverage of light rail and trolleys that one almost never sees, particularly in a Progressive city like Seattle.

Your fares cover about 40 percent of operating costs for Sound Transit’s Link light rail. Fares cover about 31 percent of the cost of King County Metro buses. Seattle’s two streetcar lines cover 23 percent of their costs with fares.

But once a streetcar is built along First Avenue in downtown Seattle, the city Department of Transportation (SDOT) expects fares to cover a whopping 56 percent of operating costs for the three lines.

That would be among the highest rates of any transit agency in the country.

And it’s one of a number of optimistic financial projections contained in Seattle’s plans to expand a streetcar system that is performing far below expectations.

“The financial assumptions are simply unrealistic based on our history with the streetcar,” Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold said. “I don’t want a situation where we don’t meet those projections and the result is we end up seeing bus-service hours cut to pay for any shortfall.”

Which is exactly what happens with every trolley and light rail project, as I reported on in Phoenix recently.

The two streetcar lines — South Lake Union and First Hill — have low ridership that the city doesn’t expect to improve until the First Avenue line is built. But once it is built? The city predicts an exponential surge.

So far this year, the city’s two streetcar lines have averaged about 5,200 riders per weekday, if you filter out 2½ weeks in the spring that the First Hill line was shut because of an uncontrolled skid.

Those numbers, for the two lines combined, equate to about the 25th-most-popular bus line in King County.

SDOT predicts that in its first year of service, the expanded streetcar system will more than quadruple its ridership — to nearly 22,000 weekday riders....

SDOT officials say their ridership model is the gold standard — used by the Federal Transit Administration to validate other agencies’ models.

I loved that last line - "used by the FTA"... not mentioning this model has been overestimating ridership at every other project in the country. I would say it is the gold standard for producing figures to try to sell a bad project to taxpayers.

I wish every article on light rail disclosed this critical piece of information:

Westlake Avenue is a microcosm of the arguments made by streetcar skeptics nationwide, who question their utility if they are not separate from other traffic.

“If you build a streetcar instead of a good bus line, that money you spend above the cost of the bus line is not helping anyone get anywhere faster,” Jarrett Walker, a Portland-based transit consultant, wrote in 2009.

Bus lines are almost always cheaper to build than streetcar lines and they’re also less expensive to operate. It costs King County Metro about $163 an hour to operate a bus, according to federal data, while a South Lake Union streetcar costs $242 an hour, although a streetcar can carry 30 to 40 more people than a double bus.

I will end with the line my reader pulled out from the article

Why, many transit users realized, should they ride the streetcar, which runs barely 1 mile, when buses come four times as often, cover the same stretch as quickly and also extend their routes to West Seattle and Ballard?


  1. cc:

    there was a reason the old trolly tracks were torn up. Mixing trains with cars was dangerous, the routes were inflexible, ridership low. "light rail" is somewhat separate from cars but still crosses streets at intersections and so is still dangerous.
    Yeah, let's go back to something that failed in the past, what could go wrong?
    Why do people abandon public transit as soon as they get a car? Because with public transit you get stranded, you end up walking in the rain and snow, and you can't carry much if you are shopping. When I was in college and only had a bike, living off campus, every single day I had to stop for groceries on the way home because I could not carry much. If I got a gallon of milk I was done shopping. Damn inconvenient. Try public transit with a stroller and 3 kids.

  2. Richard Harrington:

    The most ironic thing in the article is the diagram that shows the planned final route, described as a "bobby pin".

    In other words, it's a u-shaped route where for the MAJORITY of the route it would be quicker to simply walk between two stops at either end of the route than to take the trolly all the way to the southern end of the city and back up again.

    There really isn't a good reason to connect all the routes in that fashion. An intersection at the middle of the city would actually make sense.

    Admittedly, that'd be a pretty steep walk given Seattle's hilly terrain.

  3. Sotosoroto:

    In Seattle, the old trolley tracks were torn up because the government put so many restrictions on the private streetcar companies (fare limits not linked to inflation, for one) that the companies failed, then the city took over the system and screwed it up even worse.

  4. Sotosoroto:

    Seattle is also a prime example of good transit design spurring growth in transit usage. Sound Transit's Link Light Rail has usage growth through the roof. When new stations were opened, Metro shortened bus routes to feed the stations, producing a more frequent network of bus routes in northeast Seattle. Ridership on bus routes has not declined like in Phoenix, but actually increased from 112M to 122M in the eight years Link has been open.

    The streetcar is horrible, though. Slower than walking, even when following the tracks. Speed and frequency are both problems.

  5. Sotosoroto:

    I forgot to mention that Link Light Rail is built more like a classic subway than most cities' new light rail systems. Speed and reliability were costly up front, but they bring the riders on board.

  6. Joe - the non traffic engineer:

    Same with HOV lanes for cars -
    In Dallas TX, On the North loop of 635 (LBJ freeway) they built HOV lanes and toll lanes at a a cost nearly 2.5x the cost of the same number of all free lanes in order to move approx 10% of traffic faster while moving 90% of traffic slower, than if all the lanes were free lanes.

  7. Peabody:

    You can't put a price on affluent progressives feeling good about themselves saving the planet taking public transportation while avoiding sitting next to poor people on the bus.

  8. ErikTheRed:


  9. marque2:

    There are myths which circulate as to why various streetcar systems failed. In Los Angeles they say car companies bribed cities to pull them out so they could sell busses. Makes no sense - but that is the story.

    The reality was that the good citizens of low Angeles voted them out because of accidents and the fact that they slow down car traffic. Interestingly in Long Beach, CA rail was put back in as part of countywide rail (about 20 years ago)and as a result there are more accidents and more traffic simce the rail cars take up about 3 lanes worth of traffic. At least in LA they are elevated above roads. Meanwhile due to low ridership - to they underpurchase rail cars so they always seem Tokyo train station jammed. People think there is a huge ridership because of this.

  10. James White:

    The money situation is likely worse than the numbers they give. It's common for them to speak of pure operating costs to avoid having to talk about all costs. Throw in capital costs - some of which arguably should start in the operating cost column - and the total costs often mean that these trolley lines cover less than 10% of their annual costs via fares.

  11. James White:

    That's true, trolleys had things like fares regulated. But they got favors in return like free use of the streets, exclusive franchises to routes and later on, exclusive rights to serve the entire city.

    The core issue is that rail technology requires a huge amount of a capital to exist. It only pays for itself with huge volumes to offset those fixed costs.

    In the case of trolleys, in the 1910s when some of the richest people in the world rode them for the commute to work, they had tolerable but not great margins. They didn't have a lot of wiggle room for losing volume, especially not from those who can most easily pay for multiple trips a day at a time when most people still couldn't afford fares and instead walked to work.

  12. MJ:

    Sure you can. Evidently it is north of $50 billion.

  13. MJ:

    SDOT officials say their ridership model is the gold standard — used by the Federal Transit Administration to validate other agencies’ models.
    Not sure what that says about the FTA. Seattle's "gold standard" model has blown every forecast for a rail project thus far. One can only wonder how far off forecasts are for other, less reputable agencies.

  14. MJ:

    There are myths which circulate as to why various streetcar systems failed. In Los Angeles they say car companies bribed cities to pull them out so they could sell busses. Makes no sense - but that is the story.

    The problem with this claim is that in most US cities streetcar ridership started declining as early as the 1920s, long before the emergence of GM or any of the other alleged conspirators. And the systems they bought were already seriously in the red. In order for them to make money selling buses in the long term, they would have to have a stable or growing market that could be sustained in order to have a built-in market for their product (buses). That doesn't really describe the market for urban transit in the 1950s and 60s, which was in sharp decline.

  15. marque2:

    Exactly, but the stories are told of nefarious deals with industries like oil and auto to make us this k there was some kind of conspiracy when the trains really caused accidents, blocked traffic, and as you point out were a blighted revenue losing eyesore.

  16. Sotosoroto:

    In Seattle, the city required the streetcar companies to build the road alongside their tracks. That's the city getting free use of the private company's street, not the other way around.

  17. rst1317:

    I'm not familiar with Seattle. Are you sure it was the entire street? The systems I'm familiar with had to rebuild in between the tracks but not outside of it.

    Trolleys had some regulations forced upon them and they got some favors, too. It wasn't an ideal situation. But all of those are minor compared to the core technology paradigm, they require a huge amount of resources up front ( aka fixed-costs ) and can only be viable with huge volumes to offset them.

    That model worked in 1910 when people like Andrew Frick, Andrew Carnegies' #2 and one of the wealthiest people in the world, took the street car to work every day. It doesn't work in this century of low density living, low density employment and even poor households frequently own multiple cars.

  18. rst1317:

    marque2, what you're seeing with the crowding is likely due to a few factors :

    a) Modern US rail transit projects frequently have massive cost overruns. See Bent Flvberg's [sic]work to better understand why. The result is that to cut upfront costs, they shrink the platforms and buy less light rail vehicles ( LRVs ). They also can not add more vehicles to a train since the physical platforms aren't big enough.

    b) A lot of talk is given to capacity. Whether you're looking at trolleys built by Skoda or LRVs by Siemens or others, typically 2/3 to 3/4th of the rated capacity is STANDING. When you have most all the seats taken, to a lay person visually it looks "full". In reality, it's likely at only 1/4 capacity. You'd have to have just as many people standing as seating and all the seating filled just to be about half full.

    For example, this Siemens s70 used by TRAX ( Salt Lake City, UT ) has seating for 60 with standing capacity of 165. That is, they're counting on the vast majority of riders to not be riders but standers!

  19. rst1317:

    Thank you, MJ.

    I'd also like to point out that GM bought EMD back in the 1930. That diesel electric technology was cutting edge back then. If GM was so greedy, they'd have had every reason to just sell those company EMD profits and keep all the money in house.