The Streetcar is not all it promised to be.
I got into transportation largely though biking, but also with an admiration and fascination with the MARTA rail system built near my childhood home. The train whistles that I still miss were replaced by opportunities to go out and see Atlanta without having to crank a bike around to see it. I could even carry my bike on the thing, as it was pretty uncrowded most times I wanted to use it. I never rode it during rush hour, because those weren’t my hours; first as a student, then as a second shift IT worker downtown. I saw MARTA at its newest, when we were both young and naïve. I also saw MARTA dilapidated and underused, a victim of deferred maintenance and bad planning in a city that had committed itself ever more to traffic. MARTA, and my bike, showed me the city beyond my neighborhood, as I discovered just how much traffic was the means and the scale of the metropolis. I only got a driver’s license, and a car, when I decided to leave Atlanta 20 years ago.
After I returned to Atlanta, I began to read about transportation, water and the environment. By 2003, I was ready to spend a day off and some hard earned cash to attend RailVolution, a conference devoted to transit and transit oriented development. This was when Bus Rapid Transit was first becoming an idea, 25 years after Brazil proved it could be done. To this day, there are many who see the streetcar as fundamentally better than the bus. But Rapid Transit, in trying to merge the long distance between stops of rail transit with the low capacity of the bus, has always seemed like a losing bet to many in the transit community.
And yet it is not. While the operational costs bus transit are arguably higher (I haven’t done the numbers, but will), the capital costs are much lower. If network, land use, and way can be made transit supportive, bus transit can work just as well as rail transit for all but the highest demand lines. Thriving bus transit is a sure sign that light or heavy rail is warranted. It is often folly to commit to rail transit before the route has proven its popularity as a rail transit corridor.
Yet the transit community, particularly in planning, remains beguiled by the streetcar. I confess I am fascinated by the things. Besotted enough to compile the locations of all the streetcar locations and service years between 1832 and 2010, and read whole books about the rise and fall of rail as a passenger mode in the US. Beguiled enough to look up any maps I could find of those 800+ systems in all 50 STATES. Bewildered that the streetcar maps I have found have shown service to much smaller cities than we have today.
Transportation enables land use. Group transportation like the horsecar opened up New York ans Orleans to weary walkers in the 1830s. Embedded rails made this convenience less of a nuisance in the 1850s. Mechanized streetcars in the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s brought affordable transit to hundreds of towns, but still at walking speeds. These steam cars, cable cars, and trolleys were more expensive to set up than bus or horsecar routes, but they ran along established routes.
Despite all this heady and miraculous progress over a century ago, the speed and range of most American cities was still walking, nothing faster. A fast moving (10 mph) streetcar in a crowd of walkers was a killing machine, so they were relegated to the countryside between towns. By 1900, interurban trolleys were competing with steam trains for 60 mph service between towns. To drive that fast within towns would be murderously irresponsible.
I drove that fast this morning through the suburbs of Northern Virginia, past hundreds of houses and dozens of businesses. Of course, this is sprawl, but it is also opportunity for lands once deemed undevelopable for anything but farms. We make more food than we did then, with fewer people. Who are we to say that development should have been memorialized to the scale of 1920. I still know that this is not the best land use transportation we could have. But I am humble to the fact that it is pretty good. Traffic remains a pretty good deal for America. To plan as if it is a terrible deal is to set ourselves up for a fall. We need to know the strength of what we’re fighting to defeat it.
Any transit that wants to succeed has to figure out how to exist in a landscape built at that new scale and speed. Any walking and biking that wants to be relevant has to find place within this enormous scale; at once local and metropolitan. Traffic killed biking, walking, transit once, and it will do it again**. Transit, walking and biking need to find their comparative advantage in this landscape.’
Do we want lots of transit service, or just a little? Affordable or expensive?
* Contemporary maps of streetcar networks with today’s MPO boundaries shown in blue. All maps to scale. The MPO (Metropolitan Planning organization) is a governmental body designed to plan for the scale of daily travel around a focal city, by traffic and transit.
** as long as the fuel holds.