Overall, U.S. Streetcars Just Aren't Meeting the Standards of Good Transit

It's not anti-transit or anti-rail driving the skepticism; it's anti-bad rail transit.

Image Matt' Johnson / Flickr
Matt' Johnson / Flickr

Since the U.S. streetcar revival relies heavily on transportation subsidies, it's only fair to expect the latest wave of streetcar lines to produce benefits related to (wait for it) transportation. But the new systems in operation—ten by the latest tally, with a few dozen more being planned—have left much to be desired on that seemingly essential count. Notwithstanding the legacy system in New Orleans, the best evidence to date places streetcars somewhat outside the transit network, more a tool for tourism than city mobility.

The most commonly cited problem with new streetcars—Matt Yglesias calls it the "original sin"—is that they tend to run in mixed traffic alongside cars. The resulting slow speeds, combined with the relatively short length of the lines (often just a mile or two), means many potential riders could sooner reach their destination by foot. Streetcar advocates say slow speeds are not only beside the point but part of the charm, which might be true, so long as riders don't have somewhere to be.

But the problem goes beyond infrastructure design to service itself. Very few next-generation streetcar lines run with the sort of frequency that might counterbalance slow speeds or short distances. In a very smart post at his Transport Politic blog a couple weeks back, Yonah Freemark lamented that many U.S. streetcar (and, to be fair, light rail) systems built since 2000 fail to meet minimal service standards—often running just a few times an hour.

We pulled the nine streetcar lines from Freemark's service table and charted their frequencies below. (We've included Memphis, though Freemark doesn't identify it as a streetcar, and also Tacoma, which some consider part of the Sound Transit light rail system.) The peak column represents service between 8 and 9 a.m. The midday reflects frequency from noon to 1 p.m. The evening trains were measured from 9 to 10 at night.

CityLab

As the figures show, few U.S. streetcars run every 15 minutes, or four times an hour, which is generally considered the minimum standard for true show-up-and-go transit service that eliminates the need to check a schedule. Three systems (Little Rock, Salt Lake City, and Tampa) never hit that mark. Two others (Dallas and Portland, Oregon) only hit it at one of the three travel periods. The one (Seattle) that does meet the every-fifteen-minutes threshold at each period never exceeds it.

And again, that's the minimum standard. Good public transportation requires trains or buses to run every 10 or 12 minutes, five or six times an hour. Only two streetcars (Tacoma and Tucson) hit this mark. It's perhaps no coincidence that the brand new Tucson line also met its early ridership projections, even after ending a brief free-ride campaign and even before University of Arizona students were back on campus.

Compare these services to the high standard set by the historic and very functional system in New Orleans, where the St. Charles line runs every 9 minutes during morning peak, every 8 minutes at midday, and every 10 minutes at night. Frequency matters.

As streetcar skepticism grows louder, even among traditional transit advocates, there's some confusion about its source. Some mistake it for an anti-rail sentiment (a misperception perpetuated when critical pieces quote actual rail opponents, as the Economist recently did). In fact, the true spirit of the concern is not anti-rail or anti-transit but anti-bad rail transit. Here's transit advocate Bruce Nourish, writing at the Seattle Transit Blog, on the odd love affair between urbanists and streetcars (his emphasis):

The primary public policy problem of teeming, traffic-strangled West Coast cities like Seattle is to keep buses moving while we build out fast, high-capacity systems, permanently endowed with their own right-of-way. Streetcars — especially of the short-line, not-very-frequent variety we've built in Seattle — do not meaningfully bear on that goal, and it pains me to tally all the money that is misspent in building them, and the effort misplaced justifying and defending them.

To be clear: there's no inherent reason streetcars can't provide good mobility options for city residents. On the contrary, if they run in dedicated lanes and with high frequencies as part of a wider network, they can perform quite well. It's the way too many new streetcars are being deployed—as economic engines first and mobility tools second (if at all), even after being constructed with painfully limited transportation funding—that's inspiring much of the criticism.

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