Nostalgia and Transit Policy

Streetcars and urban renewal: Rolling blunder”
The Economist 

August 9, 2014.

As a rail fan, I have to fess up to an abiding love of streetcars as an idea. As a commuter or a traveler, I have found that their appeal wears off quickly. After taking San Francisco’s Muni, San Diego’s Little Red Car, and Seattle’s South Lake Union Transit (affectionately known as the SLUT), I find myself quickly searching for other alternatives.

The novelty is a delight, especially on the “F” Line on San Francisco’s Muni, where they have assembled 27 vintage PCC streetcars from around the country and run them along Market Street. It doesn’t take long on a hot summer day to discover why these beauties were retired. As nice as they are to look at, they cannot hold a candle to modern buses or subways for comfort and speed.

So it was with similarly mixed feelings that I read The Economist’s scathing but well-documented take-down of streetcar services. On the one hand, there were no aspersions cast on legacy lines like those running in San Francisco. On the other hand, the magazine effectively debunked the urban boosterism and federal subsidies that have led to a series of urban streetcar investments around the US.

There are real questions that the economic justification for these services is far overstated, and that as practical transit systems they are inferior to buses and subways, and in some cases, feet.

It is time to kill the federal streetcar subsidy, and start putting money into transit solutions that are cost-effective, useful to riders, and environmentally sound. Nostalgia is wonderful. But nostalgia belongs in the museum, not on the legislative agenda.

6 thoughts on “Nostalgia and Transit Policy

  1. I beg to differ. I live on one of San Francisco’s maligned streetcar/subway lines, and it not only delivers me quickly to various places where parking is problematic and expensive, but is the only reasonable way to get downtown. It enters the subway a mile or so away from my home and takes me downtown in minutes, and to connecting streetcars, subways, and busses at every stop. I pay with Clippercard, which automatically deducts the very reasonable fare online: adults $2, seniors 75¢. One has 90 minutes to transfer to other lines at no added cost. The Nextbus system, although it does have its problems, tells me on my phone or computer when the next bus or streetcar is coming.

    Our dependence on costly, crowded, and slow cars in such settings is bad in just about every way we can imagine. Systems of lines dedicated to streetcar or busses only have proven hugely efficient and rapid in a number of cities around the world, moving large numbers of people, especially in places where subways are not practical. SF has service along the waterfront similar to those, and is contemplating others. Yes, there should be no subsidies for outdated streetcars, but government support for mass transit has a huge payoff in convenience, cost, and reduced crowding.

    • John, I should clarify: the article in The Economist referred specifically to the economics of some of the new-from-scratch light rail lines. The SF services – along with most of San Diego’s – have the advantage of building on infrastructure (or at least right-of-ways) already in place, left over either from transit or from abandoned railroads. Their article – and my point – was aimed at short-distance, new-from-scratch lines that are less about replacing cars and busses than shortening strolls along extended high streets for well-heeled patrons, like the H Street Line in Washington, the SLUT in Seattle, and Tacoma Link. (I disagree with them lumping the Detroit M-1 with this article – I see the M-1 as a genuine commuter line.) The issue is this: when you have to build a line from scratch, carve out right-of-way, and pay upwards of $50 million per mile in capital expenditures before the first trolley rolls, is there a better way to spend rapid transit money? Trolleys, perhaps? Greener buses? I’m with you – I think the personal automobile is overrated as urban transport. The issue is not car vs. mass transit, but determining what mass transit investments are giving us a better return on the dollar.

      • Thanks for the clarification. I probably should have read the original article.

      • John, if I were you and reading an article from a Republican that offered a critique of an urban mass transit system, I would have responded the same way. No worries. It is not every day that you run into someone from the other side of the centerline who is unbeholden to the usual special interests. May we both stay that way.

      • Paraphrasing the late Peter Drucker, “never underestimate the power of a monomaniac with a mission.” And never give up the fight.

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