Should Streetcar Skeptics Stick a Sock In It?

Ok, to be fair, that’s not what Dave Alpert said in his Citylab piece today, but once I thought of that title, I couldn’t resist.

The article says that mixed-traffic streetcar skeptics shouldn’t be so quick to denounce the projects – “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” – for five reasons: imperfect transit can still be good, limited funding makes the perfect unachievable, funding won’t get redirected towards better projects, streetcars have higher capacity than buses, and improvements can always be made in the future.

There are some larger things in play here, but first, let’s take a look at the idea of imperfect projects in general, and the five reasons offered.

An Imperfect Project Isn’t Necessarily Good

No transit project is perfect. For example, consider LA’s Expo Line. In my humble opinion, some of the stops weren’t needed – Farmdale and perhaps Expo Park/USC. All riders would agree that the Flower Street Crawl, as we call the unacceptably slow portion of the line from Jefferson/USC to the Blue Line Junction, needs improvements to make it run faster. And penny-pinching value engineers can find plenty to gripe about, like the use of low-profile catenary, the unnecessary lights mounted on OCS poles, or four-quadrant highway crossing gates with four independent pedestrian gates.

Yet on the balance, the Expo Line is still a really good project. It provides a transit service that is competitive with the freeway and arterial road alternatives, and connects several existing dense nodes of development. The Expo Line and Blue Line have some of the best new LRT ridership in the country, despite an appalling lack of upzoning.

The proposed downtown LA streetcar, on the other hand, is a very weak project, regardless of mode. It’s a one-way loop that partly duplicates existing services that are far superior. Even if it were completely grade separated, it wouldn’t be any better than underutilized downtown people movers in places like Detroit and Miami. Opposition to the streetcar isn’t just based on it being mixed-traffic, it’s that even a technically perfect project on that corridor would not be a good project from a transit planning perspective.

In general, streetcar proponents seem to discount the idea that streetcars could be bad for transit, but that possibility must be considered. A project that requires heavy operating subsidies can drain service away from other transit, like buses. Many transit advocates in Austin point to the heavily subsidized Red Line rail for causing cuts to bus service, and fear that a poorly planned Project Connect will make things worse. Even LA’s rail transit projects, which perform very well on ridership, come under fire from bus advocates like the Bus Riders’ Union, which alleges that transit dependent populations have lost bus service in order to fund rail. If you’ve ever ridden a full 204 bus down Vermont in the evening, when it’s running 20 minute headways, and transferred to a relatively uncrowded Expo Line running 10 minute headways, you can see where that perception comes from.

If you build projects that make existing transit services worse, you run the risk of losing riders, and alienating part of the political base that supports transit.

Increasing Urban Development

The Citylab post suggests an imperfect streetcar might be acceptable as a way to increase the supply of walkable, urban places, but this is not a good reason to build a transit project. If there is desire for urban neighborhoods, they will be built if zoning allows for it. Upzoning along the Expo Line would likely lead to a boom in dense residential construction on LA’s Westside, but that development would happen with upzoning even if the train wasn’t there. Where development does follow streetcars, like Portland’s Pearl District, it has been awarded large tax subsidies.

Funding is Limited

Federal funding for transit is scarce. Metropolitan regions compete with each other, and within each region, there are competing projects. This results in reductions to project scope, to try to be able to build the project for less money, or in phasing projects, to spread out costs over time as funding becomes available. For example, the Purple Line to Westwood would be better off being built as one contract, in one phase, avoiding the need to issue multiple procurement packages and the cost of mobilizing and demobilizing several times. However, Measure R funds aren’t available fast enough, so the project is split into three phases.

On the other hand, the project needs to be big enough and useful enough to make sense as a standalone job. You couldn’t build a suspension bridge with only one tower, and you probably wouldn’t build a mile of Purple Line tunnel with no stations just because that’s all you had funding for. If you can’t meet a minimum threshold of utility, you’re better off not building the project.

Funding Won’t Get Redistributed to Better Projects

This is misdirection. It’s certainly true that, due to political constraints, money can’t be shifted easily to better projects. However, that doesn’t answer the question of the usefulness of the project at hand. As Alpert points out, it’s possible that the WMATA Silver Line money could have been spent on better projects, but the Silver Line is a good project on its own. Likewise, the Westside Subway is logically the highest priority subway in LA, but the Red Line to North Hollywood got built first because of political reasons. Fortunately, the Red Line is still an incredibly useful project on its own merits.

Streetcar Capacity

Streetcar proponents often point out that streetcars have higher capacity, and therefore theoretically lower operating costs, than buses. This is only true if you’re serving a high-demand corridor, where using streetcars would allow you to save a lot of money on driver labor. Streetcar routes that are running service every 15 minutes, or even less frequently, are clearly not at the point where bus capacity is saturated. This is a guess, but I think if you have hit the point where mixed-traffic buses are inadequate to serve the demand, or where rail would offer significant operations savings, you’re probably at the point where you need exclusive lanes as well.

Future Improvements

The prospect of future improvements is a legitimate reason for accepting an imperfect project, so long as the project is set up to enable those improvements. Alpert uses single-tracking a rail line and shorter platforms as examples, and they’re good ones. LA’s Blue Line was also built with two-car platforms, later extended to three cars to accommodate high ridership.

The challenge with mixed-traffic streetcars, especially if they’re curb-running, is that they don’t easily lend themselves to future improvements. Converting curb lanes to exclusive lanes is more difficult than converting center lanes because of drainage issues, parking, and driveways. The latter, in particular, can make it difficult to extend a sidewalk platform to accommodate longer vehicles in a dense urban environment. Short downtown lines are often pitched as “starter lines”, but long lines are not workable at the speeds achieved by curb-running mixed-traffic streetcars.


There are, of course, more than enough highway boondoggles to put things in context. You could also compare streetcars to, say, Essential Air Service subsidies, which blow millions of dollars subsidizing air travel to small cities across the country. Those are good points, but public opinion is remarkably adept at compartmentalizing government waste. Rob Ford can blast city councilors for getting free zoo passes, then turn around and propose wasting billions on converting Scarborough RT to a subway. Again, projects have to be worth it on their own merits, rather than being excused by something worse.

Note that none of this should be taken to mean that streetcars are always a bad idea. The Columbia Pike project is frequently cited by streetcar proponents, and it has the potential to be a good project. For starters, it’s a straight, logical route, and they’re proposing to run 6 minute headways, which suggests existing transit demand is high enough that rail might be cost effective for operations. If it were center-running, it would offer the potential for future improvements that might lead some technically inclined observers to support it.

The Big Picture

In the big picture, the streetcar debate is part of the ongoing rift between what Alon Levy called politicals and technicals. Progressive political activists are inclined to view any expansion of rail transit services as a positive, building towards a future where there is more political support for transit expansion. Technical commenters are inclined to believe that you can only build so many bad projects before the people realize their money is being wasted.

This blog is LA-centric and written from an engineering perspective, naturally tending toward the technical side. Simply put, if the Blue Line and Red Line were running empty trains all day long, I do not think we would be building the Expo Line and Purple Line. While I understand the need to build political constituencies to support policy changes, I also think nothing succeeds like success. LA voters are demanding an expansion of rail transit services, while residents of greater Portland are pushing back against further expansions of streetcar and LRT service, putting higher priority on more frequent bus service.

Alpert’s piece concludes with a warning that “writers who think more transit is good for cities should bear in mind that not all readers necessarily agree with that basic premise”, referring to opponents who don’t want to fund transit at all. This statement is similar to Robert Cruickshank arguing that because some ideological transit opponents use efficiency as a false flag attack, progressives should actively shun the idea that efficiency matters.

Well, guess what – I don’t think more transit is necessarily good for cities! Resources are limited. Transit that is grossly inefficient, or wastes capital dollars, is not good for cities. This is a fundamental failure of allies for good transit projects to understand where their fellow advocates are coming from. But as frustrating as it may be at times, we ultimately need each other’s support. Political advocates need to learn what projects will gain long-term support by providing useful services, and technical advocates need to figure out how to improve public understanding of what makes transit useful.

And if the project is just to support condo developers, well, let them build it.


7 thoughts on “Should Streetcar Skeptics Stick a Sock In It?

  1. Alex B.

    Great stuff.

    I will say, at least from a DC context (and David Alpert is from DC) that the city’s streetcar concept plan wasn’t bad. The plan was ambitious, it didn’t involve downtown circulator loops, but rather replacement of some of the busiest bus lines in the city with streetcars. However, the cost and scale challenges are still present. The initial segment will duplicate a part of the busy X2 bus line, but not substitute for the entire thing.

    An additional challenge in DC is that the political support for streetcar comes out of a desire for better local transit; while the regional agency that operates most of the local transit in the city hasn’t been closely involved in planning or building the city’s starter line.

    There are the elements of a strong concept here for making use of rail vehicles to really upgrade surface transit (the downtown segment along K Street is to be in a center-running transitway; there is a push for more dedicated lanes in future segments, etc) but there’s a lot of room for improvement in planning and executing the idea.

  2. sajohnston

    This is really good. An aside: I don’t know if you’ve covered this in depth, but I’d love to hear your take on the LACMTA–BRU conflicts and if you can quantify the accuracy of the BRU’s charges about bus service cuts as a result of rail expansion.

    1. letsgola Post author

      It’s probably worthy of a summary post. It was litigated, so theoretically there should be a paper trail that might make it possible to figure out how accurate the charges were.

  3. Pingback: Today’s Headlines | Streetsblog Los Angeles

  4. Fakey McFakename

    To some extent, I agree. On the other hand, most of it’s being funded by developers through the CFD or public benefit payments, and I believe it’s prohibited from taking an operating subsidy by the CFD ballot measure terms. If that’s the case, I think the citizenry-at-large can afford to be pretty apathetic – if it does some good, either transit-wise or in getting easily-impressed financiers to throw some money at real estate development, great; if not, the only people who are hurt are the downtown developers who threw their money at this white elephant. Same thing for park funding – if it’s done through a CFD or private purchase, I don’t care; if it’s taking scarce general fund or countywide park bond money away from poorer neighborhoods, it’s a problem. The Streetcar is close enough to being developer-financed that I’m willing to adopt my standard approach to private infrastructure: it can sink or swim on its own, and I don’t care what happens.

    I think the point at which this becomes a serious problem is if (1) it competes against serious transit projects like Metro BRT expansion for Small Starts; (2) it competes against basically anything for New Starts; or (3) it otherwise requires funding from non-developer sources for construction or operations (like transit sales taxes).

    1. letsgola Post author

      Some of the commercial property owners, like Thomas Properties, were pretty annoyed that the tax passed, since they will pay a lot more than the condo owners who passed it. (Though, I think Thomas has since sold their property downtown.)

      I think the downtown streetcar is trying to get $75 million from the feds. That’s not a lot but there definitely is a political calculus in Washington regarding how many projects in the same city they’ll fund.

  5. Sasha

    Factoring in the typical downtown bus frequency and bus speeds where I live (San Diego), I’ve found it takes a little over a mile for a bus to overtake a pedestrian who left from the same spot without waiting for the bus. That’s a distance of nearly half the length of many of these proposed streetcar starter lines around the US. That serves a very small one-seat ride trip market and provides zero utility for connections to the rest of the transit network since you can probably walk anywhere in your own downtown in under a mile to get to where the good transit service is.


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