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Chris Smith

As an unabashed streetcar supporter, I don't have any fundamental disagreement with your line of argument here. Streetcar's mobility advantages vs. a bus are limited - mostly the ability to attract riders who would not seek a bus.

The real motivation for streetcar is the kind of urban environment it helps create (and yes, other complimentary investments are required as well).

But I don't accept that the development benefits accrue just to the property owners and developers, the whole community is better off with a healthier and more sustainable city.

In Portland we've invested about $100M in our streetcar system (that's about to jump by another $150M). The private sector has responded with $3B in development along the alignment in a much more sustainable pattern than would have occurred absent the streetcar. That's an incredible leveraging of public resources.


To some extent, this is the argument that BRT could be perfectly nice, if anyone ever actually built full-on dedicated lanes and boarding stations BRT and didn't just bargain everyone down to a plain old bus with a New Rapid Transit Logo painted on the side.

I experienced electric buses in San Francisco years ago, though they weren't particularly nice buses (they seemed uglier than buses usually are) the lack of roaring engine was great. Where else are those used? Anywhere else in the US? I've never even heard of their use being proposed in a more serious way than bloggers mentioning the possibility.


I'd argue that what you say is mostly true, but only mostly, and largely has to do with the choice of particular streetcar vehicles in the US. One benefit of streetcars is that they're electric and therefore have better acceleration capabilities than bus, and that they can run fast on exclusive ROW where that is available. But the streetcar model used in Portland has rather unimpressive acceleration and a top speed of only 30 mph, which it achieves only with some effort. A somewhat better performing streetcar has somewhat more benefits in terms of getting you there slightly faster, and yeah, the MU capability is really the main thing that buses can't do. But of course there's also the fact that streetcars save money: a streetcar is cheaper to run than a bus, and past some level of service it becomes a net savings overall including the cost of construction. And the transit agency can reinvest that money (plus the extra fare revenue from extra ridership on the streetcar) into providing more bus service on the farther reaches of the network.

Another benefit of streetcars is that unlike buses it's harder to compromise or remove the various enhancements. A bus lane is just a car lane with the word "bus" panted on it after all, and the buses run on roads owned by a Department of Cars and Highways (often called a "Department of Transportation"), while streetcars run on rails owned by the transit authority.

Alon Levy

Streetcars can use rail signaling systems to automatically stop a vehicle that's running too fast. This allows them to drop other fail-safe systems that buses need, especially braking a longer distance before red lights. Overall, this provides a speed advantage.

Aaron M. Renn

A spot on observation.

I speculate that if we controlled for all the variables - ROW improvements, investment policy, etc. - we'd find that the vaunted superiority of streetcars over buses is almost entirely the result of those factors.

I think it is notable that the most passionate supporters of street car and light rail solutions over bus are to be found in cities without a strong transit culture where the advocates themselves have little to no experience riding buses and/or the bus lines in question are a bare minimum social service network.

In a city like Chicago where huge numbers of upscale people ride the bus every day - and where express bus services like the ones along the lakefront offer better journey time than the L - almost nobody bashes buses or pushes to replace bus with rail. The idea that nobody would ride a bus that offered quality service is laughable.


Even with all variables controlled, studies have shown that riders have a preference for rail over bus. And the problem with buses is that their exclusive ROWs take more space, need more maintenance, and are more subject to automotive encroachment. Anyhow, are you saying that Seattle and Portland don't have a strong transit culture? Or DC for that matter? I wouldn't call Seattle's trolleybus network a "bare minimum", nor Portland's MAX, and Washington's Metro is far ahead of the Chicago L in terms of ridership.


But I still think that the way Seattle and Portland are building their lines is a mistake, and that their 25 mph operation makes it more a toy than a real form of transportation and competitor to (or replacement for) the bus.

Alon Levy

Aaron, to be fair, when you control for all those variables, the cost advantage of buses over LRT disappears. Full BRT, with physically separated lanes, boarding available at all doors, signal priority, and high-capacity vehicles typically costs about $50 million per mile, compared with $35 for LRT. Some LRT systems actually come out cheaper - for example, in Calgary, where light rail was built with cost containment in mind, the system cost $24 million per mile.

Once you include operating costs, LRT looks even better: steel wheels require less maintenance than rubber tires, electric traction costs less to operate than diesel traction, and trains can be combined to form larger vehicles. Only one of those advantages is true for trolleybuses.


Beige wrote:

I experienced electric buses in San Francisco years ago, though they weren't particularly nice buses (they seemed uglier than buses usually are) the lack of roaring engine was great. Where else are those used? Anywhere else in the US? I've never even heard of their use being proposed in a more serious way than bloggers mentioning the possibility.

There are only 6 systems in North America using trolleybuses: Boston, Philadelphia, Dayton, Vancouver, Seattle and San Francisco. Edmonton is phasing out trolleybuses.

You don't see more trolleybuses because they costs too much to run them unless there is a compelling need for them. In Seattle and San Francisco, the buses are needed to climb very steep hills.

Also, most cities need an abundant source of electricity, such as hydro power. The cost of wire maintenance, plus the cost of generating electricity from coal or fossil fuels, put ETBs at a disadvantage over internal combustion buses. It would be cheaper to run a natural gas-powered bus than to run an ETB using electricity generated by natural gas.

Jarrett at HumanTransit.org

Great comments. Let me hit the main themes so far.

Aaron, I disagree that streetcar plans are happening ONLY in places without a strong bus culture, although I agree that they ARE happening in such places (e.g. Tucson and Winston-Salem). But Portland and Seattle can't be put in that category. Both are already very dense and have relatively strong transit cultures for cities their size.

Alon Levy is the only commenter who alleges any truly intrinsic speed advantage for streetcars, and I've asked for documentation on that showing how it makes a significant difference in a typical urban local-stop setting. I don't claim to be knowledgeable about vehicle engineering or even especially interested in it. I'm focused on what these various technologies can offer in the effort to create useful public transit.

My contention in this post applies specificially to local-stop operations, such as streetcars and local buses typically provide. So at the moment I'm not engaging a Bus Rapid Transit vs Light Rail debate, as those terms generally imply rapid transit style operation with less frequent stops.

Because of the electric trolleybus option, I'm also contending that the fuel-burning vs electric distinction is different from the streetcar vs bus distinction. I realize this will perhaps seem like a stretch because electric trolleybuses do have a capital cost. However, it's still way cheaper than a streetcar. Basically, for a streetcar you have to build the rails in the street and the electric power system above. For trolleybuses you just need the latter. I believe the unit costs of a modern streetcar vehicle are well above those of a trolleybus.

(Also, re the commenter who'd ridden unpleasant old trolleybuses in San Francisco, do come back now and ride the low-floor fleet that began phasing in earlier this decade, and that's also starting to appear in Vancouver.)

By the way, we need to let go of our habit of referring to non-electric buses as "diesel", because bus fuels have been diversifying for more than a decade now. The one crucial thing we don't have is a battery-powered full-size electric bus, so at the moment the electric trolleybus is the main alternative that fully captures the acceleration advantage of electric motors. This advantage will be obvious to anyone who's watched a crushloaded trolleybus zoom up a steep hill in San Francisco or Seattle, though because streetcars can't climb such hills at all, the streetcar advantage will always be subtler.

Finally, to Chris, I'd never allege that the benefits of redevelopment extend SOLELY to property owners, but I'd say that while every benefits equally from a more interesting city, those owners do get an added benefit, to say the least, and should pay for it. How to balance developer contributions (including Local Improvement Districts) with general taxpayer funds is obviously the kind of question we pay politicians to answer.

But I end with this caution as it applies to fungible funding sources. As far as I can see, streetcars that replace buses are the only kind of major transit investment that yields virtually ZERO mobility benefits. I contend that they belong in a separate conceptual category for that reason, and that very hard questions have to be asked about what kind of benefit we're buying when we do this, and who should pay, and why we're spending money that could otherwise be spent on services that actually get people where they're going faster.

And as that argument plays out in each city, we have to notice that the remaining pro-streetcar arguments are primarily CULTURAL. A streetcar's ridership, and its ability to spur development, are based at least in part on people's CURRENT attitudes about buses. As buses continue to improve, taking on more and more of the features of rail services, and more people ride them, shouldn't we expect this advantage to diminish? Doesn't this suggest that while the short-term advantage of streetcars is undeniable, the long-term advantage may be much less? Big capital spending has to make sense for the long term. I'm quite confident that in 2050, people will still choose a faster service over a slower one. I'm not sure that in 2050, people will choose an electric vehicle on rails over an electric/hydrogen/whatever vehicle of the same size, with many of the same characteristics, running on tires.


Wad: LA did a study of trolleybus, and they found that the maintenance costs of trolleybus vehicles plus wire is actually lower than that for diesel bus (and no wire). Of course it's the capital cost that gets you, but wires and poles last at least 30-50 years.

Alon Levy

Jarrett, the mechanical advantages of steel wheels are true not just for LRT versus BRT, but also for streetcars versus trolleybuses, and for that matter regular metros versus rubber-tired metros. Conversely the advantages for rubber tires are similar across the board.

The differences boil down to the fact that rubber tires have more friction, which increases energy use and wear and tear but improves grade-climbing and sometimes acceleration. Having a guideway, such as rails, improves acceleration and permits running longer vehicles at shorter headways. So for rapid transit, it's sometimes worth it to choose rubber-tired metros on their own merits, whereas for local and intermediate transit, buses are the cheaper and lower-quality solution.

People want rail over buses not just in the US. Jerusalem is building multiple light rail lines to supplement its bus system; Tel Aviv is planning a subway-light rail hybrid, though it's far behind Jerusalem there. In both cities, there's no social stigma against bus riders, but the buses are slow and sit idle in jammed traffic, so the authorities are looking for a railed replacement.

Jarrett at HumanTransit.org

Correction to my last comment, thanks to Wad: San Francisco's new trolleybuses are not low-floor. I'm pretty sure Vancouver's are, however.

Re Alon Levy's last comment, I'd appreciate if someone can point me to some documentation showing how the acceleration differences between rails and rubber tires (as opposed to differences related to engine and fuel type) yield measurable differences in travel time in typical urban frequent-stop in-street operation.

Jarrett at HumanTransit.org

Thanks for your advice on this.  I'm familiar with what you say in principle, but I need to find some documentation showing how the rail vs tire tradeoff affects actual travel time in an in-street, local-stop setting -- presuming flat terrain for the moment -- when all the other cultural and political differences affecting streetcar implementations have been factored out.  Let me know if you've seen anything.   Thanks for keeping me honest here.

Michael Druker

Streetcars are not rapid transit, nor are they a cure-all. They have the visibly permanent track going for them. They are notably bigger than buses and easier to enter and exit. (Apparently the original Portland ones fit 156 people, versus around 105 for articulated buses.)

But really, the ride is smooth. A small part of this is captured by electric trolleybuses, but not too much. Only the most well-maintained road in the world with an extraordinary driver can give you a bus experience that matches a normal streetcar ride. I have no argument that the streetcar is faster. However, it is far more pleasant -- which leads to less time and worry attributed perceptually to the ride.

I regularly walk 30 minutes instead of taking the bus for 10 minutes. But I would take the 10 minute streetcar, maybe even the 15 minute one. Travel time is a useful measure, but it is not always the most important one. What's the point of "mobility" if you avoid using it?

Chris Smith

How to balance developer contributions (including Local Improvement Districts) with general taxpayer funds is obviously the kind of question we pay politicians to answer.

Each Streetcar project in Portland (original alignment, 3 extensions, now the Loop project) has STARTED with an LID. The LIDs have ranged from 10% to 50% of capital costs depending on the circumstances (15% is typical).

Indeed, the LID commitment is the first requirement before City Council will even entertain a streetcar project.

Chris Smith

As far as I can see, streetcars that replace buses are the only kind of major transit investment that yields virtually ZERO mobility benefits.

I think you are making a mistake in looking solely at mobility rather than access. A huge benefit (perhaps the largest benefit) of streetcar is the 'trip not taken'. By fostering a more compact form of development streetcar allows people to meet their daily needs with fewer trips or shorter trips (and shorter trips are less likely to be auto-oriented).

You're correct that mobility does not increase greatly. But access increases tremendously.

The Overhead Wire

Nice post. A lot of people above are already deep in the weeds on a number of different issues but in addition to the trip not taken and access, let's not forget the ADA issue as well. In Portland with the level boarding and push ramp that comes out from under the door, a wheelchair or stroller can load like anyone else. With a bus, even on a low floor bus, the person in a wheelchair must be buckled in (I don't know where this rule comes from but i see them buckled in all the time). Since the buses come to different curb heights, there isn't a mechanism other than the onboard ramp that is much easier than that of the streetcar. We have low floor buses in Oakland and some of the wheelchair loading has taken 5 minutes, a lifetime in transit schedules. That alone is a huge mobility issue.

This however is not the case where Streetcars do not have low floors. In San Francisco access is hampered by the lack of many ramps and in places like Little Rock or Kenosha, wheelchair lifts are the same as they are on buses. So it's primarily an advantage of low floor modern vehicles.

See this video at 1:45

Alon Levy

Wikipedia is a pretty good source for rubber versus steel. The relevant articles are Rubber-tyred metro, Guided bus, and Rail transport.

The travel time issue is different. It boils down to the fact that unguided buses can't reliably run at higher frequency than about one every 3 minutes; beyond that they bunch too much. Bunching and high load factors then lead to long queues, which lead to excessive dwells.


"Most streetcars now under discussion are not larger than buses, and have no capability to be run as large trainsets, so this is not an issue in any North American or Australasian debates of which I'm aware."

Not sure about this. There are clearly trams/streetcars in service in Melbourne (such as the older B class and the new, on-loan Bumblebees, neither of which are ever coupled together) which have a greater capacity (around 200) than any bus I've so far seen.

The Overhead Wire: "Since the buses come to different curb heights, there isn't a mechanism other than the onboard ramp that is much easier than that of the streetcar."

What about kneeling buses? With careful driving and a kneeling bus, I'd imagine any height difference+gap would be no more than you'd see with trams/streetcars and platform stops.


"Most streetcars now under discussion are not larger than buses, and have no capability to be run as large trainsets, so this is not an issue in any North American or Australasian debates of which I'm aware."

Not sure about this. There are clearly trams/streetcars in service in Melbourne (such as the older B class and the new, on-loan Bumblebees, neither of which are ever coupled together) which have a greater capacity (around 200) than any bus I've so far seen.

The Overhead Wire: "Since the buses come to different curb heights, there isn't a mechanism other than the onboard ramp that is much easier than that of the streetcar."

What about kneeling buses? With careful driving and a kneeling bus, I'd imagine any height difference+gap would be no more than you'd see with trams/streetcars and platform stops.

Michael Druker

Kneeling bus or not, you still have to squeeze wheelchairs and strollers through the narrow space next to the driver.


Here's an idea that came to me while reading these comments.

We all seem to agree that the scenario we're discussing here is one where ridership will be increased. And we can agree that even though we may not know why, we do know that two routes that are equal in all respects except mode, the streetcar will have higher ridership. This higher ridership is desirable, because it will cause higher density development. There will be more housing, more retail, more office compared to what the area had before the street car.

As much as we would hope that the new residents are coming in from the suburbs, they're probably more likely to be from other declining cities or rural areas. But either way, there are more people. Without the increased density, this new development would have happened out in the suburbs. I shouldn't have to argue too hard that the new development in the suburbs will lead to less mobility to those who occupy it.

Here's where the streetcar increases mobility, but it comes with a large assumption. The assumption I'm making here is that our streetcar system, and other 'good' transit, will offer increased mobility over no transit. So anything we can do to increase ridership on 'good' transit will increase overall mobility.

Jarrett at HumanTransit.org



I think you're basically right, at least from a purely transit planning perspective, aside from the fact that streetcars attract more ridership than buses. From a broader urban planning perspective, there are a few other reasons why streetcars might be good, including development, greening the city, and so on.

In traditional Soviet transit planning, the streetcar was actually at the top of the urban transit hierarchy, above the trolleybus and bus. The streetcar was used as the high capacity mode on major corridors in cities that didn't have rapid transit, and in cities that did it generally served the corridors that didn't have Metro lines yet or orbital corridors. Generally in city centers the lines ran in mixed traffic, and on the outskirts they ran in reservations along the side of a boulevard. The trolleybus was generally for major thoroughfares that didn't quite warrant a streetcar line, and for streets that paralleled a Metro line to provide a local service. Buses were generally for local neighborhood routes, express lines, and places that hadn't gotten a trolleybus yet. Incidentally, Russia is the only place I know of that had MU trolleybuses.

Jarrett at HumanTransit.org

Note that the argument based on likely future improvements to the bus suggests that traditional historical roles of streetcars may not be relevant to the future. (Pre-ww2 streetcars also didn't contend with so much car traffic.) Current high ridership is acknowledged, but the real question is why and whether improvements in buses that make them more like rail won't cut into that difference.

Aaron Antrim

I've lived in Portland for about 6 months. I am a somewhat regular bus rider and occasional MAX rider. I rode streetcar once in the time I've lived here. Using an iPhone to look up transit directions on-the-fly makes the bus system legible through the virtual world. The fact that Streetcar tracks show where the vehicles travel means little to me (but is useful for non-fancy-mobile-phone-owning passengers). This is another example of how current technology is shifting parameters that had previously favored streetcars over buses.

It does seem to me that arguments in favor of streetcar are mostly cultural. Generally speaking, people who own nice condominiums feel streetcar is an acceptable transit mode for people for them. Buses not so much. I apologize if this appears provocative. I like riding streetcars but am not sold on widespread investment in them.

I would be curious to see what data TriMet and Portland Streetcar have on ridership demographics between Streetcar, MAX, and bus, and the level of overlap. Specifically, I would like to find out how many Streetcar-bus and MAX-bus transfers (connections?) occur.

I speculate (no facts available right now) that many streetcar passengers ONLY ride rail vehicles (MAX or streetcar). If true, this is a bad thing. Passengers should perceive and experience each transit service type as an interconnected part of a larger system.

Investing in streetcar at the neglect of bus service, and, more crucially, including the sorts of features people expect from streetcar (signal priority, dedicated ROW, etc.) and not building these features into bus service means perpetuating the stereotypes people have about bus and streetcar services. I sense a certain amount of self-fulfilling prophecy.

This said, I am looking forward to East-side Streetcar service on MLK and Grand.

But, what I would like even more is if newer, quieter buses with signal priority were deployed on Route 15/Belmont, and if streetcar-like/BRT service features and amenities were added to the service.


The historical roles of the streetcar in pre-WWII cities was pretty much the same as buses today. What I was talking about in the Soviet planning system is a post-WWII attempt to rationalize things, although there were quite a few "legacy" streetcar lines left over of the low density, mixed traffic, center-city type. Of course in modern day Russia, the streetcar also has the advantage that you can install three foot deep pits and tire-destroying spikes to ensure that the dedicated ROW stays dedicated, as no "dedicated" busway would stay that way for very long with Moscow drivers. Anyhow, I'd like to reiterate my conclusion from all this: streetcars can be very useful on higher-density urban corridors that don't warrant rapid transit. But the Portland implementation of streetcars is not really very good and is not in any way superior to a bus if you're trying to get across town. At best it's good for short local hops, which is fine for a line mostly in the inner CBD, but maybe not so useful in a city-wide context.

Jarrett at HumanTransit.org
Thanks for all your thoughtful feedback.  As I mention in the expanded version, I think there's very strong reason to believe that the subjective differences between bus and streetcar will shrink over time, which suggests in turn that all forms of high-quality mobility will become more equal in their ability to stimulate development.  It's a speculation but an informed one. 
I encourage you to broaden the debate by linking to my piece from Portland Transport.  In the end, a broader debate will give you a more politically secure and resilient streetcar network.  http://www.humantransit.org/2009/07/streetcars-an-inconvenient-truth.html
See also my welcome and manifesto re the role Portland played in my own development as a planner (link is in my banner).
All the best,  Jarrett Walker

Michael Druker

There's no doubt that buses are improving, as are streetcars. However, the difference in the long run may very well remain substantial. Buses run on roads, and that places a very severe limitation on how smooth their ride can be. The more buses try to emulate rail, the more high-tech -- and consequently expensive -- they need to become. At some point you will have to concede that trains are both better and cheaper at being trains. Once you accept that, you can spend some of that futile train-emulating money on providing more frequent and extensive bus service, and on trains where warranted.

In 2050, new trains and buses will be worlds apart, just as they are now, and just as they were 50 and 100 years ago.

Regarding mixed-traffic streetcars: If cities develop as we now think they should, and if they do get their light rail and streetcars, there is every reason to think that traffic will actually decline. So mixed-traffic streetcar operation could be a self-fulfilling prophecy, if done right.

Public transit needs to get people to where they need to go reasonably quickly and without undue discomfort -- else they will avoid using it. That second part does not appear to figure much in your use of the term "mobility".

Daniel M. Laenker

I would really love to see more trolleybuses everywhere. It's electric, relatively fixed-guideway, and above all quiet (my biggest particular beef with buses, and probably most people's). Unfortunately, it seems planners are as convinced that the public is allergic to overhead wires as they are that buses are untenable.


The oldest and newest buses in *my* city's fleet are nearly indistinguishable, but we are in a death spiral and don't actually have anything new. Incredible vibration, astonishing noise, comically old-timey fake plastic wood trim. Not different from the early-90s low-floor buses, which were noticeably different from the even older high-floor and even louder still buses. I suppose a hybrid that shut the engine off when stopped (like the car I've had for years now...) would be nicer, at least when (as is so often the case) stopped.

7-12 miles per hour (11-19 km/hr) is just absurd for motorized transport. The high end is a low average speed for bicycling, if you take it easy plus get unlucky and end up stopped at every red light. The low end... Well, walking is 5-6 km/hr or so, so if the service is very, very frequent it could be faster than walking.


It has been claimed that buses may, perhaps, eventually, be able to match the streetcar experience, so we shouldn't invest in streetcars now. I'm not convinced.

Here is the thing: right now, with the technology and culture we have, streetcars attract more riders than buses.

Once we've sunk the capital cost into streetcar infrastructure, they can be operated for the same cost -- possibly even for less cost -- than buses. We must consider how long it will take for bus technology to match streetcar technology (and consider that streetcar technology will improve too, especially if it becomes more popular), and spread the streetcar capital cost over that time.

Then consider how many more riders will have been attracted to streetcars in that same period.

We must also consider cultural issues surrounding buses. Even if you could build a bus that provided just as good an experience for riders as a streetcar, it could take up to a generation for people to lose their cultural aversion to buses. In North America, people don't just avoid buses because they're noisy and smelly; they avoid buses because they're seen as transportation for poor people, and they don't want to be associated with that. (I won't offer any judgement on this, and neither should any transportation planner, because we must plan transit for how people /do/ act, not how they /should/ act.)

There is also the fact that rail transit shapes urban form, and I haven't seen much evidence that lines painted on a road are any good at that.


I don't think the preference for streetcars over buses occurs in cities without a strong transit culture. I think it is because people ARE familiar with riding a bus. A real world experiment would show you why people feel that way.

If you are ever in San Francisco, ride a (modern) streetcar down Market Street or the Embarcadero. Then ride a bus along the same stretch and compare the two rides. Which is easier to enter and exit? Which has a smoother acceleration? Which has a smoother ride? Which is quieter? Which one shakes and rattles more?

The EXPERIENCE in riding a streetcar is far superior to riding a bus and no amount of updating of a bus is going to change that. As long as your ride is in a rubber tire vehicle on pavement, the ride is going to be jerkier, bumpier and more noisy than riding on rails. There is a reason why the lifetime of a bus is so much shorter than that of a streetcar; running on pavement literally beats them to death. And whether it is 2009 or 2050 that fact is not going to change.


One other thought, following up to Steven's post--just as much as the roads beat up busses, busses beat up the roads. Streetcars don't cause anywhere near the wear and tear to the rails; and don't touch the pavement at all, even in places where they run in mixed traffic.

In many locales, this is an external cost not borne by the transit agency (though ultimately borne by taxpayers who fund both the transit authority and the public works department).

If transit agencies were subject to fees in order to allocate this external cost, I suspect the streetcar would be a more attractive compare than it is now.

Terry Parker - Portland


Your post is right on target! Personally I agree with most of your comments and conclusions - including requiring the property owners on the streets where streetcars operate help pay for them. However I disagree that streetcars are best for Portland. Additionally, there are a few of things that were not said.

1. Streetcars crawling along in mixed traffic and obstructing motor vehicle travel lanes when boarding passengers create additional congestion thereby gumming up the streets on which they operate. Nationally, motor vehicle engines idling in stop and go traffic wastes 2.3 billion gallons of fuel a year. Keeping the traffic flowing on a street must be viewed as a priority. Therefore, streetcars do NOT belong on high traffic volume arterial streets.

2. It is highly deceptive and fictitious to suggest that streetcars have promoted private sector development. In actuality, the new development that has occurred along the present Portland Streetcar route is to a large degree due to taxpayer funded subsidies to the developers, property tax abatements and cheap land provided by the Portland Development Commission. Given those same incentives, new development could easily occur anywhere in the city.

3 The ridership numbers on the Portland Streetcar are skewed because the majority of the service is free to the users, paid for with taxpayer and motorist paid subsidies. Additionally, there is a high degree of fare evasion due to the majority of the operation taking place in Fareless Square.

4. Comprehensive transit planning Portland has been lost. What is currently happening is that a route is chosen for a specific mode such as light rail or the streetcar by a stacked deck of group pushing their own manipulative agenda. An effort is made to justify that route by wedging the rails into the current transportation infrastructure, then projecting increased (and taxpayer subsidized) density and reworking other transit operations to feed the system with the purpose of manipulating the numbers so the new service will pass muster with the Feds.

Specific transit planning must start with purpose and need with mode choice coming NOT first, but last. What is missing in Portland is an in-depth comprehensive comparison study of the overall cost effectiveness of all modes for transit for each route before a mode choice is actually made. As an example, instead of spending $10M per mile, an electric trolley bus system plan that in its most basic form only requires overhead wires be installed over the streets may very well be the most cost effective for taxpayers. The best example I can give occurred in the 1970s when planning for Eastside transit alternatives and the Banfield Freeway occurred. .Alternatives for transit considered ranged from doing nothing to special treatment on local streets, a HOV lane on the freeway, a bus way and light rail. Alternatives for the freeway included doing nothing, just moving the narrow lanes over to accommodate space for a transit project and various upgrades. What eventually came out of the four year comprehensive study is what we have today - light rail all the way to Gresham (it was originally only planned to go to Gateway), and upgrades to the freeway that included safety improvements and widening the facility and lanes, but to less than full interstate standards. Many of the costs (such as grading and over crossings) to construct light rail and make freeway improvements were shared thereby making the over all project extremely cost effective.


I apologize if someone has already pointed it out and I missed it. The bumpy ride of buses not only leads to a poor rider experience, but it also costs transit agencies money. Buses cost less than streetcars upfront, but they need to be replaced much more often - and not for free.

Paved roads have costs as well, comparable to rail over several decades when you count how often they need to be repaved. If you chalk those costs up as a given for a road driven on by cars, then you concede that transit vehicles will always operate mixed in with cars. Once people stop driving and start taking the bus, transit agencies have to pay for the bus lanes themselves.

Dave Hogan

To use an example I can come up with from San Francisco, I stayed at my brother's place last fall near Market St. I was planning to head up to Fisherman's Wharf to grab some In-N-Out for lunch, and he pointed out the fastest route was some bus to some bus. Being only a little familiar with the city, I opted for the F line instead.

I know where Market St and Embarcadero are, and I didn't need to transfer. I know that it'll stop about where I need to stop, and that I won't get lost on the way.

When I first was living in Portland proper it was a similar situation. The MAX and Streetcar were easy to understand, and I was able to navigate fairly freely without worrying about missing a stop/transfer, and it was easier than figuring out which # to remember.

If we have as many streetcars as buses I suppose we'd lose some of that advantage. Overall though, it's easier for me to remember where a train runs (since it's usually the densest areas, and serves the destination I'm looking for) better than where a bus runs.

I now do take buses quite frequently, but it took a while before I was really comfortable crossing to the East side and trying to figure out where I transferred, how many fares the ticket would be, and so forth.

Things like a smartphone, Google Maps, or ride.trimet.org definitely make buses easier, but they're still not as easy for the casual rider who knows that the Streetcar will take them from SoWa to 23rd via the Pearl.

Multimodal Man

Excellent post and ensuing dialogue. I'm concerned when commentators who imply they are professional transit planners start arguing against a particular mode (primarily buses) because Americans have a bias against buses since they are seen as being for poor people. I believe that bias is reinforced by planners who are so busy with their toy train sets they fail to recognize the desparate need to do what we can with the resources we have. Spending triple the money for a 10% ridership gain is foolishness.


Multimodal makes an interesting point: How do we address the fact that streetcars attract more riders? I certainly won't try to defend any anti-bus bias, but they do exist in North America--there are lots of people who simply refuse to ride a bus, for whatever reason.

How should planners treat this difference? Should they ignore it completely, or reduce its signficance to give busses a boost? Or should they figure it into their plans--if the population of a given area won't ride a bus, after all, it's not useful to run a bus to that area.

That said, referring to transit planners playing with "toy train sets" is a bit of a trollish comment. Most transit planners are professionals who take their job seriously, and are not railfans looking to replace bus service with train service to satisfy some fetish or hobby on the public nickel. Numerous studies of the matter have reinforced the rail preference among the public; however, have failed to adequately explain why--whether its confusing routes on complex bus systems, bouncy rides associated with older busses (especially), the fear of meeting unsavory characters on the bus, or simply believing that busses are somehow low-class, I don't know. (Probably some of all of these).

Thomas Morris from Calgary

Interesting debate and I generally agree with the original posts arguments on streetcar mobility.

I just wanted to comment on Terry Parker point number 2. It's generally acknowledged in planning circles that transit does not create development from the ether. That development was going to happen, whether it was going to happen in that location and in that form is a different story. What transit can do is channel development.
A major argument in favour of street car is that they are better at channelling development. Even this argument is upturned by BRT systems such as in Curitiba and Ottawa. The argument to be made then is that areas where the public realm are better cared for will attract development.

As a note to an earlier commment about Calgary's C-Train and how cheaply it was done, it shows. The best parts of the Line are the parts where they couldn't cheap out and they are few and far between. Some more money would have made a much better system.

Michael Druker

A more appropriate title for this post may be "streetcars: an irrelevant truth". Speed of travel is simply not an important argument for or against streetcars, and it is not treated as such. (Except when it's streetcar vs. light rail, for example.) This is why I discussed your usage of the word "mobility" -- because there are aspects of mobility that really are significantly affected by the streetcar vs. bus distinction, even while pure speed is not likely to be one of them.

"Many commenters propose that a widespread disinterest or disapproval of buses will remain a cultural absolute, and on this point I really do disagree."

That's not what we're saying. We're saying that it is an important cultural difference now, and it would take time to shift the cultural attitude. However, the crucial factor is that this prejudice actually is very much related to the pure experience of riding in a bus. For a large proportion of people, such an experience is an unpleasant one primarily due to the stops, starts, jumps, and rattles (ignoring the highly variable generic public transit complaints). Who is willing to go through with this experience? Well, the relatively few people who don't mind, obviously. And then also the people who either are dedicated to using transit or the people who have no choice but to use transit. Which obviously doesn't help transit usage if the latter group is unsavory -- but this aversion is a secondary effect.

Moreover, there are places where that no-choice group isn't all that unsavory, but the aversion remains. Where I live (Waterloo Region, Ontario), the bus riders often are university students or older people. The buses are very clean and reasonably new. But that's not the problem! The problem is that very very few people here (and elsewhere) would take any bus when they can drive. I do it mainly due to my convictions. Most of the time it's not terrible, but I've certainly had plenty of bus-induced headaches. I know that to many, buses are physically nauseating, for reasons unrelated to odors or cultural biases.

You may wonder what motivates me to defends streetcars. As much as you may be tempted to believe that I'm some kind of "streetcar zealot", it isn't so. My main interest is in getting as many people as possible using transit, for reasons of environment and of urban form. I have quite a lot of experience with each mode of transit and in various cities, and I understand the upsides and downsides from a rider's perspective. In the places for which we're discussing LRT, BRT, streetcars, and so on, the main transit objective is to attract riders away from their cars -- not to provide transit to a captive market. You can downplay differences between bus and rail all you want, and even try to predict a future convergence which is very unlikely given the historical progress of the technologies over the last 100+ years. All you are doing is deluding yourself and other planners. Because you will not attract many choice riders with buses. Not now, not in 50 years. When oil goes through the roof, they might take transit for a bit. Until they buy their electric cars, and revert to being choice drivers. I, personally, am okay with taking buses. But would-be choice riders are not, and they are by far the most important group.

"Streetcars do attract more ridership than the buses they replace, though it's not always clear why."
"I speculate (no facts available right now) that many streetcar passengers ONLY ride rail vehicles (MAX or streetcar). If true, this is a bad thing."

It is a very serious weakness in transit planning to fail to understand why it is that the empirical preference exists.


"I speculate (no facts available right now) that many streetcar passengers ONLY ride rail vehicles (MAX or streetcar). If true, this is a bad thing."

Damn pesky users, not conforming to our models! How dare they! If marketing says they're supposed to like our product and they don't, it's all their fault!

Jarrett at HumanTransit.org

"I speculate (no facts available right now) that many streetcar passengers ONLY ride rail vehicles (MAX or streetcar). If true, this is a bad thing."

I just want to clarify that the above quotation is from commenter Aaron Antrim, not me. Just to be clear, I'm not saying that the choices travelers make now are right or wrong; that's a pointless question. I'm saying that we don't know why they make those choices, and I'm implying that we won't know for sure that it's because of the streetcar technology until we get serious about developing bus services that match the streetcar experience in every way that a bus can.

As near as I can tell, the other comments so far have responses in the post. Re Dave Hogan's comment on legibility, I find this interesting in Portland's case, because Portland's eastside grid is fairly legible and there are very clear maps of it. If you live in Portland you know where Division Street and you understand how the numbered avenues run. So when you see a bus whose overhead sign says "4 Division / to 122nd Avenue," what part of this don't you understand?


One other salient point... you suggest, somewhat, that the authors of the document put the cart before the horse--asking where streetcars could go, as opposed to asking what transit modes would work best.

A fair criticism--except this is their charter. Portland Streetcar is a streetcar operations and advocacy organization; not the be-all and end-all of transit planning in the Portland area. Projects don't get done unless the municipal governments involved, as well as entities such as Metro (which does regional planning in those parts of the Portland metro area located within Oregon) and Tri-Met (the transit agency). Other actors are taking the wider perspective that you wish; and there are plenty of folks in Portland advocating for busses as well.

Portland Stretcar could just as easily be criticized for not examining streetcar opportunities in suburbs like Beaverton or Gresham--both of which are served by MAX, and both of which have urban boulevards with similar characteristics as some of the corridors identified in the draft. This is not due to neglect, of course; service outside of the City of Portland is outside the organization's scope. The one exception in the works, the proposed Lake Oswego line, is on an existing unused rail line.

Intelligent transit planning requires looking at the issue from numerous different perspectives. As such "where could we put streetcars?", or busses, or BRT--is a relevant and useful question. It's not an issue unless this is the ONLY question.


I live near PSU and commute with street car and MAX almost everyday. Occasionally I will take the bus. I mostly take the bus from PSU to the MAX downtown.

The problem with the bus is it's too much of a headache to keep track of where it is going. If I'm going from PSU to pioneer square, that's pretty easy I can just take any bus. If I want to go to my place, I can take 34, 35, 43, 56. If I want to go to Lloyd center, I have no idea which bus to take. The bus maps are almost useless. If we can get a nice bus map like the Kyoto bus map, then I would probably take the bus more often. I don't have an iphone to look up bus route. Then again maybe not, it's cheaper to drive.


Seattle has an extensive electric trolley bus system


"I'm saying that we don't know why they make those choices, and I'm implying that we won't know for sure that it's because of the streetcar technology until we get serious about developing bus services that match the streetcar experience in every way that a bus can."

A serious question then: how close do the best buses get right now?

Jarrett at HumanTransit.org

Michael. That's a complicated question, because conclusions are hard to transfer from one city to another or even one corridor to another. I contend that a lot of people do select their transit mode based on mundane matters of travel time and cost, but those tradeoffs differ between cities and even between corridors, depending on the degree of congestion, the costs of driving, and the alternatives being offered.

I would love to see some very controlled experiments, e.g. replacing streetcars with buses on a streetcar line for a month, while ensuring that the buses are run with the same signal preemptions, fare payment system, marketing hype etc as the streetcars are. If you did that, people who just need to get where there going would still be on it, but people who insist on riding a streetcar wouldn't.

But the real thrust of my argument lies more in the vector of bus improvement than in current best-practice buses. In particular, so much work is going into addressing the noise, emissions, and vibrations issues that I'd be surprised if a bus 20 years from now feels much like a bus today. Even if the next 20 years of transformation is only as extensive as the last 20 years, that would still be a substantial and consequential change.

Dave Hogan

If you live in Portland you know where Division Street and you understand how the numbered avenues run. So when you see a bus whose overhead sign says "4 Division / to 122nd Avenue," what part of this don't you understand?

The names can be somewhat confusing first of all. Without looking it up I'd have no idea that "74 - Lloyd District/Southeast" means Lloyd District across Irving and Glisan and then down 39th. How about "36 - South Shore"? Until I just looked that route up I had no idea it serves downtown Lake Oswego, or even what south shore it was referring to. "32 - Oatfield" apparently takes you to Milwaukie/Gladstone/Oregon City, but even after living in Portland for three years I had no idea that's what Oatfield was until I checked on ride.trimet.org. Since I live near the 17 I know where it goes, but it makes no mention in the name that it serves St Johns and Sauvie Island.

It's also a question of how to I get from point A to point B. Yes, "4 Division" makes it easy if you're on the transit mall and want to head down Division, but figuring out how to get to the 4 is the challenge for many. Plus you're not going to see a "4 Division" sign on a bus or a stop unless you already can find the stop to get on it. Tracks make it fairly easy to find a stop, you just follow the tracks until there's a stop.

A one or two bus trip isn't very difficult, but for example getting from Montgomery Park to NE Alberta (as an example) is a lot more intimidating for a new transit rider.

It's not that it's incredibly complicated, but if you're not familiar with the route and you didn't have time to plan it online in advance, it's tough to figure out what combo of buses you need to use, where to find the first one, where exactly they'll meet up, and where you need to get off.

If you're starting off from the transit mall it's not that confusing, but trying to figure out a route that runs from outside downtown and crosses the river isn't always that simple. With only 4 or 5 rail lines it's much easier to remember where they run, although if we build too many trains they'll get to the point of being like buses, and wind up losing some of the advantage they have as far as being easy to remember.


As an American living in Munich, Germany and learning about transportation issues here, I think I'm essentially witnessing what transportation planning in the United States will look like in about 1 or 2 decades. The Germans do a much better job of conceiving transport as a single cohesive system that serves to move the public around the cities, regions, etc. There is almost nowhere that you can't get here with public transportation, with a bicycle, or of course with a car. And while there are certainly plenty of transportation wish list items that one still has here (i.e. upgrades to a certain bus/train line or a better connections between two difficult to travel between locations, etc. etc.), it's all in all a great system.

However, in the U.S. there is still a different mentality that pervades--one that sees cars, transit, and bicycles as purely competing with one another. Public opinion, in general, is markedly different. In particular, many middle-class people see riding a bus as something they would never do--probably because they have not ridden one in the last 30 years, and as you pointed out, there have been a lot of recent technological improvements. Riding some of the modern articulated buses here in Munich is almost as nice as the trams...almost. Perhaps we need to a lot of money to be put into advertising and demonstrating such new technology, so that your average Joe has an idea of what a modern bus is. Anyway...

I think you have an incredibly valid point here, and I applaud your courage in posting what seems to be quite the unpopular perspective.
I also appreciate how specifically you stated what your argument is, however the nature of transportation planning makes it a much less cut and dry case as your example of the hammer and the house. Because every resident of a modern city interacts with the city's transportation infrastructure on a daily basis, the issues involved become highly politicized. I think that Portland is doing a great job of taking advantage of available political (interest in and excitement about streetcars)--they also seem to be making a concerted effort to brand their city as a (or perhaps THE) streetcar city, which I also don't think is such a bad idea in the increasingly competetive world of globalized cities. Maybe there is a another, cheaper alternative making use of bus and other technologies, but they're trying to build a system which somehow sets them apart, even if it costs a bit more. It's no different than the decision to build the new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge with a "landmark" design, rather than a cheaper run-of-the-mill one...which has cost more money than anyone ever thought. But, I think that that people are ultimately quite happy when something better than just the cheapest option is chosen, especially when it's something (like transportation infrastructure) that they are going to be interacting with most days of their lives.

Yes, as you said, such reasons should be cited rather than making false claims that streetcars vs. buses...but I unfortunately haven't had a chance to read the entire system concept plan and cannot comment on this.

As a note, I personally find the Portland Streetcar one of the most annoying streetcars I've been on, mostly because it's extremely slow, and it itself suffers from a lack of the often implemented transit improvement techniques that you mentioned could be applied to buses. I hope they build the rest of the streetcar system to function a little better--althought I also find the MAX excruciatingly slow in downtown...maybe Portlanders just enjoy taking things a little slower *wink*.

Julie Anne Genter

Apologies I have not read all the comments thoroughly, so perhaps someone has already mentioned this:

It seems to me that one of the reasons rail may be more attractive than buses is a subconscious effect of the motion on the sense of balance/wellbeing. For the same reason that many people are able to read without getting motion sick on a train rather than a car or bus, rail may be perceived as more comfortable because it glides forward and never wavers from a relatively linear path. Unless a busway has a guided path, which probably reduces the cost competitiveness with rail, it can waver back and forth a bit more, which may be less comfortable for the riders -- though so subtle they may not perceive that to be the reason why.

Something to research -- at the intersection of neuroscience, transit psychology and transport economics (how much are people willing to pay for the guided gliding motion?).

Michael Druker

I would love to see buses and their operation improved significantly and think this is a great aim. But with all due respect, I believe it is irresponsible to advocate that long-term infrastructure decisions be made (or not made) on the basis of a very uncertain prediction about the future of bus technology.

In lieu of controlled experiments, I think it would be useful to track down comparative ridership numbers on routes where a bus replaced a streetcar or vice versa. I'd be interested to know what the ridership was on the Ashmont-Mattapan High Speed Line in Boston when it was recently replaced with a shuttle bus for a year and a half. Another obvious thing to do is to actually ask people (in a very careful way) why they do or don't ride the bus or other transit; taken with a grain of salt, responses would be informative.


I think one major advantage is that a streetcar system is a commitment. You are less likely to eliminate entire routes, or lines, or cancel your public transit system entirely, if you have laid rail down in your roads. It's also easier for the transit rider: you don't have to guess where the next stop is on a line if you are on foot. It will be somewhere along the track, going in the general direction you are walking.

Michael D. Setty


While I also advocate for streetcars where they make sense and often have a positive impact on development patterns, my associate Leroy Demery and I are not knee-jerk rail advocates. I think this is well illustrated by our transit research posted at http://www.publictransit.us/ptlibrary/LRToversell.htm, http://www.publictransit.us/ptlibrary/ModalCapacity2005.htm, http://www.publictransit.us/ptlibrary/peakoccupancy2007.htm, http://www.publictransit.us/ptlibrary/specialreports/sr2.trafficdensityretrospective.htm, http://www.publictransit.us/ptlibrary/trafficdensityonline.htm, and many others.

Also see our article on "BRT Oversell", http://www.publictransit.us/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=48. I think it is clear that new streetcar lines with low ridership potential are difficult to justify economically, unless they can help leverage a lot of development and other provable benefits. I think we're on the same page advocating appropriate transit modes for the appropriate markets--e.g., "fitting the mode to the market" if you will.

Michael D. Setty

What's with your comments function? I put in some links, but the computer deleted it! Sheesh! Some antispam measures are over the top.

I suggest taking a look at the large number of papers that my associate Leroy Demery and I have posted at www.publictransit.us, specifically http://www.publictransit.us/ptlibrary/specialreports.htm and http://www.publictransit.us/index.php?option=com_weblinks&catid=5&Itemid=8. Upon examination, I think you'll see we are pretty close to being on the same page on this streetcar vs. bus issue. I would generally agree that the extra expense of streetcars are difficult to financially justify unless there are (1) a relatively high volume of patronage--more than most corridors in U.S. cities will generate--or (2) a line can leverage large real estate investments in ways BRT cannot.

Michael D. Setty

Of course, also don't forget http://www.publictransit.us/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=48.

Michael Druker

Here's one paper on the subject: http://www.heritagetrolley.org/articleTennyson.htm

It mentions the case of the Ardmore trolley line in Philadelphia, which in 1967 was converted into a busway (now SEPTA Route 103), with a 15% loss of ridership.

Aaron M. Renn

Uh, oh. Just remember, Jarrett, you will never convince the railigious of anything but what they already believe.

I'm a rail supporter in the right context. As a noted light rail skeptic in smaller cities, I'll even admit I see a lot of virtue in downtown circulator streetcars and short distance streetcar networks in those cities.

But there is literally no argument that can be mustered to convince someone who is wedded to the idea of rail that there is any important way buses are superior, except possibly as subordinate feeder service.

I was just reading a post about Columbus, Ohio today where people were agonizing over Columbus falling behind because they don't have any rail service and how people are leaving the city for places with rail. I've no doubt of that because people are always moving for a variety of reasons. But Cleveland has rail transit. So does Buffalo. Both cities are economically and demographically in the toilet. Did having rail cause Cleveland to be the 2nd worst performing large metro area in the country? Of course not. Transportation is important, but rail lines are not the all powerful artifacts their supporters might suggest. Columbus is actually the 2nd fastest growing large metro area in the Midwest. Indianapolis is #1 and it doesn't have rail either. In fact, 3 of the 4 fastest growing and most economically successful Midwest cities do not have any form of rail transit, excepting possibly some lame one train a day Amtrak intercity service that amounts to nothing.

Also, keep in mind that the vaunted permanence of rail lines cuts both ways. Buses are both strategically and operationally more flexible than rail, as anyone who has been stuck in a train caught behind a broken down one with door problems up ahead can attest.

Jarrett at HumanTransit.org

Michael.  Thanks for these links.  Have you read Hoffman's paper on Quickways?  I think he's a little too obsessed with eliminating transfers, but I have to say, as someone who works in Brisbane a lot, the SE Busway is amazing, ridership is massive, and nobody seriously talks about converting it to rail now.  


Saying "they avoid buses because they're seen as transportation for poor people" is skirting the issue.

"They" aren't avoiding buses. "They" are avoiding poor people.

Buses didn't stigmatize poor people; it's the other way around. And it is the middle and upper classes who perceive that the poor taint behavior by virtue of identity.

In the U.S., Target and Wal-Mart are identical mass-market merchandisers with prices about the same. One key difference is Target is located in middle-class and up or "hip" areas. Wal-Mart is usually located in rural or blighted areas.

One store is seen as fashionable and fun. The other is seen as "white trash" or "ghetto." Guess which one is which and why.

The point is, the poor did not become perceived as loathsome or dangerous because cities took out streetcars and replaced them with buses. Putting streetcars in will not change perceptions if the people we are trying to court harbor the same prejudices of the people who are riding transit now.

Michael Druker

Without feeding the trolls, I'll say one last thing:

I think the best way to try to prove that the bus experience can be just as good as the streetcar one would be for a bus company (or consortium) to offer to build a truly state-of-the-art bus line at half price for a city with an open mind. If it works, it would serve as an effective counterpoint to Portland.

This post and comments have been quite good, by the way!

Phil Ayres

One significant advantage is likely to be energy efficiency. Any metal wheel on rail vehicle benefits from extremely low friction, meaning that it takes very little energy to keep the vehicle moving, and per kilogram (or pound) less energy to get it started. Stopping the vehicle through regenerative braking allows the significant mass of the vehicle and its kinetic energy to largely be converted back to electricity for use across the transport system. This is equivalent to hybrid cars (and buses), but they have the disadvantage of losing a lot of their rolling energy to rubber tyres on tarmac, leaving less to be regenerated on braking and burning more fuel just to keep going.

The additional advantage comes from street cars, and any electric rail system is the electricity that the vehicles use. As everyone knows, this can be generated using a variety of renewable sources, and even if not, the pollution is at the very least remote. Unfortunately buses rarely have this advantage, accumulating their burnt fuel (including LPG and natural gas) as particulates, CO and smog in the city, where the density of pollution becomes harmful to the people they are trying to help.

Don't get me wrong. Buses, street cars, light rail and heavy rail are all better than SUVs, or even smart cars, for a reduction in traffic and pollution. I'm experiencing a living example of this in Mexico City right now. I'll never complain about the traffic in Boston again!


Perhaps a bit off-topic, but---

The advantage of steel wheels on steel rails is lower friction--meaning it takes less energy to keep the wheels rolling. All else being equal, a traincar will require less fuel or electricity to maintain speed on a flat surface than a bus of the same size and weight. (Of courses, trains and busses aren't of the same size and weight, but this is merely a pedagogical point).

The advantage of rubber tyres, or tires as we yankees like to call 'em, on pavement, is higher friction--which adds traction--aiding in things like acceleration, breaking, and operation on steeper grades. Nothing beats an electric trolleybus for climbing steep hills; as the combination of tires with electric motors (generating high torque at idle) is ideal for this application.

Depending on what you are doing, rolling friction is either your friend or your foe.

In many cases, streetcars ride on tracks embedded in pavement, as opposed to tracks laid on crossties on a railbed. For such applications, has anybody ever considered building a streetcar with the equivalent of landing gear--a motor-driven tire or two which can be raised or lowered as necessary to aid with acceleration, breaking, or climbing? Or has this idea been tried somewhere and discarded as impractical or useless?


Anyone care to consider the costs of obtaining ROWs in modern city environments? Who pays for this? Taxpayers? Like they don't have enough on their plate?

You're all spending money that doesn't exist.


EngineerScotty: what you propose sounds a bit like a rubber-tired metro or the "tram sur pneu" of France. But they've done even better than rubber tires for traction. They have trains with a cogwheel that engages a special rack rail laid in the center of the track, which allows the train to climb very steep grades, in some very special cases as steep as 50%. Rubber on pavement isn't always an advantage, by the way. For example, the rubber-tired Montreal Metro is built 100% underground and the trains never see the light of day (even the yards are covered), because they just wouldn't be able to stop if the tracks were covered with snow. Here, track brakes can help tremendously, and in some European cities, streetcars climb grades of up to 10%, and there are sections of 7% grade on the Swiss narrow-gauge network.

James Taylor

The thing that streetcars have and that bus routes do not is permanence. And permanence begets investments. Businesses will open along a streetcar route or near a streetcar stop where they would not invest to be near a bus route or a bus stop. Cities need to include this in consideration of public transit because density of potential riders is critical to long term viability and streetcars may do better in this measure.

Doug Allen

The Sunday Oregonian (a Portland newspaper) of August 1, 1948 published a picture spread entitled "Three East Side Streetcar Lines Discontinued".

Among the captions:

"DANGEROUS Center of street loading requirement of streetcars is a constant danger to passengers, traffic engineers point out. This photograph demonstrates possibility of cars striking passengers."

"COMFORT More room, better seats, less dirt are among advantages of busses and trackless trolleys over ancient, poorly arranged, slow-moving, dirty and dangersous streetcars. East side lines were changed over to busses from cars Sunday."

"SAFER Busses -- and trackless trolleys -- can pull over to the curb to let off and take on passengers, thus cutting down hazard and lessening traffic congestion. This is a big reason streecars are going."

"NEW TERRITORY Broadway cars, the most modern on the Portland Traction company's streetcar lines, will be changed over to the 23rd avenue line and their old runs taken over by busses as a part of the modernization plan."

"TRAFFIC BLOCKS After August 1, these scenes will become fewer in Portland with three east side trolley lines being replaced with faster, cleaner busses as the Portland Traction company and city coun[cil] move to modernize city's mass transportation."

I guess that 60 years later, it is still true that when it comes to transit, perception IS reality, and we just have to deal with that fact as best we can.


You yourself have a very clear and long-running agenda.

Regarding the first point, what do you say to the 300 million tires discarded every year in America? They have a quantifiably larger contribution to pollution than the gas burned by insisting you're taking a local route, only to be stopped by a local streetcar. To discard 9 billion pounds of tires that require an additional several hundred billion dollars of gas to destroy is, what, exactly? If we can replace rubber with steel, why not?

To the second, several areas have received similar funding in the past to no great development -- Hollywood, Old Town, the Sandy Corridor to 50th, and the biggest, 82nd. None of these areas have seen the boom that you see in the Pearl District. Land there was certainly much cheaper than core-adjacent land in the Pearl area with high remediation costs.

To the third, free as it may be in the FS, a bulk of the riders are residents of the area. Using local fixed-route service ensures that the neighborhood and not anyone else gets first jab at the benefits and prevents the need for hopping a bus to go to the Safeway on Hawthorne or the Burlingame Fred Meyer.

Finally, comprehensive transit planning has been going on in Portland for years. They attempted to fix roads, paint bridges, install new sidewalks, but those processes are stopped up frequently by the same people who thumb their nose at other transportation initiatives. Take a look at the Burnside Bridge or the Sandy Blvd projects. Check out how traffic got worse on 82nd, even with widening and restriping. It's the same veiled argument, which is basically "you can't stop ME and MY route".

Similarly, it seems your main point of contention is not that the city has chosen one mode over others, it's that they aren't choosing your mode.

Aaron Priven

Thanks for the great post. We should be advocating for better transit of whatever type. The world is too full of mode chauvinists.


Ride quality. Ride quality. Ride quality.

No matter how good your roads and busses, the ride is better on the streetcar. I say this as someone who has ridden very nice buses on recently paved roads -- and old streetcars on old, poorly maintained track. (Boston!) The streetcar was *still* a smoother ride.

I get motion-sick in buses. Not in streetcars.

The greater "visibility"/"certainty of route" is also a huge issue, but to be fair trolleybuses provide that too (the overhead wires are a dead giveaway). But they don't provide the ride quality.

That is huge. And that is probably one reason why streetcars consistently attract people who won't ride buses.

To be fair, on the rare occasions when it's been examined, trolleybuses do seem to attract people who won't ride diesel buses, as well, so the "visible clear route" and quiet running is probably important too.

jack lecou

This is, I think, a somewhat odd post.

Leaving aside the fact that mobility is not the same as speed, the core of the post seems to be the claim that improvements in buses will bring them on par with rail-based street cars, and thus eliminate the perceptual differences in terms of ridership and development.

Now of course the first objection to that is that streetcars work NOW. But looking past that, I think it would be illuminating to look at what sort of improvements are required:

1. Absolutely smooth, even streets, and possibly a guideway of some kind (mechanical? magnetic?). This is necessary to try to replicate the smooth ride of rail, to try to reduce or eliminate the jolts, jerks, and sways inherent to a rubber-tired, human-steered vehicle moving on rough streets through traffic, swerving in and out to make stops. This is also necessary to reduce wear and tear on the vehicle, both to reduce traffic costs, and the perception of decrepitude that accompanies buses as they rapidly develop creaks and rattles. (Larger, sturdier buses would also help.)

(Of course, good luck managing to make maintenance of ultra-smooth streets a long-term city funding priority. Very easy to let that slip, or to object to the expense of repaving a whole block after a sewer line is repaired, etc. And there goes ride quality again.)

2. Dedicated stations, and a clearly designated, permanent-looking right of way of some kind. Fully separated would help, but the special smooth streets and guideway might be enough. All of this serves as a key signal to developers, as well as a helpful cue for users, visitors, and potential users.

3. Smooth, electric motive power. "Trolley buses" and streetcars are already almost on the same footing here, of course. Note that any future improvements, in e.g., fuel cell technology, can be applied to streetcars as easily as buses.

4. Larger, wider, lower vehicles. Steel-on-steel streetcars seem to have something of a fundamental advantage here, with inherently smaller wheels, and a much wider base and reduced suspension needs. The result is higher capacity and a much more spacious, pleasant interior.

It's possible you could overcome some of this by taking advantage of the aforementioned bus guideway and ultra smooth roads. Best case, I guess you end up building buses that resemble rubber-tired streetcars. Possibly you could even chain them together.


Maybe, just maybe, all of those improvements are also enough to overcome the "sexiness", use, and development advantages streetcars have. (Note that the sexiness factor, however it derives, is real and must be taken into account, not just dismissed as "irrational".)

Of course, to get there, you've assumed a bunch of technological improvements that don't exist yet. And in the end what you have is a big, high tech, heavy (expensive) rubber-tired "street car bus", with an expensive dedicated guideway, expensive specially-graded pavement, and expensive dedicated stations. You've got most of the advantages of a streetcar--maybe--but all of the costs too.

So what, exactly, is the point?

I think we all agree that some routes are best served by buses, and city planners should be paying attention to that.

However, I think what "street car fans" DON'T see is how anything is improved by taking a route that is best served by a streetcar and trying to somehow make a bus fit on it...

Peter Smith

I'm not sure that in 2050, people will choose an electric vehicle on rails over an electric/hydrogen/whatever vehicle of the same size and shape, with many of the same characteristics, running on tires. Are you?


this has been another edition of Simple Answers To Simple Questions.

besides, if buses somehow magically convert themselves into trains over the next 40 years (an interesting process that will be, I'm sure), then guess what? yep - we can start considering buses again. but until that time, buses are out.

If you replace a bus with a streetcar on the same route, nobody will be able to get anywhere any faster than they could before.

i'm not sure what all this 'faster' stuff is about -- it's only one of a few primary considerations in deciding how one travels every day, and myriad more secondary considerations.

for me, i like to travel with my dignity intact, so i avoid the loser cruiser. so 'mobility', for me, implicitly requires 'dignity' -- i.e. in my book, if you can't travel with dignity, it doesn't count towards 'mobility'.

conversely, the 'mobility' to which you refer could seemingly be described as "any mode of transport which could possibly move human beings from one location to another, regardless of this mode's anti-human qualities".

unfortunately, you're not alone in this view.


I think you are right on most accounts in regards to street cars especially in the slow lane as they are never able to avoid vehicles that might be parked or worse double parked. However I think something you don't take into account is long term costs of maintenance. It is my general understanding that due to the multiple factors the costs of keeping up a street running light rail as apposed to a bus is considerably less. I think the best solution to your problems is to have greater deployments of subways/elevated trains with a mixture of buses for perhaps hyper local traffic and possible light rail as sub commuter rail where there is high requirements for the number of people to be moved, but some impracticality of subways or elevated rail. Light rail can also be used as has been seen to very efficiently move cargo through out a city. Yet further until a truly clean solution (bio diesel isn't clean) such as fuel cells become common place the light rail will always have energy issues.


Jym Dyer

=v= San Francisco's F-Market line serves as a rolling museum and tourist attraction, and is thus not a good exemplar. You describe it as having usurped the 8-Market bus line, but the larger history is that the 8-Market and other tire-based vehicles took space away from a streetcar system which had a headway that was measured in seconds, not minutes.

"Streetcars that replace bus lines" is an odd premise scenario, because the trend is in the opposite direction. As with the 8-Market, most longstanding U.S. city bus lines used to be streetcar routes, and every U.S. "rapid bus" system that's trumpeted as a success has usurped a streetcar corridor, reaping the benefits of streetcar infrastructure and the extant development that those streetcars attracted.

I don't think language like "streetcar zealots" and the corporate P.R. term "railigionist" helps any. People prefer rail for substantive reasons, and it's better to discuss those reasons rather than concocting motivations.

For me, the bottom line is the environment. All other things being equal, apples-to-apples, a steel wheel on a rail has less environmental impact than a rubber tire on a road. Less fuel, fewer emissions, and less damage to the vehicles and their surfaces. As has been mentioned, they attract more riders and promote more sustainable development patterns, which multiply their environmental benefit.


another reason I've heard normal bus service can be confusing to ride is information overload. A city has so many bus routes and looking at a map can be confusing, plus it's not clear how fast they run. By contrast, a streetcar, BRT, LRT or metro system has simpler maps and well marked stations on the whole.


If a rider is confused by looking at a map, it's the rider's fault.

That's with a big but.

While there is no perfect map, there are many good ones and cartographers by training have devised ways of delivering as much information with as little overload as possible.

The frequency issue is one that has been solved easily. Transit systems usually point out discrepancies in service if they are very infrequent, like a tripper route that is dotted or broken-striped to show that it only runs a limited span of service. Likewise, for systems that sell frequency (Portland, Minneapolis, San Antonio, etc.), this frequent service is denoted.

BRT, LRT and Metro systems have simpler maps not as a special feature, but because it's a basic requirement. Do you really want for these stations not to be marked? That would be bad mapmaking.


I'm a first time reader of your blog (in fact, it was this post that attracted me), and I must say, your analysis is brilliant. I'm from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the mayor proposed building a modern streetcar line a few years ago, which proved politically unpopular. I liked the idea, but when talking to friends about it I always struggled to explain the basic difference between a streetcar and decent bus service, because I simply didn't understand it. Your straight-forward analysis that isn't biased towards one particular technology is greatly appreciated.

21st Century Urban Solutions

I understand where you're coming from Jarrett, and in some circumstances (especially in America) I agree that streetcars can merely be glorified bus lines. But, I'd like to direct you to my latest post at http://21stcenturyurbansolutions.wordpress.com/2009/07/12/oakland-streetcar-network/ on the potential of a streetcar network in Oakland to completely reshape the city. While I'll admit that I haven't read all the comments here, one of the things I argue is that streetcars be a mobility improvement for Oakland because of their effect of getting more people out in the streets and consequently making the streets safer and more livable. Safer streets mean safer neighborhoods and more transit use. Anyway, check it out, and hopefully it will serve as an extension of the discussion that has emerged here.

Aaron Antrim

I shouldn't have made my comment at 1am when my brain was done operating for the day.

Let me be more specific: If travelers limit themselves to specific modes "for people like them," this limits the usefulness of the transit system for those users. It also increases VMT, congestion, and emissions for everyone and reduces the transit agency's farebox revenue and corresponding ability to deliver service.

It's not cost-feasible to build Streetcar throughout an entire city. Therefore, I am interested in how to make lower cost types of service more attractive to choice riders.


Eh. The thing is, even in cities with massively complex tram networks (Melbourne!) the tram map is easier to use than the bus map. What is *up* with that? In practice, rails seem to bring out the best in mapmakers.

Maybe it's the permanence. It's not worth making a good map for a bus line since it can change so easily. The map of my local bus system is quite simply out of date, showing wrong routings and stops.


It’s a given, that buses will never match the smooth ride quality of trams but they’re now starting to catch up on some of the other characteristics that make trams attractive, such as increased capacity and easy vehicle access.

If you turn up at your tram stop but instead of a tram you find an air-conditioned, low-floor, high capacity articulated bus with four wide double-doors allowing easy entry and exit from all doors; an interior configuration with generous circulation space with lots of grab rails; large windows; electronic displays and audio announcements. Could you say that that vehicle offering would be significantly inferior to that of a modern tram vehicle?

If that vehicle is part of a frequent service that takes you reliably to other stops along an exclusive bus lane with priority over other traffic, giving you the same journey times as a tram but with the exception of a smooth gliding sensation while travelling, and a greater need to hold on if standing – would that experience be unattractive enough to the majority of passengers that the significant additional expense of building a tramway system could be easily justified?

The availability these days of vehicles in the style of the Las Vegas Max buses demonstrates the new directions being taken to increase the capacity and improve the attractiveness of buses which are narrowing the operational and perceived gaps between trams and buses.

One of the big differences often argued between the two is ride quality, but ride quality itself doesn’t count for much when tram services are infrequent, hopelessly overcrowded, excruciatingly slow or all three at once. In well-used systems where all modes are often swamped with too many passengers, travel by tram can be just as miserable as travel by bus, and a tram becomes just a “thing” that you have to take to get home.

Finally, depending on the size of a city and its growth trajectory, introducing trams on major corridors may prove to be an expensive interim measure and delay introduction of faster and more comfortable modes by decades. Potentially, if a fast growing city could avoid a hasty investment in trams and meet a lot of its heavier corridor traffic in the short/medium term with these sorts of high-capacity tram-like buses, there may very well be sooner opportunity to afford major, real and significant improvements in mobility - with the introduction of a subway/metro/skytrain system.

Matt Fisher


Yes, the streetcars can take a long time, but it doesn't matter as much. Would you wager that Toronto should close its streetcars and rip out the tracks? Besides, I've used them on my most recent trip (and my visit three years ago) as much as I used the subway. For all its faults, Toronto was lucky enough to preserve them as much as Melbourne kept their trams, something I wish we did more in North American cities, only for GM and the road lobby, aided by unwitting government bureaucrats, to bring it down.

Oh, and that graphic at the top looks like the O-Train. Our Transitway here in Ottawa is certainly not as good as rail, and it was a mistake to pave over a rail line, and turn it into a busway, even if we expected it would someday be light rail "when ridership gets high enough".

You can't turn a bus into a train. A bus can never be "rail on rubber tires" or "just like rail, but cheaper".

Matt Fisher

I am not an "unconditional" supporter of rail, but I disagree that BRT merits unconditional, unending support, or that BRT is as good as a train. Certainly, there needs to be adequate population density and adequate ridership to justify rail of any kind. But saying BRT is superior to rail and can do better makes me mad. It was quite mad to when they ended the train services in my native province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Thank you very much, P.M. Brian Mulroney.

And BRT is not a "surface subway". Even if electrically powered rail is dependent on coal burning power plants, I would prefer it more than diesel buses, even with a technological change far in the future, and it would be more environmentally beneficial. The myth that "there is no evident preference for trains over buses" is not true.

Like I said, it was a bunch of shit that we disposed of perfectly good streetcars. This has been true in Philadelphia and Chicago, which both once had two of the five largest streetcar systems in the world. Philadelphia kept only a few lines, but Chicago completely disposed of theirs, even with as many as 600 PCC streetcars. I wish several (but certainly not all) of those that were gone (other than when new subway or light rail lines opened) had stayed, if such was fair enough.

Sorry I was late with commenting. :)

Matt J. Fisher


A few questions:

--Have the studies comparing bus vs. streetcar preference controlled for choice riders and dependent riders? I suspect that where a market is overwhelmingly dependent, the difference will be small or negligable.

--What is the operating cost per passenger-mile of the Portland Streetcar? Last time I checked, they didn't monitor that stat, only trips. I'd like to see a comparison against bus service overall and estimates of bus costs on comparable routes.

--I suspect the attraction to streetcar is more novelty. If most of a city were converted to rail, it wouldn't be special. The poor in the "uncool" neighborhoods would be on them just like the buses.

--What about roadwork? It puts a severe dent in streetcar service.

--Based on my trip to Philadelphia, I would say their subway-surface system would be better if it were bus on the surface downtown than what they operate now. That system gets stuck in its own traffic in the downtown tunnel. And I rode when there was the aforementioned streetwork which forced a transfer and we certainly lost at least 10 minutes.


Just to comment on what was said about riding new versus old buses--if ride quality is an issue, the new buses are not always better. I live in L.A. and have ridden our agency's oldest and newest buses, and find consistently that the dirty old high-floor dinosaurs actually provide the smoothest ride--sometimes even comparable to a streetcar! In contrast, the brand-new sleek 45 and 60 foot low-floor modern marvels tend to be the bounciest pieces of sh-t I have ever ridden...and yes I am comparing them on the same routes.

I am not a zealous advocate of one mode over another, but I'm not too impressed with the modern buses that L.A. Metro has been buying lately, and if they represent the best bus manufacturers can do...that doesn't bode well for swaying the people that refuse to ride buses.

Damien Goodmon

But the question is how much of that development was subsidized?

And I'm not just talking about direct government support in the form of capital dollars to the projects, but things like density bonuses, lowered parking requirements, tax breaks, low-interest rate government loans, fee waivers, etc.

Portland has decided it wants a certain type of development and accordingly is doing what every government does when they want something that the market is not providing: they're throwing a cocktail of subsidies towards it to reel in speculators, and devoting a lot of department attention/human capital toward specific areas/corridors. I'm not saying this is good or bad, just simply pointing out that such can be done regardless of whether a street-car is part of the equation or not.

True market-driven development is unsubsidized (to the degree that development can be unsubsidized) and demand driven. People want to live near the beach, for example. No subsidies are needed for building a condo project at Venice Beach.

You see, I hear the street-car = development argument A LOT in L.A. and they all reference Portland. And it's often stretched to state that at-grade light rail (as opposed to grade separated light rail) is BETTER for development. (The technology-advocates make a lot of illogical leaps here in L.A.) Aside from the great differences between the two technologies (streets cars vs. at-grade light rail), i.e. speed, street closures, lane takes, etc., it completely misses two important points:

1) In L.A. we currently have Portland-like development in places that haven't seen a street car run through/near it since the Korean War.

2) In L.A. we currently have areas with light rail (not street cars) that aren't doing so well from a development standpoint. If the tracks alone generated development then in the 19 years the Blue Line has been operating it would have produced something that resembles Portland. But it hasn't.

You would think this would convince people something else is at work. But the ultimate reality is the arguments are typically made by advocates for particular technologies.

Jarrett at HumanTransit.org


Because I'm not a technology-first planner, you'll never hear me say that "BRT merits unconditional, unending support." I'm interested in BRT because in a range of situations, where people have looked first at their mobility needs and what kind of city they want to have, a BRT system has turned out to be a good answer. But where BRT has succeeded it's because it was the result, not the starting point, of the process of planning thought.

Jarrett at HumanTransit.org

On permanence:

1. It's very easy to make a bus route look more permanent: Spend more money on the stop infrastructure.

2. Rails in the street does not appear to have been an accurate predictor of permanence in the early 20th century.


In places with a strong rail culture, BRT lines (even well-designed ones) have frequently been criticized--the Silver Line in Boston, for example, is universally despised there. Whether this is because the service is actually worse than the various types of train run by MTA (the Silver has a few places where it runs on surface streets), or just anti-bus bias, I dunno.

One interesting experiment that you might see in a few years is in Vancouver, WA; where long term plans call for BRT to be placed in four different corridors (along I-5, I-205, SR500/Fourth Plain, and Mill Plain). Three of those lines will converge upon downtown Vancouver, where Oregon-bound commuters will (eventually) be able to change to the MAX; the I-205 line will provide connections to MAX and Portland International airport via the Glenn Jackson bridge. The BRT lines called for are mostly dedicated-ROW lines and limited-stop service, not local-service busses painted to look like European trams (like the bus whose picture adorns the top of the blog).

Construction of any of this is quite a ways off. Why Vancouver has chosen BRT for its rapid-transit needs whereas Portland has been quite successful with LRT for over two decades is an interesting question, and extremists on both sides of the Columbia will be happy to give you offensive answers. :) Dialing down the rhetoric, I suspect the reality of the situation is that a) most transit trips will not cross the river; Portlanders famously overestimate the desire of Vancouver residents to come to Oregon to work and shop, and b) Vancouver, which lacks Oregon's land use policies and is less dense as a result, won't generate enough passengers to make LRT cost-effective. Whether or not C-Tran's ridership projections assume any transit-oriented development to boost ridership long-term, I dunno.

Louis Haywood

Cambridge and Waverly in MA also have a 3-route trolleybus network, including a trolleybus tunnel loop directly into the Harvard T station.

Alex Marshall

Here's something that hasn't been address, unless I missed it in the voluminous comments.

According to Ken Greenberg, (and this is from memory from a talk he gave about 10 years ago in Toronto about the Toronto streetcar system), streetcars are faster than buses because car drivers are scared of streetcars. When a streetcar goes down the street, your average driver defers to the streetcar, and allows them to set the pace. With buses, drivers aren't scared of them, and will cut in front of a bus, and thus slow the bus. Ken said streetcars were significantly faster than buses because of this. He gave a percentage figure, but I won't quote it because that would be trying to dig too deeply into my memory bank. The point is that, if this is true, streetcars are faster than buses, just by being streetcars.

Jarrett at HumanTransit.org

I would be curious about what counts as data toward that thesis. If it's true, it's a cultural fact rather than a technical one. Cultural issues are important, but are different from one place to another and are also capable of changing over time.

My impression in northern Europe is that all transit vehicles are treated with equal respect.


"Most streetcars now under discussion are not larger than buses, and have no capability to be run as large trainsets, so this is not an issue in any North American or Australasian debates of which I'm aware."

Not sure about this. There are clearly trams/streetcars in service in Melbourne which have a greater capacity (around 200) than any bus I've so far seen.

Also, the claim about trainsets does not seem to be true. The trend may be towards making the units longer by adding more articulated sections, but several of the current streetcar/LRV models can be linked as trainsets. Phoenix runs their new LRVs as trainsets. There are many more examples in Europe, e.g. the new Flexity LRVs on the Tvärbanan in Stockholm, Sweden. I don't know if these systems qualify as 'streetcars' (they do run on streets some of the way), but regardless, the hardware is the same for a more traditional streetcar system.

Jarrett at HumanTransit.org

Streetcars can have capacities larger than those of buses. Several European
cities use extremely long articulated units, as well as older units formed
of multiple cars. However, Portland's and Seattle's do not have that


To clarify a bit further, Portland Streetcar's vehicles are configured to hold ~140 passengers (30 seated, 110 standing), whereas the 40' busses used by Tri-Met are presently configured to hold 63 passengers (45 seated, 18 standing).

Obviously, that comparison is between 40' non-articulated busses and single-car streetcars; the present streetcar route isn't designed for trains longer than a single railcar, and I suspect an articulated bus would have a difficult time navigating the route as well (ignoring the small segments of the route where the tracks are not embedded in pavement and busses cannot run on at all). At any rate, Tri-Met does not presently operate any articulated busses (it has in the past, on express routes mainly, but has since gotten rid of its artics). Excluding smaller vehicles used for missions like senior-citizen transport, the 40' bus is the workhouse of Tri-Met's non-rail fleet.

Much of the difference has to do with seating configuration--like many rail vehicles, the PSC is optimized for standing room and high crush-loads, fare moreso than a bus. Whether the difference is in fact an advantage of rail (the vehicle and railbed can support the larger weight), or simply a difference in operations practice, I dunno--how many folks CAN be safely crammed on a 40' bus?

An interesting document that you might call attention to, is the Portland Streetcar System Plan transit technology review. This report comes from an output which is admittedly pro-streetcar, and errs in that it frequently discusses Tri-Met's bus operational practices as though they were fundamental issues of bus technology; but it still is an interesting and detailed overview of transit choices.


Just read your post. Actually studies have shown that a streetcar (tram in Europe) is about 10% faster than a bus operating on the same route, without signal priority of reserved rights-of-ways.

Still, the main reason that should be considered in building a streetcar is that it becomes more cost effective to operate than buses, when ridership exceeds 2,000 persons per hour per direction.

This is because 1 streetcar (1 driver) is as efficient as 6 to 8 buses (6 to 8 drivers) and for every streetcar/bus operated one must hire at least 4 people to drive, maintain and manage them. Thus the costs for a tram or streetcar, spread over 20 to 25 years, is cheaper than buses.

The problem in North America, our planners have reinvented LRT as light-metro and again trying to reinvent the streetcar as something it is not.


Todays modern streetcar can carry as many as 350 passengers (example Strasbourg's 'Jumbos"). In Karlsruhe Germany their streetcars act a trams, light rail Vehicles and commuter trains.


There is always room for buses, but trams or streetcars have proven one very important thing: They attract the motorist from the car, where buses have not and this singular fact is the reason for the Renaissance of LRT in Europe.



"a streetcar is that it becomes more cost effective to operate than buses, when ridership exceeds 2,000 persons per hour per direction ... on a transit route."

The reason is that a streetcar or tram is faster is because it has acceleration and braking than a bus (LRTA study) and streetcars tend to have much faster dwell times as they don't have to pull into traffic.


Operating a streetcar on a reserved rights-of-way (which can be as simple as a HOV lane with rails) and having priority signaling at intersections in fact makes the streetcar LRT and commercial speeds increase dramatically. This is why LRT has made obsolete light-metro systems such as Bombardier's ART (SkyTrain) and France's VAL system, as modern LRT can obtain the commercial speeds and capacities of the much more expensive light-metro relations.


Very insightful. I think you are onto something.

A related notion is that the schoolbus experience can often be horrible, to put it bluntly -- everything they say about buses and worse. Crowded, noisy, bumpy, and uncomfortable, they maneuver with all the sense of security I got while riding atop an elephant (yeah, once was enough). My all-white classmates were as unruly as any boisterous group of kids from the ghetto could be, and the school authorities responded with some authoritarianism. I'm reminded of those days when I see Dept of Corrections buses hauling prisoners to the courthouse.

The schoolbus was one of those things that when I graduated I hoped never to repeat. So I wonder how many adults are unconsciously reminded of the horrible schoolbus ride when they see a bus as the offered mode of transit.

For that matter, the shuttle buses that take grown-ups from the airport to the rental car lot is part of the hated, god-when-will-this-be-over airport experience.

Where in the daily life of most Americans is taking the bus ever a fun, 'let's do that again' experience?


^But how many routes are actually going to have 2000 persons/hour/direction? Any route that does would likely already have a legacy streetcar, or would be developing an LRT or Metro system in the same basic corridor. If you've got 2 streets within perhaps a 1/2 mile spread just outside a CBD, Metro probably makes more sense and is easily justified.

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