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Rob Ford calling LRT "streetcars" is mostly about scaring suburban motorists by calling to mind downtown traffic congestion. Toronto transit users have a love/hate relationship with streetcars, but anyone suggesting that they should be replaced by buses in mixed traffic would be laughed out of the room.

Justin N

Also, don't forget that buses don't have to be polluting. Trolleybuses are a thing, and battery/supercapacitor electric buses are also slowly coming to fruition. (There's one here in greater LA, the Foothill 291.)

David Arthur

Yes, as Sylvan says, Rob Ford isn't speaking to streetcar riders. The biggest predictor of a Ford supporter - even more than living in the suburbs - is that they drive to work: to his voters, a streetcar is something your car gets stuck behind when you go downtown.

(This isn't to say that the actual streetcar riders have no complaints, but the new cars coming later this year will make a big difference, and substituting buses would hardly improve the TTC's ability to organise effective service.)

Moaz Ahmad

"When I was in 10th grade I knew my city's bus system by heart and hung around the transit agency's planning department after school. I was mostly a nuisance, probably, but I had just enough good ideas that they kept me around. Don't be afraid to be so audacious, at the right time and place."

That's great and useful advice, Jarrett.

Cheers, Moaz


Boston's Green Line is so slow on the surface -- due to badly mismanaged operations -- that it feels like it may as well be mixed traffic.


While I agree with most of your points, if I had to be stuck in mixed traffic in transit in downtown toronto, in the majority of cases id rather be on a streetcar for two reasons. First, they're bigger. Streetcars in Toronto get busy. Like one every 1-2 minutes on Spadina Avenue and King Street kind of busy. At a (minimum) 1.5 replacement ratio, buses just wouldn't manage the volume of people without bunching up.

Second, they block traffic. A bus that stops frequently also has to jockey for a position in busy traffic. On parked-up downtown streets, there are often only two moving lanes and a lot of parked cars with breaks around transit stops. A stopped streetcar just keeps going when it is ready. A stopped bus spends precious minutes trying to change lanes.

Oh, and third, they're quiet! This is more of an aside than a legitimate argument, but can someone please fix this? Our thirty-year-old GM fishbowls had a pleasant drone, where modern diesel buses are often deafeningly loud.


Posting an email from a 10th grader (with full name, so it will likely be in his Google results for years) as a human strawman? Not exactly classy. Pick on someone your own size.


I have to agree--posting the name of a minor may be unwise.


Modern streetcars might be boring. They're also accessible to disabled people.

Henry Mulvey

People, it's okay, I'm all over the internet!!!!

Ben CF

I love this letter - I found my passion for urban planning just before high school and now at age 19, I've started a campaign for better transit (including LRT) in my city. It's hard work to be an involved youth and it's easy to get discouraged, but keep your head high, Henry!

As for streetcars, the historical context is important: they were built for a time when they dominated the road, before cars clogged our arteries and took over our cities. As such, they ran much like the Right-of-way tramways you find in a rapidly expanding number of French and Spanish cities (like Montpellier and Bordeaux) - quick and relatively unimpeded. In a world of streets constantly clogged with cars doing this and that, streetcar in mixed traffic (emphasis on mixed traffic) are relatively poorly suited to making transit dependable, fast or an alternative to the car. However, the bus, as you pointed out, is often even worse!

However, once you give it exclusive lanes, streetcar become what they once were: dependable, attractive transit which present a viable alternative to the car and auto-oriented development.

So I'd check out the 'nouveaux tramways' in French cities as an example of how we in North America should be building our streetcar.

And keep up your passion for urbanism! I get the feeling that we'll be hearing of Henry Mulvey again many times still!

david vartanoff

First, Henry, welcome to transit knowledge and advocacy.

Second, I take issue with the whole "light rail" branding
game. As we all know, the grassy median of the Brookline branch of the Green Line predates the birth of whoever coined light rail as a term. Before Congress stupidly mandated removal of all streetcars in DC, we had a similarly landscaped reserved ROW for the SE leg of the Route 30 streetcar line. Many other streetcar lines had similar segments in various cities. Evicting autos from streetcar tracks is a politically difficult but necessary strategy if we want the excellent public transit we deserve. In San Francisco, even with completely segregated ROW segments Muni runs slowly and timidly. Despite this, the F Line is massively successful as both tourits and locals heavily use a retro streetcar.

Third, while electric trolley buses work well, they still are bouncy rubber tired vehicles, whereas decently laid and maintained rail is inherently smoother.

Jim D.

To Henry - as a Boston native myself, I admire your enthusiasm for better transit and hope that you do find a way to make a difference in the future. I also hope that you look past seeing this as a 'streetcar vs. bus' fight and find ways to improve transit no matter what vehicles are used. Buses are not bad and many cities have found ways to make the bus-riding experience more like light rail. The Boston area has unfortunately had too many cases where people fight bus service improvements - the 28X and 39 lines are examples of this. If you make improvements to the current bus service to make it operate more reliably and efficiently, then ridership will likely grow and may strengthen the case for a future conversion to light rail. Many routes will remain bus no matter what and those riders deserve good transit too!

One of Mr. Walker's most important teachings is about the need for frequent service across the network. The MBTA is starting to recognize this with their 'Key Bus Route' program but it's just a start. The future of Boston transit is not likely to be extensions of current rail lines but rather the development of new bus and light rail services that connect across the city without going through downtown. Look up the 'Urban Ring' on Google - we need the future leaders of Massachusetts to find a way to bring that program back to life.

Kathy Craig

I am so encouraged to hear your vision for the future Henry. For a young man like you to choose to study urban planning and transit development gives me hope for the future! Reading this blog is a good place to start your journey. Go Henry!


"If you're stuck in traffic, you'd rather be on a bus, because a bus can maneuver and often get through where a streetcar is stuck."

Unfortunately this maneuverability has almost always been exploited to get buses out of the way of cars, to the buses' detriment.*

*I'm reminded of some typical 1950s' Rotarian thinking in stock footage of Philly's transit "modernization" program after WWII. The narrator said something like "before buses these streets were *handicapped* by streetcar operations" and the scene showed a narrow street where cars were constantly stopping behind a string of high-frequency streetcars making stops right in the middle of the street. Then the scene switched to CC where the narrator proudly proclaimed "by 1960-something only 13 streetcar lines remained in the entire city" and the scene showed a bus moving out of the way of cars to the side of the street to pick up/drop off passengers.

I'd ultimately agree with Jarrett that we'll have to rely on buses to make transit systems as pervasive and accessible as possible. The trick is how do we get timid transit agencies and still-stuck-in-1970 DOTs to properly prioritize buses on high-traffic streets? In the DOT "efficiency" parlance, you'd think it would be common sense that a vehicle carrying 60 people should take priority over 60 SOVs!

jack horner

I think the key point is Jarrett's 'when we choose something more expensive, that means we can't afford as much of it.'

I suspect that at a deep level many people just don't get the concept 'opportunity cost'. They see it, they want it, like a kid in a lolly shop. The fact that, if they get it, they might not be able to get something nicer the next day, doesn't come into it.

You see this in the way the political pitch for major infastructure projects is all about the longed-for benefits, never about the costs. Where I come from (Australia), politicians pitching multi-billion dollar projects, which may or may not be economically sensible, will openly mock the very idea of cost-benefit analysis (it's dull and pedantic to question the economics of my visionary, nation-building project....)

There's an educational and framing problem here for advocates of senseible investment priorities.

PS see http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/01/business/01scene.html
for an amusing brainteaser on the definition of 'opportunity cost', which very few *professeional economists* were able to answer correctly


The ninth grader is pretty smart, although I could certainly make better arguments.

You're condescending and ignorant.

This isn't good, Jarrett. This is why I don't recommend your blog. And I wouldn't recommend hiring you.

You are simply in denial about the benefits of electric rail vs. diesel buses.


Some of the reasons I find your response ignorant and condescending
(1) on high traffic corridors, buses are more expensive than streetcars in the long run, which you manage to deny again;
(2) streetcars are consistently more popular, which you can't deny but try to ignore;
(3) your distinction between "streetcars" and "light rail" is linguistically dishonest. I agree 100% that dedicated lanes matter, but streetcars have had dedicated lanes since forever, even in cities as small as Fort Collins CO;
(4) As others noted, in practice, cars get out of the way of streetcars, but buses get out of the way of cars.

Pete B

In Liverpool, England the directly elected mayor has stupidly scrapped all the bus lanes in the city because he says they cause congestion. He didn't even properly consult the commercial bus companies, who's operating cost will increase as schedules become slower, and who's income could be reduced as passenger numbers drop. In the UK deregulated system when a commercial service becomes unprofitable the bus companies 'deregister' them and they cease to run - only a few weeks notice is required and no public consultation is necessary. In this particular case the regional passenger transport agency Merseytravel will have to go out to tender to fund a non-commercial replacement at local tax payers expense. The Liverpool Mayor seems to be of the same ilk as Mayor Ford in Toronto.

BBC News report:


Bus priorities are easier and cheaper to remove than trams/trolleybuses/light rail as they are in their most basic form merely painted road markings.

jack horner

In this often repeated bus vs light rail debate, let us clearly distinguish:

A. the technical possibilities (for example, ‘bus rapid transit can be as good as light rail if you take the trouble to make it so’)

B. the political and behavioural realities (for example, ‘in practice, cars get out of the way of streetcars, but buses get out of the way of cars’).

A. often favours bus rapid transit (almost as good *if you take it seriously and do it right*, for a lot less money).

B. often favours light rail (if you think that *in practice* BRT is less likely to be taken seriously and more likely to be weakened by compromises at pinch points).

Statements like ‘streetcars are more popular’ tend to gloss over the question: is this because they are technically superior having regard to benefits and costs (point A); or because, as a matter of history and politics, they tend to be given the better infrastructure (point B)?

I suspect a lot of bus/light rail disagreement comes down to different views on whether A or B is more important.

Good example of the tradeoffs involved: Eleanor Schonnell bridge, Dutton Park, Brisbane: A new, car-free bridge connecting the eastern suburbs to the university campus on the west bank of the river. The bus road terminates in a cul-de-sac on the west bank, with a design that deliberately prevents through routing buses past the university to other western suburbs. Through routing would be extremely useful for many other trips, and deliberately preventing it is quite crazy in a network planning sense. Presumably it was done this way because someone feared that a through-routed *road* bridge in this strategic location would come under pressure to be opened to general traffic, and they didn't want to take that risk. If it was a rail bridge that problem would not have arisen.



PS For other reasons light rail wouldn't have been practical in this case.



The new Tilikum Crossing bridge in Portland, set to open in 2015, is designed for bus, light rail (the Portland-Milwaukie line will use it), and eventually the Portland Streetcar (though the Streetcar will not use it on opening day).

(The bridge will also accommodate bikes and pedestrians).

Emergency vehicles will be able to use it as well, but the bridge will not be open to other motorized vehicles. I suppose that in the future there might be pressure to open the bridge to cars (a few right-wing radio gasbags are demanding such, but being ignored), but the center lanes of the Steel Bridge used to be used by cars. Then they were jointly used by cars and MAX (the only place in the system where cars could travel in the same lanes as MAX trains). Now they are rail-exclusive.

Many other parts of the MAX system--in particular its route through downtown, and the stretches along E. Burnside, N. Interstate, and in downtown Hillsboro--occupy street space formerly used by cars.

A lot, I guess, depends on the local politics.

Jim D.

Yes, cities can remove dedicated bus lanes or allow them to be used by other vehicles, but all that proves to me is that it is a municipality that doesn't take transportation seriously. Any light-rail line built in such a place would likely be hamstrung eventually. Look at how Buffalo built a LR subway but never found the political will to build the obvious extensions that would have taken advantage of the investment (and now the dedicated transit mall downtown is being partially re-opened to cars and stations lost to boot).


in practice, cars get out of the way of streetcars...

What total absurdity. If a car is sharing a lane, is subject to the same signals, and is in front of the choo-choo, it cannot possibly "get out of the way". Streetcars are no more dominating or intimidating than buses -- their adorable harmlessness is part of the reason they have so many "die-hard fans". Nobody is pulling out of their way and tipping hats to them as they pass.

If young Henry wants to be perceived as MIT material, he'd better get serious about his scientific method, rigorously testing his hypotheses even if the results undermine his formerly faith-based fandom.

And here's local result with which to begin: Boston's 39 bus runs about 2x faster -- and with better functional frequency -- than the Arborway trolley it replaced had in decades.


I kind of like how Nathanael keeps coming back to this blog despite writing comments like "This isn't good, Jarrett. This is why I don't recommend your blog. And I wouldn't recommend hiring you."

Usually, when I think something or someone isn't good, I stop visiting it/him.

I guess there's something though about this blog that brings Nathanael back again and again, despite his misgivings. Ironically, repeat visits is the sign of a great blog.


Why do I keep coming back? Because Jarrett gets *linked* by a lot of much better blogs.

There's a long conversation going on amongst a number of different blogs. Jarrett is part of that conversation. He's often pushing the wrong point of view, but he's part of that conversation, and since his head is *mostly* in the right place, he is worth conversing with; maybe eventually he'll understand why he's been wrong about a few key points all these years.

(Jack Horner makes some of the points very clearly.)

By contrast, there are places which are simply not worth visiting because they are not even in conversation with the useful blogs; not listening, and eventually not getting linked. That's very different.


"And here's local result with which to begin: Boston's 39 bus runs about 2x faster -- and with better functional frequency -- than the Arborway trolley it replaced had in decades."

I'm having difficulty finding 1984 and 1986 ridership, speed, or frequency numbers to provide comparable estimates.

Comparing 1984 performance to 2014 performance is meaningless. So pardon me if I simply don't believe that this means anything.

Jon Morgan

Electric trolley buses provide most of the benefits of streetcars at a much lower cost. Having lived in Seattle a few years, I wish far more cities had them. They are 11 decibels quieter than our ear-splitting diesel buses (note that noise has been identified as anti-pedestrian; relative quiet is necessary for a good walking and vibrant urban environment). The real advantage of streetcars, in the US, is that you can legally run longer ones than you can buses, which are limited to 60 feet due to turning issues. So you can carry more people with the same number of drivers, making it much more financially efficient. But that's not what most US streetcars being opened these days seem to do. From a rider's perspective, our South Lake Union line does offer a smoother ride than our old electric trolleys which jerk all over the place (and will start being replaced this year). I also kind of like being lower to the ground and having a more horizontal view of what's on the street around me, rather than looking down from above like I'm in an SUV.

As JW says, streetcars in their own right of way are a different thing, but you can run buses in exclusive lanes too.

An educational note--I was a transit junkie in high school/college, but I knew I wanted to major in Political Science and then couldn't find any classes or departments in urban planning. I worked in politics for a while then decided to change careers when my boss and hero died. I went to grad school to get a Master's in planning and was quite disillusioned by the experience. I don't have the Master's and can't really get a job in the field I want to work in. Few schools offer Bachelor's degrees in planning (a feather that sticks in my craw). If you know that's what you want to study/work in, you may want to apply to more than one school that offers a planning Bachelor's, otherwise you get stuck having to major in something else and go for a Master's later, rather than being able to work in the field with just a Bachelor's.

I've always loved Toronto, and I love the TTC streetcars, but I've only used them as a tourist. I didn't get into U of T. :(

Pete B

Here is an interesting site describing bus priority systems and BRT from a UK perspective including traffic signal priorities, bus gates, bus lanes (including how poorly planned ones make things worse for buses), bus-only roads, kerb guided busways



In Vancouver the Broadway light rail vs subway still rages. There seems to be a lot of LRT aficionados offering alternative routes to UBC at the end of the line. One in particular seems to be gaining traction by saying West 16th Ave is a better route, as though you can just roll out the rails an addition 4 ½ kilometres as easy as sweeping your finger over a line on a map.

Well, I looked up the underground utilities on West 16th and discovered it is a major route for some very heavy regional-scale water and sewer mains in the 80 cm to 1+ metre diameter range, as well as many 25-30 cm diameter neighbourhood sewer and water services. Three, two-block segments are particularly dense where the utilities run under every road lane with several more in the centre median, including a large gas main. Relocating such large and deep utilities is very expensive considering the depth and required shoring, materials, and rebuilding the road -- all before the track is even lain. The fact moving utilities often requires two trenches (existing + alternate) unless you can place two pipes in one trench (unlikely with the biggest ones) doesn’t make this any more affordable. Relocating utilities could cost several million dollars more a kilometre, if some of them can actually be moved.

I was a bit disappointed because I thought light rail would be a great intermediate-level service between the regional grade-separated (and driverless), high-frequency and fast SkyTrain with a one km station spacing, and slower local buses with a two-block stop spacing. When I checked for underground services on several routes, I was surprised to find them all too plentiful and likely expensive to relocate.

Now I see next generation BRT (double-articulated, electric trolleys) in centre medians with stations every ½ km as the most viable option. No need to relocate utilities because Vancouver’s trolleys don’t need a track bed, though a heavier slab of concrete may be the best road bed. They can also run on battery power around obstructions, or the trolley wires can be shifted to skirt major utility repair sites. Some BRT buses have a centre steel wheel guideway approaching stations to bring the vehicles to within exacting tolerances to the platforms for universal accessibility.

I would say anyone who promotes light rail using exceedingly low cost projections had better check with the engineering department prior to embarrassing themselves. I would say that light rail in all its forms is perfectly viable as an electricity-based, low carbon and economically viable alternative when you have a raw piece of land with few underground services and where land acquisition is not necessary.

Broadway? A subway has been overdue for decades due to its employment and residential density.


I wouldn't ignore the allure of trams, because it is a real phenomena. For reasons that are hard to measure and not fully understood, rail tends to attract more riders at equal service levels. Forecasters routinely tweak their models by for example adding additional minutes to bus trip times relative to rail, in order to get the numbers to match passenger numbers in reality.

For example, in Helsinki, we had a recent case of a bus line being replaced by a tram line. A tram line that is a by the book example of how to not build tracks, every mistake possible made, and consequently measured by hard service level numbers not an improvement over the old bus line. And yet, it doubled ridership.

I don't mean that bad tram systems should be built just for the sake of building rail. Trams need ROWs, signal priority, etc. call it light rail if you wish. But then again, so do buses in congested environments.


Nathanael, I'm f#%king from Boston. Born and raised. You are an occasional tourist. Who pretends to be an expert, but is really just a railwanker. And who increasingly tries my patience.

The trains ran, for the most part, at 12-13 minute frequencies. The buses run every 7-10.

The in-lane trains were slow as dirt. The bus has its traffic struggles too, but it positively zips along by comparison.

In fact, even where the remaining E Line has a median reservation and runs directly parallel, the better signal synching often makes the 39 bus so much faster that you'd be wise to wait for it.

Both are subject to bunching. But Green Line bunching, on the E especially, tends to be worse. (This is partly thanks to the remaining mixed-traffic tail!)

And lastly, if a mixed-traffic train were restored, it would be running now, and not in 1984. And with Boston's economy booming and Jamaica Plain growing, traffic is far worse than it was. Comparing the justifiably defunct trolley to today's buses is absolutely legitimate. And the comparison is not flattering!

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