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Streetcars and buses

Here’s a little discussion starter for all you transit geeks: Infrastructurist’s list of 36 reasons why streetcars are better than buses. I’d boil a lot of it down to a smaller list: The ride is generally more pleasant, as it is smoother, quieter, and lacks any diesel exhaust smell, they’re more cost-effective in the long run, they can use green energy sources right now, and people tend to like them and use them more. Having said all that, M1EK‘s point about the difference between rail with dedicated right of way and rail that shares right of way with other traffic is still valid and needs to be addressed with any streetcar proposal. I think in Houston there are some corridors that could benefit today from streetcars, including a few that intersect or may someday intersect with a light rail line. Christof and Andrew have already tilled that field (I contributed as well), so go review what they had to say. With Austin and Fort Worth, we may be able to learn from other Texas cities’ experience soon. What do you think?

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4 Comments

  1. RWB says:

    Busses can run (and do run in many places) on compressed natural gas (CNG) which eliminates the diesel smell (and particulate pollution). Buses can run with overhead electric wires (the do this in Seattle), and I assume that installing overhead electric power is cheaper than installing rails.

    I know lots of people like trolleys and light rail. I support them being built. But I think we transit supporters (like Infrastructurist) often discount buses in a way that makes no sense to me. Buses pollute too much? There are already off-the-shelf solutions for that. Buses not “cool” enough to attract middle-class riders? Maybe there are ways to make buses more cool that are cheaper than building a rail-line.

    Seriously, we need to apply our brain-power to improving buses, even if we really like light rail. Because 1) light rail will never obviate the need for buses, and 2) if you support mass transit, it is insane to pit two options against each other. When light rail proponents put down buses, Randall O’Toole smiles.

  2. EdT. says:

    When I lived in the Netherlands during the mid-1960s, the city where I lived (The Hague) was decommissioning many of their streetcars/trams/light rail lines, replacing them with electric buses. The reasons were a combination of economic and flexibility (it was cheaper to re-route bus lines then rail lines.)

    Buses may not be seen as “sexy” as light rail. That is an issue (maybe a challenge) for the marketing folks.

    Rail makes sense for point-to-point transit between major areas/zones (e.g. downtown, Galleria, Greenway Plaza, TMC, stadiums, airport, Galveston), while buses make more sense for short-haul (many stops) routes – especially those that tend to be fluid (for example, as neighborhoods age, the transport needs will change.) As RWB noted, a good well-balanced transit system makes use of various modes to achieve its goals.

    ~EdT.

  3. M1EK says:

    Hey, thanks for the link! (I came here to see what you said about the article and found myself mentioned).

    I’m a huge believer in rail, obviously, and a streetcar vehicle on rails in reserved guideway is a wonderful thing – even going so far as to say that a small section of shared runningway need not completely exclude it from consideration.

    The key for me is that many people seem to believe there’s a sort of “streetcar fairy dust” (for lack of a better word) which makes a given shared-running route succeed with a streetcar on some metrics and fail with a bus – when what really happened in past transitions was a combination of service downgrades when the corridor shifted from streetcar to bus as well as traffic increases (which hurt the transit mode more than its competition in the private automobile). (or in the nouveau case; new streetcar service adding some reserved guideway and other improvements over the bus service it’s being compared to).

    VERY rarely have we ever had an apples-to-apples comparison – most existing streetcars have some reserved guideway; most past transitions weren’t directly comparable. The closest, actually, might be the Seattle trolley which is acutely underwhelming.

  4. M1EK says:

    EdT, lessons from countries where gas prices are very very very very high and/or cities where parking is relatively scarce and expensive don’t mean a lot in American cities where driving and parking are both cheap. You need a competitive advantage in that scenario other than cost (which bus can provide very easily in the Netherlands) – and speed and reliability of reserved-guideway rail provide that advantage pretty consistently in city after city, as long as the right corridor is picked for rail.