Thursday, September 04, 2014

Credit where it isn't due

This is a good little article about the nationwide streetcar boom. As you may have guessed, the basic problem is cities tend to treat them as novelties rather than serious transit options.  Which is fine if the goal is simply to build downtown amusements.  It's less fine if you're looking for the best way to spend money designated for moving people around efficiently.
Since the U.S. streetcar revival relies heavily on transportation subsidies, it's only fair to expect the latest wave of streetcar lines to produce benefits related to (wait for it) transportation. But the new systems in operation—ten by the latest tally, with a few dozen more being planned—have left much to be desired on that seemingly essential count. Notwithstanding the legacy system in New Orleans, the best evidence to date places streetcars somewhat outside the transit network, more a tool for tourism than city mobility.

The most commonly cited problem with new streetcars—Matt Yglesias calls it the "original sin"—is that they tend to run in mixed traffic alongside cars. The resulting slow speeds, combined with the relatively short length of the lines (often just a mile or two), means many potential riders could sooner reach their destination by foot. Streetcar advocates say slow speeds are not only beside the point but part of the charm, which might be true, so long as riders don't have somewhere to be.
But wait a minute.  What is that idea with excepting New Orleans from this criticism?  The "legacy system" the author refers to really only refers to the St. Charles Avenue line.  The Canal line was installed during the 2000s. The Riverfront line, itself the very definition of a "tool for tourism," is barely 30 years old. And the Loyola line (sometimes referred to as a "streetcar to nowhere") whose main purpose seems to be to ferry visitors between the Hyatt and Canal Street, opened just prior to the 2013 Super Bowl.

All three of those later lines suffer from the faults cited in the article.  They run in traffic lanes. They operate in touristy areas, the majority of their ridership being visitors most of the time. And they've been called out for not meshing well with the rest of the RTA network.  
But Rachel Heiligman of Ride New Orleans, a nonprofit public transit advocacy group, said that because the RTA cut off the downtown segments of the Freret and Martin Luther King buses at the Union Passenger Terminal, those bus riders now must transfer to the Loyola streetcar if they want to get to Canal Street.

“What we’re doing is really just shifting the ridership from one mode — the bus — to the streetcar,” Heiligman said.

After those bus routes were cut off at the UPT, the RTA’s ridership data show both lost riders, suggesting that customers unwilling to transfer to the Loyola streetcar stopped riding altogether.
Why does this New York based Atlantic writer ignore all of this?  Unfortunately, the answer, actually calls into question the data on which this whole article is based. 
And again, that's the minimum standard. Good public transportation requires trains or buses to run every 10 or 12 minutes, five or six times an hour. Only two streetcars (Tacoma and Tucson) hit this mark. It's perhaps no coincidence that the brand new Tucson line also met its early ridership projections, even after ending a brief free-ride campaign and even before University of Arizona students were back on campus.

Compare these services to the high standard set by the historic and very functional system in New Orleans, where the St. Charles line runs every 9 minutes during morning peak, every 8 minutes at midday, and every 10 minutes at night. Frequency matters.
That is bogus.  Speaking as someone who has lived near the line for over a decade, sometimes relying on it for daily commuting, I'd grant that there are times... when everything is working just right... when traffic is just so.. and when the streetcars aren't all bunched together on the route.. that during peak hours you can catch a streetcar after something like a 10 - 15 minute wait.  But that's about as good as they get.

Most of the time, though, they are slightly less reliable than walking. And, although it's technically a 24 hour line, after 10:00 PM or so, it's best not to even bother. In general, excepting the occasions when you're not in a hurry, or just interested in @BeingNOLA for the day, it's a lot less hassle to just drive or bike your way downtown.

Still, I agree with the thrust of that Atlantic article's argument.  A streetcar designed with the purpose of actually transporting people in mind, can be a very nice thing.
To be clear: there's no inherent reason streetcars can't provide good mobility options for city residents. On the contrary, if they run in dedicated lanes and with high frequencies as part of a wider network, they can perform quite well. It's the way too many new streetcars are being deployed—as economic engines first and mobility tools second (if at all), even after being constructed with painfully limited transportation funding—that's inspiring much of the criticism.

I just wish the author had taken five seconds to look around and realize, that they're being misused in New Orleans in precisely the ways he writes that they are elsewhere
Pres Kabacoff, a real estate developer from the Bywater neighborhood, said he thinks the (new Rampart/St. Claude) streetcar will help spur business. Kabacoff even argued that slowing down vehicle traffic might be a good thing, since having cars whip by "is not conducive for good retail development."

He added, "To the extent that people have a difficult time in traffic getting down the street it may cause them to want to live in the area and use an effective streetcar."

1 comment:

Clay said...

In Japan, one interesting twist is Transit Authorities are allowed to buy up property next to lines under construction and then sell it upon completion (pocketing substantial appreciation, which helps pay for the line's debt service).