A streetcar full of myths

A streetcar full of myths

Streetcars seem to be the latest fad among urban planners. But the only goal that this form of mass transit promotes is livability, a euphemism for living without a car. And the only folks who really benefit from street car projects are the engineers in well-connected firms that earn millions of dollars planning, designing, and building street car lines. Those are some of the conclusions of Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author who recently took a look at streetcars and mass-transit policy in a policy analysis paper titled The Great Streetcar Conspiracy. (Read the entire report at Here are more of his findings that debunk some myths and misconceptions surrounding streetcars.

Streetcars are the same as light rail. Not quite. Light-rail routes stretch 6 to 20 miles and usually connect a city’s downtown area with one of its suburbs. Streetcars, however, travel on routes two to six miles long and usually serve just a downtown area or a distinct neighborhood. Light-rail trains consist of two-to four-car trains and each is about 100 ft. long. Streetcars average 66-ft long and are never coupled together. Finally, light-rail routes sometimes travel on streets but usually have dedicated right-of-ways for most of their routes. Streetcars almost always run through the streets.

Streetcars promote economic development. This myth is largely based on claims made for a streetcar line in Portland, Ore., completed in 1986. Its promoters, who would benefit from other cites building streetcar lines, say that the $130-million four-mile line was the catalyst for $3.5 billion in new construction and businesses. In fact, that line cost 55% more to build, 45% more to operate, and attracts 54% fewer passengers than originally estimated. In all, the total costs per passenger were more than three times the original projections. And the increase in development can more reasonably be explained by more than $1 billion in tax subsidies given to companies that developed property along the streetcar line.

Street cars are economical “quality transit ” with more capacity, lower operating costs, less energy consumptions, and less pollution than buses. A typical bus costs about $300,000 for a 40-seat version. Streetcars go for about $1.9 million and have about 30 seats. Buses also come out ahead when looking at capacity/hour. The Portland system is limited to running 20 streetcars/hr to maintain safe distance between streetcars on its single track. If each car is filled with 134 passengers (104 of them standing), the line can move 2,680 people per hour. In contrast, a bus stop can serve 42 buses per hour, and staggered bus stops handle up to 160 buses per hour. So with staggered stops and 40 people per bus, a bus line can handle 6,400 people per hour.

Operating costs for Portland running 504 eight-mile trips each week are $5.5 million annually, which breaks down to $26/vehicle mile. For comparison, Portland spends $11/mile to operate its buses. So the average streetcar must attract twice as many riders to have lower per-passenger costs. This is unlikely given a streetcar and bus with the same route, schedule, and ticket costs.

Energy costs for operating streetcars in several cities averaged 4,164 Btu per passenger mile. That same year, buses consumed 4,040 Btu per passenger mile, and cars used 3,540 Btu per passenger mile. The energy expanded to build rails for streetcars could run as high as 670 billion Btu per mile.

The amount of pollution generated by electric streetcars depends on where the streetcars get their electricity. In some states, hydroelectric sources provide the electricity, making the streetcars cleaner than cars and traditional buses. In most cities, however, the majority of electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels, making emissions for streetcars on par with those of buses and cars.

Pluses for buses. Comparing buses to streetcars further amplifies the downside of streetcars. Buses cost less, carry more passengers, and travel on already-made roads and highways. If travel patterns change ten years after starting a bus line, the routes can be changed quickly and cheaply.

Streetcars require expensive, dedicated rails that are expensive to change, and the change doesn’t occur overnight. It’s also estimated that streetcar lines require ten times the engineering time (and expense) of bus lines.

And if a bus breaks down, a tow vehicle can get it back to the garage for repairs, which doesn’t necessitate closing down the road or the bus line. When a streetcar breaks down, no other streetcar can use the rails until it gets cleared.

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