Light Rail & Streetcars



Are Gondolas Too Cheap To Be Accepted As Transit?

Any good marketer knows that it’s better to sell a product with a higher margin than with a lower one. Furthermore, the higher the margin on the product, the more likely it will be viewed by the buyer as prestigious and luxurious.

It doesn’t matter that one car may be identical to another, the higher price point carries with it a certain cache.

So does such a phenomenon exist in the world of public transit and policy? I think it might, especially since transit planners, policy wonks and politicians aren’t actually playing with their own money when they select one technology over another.

In that situation, why wouldn’t they opt for that which carries more prestige?

When we talk about Cable Propelled Transit, we’re often quick to point out that it is a very cost-effective technology. Same for Bus Rapid Transit. In comparison to Light Rail, BRT is almost always the more cost-effective technology.

But we have to remember that another word for “cost-effective” is “cheap.” And no one ever wants to look cheap.

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When Is A Road Not A Road?

Toronto’s grand LRT scheme, Transit City, appears headed for a premature grave. Almost immediately after assuming his new role as Toronto’s Mayor, Rob Ford declared to the province his intention to kill Transit City and replace it with subway lines.

Toronto media has been ablaze with the story since it hit yesterday, but no one seems to know what to make of it. Does Mr. Ford have the power to unilaterally declare dead a plan that was 8 years in the making? What will the province’s response be? What of Metrolinx, the regional transit planning authority? What of all the money spent on contracts, plans and new Light Rail vehicles?

No one seems to know.

Even staunchly pro-LRT advocate and Toronto transit buff Steve Munro seems lost for words. Says Steve: “Readers who know me well will appreciate that today is not the brightest day in my history of transit advocacy.  It would be easy just to write a bitter rant against the incoming regime.  That would be a waste of time — they won’t read it anyhow.”

Anyone who knows me knows I’ve never been a fan of Transit City, but let’s put that aside. Let’s put the mode choice/technology debate aside for a second.

Ford’s actions concern me. Maybe it’s just for political showmanship, but Ford unilaterally declaring the “war on cars” to be over is ridiculous and dangerous theatre. Whether such a war actually exists or not is besides the point. In Mr. Ford’s world, roads are for cars not people. (This assertion of Ford’s is so universally known in Toronto, it’s almost pointless to link to it, but just in case, check here and here).

So let’s put Transit City, LRT and subway lines to the side and agree on one thing: Roads are most certainly, 100% not just for cars. Maybe it’s just a matter of definition, but roads are also for people, too. People and roads existed for thousands of years before cars did.

History makes clear that roads aren’t just for cars. Roads are also for…

. . . eating . . .

A Chip Wagon Outside Toronto City Hall. Image by flickr user Danielle Scott.

. . . walking . . .

Barcelona's famed pedestrianized Las Ramblas. Image by flickr user Carlos Lorenzo.

. . . playing hockey . . .

Street hockey in Montreal. Image by caribb.

. . . boating . . .

Venice's Grand Canal. Image by flickr user gnuckx.

. . . relaxing . . .

Car Free Day in Vancouver. Image by flickr user thirteencentpinball.

. . . Christmas shopping . . .

Zürich's Bahnhofstrasse. Image by flickr user meckert75.

. . . and anything else you can think of.

Rob Ford had best be careful. Announcing the end of a war that never existed might just start the war he claimed was already over.

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Track Replacement Time Lapse

Ken Murphy spent 3 1/2 days taking one photo approximately every 15 seconds of the San Francisco streetcar track replacement occurring outside his house. The following is the mind-blowing result:

Church and 30th St. San Francisco MUNI Construction from Ken Murphy on Vimeo.

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Duck Season!!! Rabbit Season!!!

The 1950’s Looney Toons animated short Rabbit Fire is perhaps one of the best-known of all Bugs Bunny cartoons. It’s an influential piece of work that’s invited all kinds of scholarly conversation.

In it, the confused and generally helpless Elmer Fudd is hunting for rabbits. Self-servingly, Bugs Bunny convinces him that it’s not actually rabbit-hunting season. Bugs claims it’s duck-hunting season instead. This – quite understandably – raises the ire of Bugs’ long-time nemesis Daffy Duck (who appears out of nowhere).

The two engage in an almost never-ending argument over whether it’s Duck Season! or Rabbit Season! With no objective outside way to resolve the debate, Elmer becomes increasingly impatient and angry and lashes out, firing indiscriminately at both Bugs and Daffy.

The genius of the work is that there is no single authority to answer the question. Surely in the rational world outside of cartoons, a park ranger could answer the question very easily. Yet the film’s creators wisely leave all semblance of authority out of the debate as it increases the drama and prevents any side from having objectivity on their side (you’ll see where I’m going with this below).

I can’t help but imagine the LRT vs. BRT debate in much the same way.

Like the Duck Season! Rabbit Season! debate, both sides claim a position (LRT is the best! No, BRT is the best!) that is impossible to prove. The two sides are virtually equivalent, both with a performance-cost package relatively similar to each other. There are plusses and minuses to each, but both are reasonable facsimiles of each other.

Conveniently, authority is left out of the conversation and when such authority is brought in, it is typically just as partisan (see the National Bus Rapid Transit Institute and Light Rail Now! for two such groups) Like in the cartoon, it’s a great way to increase the drama, humor and entertainment value of the situation, but really only causes confusion, anger and frustration.

Unfortunately, in this debate, the public is cast as the exhausted and impatient hunter, Elmer Fudd. We’re mere observers in a debate that has no judge, no jury and no solution. We’re powerless onlookers whose opinion switches every moment we hear a new talking point. All we really know is that someone’s face is going to get blown off and – like in the cartoon – it’s likely to be our own.

One thing we’ve tried to do with The Gondola Project is get above the knee-jerk, reactionary mode-choice debate. LRT’s great when implemented in the right way, poor when implemented the wrong way. Ditto for BRT. Same for Urban Gondolas and CPT. Again, it’s about multi-modality and options. We believe transit planning isn’t a zero-sum game. It’s about match the right tool to the right task at the right price. Sadly, this is a position other transit advocates don’t seem to share.

Hopefully sometime in the near future, LRT and  BRT will find a way to elevate their feud to something a little more than cartoon-level antics. Until then, it’s likely to be a never-ending farce resulting only in people getting hurt.

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Speed Is Not Dependent Upon Technology

The Toronto Star reports today that the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) and a waterfront development agency are at loggerheads over a planned new streetcar corridor.

The essence of the conflict is this:

The Toronto Transit Commission wants to experiment with track design on a new streetcar route to speed up Toronto’s failingly low streetcar speeds (between 10 and 12 km/hr, on average). Their solution is to place both track directions on the North side of Queens Quay (a major waterfront boulevard), and place both directions of vehicular traffic on the south side.

(Note: Traditionally, streetcars are placed in the center of a roadway with – say – eastbound streetcars moving on the same side of the street as eastbound traffic and westbound streetcars moving on the same side of the street as westbound traffic).

Neither the TTC nor the article offered an explanation as to how, why, or if this plan would increase average streetcar speeds. Nevertheless, TTC officials quoted in the article claim that according to their plan streetcars would experience average speeds of 13 – 15 km/hr, a significant speed premium.

Waterfront Toronto (the development agency), however, envisions a 3 km long stretch of Queen’s Quay  with up to 20 separate traffic lights to contend with the myriad of developments they have in the area. Of course this 3 km long stretch of roadway is the same as that which is to be used for the TTC’s new streetcar line.

For those who are counting, Waterfront Toronto’s plan would result in 1 traffic light every 150 meters.

TTC officials state that so many traffic lights would result in a streetcar line “even slower” than other Toronto streetcars (those within the 10 – 12 km/hr range).

Waterfront Toronto officials, however, contend that their plan for having extended greens and transit signal priority (TSP) schemes along the stretch would result in average speeds of 16.6 – 19.5 km/hr.

As I’ve argued before, transit signal priority schemes have a very dubious track record and there is little consensus about whether the technologies actually work (at least in a North American sense). At best, TSP seems to reduce travel times (and increase travel speeds) by around 6 – 10%. At worst, it actually increases travel times and reduces speed.

Waterfront Toronto, however, is convinced that their TSP plan would result in an increase in travel times of roughly 65%. This speed increase, meanwhile, would be realized in a corridor with 43% more traffic lights than some of the most congested sections in all of downtown Toronto.

The TTC accurately described the plan as “death by a thousand cuts.”

Something doesn’t make sense here. Both Waterfront Toronto and the TTC cannot be right. Both could however be wrong. That they differ in their opinions so widely suggests someone’s (or both’s) forecasting models are severely flawed.

At the end of the day, what this quibble shows is this: Road based transit speed has almost nothing to do with technology choice. Speed and travel times is dependent almost entirely on how the technology is implemented in relation to its surrounding environs.

Transit enthusiasts, advocates, planners and researchers need to get out of the habit of saying their technology preference is the fastest. After all, as the above demonstrates, your technology preference could be the fastest but it could also be the slowest.

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Forecasting as Voodoo

There’s nothing more common and consistently wrong in the transit planner’s toolbox as ridership forecasting and projections. It’s like voodoo: 90% of the time it doesn’t work, and the 10% of the time it does no one knows why (hint: it’s not because of the voodoo).

So here comes Tom Rubin, a veteran transit consultant saying if Los Angeles had forsaken its program to build streetcars and light rail and instead “run a lot of buses at low fares, they could have doubled the number of riders.”

Meanwhile, quoting the LA Times article above, Jarrett Walker echoes this philosophy stating that “if you really want a transformative boost in transit ridership, the single most effective thing you could do can be done entirely with paint and signs: converting traffic lanes or parking lanes to bus lanes.

It would be great to see Tom Rubin (and to a lesser extent Jarrett Walker) prove his claim. How can he know that Light Rail directly decreased ridership and that bus ridership would have doubled the number of riders? How can he make such a sweeping prediction?

He can’t.

There’s no way to make that claim unless Rubin has access to a time machine capable of visiting an alternate universe and reporting the results back to our current universe. And if Rubin did have such a machine, why is he wasting his time as a transit planning consultant?

If you read the LA Times article closely you notice four things:

  1. Rubin  makes clear that the initial decrease of transit ridership in 1985 was due to an increase in fares. It’s a bait-and-switch. First he attributes the decrease in ridership to an increase in fares. He then tries to pin that on Light Rail (because the subsidy used to artificially keep bus fares low was shifted to rail).
  2. Rubin notes that traffic congestion continues to rise throughout the region and uses that as evidence of rail’s ineffectiveness. It’s a correlation versus causation error: Just because rail was built at the same time that transit ridership decreased does not mean one can attribute the latter to the former. Meanwhile, during the same period of time, LA opened one of the longest and most heavily used Bus Rapid Transit lines in North America. Why is rail to blame and not BRT?
  3. Rubin conveniently ignores the fact that transit ridership has returned to pre-1985 levels in Los Angeles.
  4. Rubin focuses on running “a lot of buses at low fares.” His argument in favour of buses is dependent upon them having low fares. The same argument could be made for running “a lot of streetcars at low fares” or “a lot of ponies at low fares.” Rubin’s argument should be rephrased as low fares increase ridership not buses increase ridership.

Generally speaking, I’m not the biggest fan of LRT because it’s rarely implemented properly. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was the cause of decreased transit usage in Los Angeles, especially when the logic underpinning such an argument is completely suspect.

I also wouldn’t go so far as Jarrett Walker does to say that any one technology or technique (bus in particular) is the single most effective means to boost transit ridership. That’s a pretty big claim to make especially without any statistics to back it up.

For any technology-specific advocate, the stakes are high. Transit contracts are some of the most valuable in the world, costing billions of dollars. It shouldn’t, therefore, surprise us that some industries play fast and loose with facts and truth. Is it right? No. But just because it isn’t right doesn’t mean we should blind ourselves into believing it doesn’t happen.

Cities, meanwhile, are continually struggling to increase transit ridership. So if a certain group of technology enthusiasts can make a specious claim that their technology can do that, maybe their technology will win more contracts and their consultants and planners will get more work. It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy that’s (strangely) rarely fulfilled.

Selling one transit technology as the be-all-and-end-all savior of transit is irresponsible. Damning another technology using incredibly faulty logic worse still.

Note to Tom Rubin: If you do have the aforementioned alternate-universe-time-machine handy, could you please tell me who has my copy of Jane Jacob’s Dark Age Ahead? I really love that book and I have no idea who I lent it to. Also: Whose going to win the 2014 World Cup? And: What would I look like with a mustache?

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Taken For A Ride

Taken For A Ride is a documentary first broadcast on PBS in 1996. It tells the story of how a consortium led by General Motors, Firestone Tires and Standard Oil systematically worked to uproot the American streetcar network and replace it with roads, buses and private automobiles.

The short hand for this incident is the National City Lines Conspiracy (or the Great American Streetcar Scandal) and has its share of supporters and its detractors.

Those who believe in the conspiracy believe it whole-heartedly, and portray General Motors as a scheming, money-hungry corporation that is solely to blame for America’s shoddy public transit infrastructure.

Those who don’t believe in the conspiracy tend to say streetcars were too expensive to begin with and replacing them with buses and cars was simply a natural economic event.

Complicating the debate is the case against National City Lines, whereby the US government found that General Motors, et al did not conspire to monopolize the public transit industry, but did conspire to monopolize the provisions of supplies and parts to its subsidiaries.

The debate rages on to this day, 60-80 years after the original transgressions.

My guess is the answer lies somewhere between the two extremes. GM, et al probably were up to some shenanigans, but they probably weren’t solely responsible for the death of public transit in America.

Nevertheless, Taken For A Ride is a classic, and well worth exploring with an open, skeptical mind:

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