Not-So-Rapid Transit

February 29, 2016
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Washington, DC opened its long-delayed streetcar for business on Saturday. Actually, it’s a stretch to say it is open “for business,” as the city hasn’t figured out how to collect fares for it, so they won’t be charging any.

Exuberant but arithmetically challenged city officials bragged that the streetcar would traverse its 2.2-mile route at an average speed of 12 to 15 miles per hour, taking a half hour to get from one end to the other (which is 4.4 miles per hour). If there were no traffic and it didn’t have to stop for passengers or run in to any automobiles along the way, they admitted, it would still take 22 minutes (which is 6 miles per hour).

“After more than $200 million and a decade of delays and missteps,”observed the Washington Post, “it took the streetcar 26 minutes to make its way end-to-end on the two-mile line. It took 27 minutes to walk the same route on Saturday, 19 minutes on the bus, 10 minutes to bike and just seven minutes in a Uber.” After all the costs are counted, the Uber trip probably cost less.

The streetcar opening caught the attention of the Economist, which called it “pointless” because it follows a route that is already served by a bus that is faster, can get around parked cars that are slightly sticking into the right of way, and actually goes somewhere beyond the already gentrifying H Street neighborhood. Despite the problems and criticisms, DC officials were already talking about extending the line another 5 miles. 

Washington isn’t the only city caught up in the streetcar fad. FollowingPortland’s example, AtlantaCharlotteCincinnatiKansas City, and several other cities have opened or are building streetcar lines. Most of these lines are about two miles long, are no faster than walking, and cost $50 million or more per mile while buying the same number of buses would cost a couple million, at most.

Portland wants to build 140 miles of streetcar lines. At the average cost of its most recent line, this would require as much money as it would take to repave every street in the city–streets that are falling apart because the city doesn’t have enough money to maintain them. According to the latest census, seven times as many downtown Portland employees bicycle to work as take the streetcar, but another survey found that two out of three Portland cyclists “have experienced a bike crash on tracks.” 

New York’s Mayor de Blasio wants to spend $2.5 billion on a 16-mile streetcar between Brooklyn and Queens. Apparently that city is so flush with cash that it doesn’t have anything better to spend its money on than a slow transit line that won’t even stop near a subway station.

These cities argue that streetcars stimulate economic development. Yet arecent study sponsored by the Federal Transit Administration found that not only was there no evidence of such stimuli, none of the cities that had built streetcars were systematically measuring such impacts. Instead, most were busy subsidizing or coercing (through prescriptive zoning) new development along the streetcar routes.

In fact, there is no reason to think that a slow, congestion-causing, bicycle-accident-inducing rail line would promote new development. Streetcars were technologically perfected in the 1880s, so for Washington to subsidize the construction of a streetcar line today is roughly equal to New York City subsidizing the opening and operation of a factory in Manhattan that would make non-QWERTY typewriters, or Los Angeles subsidizing the manufacture of zoopraxiscopes. Rather than build five more miles of obsolete line, the best thing Washington can do is shut down its new line and fill the gaps between the rails with tar.

 

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