36 Reasons Why Streetcars are Better than Buses

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jacqui on Apr 25, 2013
Tagged in: KC News

 

The Marin Trolleys Organization is starting six trolley lines to connect Marin’s cities together and to regional transit.

Concept
The Marin Trolleys plan is rooted in “Back to the Future.” Marin County was established along rail lines, making Marin unique in that 70% of urban Marin is still within ½ mile of an original rail right-of way. Most of the original rail routes in Marin still exist.

Benefits
Money spent by individuals to own/maintain multiple automobiles and fill them with gas will be available to spend on other needs.

Property owners/developers are known to invest along rail lines. Such investment will stimulate local economies. Rail lines, unlike routes dependent on funding, are permanent. Foot traffic will increase around stops, stimulating retail and local businesses.

Proposed Routes

1.    Southern Marin line from the Mill Valley Depot to the Sausalito Ferry Landing.

2.    Mill Valley to Tiburon line.

3.    Mill Valley to Corte Madera, Larkspur, Kentfield & San Anselmo

4.    Corte Madera, Greenbrae to San Rafael

5.    San Anselmo to the Larkspur Ferry Landing

6.    Ross Valley line from Fairfax, through San Anselmo to San Rafael. A Novato line is also envisioned.

For more information visit Marin Trolleys at http://www.marintrolleys.org

 

If you want a system that really attracts riders and investment, many transit experts will attest that streetcars are the best dollar-for-dollar investment a city can make.

Of course, there are plenty of situations where old-fashioned bus service or newfangled bus rapid transit (which usually has dedicated lanes) are just the thing. But for cities facing a choice between building a streetcar system or high-end BRT–and the cost difference can be smaller than might think–it’s handy to know that transit riders overwhelming prefer streetcars. One reader posed the question, “buses or streetcars?” and the responses–from laypeople and transportation experts alike–came fast and furious. In the end, we were left with dozens of reasons why streetcars are superior, ranging from the obvious to the wonderfully creative.

As the comments added up, we became more and more intrigued. So we’ve edited the various reasons into a proper list. Did we miss anything? Do any of these not hold up? Disagree entirely? Let us know in the comments section and we’ll update the story–and the headline–as worthwhile additions come in.

1.      New streetcar lines always, always, get more passengers than the bus routes they replace.

2.      Buses, are susceptible to every pothole and height irregularity in the pavement (and in Chicago we have plenty). Streetcars ride on smooth, jointless steel rails that rarely develop bumps.

3.      Streetcars don’t feel “low status” to transit riders. Buses often do.

4.      Mapmakers almost always include streetcar lines on their city maps, and almost never put any bus route in ink. New investment follows the lines on the map.

5.      The upfront costs are higher for streetcars than buses–but that is more than made up over time in lower operating and maintenance costs. In transit you get what you pay for.

6.      There is a compelling “coolness” and “newness” factor attached to streetcars.

7.      Streetcars feel safer from a crime point of view.

8.      Steel wheel on steel rail is inherently more efficient than rubber tire on pavement. Electric streetcars can accelerate more quickly than buses.

9.      Streetcars don’t smell like diesel.

10.  Streetcars accelerate and decelerate smoothly because they’re electrically propelled. Internal-combustion engines acting through a transmission simply cannot surge with the same smoothness.

11.  The current length limit for a bus is 60 feet, but streetcars can go longer, since they are locked into the rails and won’t be swinging all around the streets, smashing into cars.

12.  Streetcars have an air of nostalgia.

13.  New streetcar and light rail lines usually come with an upgraded street experience from better stops, landscaping, new roadbeds, and better sidewalks, to name a few. Of course, your federal transit dollar is paying for these modernizations, so why wouldn’t cities try to get them!

14.  Perhaps the most over looked and significant difference between street cars and buses is permanence. You’ll notice that development will follow a train station, but rarely a bus stop. Rails don’t pick up and move any time soon. Once a trolley system is in place, business and investors can count on them for decades. Buses come and go.

15.  Streetcars are light and potentially 100% green. Potentially they could be powered by 100% solar and/or wind power. Even powered with regular power plant-derived electricity, they are still 95% cleaner than diesel buses. [Source? -Ed.]

16.  Streetcars stop less. Because of the increased infrastructure for stops, transit planners don’t place stops at EVERY BLOCK, like they do with buses (SEPTA in Philly is terrible for this). Instead, blocks are a quarter to a half mile apart, so any point is no more than an eigth to a quarter mile from a stop.

17.  People will travel longer distances on streetcars. At one point, in the 1930s, a person could travel to Boston from Washington solely on trolleys, with only two short gaps in the routes.

18.  Buses are noisy. I ride them every day in Chicago, and I am constantly amazed at how loud a diesel bus engine is–even on our latest-model buses [and] the valve chatter is an irritant to the nervous system. By comparison, streetcars are virtually silent.

19.  Technological advances already make the current generation definitely NOT your grandfather’s streetcar. Low floors are standard, for easy-on easy-off curbside boarding. Wide doors allow passengers to enter or exit quickly. So streetcar stops take less time than buses.

20.  Passengers can take comfort from seeing the rails stretching out far ahead of them, while ever fearing that the bus could take a wrong turn at the next corner and divert them off course.

21.  Once purchased (albeit at high cost) streetcars are cheaper to maintain and last way the hell longer (case in point, streetcars discarded in the US in the 40’s, snapped up by the Yugoslavs, which are still running).

22.  Streetcar tracks are cheaper to maintain than the roadways they displace.

23.  People get notably more excited about the proposed extension of the streetcar system and expect revitalization of the neighborhoods around the planned stops.

24.  Streetcars create more walkable streets. This is because streetcars, as mentioned above, are more attractive to riders than buses, which in turns prompt to more mass transit usage in general, which in turns prompts to more walking–a virtuous cycle that creates more attractive city streets.

25.  Most European cities and countries kept investing in public transit during the decades when America was DISinvesting. Now I look across the pond and see dozens of European cities extending or building new rail transit systems, including many streetcar lines, and conclude: ‘They probably know what they are doing; we should do some of that too.’

26.  You know exactly where a streetcar is going – but have you ever tried looking at a bus route map?

27.  Streetcars are faster than buses or trackless trolleys (aside from 2 lines in Philly, do any other cities run trackless trolleys, or trolley buses anymore?) because trams tend to have dedicated lanes. Even if they don’t, if they operate on streets with multiple lanes, people stay out of the tram lane, because it’s harder to drive a car along tram tracks (the wheels pull to one side or the other as they fall into the groove).

28.  In buses you’re still jostled by every pothole and sway at every bus stop. I thought bus rapid transit would be a significant improvement - there’s still a bit of sway and they concrete was not installed as smoothly as line of steel rail.

29.  With buses transit planners are pushed by funding formulas to capture every pocket of riders thus you can get a very wiggly route – something that’s less practical on a fixed rail system

30.  Buses lurch unpredictably from side to side as they weave in and out of traffic and as they move from the traffic lane to the curb lane to pick up passengers. In streetcars turns occur at the same location on every trip, so that even standees can more or less relax knowing the car is not going to perform any unpredictable lateral maneuvers.

31.  Most streetcar riders don’t consciously think about the differences between a bus ride and a streetcar ride. But their unconscious minds–the spinal cord, the solar plexus, the inner ear and the seat of the pants–quickly tally the differences and deliver an impressionistic conclusion: The streetcar ride is physiologically less stressful.

32.  An internal-combustion engine is constantly engaged in hammering itself to death and buses tend to vibrate themselves into a sort of metallurgical dishevelment. Interior fittings–window frames, handrails, floor coverings, seats–tend to work loose and make the interior look frowzy and uncared-for. By age 12 the bus is a piece of junk and has to be retired. A streetcar the same age is barely into its adolescence.

33.  Streetcar stops are typically given more attention than most bus routes and the information system is more advanced. In Portland, the shelters even have VMS diplays that tell you the times of the next two streetcar arrivals. This valuable information gives people the option to wait, do something else to pass the time, or walk to their destination.

34.  One great advantage of streetcars is that the infrastructure serves as an orienting and wayfinding device. The track alerts folks to the route and leads them to stops. Because they are a permanent feature of the streetscape, the routing is predictable and stable (unlike bus routes). So unlike a bus, a streetcar informs and helps citizens to formulate an image of their city, even if folks don’t ride it. It is a feature of their public realm. Because of this, these streets get greater public attention.

35.  When you ride one of the remaining historic cars in Toronto or San Francisco you can tell they’re “old” in the sense of “out of style,” but when you look around the interior everything still seems shipshape, nothing rattles, the windows open and close without binding. The rider experiences a sense of solid quality associated with Grandma’s solid-oak dining table and 1847 Rodgers Brothers silver. And that makes everybody feel good. Unlike, say, an aging bus.

36.  For those of you who cannot see the difference between a bus and a streetcar, I suggest riding a streetcar when you get the chance. Then, if you can locate a bus that more or less follows the same route, give that a try. Compare the two experiences.