Monday, August 11, 2014

A Few Thoughts on Streetcars and BRT

Streetcars have been taking a major beating lately in the urban policy wonkosphere (justifiably in my opinion). The latest is an Economist takedown that covers most of the major critiques. A few additional thoughts:

1. True bus rapid transit (BRT)--in designated protected lanes--is far and away superior to streetcars. BRT is much faster, cheaper (initial and upkeep), and more easily modified (i.e. stops can be added and subtracted easily).

2. Streetcar lines, if shared with traffic, create a horrible safety hazard for cyclists in the form of embedded rails.

3. The Silver Line in Boston is a good example of a true BRT system--it's great!

4. If the primary benefit of streetcars is their permanence (thus spurring private development), this is an incredibly inefficient and costly way to send a signal. There are cheaper ways to signal the permanence of public transportation upgrades (BRT lane barriers, protected stops, protected pedestrian paths and bike lanes etc.).

5. I suspect much of the lustre of streetcars comes from their historical and cultural associations. Conversely, much of the aversion to true BRT is likely due to their physical resemblance to regular city buses and all the sociological baggage that entails.

6. A major benefit of streetcars is their visibility and fixed routes. City buses are not nearly as accessible to newcomers or tourists because of the uncertainty about whether they'll show up, whether you've gotten on the correct bus, and whether you'll get off at the wrong stop. Because bus systems have fungible metal, most don't have fixed route maps inside for passengers. True BRT systems solve all these problems.

7. Indeed, Washington DC's Circulator bus system solves all of these accessibility problems without even being a BRT system. Clever branding, simple and few routes, high(ish) frequency and dedicated equipment go a long way towards patching public transportation voids.

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