Building a streetcar mythology

January 31, 2012

Or how some streetcar advocates make their case by using the Iraq war’s lobbyists strategy.

Such strategy is not to be embarrassed with facts, but to express an opinion legitimated by an ample corpus of previously expressed opinions, which are presented as facts. It becomes then a mythology, because it is asked to people to believe unquestionably in them. and if it succeed at it, the unsubstantiated “facts” become “truisms”!

The streetcar example with a report : Streetcar Land Use Study

It is a report commissioned and published by the Planning department of the District of Columbia- so must be serious (We refer to it as “the report”)- which explains that a Washington D.C. streetcar network could generate $15Billion of investment along its corridors.

How it arrives to such a conclusion?

Basically it is grounded on a Portland streetcar company‘s paper [9], analyzing the real estate development in the years 1997-2008, which eventually happens to coincide with a global real estate boom, and general gentrification of cities’ downtown across the continent.

In addition of the global factors above, it has been also some more local factor attracting development in Portland:

  • A green belt constraining the development area
  • Other transit development (3 max line, an aerial tram…), all converging in downtown
  • Insitutional development [1]
  • Tax credit [1]
  • A street car loop

What is the exact contribution of the streetcar loop among the above cited parameters? It is not deciphered by the Washington D.C. study, apparently considering that the entirety of the developments occurring in the 2 blocks of the streetcar are triggered by virtue of its track presence.

No streetcar related redevelopment example: left, The San Fernando Building in LA, A successful revitalization effort in Down-town Los Angeles by developer Tom Gilmore- photo credit (3)-right the Woodward building neighborhood in Vancouver

What are the inherent quality of the streetcar provoking that?

The report describes it as a “Premium transit” transit service that is “reliable, predictable, and offers a high-quality ride—in other words, Metrorail [Note: the DC subway] or the streetcar“.

What about speed and frequency? does it really doesn’t matter? …and in what aspect a streetcar operating in mixed traffic can be more reliable-or predictable- than a bus?

A streetcar operating in mixed traffic is subject to the same reliability issue faced by a bus...with even less ability to avoid road impediment- credit photo (4)

What are the involved cost of the streetcar?

The venture of the report in this area is rich of learning. It states that: “Evidence […] suggests that streetcar vehicles offer better long-term cost-benefit value than buses”. Where are the evidence? 2 references are cited:

  • Street Smart: Streetcars and Cities in the Twenty-First Century – Gloria Ohland & Shelley Poticha; 2009
  • Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities from Patrick Condon [5]

It is worth to mention, that, first the conclusions of Patrick Condon are grounded on the finding of the other referenced book, and secondly, [5] presents numbers which should be subject to caution [6].

Circular referencing, but no cross checking…That was also the strategy of the Iraq war lobbyist

In anyway, a blanket statement like “streetcar vehicles offer better long-term cost-benefit value than buses” is discounting too many parameters to be taking seriously: one of them is that the long-term cost-benefit of a vehicle is tied to its productivity, which depend in part of the ridership.

What about other alternatives

The bus alternative is briefly investigated to be better dismissed: “Although well-designed BRT systems attract some development, their impacts are typically much less than those for rail”, this by citing [7] where one will have hard time to find which aspect of [7] leads the report to such a conclusion. In fact [7] suggests that “there is growing documentation of [BRT] positive development effects; however, given the newness of most BRT systems, more information is needed” while another [8] find that “the type and level of investment occurring near BRT stations appears comparable to the experience with TOD near rail transit”. Notice that this later reference provides relevant number:

“Since the Silver Line BRT was introduced, there has been over $571 million in investment along this corridor, and the tax base grew by 247%, compared to a city average of 146%. “

Relative growth on tax base in the corridor versus average… The Kind of information the streetcar report fails to provide.

And, outside transportation… does there is no other cost-effective avenue to shape development? Institutional impetuous as seeing in Surrey BC, seems to produce good effect, other large scale development like the Woodward building in Vancouver also…

Mythology building

Like in any mythology, with the streetcar mythology, facts are second to beliefs. The Streetcar myth just needs a critical mass of believers. If enough developers and buyers believe in it, the prophecy will be self fulling…that is why all the produced literature referencing itself is paramount.

Vancouver’s believer will then ask the question as Gordon Price did: “why not at least a return of the heritage tram to Science World?“, but the question shouldn’t be framed like it, it should be

  • “what you want to try to achieve by returning the heritage tram to Science World?”

[1] Numerous of land lots, developed around the streetcar, are or were institutional, and a 10 years property tax waiver has been put in place to “faciliate” development in the streetcar corridor(source: [2])

[2] Debunking Portland The City That Doesn’t Work, Randal O’Toole, July 9, 2007

[3] Eric Richardon

[4] Jarret Walker

[5] Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities, Patrick M. Condon

[6] In term of operating/capital cost: Number provided by APTA and Translink could suggest a pretty different picture, from the one stated in [5], see for example this post.

[7]TCRP Report ıı8: Bus Rapid Transit Practitioner’s
, 2007

[8]Bus Rapid Transit and Transit Oriented Development, Breakthrough Technologies Institute, Washington, 2008

[9]Portland Streetcar Development Oriented Transit, Office of Transportation and Portland Streetcar Inc.


2 Responses to “Building a streetcar mythology”

  1. rico Says:

    Great post again,

    Although I love travelling in trams I realize they offer little improvements over bus…for a lot of money…..however the Vancouver route would have significant exclusive right of way/vehicular seperation and would not duplicate an existing service so may be worthwhile….again that is without crunching numbers.


    • Adrian Leung Says:

      The streetcar does, in many ways, duplicate services available on TransLink’s network. The 50/15 and 84 are primarily the buses that it duplicates.

      Let’s look at a few scenarios where passengers would ride to, assuming the streetcar is fully built from Granville Island to Waterfront:

      – From Granville Island to Olympic Village Station: duplicates 50/15, which with removal of a few stops to match that of the streetcar, the 50/15 can provide an equally fast service compared to that of the streetcar; 84 is not far away.
      – From Granville Island to Olympic Village Area: 84 is the closest available service, and is within reasonable walking distance from Olympic Village with great walkability around the neighbourhood (well everything’s under construction right now).
      – From Granville Island to Main Street-Science World: this is a route where there is no direct service so to speak. A transfer is needed at Main Street. But for those only wishing to transfer onto the Expo Line going Eastbound, the 84 provides a wonderful alternative to VCC-Clark Station, and similarly 50/15 brings commuters straight into downtown.
      – From Granville Island to Chinatown: Again, a transfer onto the buses along Main Street is needed, but Main Street buses come fairly frequent.
      – From Granville Island to Gastown/Waterfront: taking the 50/15 would be faster.

      Aside from providing direct service for Granville Island, Olympic Village Area, and Chinatown, our current bus network provides all these destinations. The capital cost in double-tracking and new tracking, investments made in the streetcar vehicle (and the facilities to maintain), and the need to hire new staff trained specifically to operate the streetcar is significant, and the projected results, I argue, are not worth such a significant investment. Even if one uses the redevelopment argument in the case of the Vancouver Streetcar, Chinatown and the Eastside are already in the process of gentrification and redevelopment, without the streetcar (i.e. Woodwards as Voony points out). The Olympic Village/South East False Creek, likewise, are also being redeveloped.

      Now one thing the streetcar should do well is better market its services. Jarrett Walker talks a bit about marketing transit services, and how a bus could do well, if not equally as well, as a train if its services were marketed the same. Going with that line of thought, perhaps there is a need to better market our transit services. For instance, at Olympic Village, indicate which bus provides a direct link to Granville Island to help commuters and tourists: provide appropriate signage and maps (i.e. simple spider map of the 50 route), add an announcement “The Next Station Olympic Village. For Granville Island, connect with the 50 bus.”

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