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.


[edited on May 30th 2010]

This post is written in the context of the decision to move from the current honor system to the barrier controlled access rail transit system in Vancouver. The capital cost involved by the move is estimated at $100 millions [3]. the cost of fare evasion on the Vancouver rail system is estimated at $3.5 millions per year [4].

Fare evasion

At the beginning the Paris subway had human fare control at its gates. In a move to save on fare control operating cost, the Parisian transit agency, had started to implement turnstile, pretty much in the style seen on the Toronto TTC or the Vancouver seabus…
But Quickly, it appeared that the lack of human control once in the subway system was a pretty good incentive to dodge the turnstiles.

The full display of fare evasion as well as turnstile dodging technique associated with perceived impunity of such behavior, has encouraged wide spreading of similar conducts in the Paris subway, then adopted by people of all conditions as illustrated below


A French countryman, Jacques Chirac, dodging a turnstile in the Paris subway on Dec 5, 1980, station Auber. He was then Mayor of Paris, he will become head of State (credit photo bnf)

That has lead the French transit agency, the ratp to adopt more elaborate faregate, now featuring full door.

  • either the door stay open long enough, and several people (following close enough) can pass the gate with a single fare.
  • or the door close very quickly, and you can’t cross the gate with any luggage, or stroller.

In despite of tremendous investment in fare gating, fare evasion is estimated at 10% in the Parisian subway what is in fact comparable to the access free subway in Berlin [7] and way much more than the 5% measured in Vancouver [4] or 6% on the access free subway of Los Angeles in 2007 [8]

in any case, the turnstiles are an impediment slowing down the flow of transit riders, and the good thing introduced by smart-cards, is that it allow to mitigate this point.

One will note that if fare evasion was the justification for a fare gating, subsidy could be then not necessary. In reality fare evasion on Vancouver transit system is as low as 2.5% system wide (5% on the Skytrain, what amount to $3.5 millions revenue lost a year, which could be only partially recovered by turnstiles) [4], that is nowhere near to able to justify an $100 million investment [3]. In comparison of other systems [7][9][10], there is a generally good level of compliance in Vancouver, observation that the casual observer could have confirmed during the Olympic games, by watching the sometime hour long line-up at the fare vending machine .


It has been a strange and unsubstantiated claim done by the British Columbia government that the fare gates could increase the security on the skytrain [2].
The opposite could be more true: In fact, the diversion of resource going to the maintenance and amortization of the fare gates, instead of human staffing are of nature to make the system less safe.
The creativity of the fare gate dodgers and other smugglers being boundless, it appears that nothing is able to replace human staffing as the picture below illustrates and could also apply to Canada [6]


Police, at Paris Gare du Nord, in April 2007, makes sure everyone is paying his fare!

Nevertheless, the unsubstantiated BC government claim will suffice to justify to allocate $70 millions of subsidy by senior government toward a fare gating system on the Vancouver rail network [3]

The smart card

Another strange association has been done in BC between the turnstile and the smart card. Both can be put in place separably, as it is done on numerous transit network.

smartcard access to the subway of Rennes, France, is done without turnstile. Nevertheless, notice how the smart card readers are placed in prominent position on the farepaid zone line (credit photo wikipedia commons)

The distance based pricing

That seems the only reason a network transit the size of the Vancouver one, could wish to adopt turnstiles control. Controlling entry and exit of the network effectively allows the transit operator to charge by the distance, as done in some rail network, more noticeably on the Hong Kong MTR [5]

Still, in this case, one will find curious the government interference in a matter which should be a priori leads by economic consideration.

Even so: the logic would like that the smart card come first, since it can work currently in the 3 zones model, which is common to numerous network, like the Paris one, and turnstiles in a second phase. Curiously, according to the VancouverSun [1], it is the reverse we gonna see, and suffer all the inconvenience of the faregate, including compromised ease of access to the transit system for people with special needs; from the traveler with luggage, to the wheelchairs, without the advantage of the smartcard.

[1] Olympic commuters sticking with public transit, Vancouver Sun, May 25, 2010

[2] Free rides approach end of the line on SkyTrain, CBC, November 09, 2007.

[3] Canada, BC and TransLink Invest in Transit Security Improvements, press release from Canda government, April 09, 2009

[4] Fare evasion Internal Audit, by PriceWaterHouseCoopers, Translink, September 2007

[5] Notice that such distance based pricing model can a priori apply only to the rail network, and not the bus one. Nevertheless, the smart card can allow implementation of a bus route based pricing like on the model of Hong Kong

[6] Montreal police quell subway brawl, Globe and Mail, December 27, 2009.

[7] TTC fare collection study, TTC, October 2000.

[8] Metro Rail Gating Study, Metro Los Angeles, November 15, 2007

[9] Toronto TTC has a fare evasion of as low as 0.7% on its subway [7], but one should note that all the turnstiles lines are constantly monitored by human staff, via strategic location of ticket office at the stations, as well as additional staffing at rush hours. Non staffed entrance, are equipped of full rotating door, unable to accommodate people with special need (wheelchair, stroller,…). In conclusion, it could be hard to conclude that the low fare evasion number is achieved by turnstiles alone. This observation can be confirmed by the number from the New York subway able to reduce from 3.5% to 0.5% the level of fare evasion through policy measures [7].

[10] The level of fare evasion is estimated at 5% in Montreal, where the subway is accessed throug fare gate, as estimated by the Montreal Transit Agency (stm communiqué, April 21th, 2008 )