Buses and Streetcars


There was some Kevin Drum-inspired tweeting yesterday on the perennial question of why build a streetcar when you could just use a bus instead. The advantages of streetcar are:

— People like to ride them better.

— Cleaner to operate.
— Quieter.
— More comfortable.
— Clearer routes.

— Cheaper to operate.
— Permanent structure drives private sector investment in a way a bus can’t

The advantage of bus are:

— Much cheaper to start up.

When considering this debate, I think it’s important to distinguish between two different kinds of argument. One is “instead of building this expensive streetcar you should do a cheap bus.” That’s like saying instead of eating that delicious steak you could go to McDonald’s.

The other is “instead of building this expensive streetcar, you should spend the same amount of money on a wide array of improvements to your city’s bus network.” In many instances, I think this is plausible. There are lots of things that can be done to improve the bus-riding experience. Most notably, using GPS on buses and electronic signs at stops to tell people when the buses are arriving would be a huge win. And of course a more frequent bus is a better bus. I think it’s unfortunate that you rarely see formal cost-effectiveness evaluations that look at the question “what if we spent all this money we’re considering spending on buses instead” rather than the question “what if we tried to save money by doing it with buses.”

Cities should be willing to invest in mass transit, but I think you need to look at the specific situation to understand what investments make sense. Streetcars have a plausible case when you have a vision to significantly intensify the level of development along the corridors you’re planning on serving (which is generally the case with the DC plan) but the power of better bus networks to improve traffic flow, air quality, and human quality of life shouldn’t be ignored.