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Posted at 4:23 PM ET, 05/25/2010

Why streetcars are better than buses

By Dan Malouff

Streetcars are big in planning circles right now. DC and Arlington have grand plans for them, as do many cities around the U.S. Every time the subject comes up, however, someone poses the question: What makes streetcars better than buses?

It's a valid question, and it has a series of valid answers. Here are the most important:

  1. Streetcars are more affordable than buses. While it's true that streetcars require a much larger initial capital investment than buses, that capital cost is offset by significant operational savings year to year. In the long term, streetcars are more affordable as long as they are used on high ridership routes.
    1. Streetcars have higher passenger capacity than buses (even bendy ones), which means that if there are lots of riders on your route, you can move them with fewer vehicles. Fewer vehicles means more efficient use of fuel and fewer (unionized, pensioned) drivers to pay.
    2. Streetcar vehicles themselves are much more sturdy than buses, and last many decades longer. While buses must generally be retired and replacements purchased about every 10 years, streetcars typically last 40 years or more. For example, Philadelphia's SEPTA transit system is still using streetcar vehicles built in 1947.
  2. Streetcars are much more comfortable to ride than buses. One of the big reasons why many Americans don't like buses is that they are so rumbly. They jerk you up, down, side to side. They're simply not comfortable. Streetcars glide along a rail much more smoothly, offering a vastly more comfortable ride. Less motion sickness, easier to hang on. This issue isn't often discussed in transit circles, but it is a really big deal. Passengers gravitate toward the most comfortable ride.
  3. Streetcar routes are easier to understand. In any big city, buses are confusing. There are so many criss-crossing and competing routes that it can be intimidating and difficult to understand. New users are turned off because they don't want to accidentally get on the wrong bus and end up miles from their real destination. Streetcars, on the other hand, are easier to understand because the cost of constructing tracks inherently limits the size of the system. Instead of an incomprehensible jumble, you get a clean and easy-to-understand system map. Even if streetcar line names may be a little more complicated than "Red Line," they'll be a whole heckuva lot easier to figure out than "P18".
  4. Streetcars attract more riders than buses. Partially because of the above points, streetcars are always used by more people than buses when all other things are equal. They attract more passengers, which after all is the whole point of public transit.
  5. Streetcars are economic development magnets. The presence of rail transit nearby is one of the best incentives for economic development in the world. Metro stations radically remade large swaths of the D.C. area, and streetcars can do the same (have done the same, in places like Portland and Toronto). Nobody ever built a condo building or shopping mall because a bus stops nearby, but developers routinely follow rail investments with real estate ones. Indeed, the additional taxes generated by rail-oriented development can repay the initial capital investment.
  6. Streetcars use electricity rather than gas. Although it depends how the electricity is generated, this potentially makes streetcars much more environmentally friendly than buses. And while it's true that electric buses exist, they are almost never used in the U.S., and require the same overhead wires as streetcars.
  7. Streetcars are much quieter than buses. Because they run on electricity, streetcars are very quiet vehicles. They are much less disruptive to neighborhood life than buses.
  8. Streetcars are iconic. Trains are graphic symbols for the city in a way that buses simply are not. Every tourist knows about the D.C. Metro, the New York subway, and the San Francisco cable cars. Their trains are an indispensable part of those city's brands, and streetcars will be too as soon as they're running. Nobody ever sent a postcard featuring a picture of a bus.

Dan Malouff is an Arlington County transportation planner who blogs independently at The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

By Dan Malouff  | May 25, 2010; 4:23 PM ET
Categories:  HotTopic, Local blog network, transportation  
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These are a lot of bad reasons for wasting a lot of money at a time when governments are already financially strapped.

1. Data in the 2008 National Transit Database show that the average streetcar in America cost $17 per mile to run, while the average bus cost $9. That's hardly a savings.

2. Comfort is a matter of cost. Buses can be built as comfortable as streetcars for a lot less money than it costs to build streetcars.

3. Saying streetcars are easier to understand is the same as saying they don't go anywhere so you can't get lost. If DC had as many streetcar routes as it had in, say, 1920, it would be just as potentially confusing as today's buses.

4. All available evidence shows that transit riders are sensitive to frequencies and speeds, not steel wheels vs. rubber tires. If some cities have gained riders from streetcars (dubious since most are poorly used), it is because they operate them more frequently than buses.

5. No streetcar line anywhere has stimulated economic development. To attract development along the Portland streetcar line, the city gave developers more than $650 million in subsidies. Without the subsidies, no development.

6. Virtually 100% of DC electricity comes from burning fossil fuels. DC subways actually emit more greenhouse gases per passenger mile than the average car.

7. Buses can be quiet top, while electric vehicles are so quiet that they are dangerous to pedestrians, prompting calls to require that they be made noisy.

8. DC already has its iconic subway that it can't afford to maintain in good condition. Why add to the region's burden by building more rail lines that it won't be able to maintain?

See reports 596, 616, and 663 at for complete references.

Posted by: Antiplanner | May 25, 2010 7:59 PM | Report abuse

What an honor to be replied to by the famous CATO Antiplanner! The most well-known hired gun of the anti-transit lobby!

1. The average bus doesn't carry as many passengers as a streetcar on a trunk route. I specified that the savings in that instance only apply to busy routes. And thank you for not bothering to try and refute the longevity point.

2. You cannot dismiss the real on-the-ground experiences of transit riders around the world with a "nuh uh".

3. In addition to route simplicity, the visibility of streetcar tracks makes the routes easier to understand.

4. Are you honestly suggesting that the image difference between trains and buses does not make a difference to ridership? Yes, frequency and speed are extremely important, but they aren't the only things.

5. That is patently false. Even if we dismiss Portland and all other contemporary streetcars for the sake of argument (which we should not do), half of this country was built on vintage streetcar lines, by developers who built the trains to serve their developments. You know this. Don't make absolutist statements that aren't true.

6. The source of electricity is a good point, which I addressed when qualifying the statement.

7. OK. I will concede that "streetcars are extremely quiet" is a true statement.

8. The United States already has its iconic Interstate system that it can't afford to maintain in good condition. Why add to the country's burden by adding any more roads? See what I did there. By the way, the DC streetcars are being built by a completely different organization than WMATA.

Posted by: Cirrus42 | May 25, 2010 10:53 PM | Report abuse

Agreeing with Antiplanner: the bias for steel wheels over rubber is one of those quirky facets of the human mind that just does not stand up to the weight of experience. Romance is like that ...

Agreeing with Dan Malouff: facts aside, rail systems do a better job of getting people to leave their personal autos outside the city. This reduces congestion, road wear, and pollution -- so in the larger view, streetcars make sense.

Point 1 also ignores the flexibility of buses: when the population shifts, the buses can be rerouted much faster than new track can be laid down, even for light rail. Also, bus size allows a closer fit to off peak hour rider counts.

SEPTA has retained the 1947-era streetcars only to accommodate local community preferences. If straightforward economics dominated, the few cars remaining would likely be shut down and replaced with buses, just as their counterparts in South Philly were years ago.

Point 2 gets into subjective factors. I ride the SEPTA Regional Rail on Amtrak rails to work every day, and often get bounced around as the old cars move through the switches at the crossovers.

Point 3 is, as Antiplanner points out, related to the paucity of rails. Besides, web-based routing systems have leapfrogged the general public's ability to find their way around all of the major cities.

Point 4 misses the point. Public transit also has to be affordable, and bus transit is more so -- both because per-mile costs are lower, and because usage efficiency is higher.

Skipping Point 5 -- nothing to add, except to note that though almost all shopping malls have bus stops, few have streetcars.

Points 6 and 7 are outdated; newer bus technologies, including trackless trolleys, are quieter and less polluting. Factor in the environmental costs of laying down track, and buses win on this one, too.

Point 8 plays with what a modern city is -- should government funds be used to maintain a tourist attraction, or a vibrant, growing community?

Summary: yes, buses would be better urban transportation systems -- but people don't like to use them, so every city needs a mix of both. Taxis, also.

Posted by: windlion | May 25, 2010 11:08 PM | Report abuse

SEPTA's vintage trolleys have not been constantly running on the Route 10 since 1947. They took old shells, and put in new guts. Still, the decision to reactivate the Girard Avenue trolley was NOT made for sentimental purposes, but rather the need to move more people more efficently than buses could handle ever couple of minutes.

As for what's quiet, the quietest transit vehicle is the trackless trolley (electic bus). SEPTA has them, and the old ones were so quiet, you'd never hear them coming. The streetcars in Boston (Green Line) used to make all kinds of noise, but that probably has to do with track maintenance and tight curves. Something designed today with brand new equipment should be quieter than the T.

Posted by: Chris__P | May 26, 2010 5:53 AM | Report abuse

There is a huge difference in operating costs between light rail (streetcars) and buses. Buses are much cheaper and more flexible.

Posted by: doug7347 | May 26, 2010 8:12 AM | Report abuse

There's another method ~ technologically advanced electronic guideway systems will be available in the near future.

Properly equipped motor vehicles (including automobiles, trucks, and buses) little different from those currently on the road will be routed/rerouted by disaggregated network computer systems so that traffic flows faster, more efficiently, and more safely than any fixed rail system.

We took our first big step toward such systems when VS or ESC (Electronic Stability Control) was made mandatory on all new cars. Your handy, dandy, friendly little HDD navigation system is "almost there".

Take a look at the current array of LEXUS options to see where this is all headed ~

Once the driver is no longer a mandatory option in most motor vehicles, there'll be little reason to get stuck with buses and trollies.

Posted by: muawiyah | May 26, 2010 8:23 AM | Report abuse

I think streetcars are only iconic if they are 60-80 year-old antique streetcars like San Francisco runs on the Embarcadero. Otherwise, it is just another light rail line.

Also, San Francisco's streetcars are much noisier than San Francisco's electric buses.

Posted by: meh130 | May 26, 2010 8:32 AM | Report abuse

This country seems to be heading backwards continually. What's next, horse and buggy?

Posted by: Kansasgirl | May 26, 2010 8:45 AM | Report abuse

the two most important reasons:
1. streetcars offer dignified transport, whereas buses do not, and
2. bikes can comfortably ride in the vicinity of streetcars, but not buses.

Posted by: shmooth2 | May 26, 2010 4:18 PM | Report abuse

A bus holds 80 people, a streetcar holds 150 or 300 or more. You have to run two or three or more buses for each streetcar to move the same number of people. This is why in high wage countries (such as ours) on high ridership corridors (such as H street) streetcars are cheaper to operate than buses.

But how much ridership does there have to be to make it worth the investment? The studies cited at take the break-even point to be around 5000 weekday passengers per direction. If you have this many riders, it makes sense to put in a streetcar line as it will save money in the long run. It is this transit-economic fact that is behind the streetcar renaissance in Europe. (They plan long-term there, and don't want to be locked into subsidizing expensive-to-run buses till the end of time.)

The H street-Benning Road corridor currently has about 4.5 million trips annually, or more than 7,000 weekday passengers per direction, well above the break-even point.

Of course, if you believe that fewer people will be taking transit in the future (as planners did in the 50s and 60s who removed the streetcars in the first place did), then you will reject streetcars as a bad investment (since ridership may go down before you can realize the cost benefits). But if you think the future will see more transit use, then the only economically sensible thing to do is to support investment in streetcars on high capacity corridors and those that promise to be.

Posted by: grahamkatz | May 26, 2010 9:00 PM | Report abuse

"A bus holds 80 people, a streetcar holds 150 or 300 or more. You have to run two or three or more buses for each streetcar to move the same number of people."

That means buses run two or three times more frequently than streetcars! That's a big plus for bus riders.

I think streetcars or any other form of transportation are fine if they are fully paid for by riders. But I observe that streetcar proponents are almost always looking for government funds to build and subsidize their favorite way to travel. If private industry wants to build and operate unsubsidized streetcars the way they do buses I think it would be great. Otherwise, it's just an uneconomical idea, of which there are so many!

Posted by: doug7347 | May 26, 2010 10:43 PM | Report abuse

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