Friday, August 08, 2014

Streetcars belong. Yes, still on the street

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More than two years ago, this rail advocate held to the belief that "Streetcars belong. Even on the street." I maintain this belief now more than ever, in the face of a rising tide of streetcar critics intent on scuttling the mode as it regains a solid foothold in North America. Make that "because it's regaining" a solid foothold in North America. On the streets of North America, their stomping grounds, where, so some assert, they shouldn't be in the 21st century.

The backlash against the mode in 2014 has come from various quarters. Some of it remains comfortably predictable, epitomized by the vitriol spewed against streetcars by Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who is determined to "phase out" streetcars and, supposedly, build subways to resolve city traffic congestion. "I said it from day one — streetcars are causing congestion," Ford said at a press conference Aug. 7, 2014.

But fresh off Tucson, Ariz.'s successful Sun Link debut in late July, and on the heels of testing the H Street Line in Washington, D.C., early this month (photo above left), a fresh new wrinkle: We shouldn't have streetcars on the street because they're so vulnerable, so prey to those mean, nasty automobiles. Best remove them to a safe, secure, separate right-of-way, this theory goes, so that streetcars can offer true time savings and not be stifled by ... the same time delays automotive traffic is perfectly capable of inflicting on itself, all alone.

This should be laughable: "mixed traffic" is too caustic and casualty-prone for poor l'il ol' streetcars to handle – they must be grade-separated at all times, see? Sort of like a helicopter parent ensuring his/her child is safe by locking said child in prison – sorry, the playpen – for as long as possible.

But I'm not laughing, for some of the folks advancing this are, at least on the surface, not opposed to streetcars outright – just not on the street itself, please, or at least not having to mix it up with those (tawdry? Classy?) automobiles dominating the roadscape. The expressed reason seems innocent and supple enough: If streetcars are slowed by the traffic they're mixing with, then they're too slow, see, and therefore lack a "speed" and efficiency factor, negating their worth.

It's funny how single-occupant vehicles don't get those demerits, even if they presumably arrive from more distant origins. After all, they get stuck, right? Worse, they might have to park – right? What kind of time savings does that hold?

I suspect something else: Folks, even some transit folks, just don't want to share road space with rail transit. I know this has held true when it comes to the streetcar's larger cousin, light rail transit (LRT). Environmentalists in Hoboken, N.J., for example, couldn't handle the very idea during the 1990s, green or no green; they saw red. The "BMW greens" needed their road space, thank you.

Still lurking among those greens, and indeed among a wide range of critics, is the idea that "buses don't get stuck" in traffic. I see buses get stuck all the time – repeatedly hammered by bottlenecks – in my hometown, due to double-parked (or triple-parked!) cars, or, heaven forfend, emergency vehicle needs, just like the one that tripped up the D.C. streetcar on H Street during initial testing Aug. 4, 2014.

Fortuitously, I postponed posting this entry on Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014, to give it some more thought, and boy am I glad I did. Emerging from my PATH station on the way home, I held off crossing the street as two fire trucks loudly announced their need to round the bend in the road and ... run smack into a roadblock created by auto traffic, a red light, and two or three buses semi-parked on both sides of the road. I won't stretch the truth by saying the buses couldn't move out of the way – that would be too pat – but it's no stretch to say it took some time, and the fire trucks got held up, and it wasn't a seamless remedy.

It all took place without a streetcar in sight. But no one argues buses be banned from most streets (as I've insisted, not even me!). Why then does the onus fall on a rail mode with the name "street" right in it?

Possibly because automaniacs believe they own the streets and (oh, were it actually so) they've paid in full for them. Most probably a fallacy (and, full disclosure, I say that as someone who actually does own a portion of a private road). Overwhelmingly, the city, or the county/parish, owns the street – not you, at least not you as an individual (and if you do, well, then, I do, too. And I want streetcars. Lots of 'em).

"Run more like a business," fiscal critics (including some hypocrites) scream at municipalities, except that when those entities try to leverage ownership of their own asset, for something OTHER than automobiles, well, then, the socialist fervor rages. I need my parking (preferably free). I need the road space. Efficiency, cost-effectiveness, be hanged, on the road and in the shops and restaurants and other businesses along the way that a streetcar can deliver far more people to (and from).

Here's the good news, at least as I see it, courtesy (as it is so often) of trendsetter California and as reported by the website Streetsblog Los Angeles. The Golden State will cease using "Level of Service," or LOS, "the standard by which the state measures the transportation impacts of major developments and changes to roads. Level of Service is basically a measurement of how many cars can be pushed through an intersection in a given time. If a project reduced a road's Level of Service it was considered bad — no matter how many other benefits the project might create," the website notes.

Certainly the presence of streetcars on a street could affect, even adversely, automotive dominance, but California's new approach "will no longer consider 'bad' LOS a problem that needs fixing under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). This won't just lead to good projects being approved more quickly and easily, but also to better mitigation measures for transportation impacts," Streetsblog LA said, adding that the Governor's Office of Planning and Research on Aug. 7 "released a draft of its revised guidelines proposing to substitute Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) for LOS."

The blog site continues, "In short, instead of measuring whether or not a project makes it less convenient to drive, it will now measure whether or not a project contributes to other state goals, like reducing greenhouse gas emissions, developing multimodal transportation, preserving open spaces, and promoting diverse land uses and infill development."

Sounds great for many options, including streetcars, not so coincidentally being advanced now in Anaheim, Santa Ana, and Riverside, and even within the Los Angeles city limits themselves, as well as solidifying in San Francisco and even making a token appearance in San Diego. Once again, California seems determined to lead the way.

Some citizens in various places in recent days – San Antonio, part of Kansas City – think that's not the future, and that's their choice; good luck to them. (KC has its starter line, so I don't fret over its future.) But for more North American cities, and even suburbs, I'll hold fast to my stated belief in a bright future for streetcars. On the street. Where they truly still belong, and perhaps from where they never should have departed.

Douglas John Bowen

Douglas John Bowen is Managing Editor of RAILWAY AGE. He also served as Editor of Intermodal Age from 1989 to 1991, and has held various positions at Inbound Logistics magazine, High Speed Transport News, The Journal of Commerce, and CNN/Money. Bowen began his journalism career at the Asbury Park Press, a New Jersey daily newspaper. A graduate of Rutgers University, Bowen resides in Hoboken, N.J. He served as president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) from 1987 to 2000 and again from 2004 to 2010, serving on the NJ-ARP board from 1984 until 2012; he remains a member of the statewide organization.