Designing the Future – Buses, Streetcars, and Trains

In Budget Politics, Climate Change, Economic Planning, Economics, Environment, Mass Transit, New York, Public Policy, Public Sector, Social Democracy, Social Policy, Urbanism on April 9, 2010 at 9:13 pm


I’m a huge fan of mass transit, and in the past I’ve written about why Federal investments in High-Speed Rail need to go hand-in-hand with investments in local and regional mass transit, why understanding the public aesthetics of mass transit is critical to its success, and why the development of gas-free automobiles still means that we need to invest in mass transit. However, as a public policy scholar, I do have to acknowledge a downside of mass transit: it can be quite expensive to develop, and slow to construct. Even as an eternal partisan of the New York Subway, I have to acknowledge that building subways is an extremely capital-intensive and long-term approach.

While this isn’t that much of a policy problem – most high-quality investments are expensive but produce great returns, and important gains over the long-term are often more important than more transitory short-term improvements – it is a political problem. By and large, people tend to have high time discounts – we want stuff now, and we don’t like waiting. We’re also not very good at perceiving changes over the long term; I know from my own experience in living on the same street as a major construction project (new graduate and undergraduate housing, plus expansion from a one-lane to two-lane street, and the addition of a central median and bus terminals), over the four years I was living there, it seemed like the project was taking forever. It’s only later, when I go back to my old address, that I can see the sheer scope of the changes that happened. Similarly, people have a hard time thinking about public finances in a holistic, long-term thinking. They hear “one-trillion dollars” as the price tag for a stimulus or health care bill, and they compare it to their own incomes and family budgets, instead of thinking about it as spread out over ten years and in comparison to the government’s much larger scale of budgets and revenues.

All this means that the electorate tends to be not so thrilled with expensive public investments that take a long time to pay off, even if they are really good investments, and this makes politics a lot more difficult for advocates of High Speed Rail and similar mass transit investments than perhaps it should be.

That’s one of the reasons why it’s good politics for mass transit advocates to focus on the kinds of investments we can do right now and on the (relative) cheap, and why things like Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s 30/10 plan (accelerating 12 major mass transit projects, scheduled to take 30 years, to a new 10-year timetable) are important strategies that should be emulated in other cities and regions.

On Interconnection and Redundancy:

One of the roadblocks in the way of concerted efforts like the 30/10 plan is that transportation politics often envision transportation policy as all-or-nothing in terms of the modes of transportation: mass-transit opponents fight for highways and nothing but, bus advocates accuse subway advocates of racism, and subway advocates accuse bus advocates of betraying the cause of environmental justice in dirty alliances with highway interests.

However, the thing that impressed me the most about the Berlin mass transit system is how harmoniously different systems of mass transit, with different scales of operation, can co-exist if they are interconnected. The best symbol of this is the Hauptbanhof, where a traveller can stand at the top level of this unbelievably beautiful building and stare down the central hallway at many layers of mass transit, from the S-Bahn (elevated rapid transit) at the top, down to the U-Bahn (subway) at the bottom, with inter-city and regional rail in-between, and connections to the tramway system. You can move between these layers with remarkable ease, especially since the various systems (with the exception of the heavy rail outside of the city) are all on a unified fare system.

Indeed, the history of the great American cities at the peak of their size in the 1940s, shows us cities with multiple, redundant systems of mass transit that competed and complemented each other in moving people to where they wanted to go. New York City in the 1930s had three separate subway companies (the Interborough Rapid-Transit, Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit, and Independent Subway System lines), trolleys and trolleybuses, motor buses, and elevated railways. I would argue that the sheer multiplicity of mass transit was a major contributing factor in New York’s unique development as a city where a majority of the population uses mass transit to get to work and do not own cars.  Competition kept fares down – and made the nickle fare a icon of the city’s political economy – ironically leading to the “peaceful” nationalization of the city’s transportation system as revenues fell below fixed costs. The multiplicity of transit systems also allowed for specialization – trolleys were historically tied to commuters (the so-called “streetcar suburb” being the first wave of suburbanization), elevated rail trended towards long-distance routes up and down the length of Manhattan and across-borough traffic in Brooklyn and Queens, whereas buses and subways offered more local stops.

I would argue that the same multiplicity is needed today – especially if it is accompanied at all times by the overarching principles of interconnectedness – that people should be able to move from one system to another with ease – and redundancy – that systems should provide support for each other, by sharing passenger loads and taking up the slack in case of breakdowns in one system.

(Rapid) Buses:

I have to admit that for a long time, I’ve been quite cool on Rapid Bus Transit – along some of the same lines that these folks have argued – that it’s still reliant on highways, that it wouldn’t be as fast as a subway line, and son on. However, I’ve moderated my views when I think about it the context of a system of mass transit that emphasizes interconnectedness and redundancy.

RBT has its advantages – it takes much less time and resources to create dedicated bus lanes and build new bus stations than it does to build a subway. It’s especially true that it’s easier to extend RBT into previously car-dependent areas where building subways is made more difficult by highway and freeway construction that “block” the extension of rail liens. All you have to do is set aside bus lanes, as you can see in the picture below, build some station “islands,” and order RBT buses.

The trick here is to use the principles of interconnectedness and redundancy to allow RBT to specialize and split express and local stops, which should allow RBT and subways to complement each other. Subways are ultimately faster on the long-haul, and are more efficient in the highest-density corridors – RBT could make subways more efficient, by substituting for short-to-medium range trips and “filling in the gaps” of local stops, while allowing subways to specialize in the longer-distance commutes between key centers. It’s also the case that RBT can strengthen subway systems by reducing the number of lanes of traffic open to cars, pushing more people towards mass transit than would be the case in a system with subways and all-car roads and highways.

Specialization would also improve the aesthetic experience of RBT as mass transit – by reducing the number of stops the buses have to make, the speed of the trip is greatly diminished, putting the “Rapid” back into Rapid Bus Transit. It also allows for more frequent buses, since buses can complete their routes in less time. Faster transit is more aesthetically pleasing; people hate spending a long time getting from A to B,  especially if they’re packed in with a lot of other people – and it’s an actually a major class issue. Not only do poor people work for lower wages and perform more physically demanding labor then their richer counterparts, but they also tend to lose more time than their richer peers – in part because faster services tend not to service their communities as well, in part because operators have been known to skip stops in poor neighborhoods, etc.  Providing genuine RBT to poor communities would be a huge benefit – but it won’t work as well by itself than it would in combination with subways and other forms of mass transit, because RBT would have to shoulder additional burdens and perform new missions.

Streetcars: Trolleys/Trolleybuses

When considering how to build a system of multiple forms of mass transit, one thing that inevitably leaps into your mind is trolley and trolleybus (or streetcar) systems.  Streetcars occupy a natural position halfway between buses and subways. They’re faster than buses, even Rapid Transit Buses, because they have more efficient all-electric engines that accelerate and break faster and are more efficient in dealing with inclines, but they’re not as fast or as capacious in terms of how many passengers they can handle as trains – in part because subways can build multiple underground “lanes” whereas streetcars are sharing the streets with other forms of transit.

Similarly, while streetcars are not as capacious as subways, they have higher capacity than RBT, because they can add on more cars, and admit and discharge people through multiple entrance points. In terms of costs, streetcars are right between the two – it’s much cheaper to put up wires than it is to build subway tunnels, but it is more expensive to put up those wires than just repainting street lanes as designated bus lanes. (Trolleybuses also have the cost saving that you don’t have put in rails as you do with trolleys) To be fair, newer streetcar systems have been modified to reduce reliance on wires, which allows the concentration of overhead wires into high-density corridors, which reduces both cost and aesthetic complaints.

Streetcars are also advantageous because, depending on the electricity source, they are emission-less and they are virtually silent (more so with trolleybuses as opposed to trolleys, since you don’t get the “squeal”  that you get when trolleys take corners) – to the point where sometimes streetcars have to add “sound” to prevent pedestrians from falling prey to the “Silent Death.” A fast, emission-less, silent, much less bumpy ride is a huge aesthetic improvement, which only serves to further entice commuters and travellers onto mass transit. But just in the case of RBT, streetcars work best when they work in conjunction with other forms of mass transit – picking up the middle distance trips from RBT, while reserving the longer-distance trips to faster subways.

Putting All the Pieces Together:

What should emerge at this point is the realization that interconnected and redundant mass transit systems work much better than systems that rely on just one form of mass transit, because they allow for specialization. The fastest means of transportation are best suited to express transportation, and cross-town or even inter-city travel – and subways can be even better than they are now if they don’t have to also do local stops, which slows down the train with more time spent getting people on and off and more time spent accelerating or breaking instead of moving at top speed. Likewise, middle-speed systems work best for middle distances – you don’t need and sometimes can’t safely achieve the highest speeds of say, High-Speed Rail, if you’re servicing more frequent stops, but why settle for the slowest speeds if you don’t have to hit every local stop.

But interconnection doesn’t happen on its own – making the systems work together requires political work to get the incentives right. The first thing that has to happen is to unify the fare systems and make transfers free; this keeps the different systems from fighting over a limited pool of customers and fares, and actually reverses the incentives. Now, more bus users means more potential subway users or streetcar users, and vice versa. Funding should be apportioned on a formula that combines how many people are served, how fast they are moved, and the cost of serving them, so that systems are encouraged to compete on the basis of regularity of service, quality of the ride, and other features that add to the aesthetic value of mass transit, instead of giving an advantage to systems that either move a lot of people or do it cheaply.

However, a unified fare system isn’t enough – you also need to locate stops near or at stops for other systems, so that transfer points should be as common and easy to use as possible. Major subway stops should also be RBT and streetcar stops, so that a passenger can leave their house, get on the nearest form of transit, make a convenient transfer to the fastest form of transit to the closest express stop to their destination, and either get off there, or transfer to a streetcar and/or bus to get to their final destination.

Finally, the mass transit system should be as transparent and easy to use as possible. A single fare card that you can buy either at vending machines in any of the systems or in local shops, a fare card you can electronically swipe so that time isn’t wasted inserting and retrieving your card is a step in the right direction. So are electronic schedule announcements built into the stop signs – as above – or inside the cars that not only inform you of the next two trips on that system, but also about trips on nearby connecting systems, so that you can time whether the next bus or streetcar will get you to the station in time to catch the next subway train and vice-versa.

At all times, the focus should be on moving people through the system as efficiently and aesthetically as possible – because the two are mutually reinforcing. People like to move efficiently, and bottlenecks create sudden spikes in street levels (no one likes all of the sudden to be stuck in a line waiting to pass through a gate or having to jog across a station at high speed through choked corridors to make their connection).


The ultimate point here is that there is an alternative to the present zero-sum political conflict between different modes of mass transit. You can develop a politics of a united mass transit front against the dominant highway interests, and actually build stronger and more successful coalitions, but it only works if you use interconnection and redundancy to align the incentives correctly.

  1. […] into green energy, mass transit, and other sustainable ventures. A statewide version of LA’s 30/10 plan, aimed at speeding up and extending High-Speed Rail and local mass transit would be a huge […]

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