Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Multiple streetcar recipes

I ran across a great piece from the Transport Politic about streetcars and why cities are opting for them. The author wonders if they are the panaceas promoters claim.

First, I generally agree with Yonah Freemark's assessment. It points out that Washington has shifted gears from funding bus improvements to streetcar projects. All true. Bush's administration put a higher priority on speed. Projects that reduced travel times got the nod for federal funds. That usually meant streetcars didn't get funds. The current administration favors a funding formula that considers streetcars. The stimulus fund also wou8nd up going to streetcars.

He then points out that most money goes to lines that are slower. By avoiding paying for things like grade separation, that could be done cheaply with something like paint, he insists that we are short-changing our transit systems. The only reason he gives for this is that it is politically unpopular to take a lane of traffic away. While that maybe true in some areas, I don't think that is it only.

I also don't think he gets the whole picture. Until we understand that transportation systems are not separate entities from the built environment, we will never have fully integrated communities.

While I don't suggest that streetcars should always be slow, neither do I suggest, as Freemark seems to do consistently, that speed is the ultimate goal. I refer to McKinney Avenue, the main thoroughfare to perhaps Dallas' most urban neighborhood. It is a heavily traveled street with a streetcar line in the middle and dense buildings along both sides.

McKinney is a great urban street. Obviously the streetcar shows transit works here, but many people drive and biking is quite easy, despite heavy traffic (primarily for the reason about to be given). The difference here and elsewhere is the slower speeds. This is what Freemark (and almost all traffic engineers for that matter) misses. The speed, or maybe lack of, is a commonly missed ingredient of urban streets. So much of our time in the transportation field is spent getting things through areas as quickly as possible. That alone is not ther problem. There are times where that is needed. The problem comes in when it is done everywhere, regardless of context.

My favorite Dallas streetcar - the Green Dragon. The nickname comes from the SMU students who used to ride it when Dallas had an expansive city-wide streetcar system.
This is where the streetcar comes in. I can think of nothing as regular as a scheduled streetcar that can help slow traffic down as a streetcar line. Buses can, but not as well, for reasons I can't even articulate. Maybe part of it has to do with the streetcar unloading in the middle of the street, rather than the side, but it isn't the only reason. Even the feel of driving next to a streetcar slows traffic.

In fact, it is amazing how everything but cars work better when the overall traffic speed is lower. Transit does, biking certainly does. Nearby pedestrians are more comfortable.

Freemark did say later that each locality should decide the use that is best, so at least he wasn't advocating speed above all, all the time. But if you read enough of his posts, you'll that he indirectly advocates speed above all things.

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