Thursday, April 30, 2009

Eco-nomics: The Streetcar and the Incentives of Fixed-Route Transit

[Photo Credit: Jamie Francis, The Oregonian]

The Oregonian reports that the Feds have approved $75 million for the east-side streetcar project.  This begs the question, why fixed-route surface transit?  It is no faster than busses, much more costly to implement, less flexible in terms of scheduling and cannot adapt its route to changing ridership patterns.  I suppose the best answer is that it is a commitment device that can spur development in areas in which such activity is considered desirable.  In so doing it can promote even more density, which is generally a good thing for local economies and the environment.  I suppose it might be more energy efficient, but I am a bit skeptical, especially relative to electric busses like those in SF that get power from overhead lines.  I am no expert or even much of a casual student of transit, so I am wondering why the feds are endorsing it so enthusiastically.  What have I missed or what should be added to the discussion?      


Aaron said...

Much of the appeal is the riding experience itself.

In Portland, streetcar (and MAX) trains are clean, open, well-lit, have wide aisles and a variety of seats. It's easy to get on and off. It's easy to ride standing up. When someone with a wheelchair or bicycle needs to get on or off, it takes just a few seconds.

Buses here, in comparison, are poorly lit, often smelly and dirty, and have a narrow aisle that's difficult to navigate. It takes much longer to get a lot of people on and off. Riding while standing feels dangerous. Getting wheelchairs and bikes on and off are an ordeal for the driver and other passengers.

That's not to say all bus experiences have to be this way, of course. Bogota's Transmilenio system runs buses that feel more like rail cars, with wide doors and spacious boarding platforms.

There's probably an argument to be made for upgrading the bus experience rather than spending money on streetcar tracks. I'm curious how much (if any) cost savings there would be to upgrading high-traffic TriMet bus lines instead of building more streetcar tracks.

Gray said...

There are a couple of major issues. First, as Aaron mentioned, people's experiences on buses are generally very negative. Moreover, there's a huge stigma among middle class Americans to riding the bus. This stigma isn't as present in places like Canada (for multiple reasons), and we see many more middle class Canadians riding buses. In the U.S., when we build a light rail line, many people who wouldn't consider buses will ride the train. Take Minneapolis, for example, where ridership far outpaced projections, probably mainly because people were willing to go out of their way to ride a train--but wouldn't have considered riding a more direct bus. We see this with rail all over the country.

Second, there's the effect you mentioned of it being a commitment device. Flexibility was always cited as a main reason to switch from rail to buses, but it turns out to be not such a universally good thing: there is great value to committing to a route, so that riders, builders, and businesses all know it will be there for years and can invest accordingly.

Finally, there are some efficiency gains, though they're not huge. Electrification can be helpful as well, depending on how the electricity is generated. But your comparison to trolley buses isn't exactly a fair one since overhead lines for those buses also represent huge capital investments--yet they don't have some of the other advantages of light rail.

Ralph said...


Jacob Grier said...

One of Randal O'Toole's papers from Cato (disclosure: where I used to work) is on point here. I haven't read it in a while, but I think the gist of it is that federal politicians prefer highly visible, glamorous projects (streetcars) to mundane but more efficient ones (buses).

Patrick Emerson said...


Yes and its true that once you install the overhead power lines it is essentially the same commitment to a fixed route, so you lose the route flexibility that goes with busses.

Greg said...

When I lived in Heidelberg, Germany, I rode vehicles very similar to our streetcar that could top out in the 40kph range. I also recall that the Strassenbahn tended to have dedicated lanes and so forth. I think the slow speed of the Portland Streetcar might have as much or more to do with our implementation as it does with any limitations of the underlying technology.

Just my $0.02.

Greg Diamond

Patrick Emerson said...

Greg, I assumed it was just due to fact it had to run with traffic. Is it different in Heidelberg?

Greg said...


I was there for the 2002/2003 school year, and from what I remember the lines were set up more like we've done with the MAX. Dedicated lanes where possible (across bridges, and in the newer parts of town), and mixed traffic closer in to the center (though even then, I think only buses were allowed in the streetcar lanes).

I also remember being impressed that a town the size of Eugene had 6 streetcar lines.

Greg Diamond

Oliver said...

Here are a couple links that ponder the same question:
When I lived in L.A., there was definitely a stigma against buses that did not apply to subway and lightrail. I suspect the policy rationale is that by expanding rail transit, more middle-class voters will choose to commute by public transportation; this, in turn, will lead to greater commitment to mass transit and make it easier to pass the bond measures necessary to expand the system.

Patrick Emerson said...


Interesting stuff. I wasn't thinking about why residents prefer streetcars like they are but as an economist I am moved to propose one other explanation:

People don't like uncertainty and that don't like to have to work to figure stuff out (search costs). A fixed route line makes it very easy to figure out the route and commit it to memory. Thus the streetcar is permanently fixed in the minds of residents making them more likely to choose to ride it.

Aaron said...


I think that's an excellent point. Similarly, the visibility of streetcar tracks and platforms makes people constantly aware that they're on a transit route, even when there's no streetcar around.

Walking down any given street, you're only aware it's a bus route if you a) see a bus or b) spot a bus stop sign amidst all the other street signs.

The added awareness of streetcar routes could very well lead to increased ridership.

Gray said...

I agree that visibility and stability are important qualities. I think you have a point about search costs, as well. Bus route maps are just, by definition, a pain to navigate. Those who have other options tend not to deal with all of that hassle--but a rail line is much more visible and much easier to find.

Thinking beyond these characteristics again though: when we economists are looking for examples of inferior goods, what do many of us come up with? Bus tickets. Clearly, those with effectively unlimited funds find ways not to take any transit, but far more middle-class Americans ride light rail and subways than ride buses. Riders don't see these as perfect substitutes.

Jacob Grier said...

Search costs are one more reason I am optimistic about buses. Bus routes are difficult to navigate now. But as more and more people start using location-aware smart phones, discovering how to use buses for one's transportation needs will become much easier.

Gregory said...

Interesting discussion. On search costs, I am not sure if this thought is relevant, but I remember several years ago attending a talk by the President of Nutshell Books. He made a point that a published release of the man pages didn't sell well, but a condensation did sell well. In other words, people were willing to pay more for less content--I wonder if this applies to light rail.

I wonder if there aren't other reasons to this too. I spent 10 years in Tokyo, where you can famously tell time by the arrivals and departures of the trains. Because light rail routes and schedules are fixed, they do provide dependability not provided by buses.

Up to a point... recent maintenance or breakdown of the airport red line meant TriMet offered bus service in its place. The buses were as fast or faster than the Max, and ran more frequently. But I wonder if they were more expensive to run that way, and their speed was other better only on the other side of the Gateway TC.