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Desire Named Streetcar

My latest Slate column looks at two transportation forms, the monorail and the streetcar, each with their supporters and each with their detractors, and how time’s arrow seems to have inverted somewhere along the way:

What’s interesting about Disney World and Disneyland is not merely the range of transportation options, but the mixture of new and old modes they represent. These varied ways to get around reflect biographer Neal Gabler’s observation that Walt Disney was “at once a nostalgist and a futurist, a conservative and visionary.” One imagines he would have been equally happy riding the retro trolley on Main Street as whisking through Tomorrowland in an ultramodern monorail.

But there is something else to note here. The monorail—which must have looked to Disney and the world like the transportation of the future in the 1950s—is now, to many, considered a historical footnote, a relic of World Expos or, at best, an automated ride between airport terminals. America’s highest-profile monorail project, the expansion of Seattle’s line, was plagued by cost overruns and funding gaps, and was finally dissolved in 2005 (costing taxpayers $125 million). The Las Vegas monorail has filed for bankruptcy. At the same time, those retro streetcars, which Disney himself rode in Kansas City in the early 20th century and which must have seemed to him part of a vanishing past, are returning (or may soon return) to any number of American cities, including Washington, D.C.; Cincinnati’ Tucson; Atlanta; Dallas; St. Louis; and Salt Lake City.

So the future we thought we were going to get somehow seems antiquated, while the past looks increasingly, well, futuristic. Why is the trolley ascendant as the monorail declines?

[P.S. I do realize a fair number of people prefer buses to either of these options, but for space it was cut. An original line read: "Light-rail supporters — and transportation people, whether for reasons of funding, fandom, or something else, and even if they’re working toward similar goals, tend to cleave into camps (a third group, the bus people, find their vessel of choice superior to both the light-rail and monorails) — counter with a battery of well-practiced rejoinders..."]

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 12th, 2011 at 5:40 pm and is filed under Etc., Traffic Culture, Traffic Engineering. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

14 Responses to “Desire Named Streetcar”

  1. Brad Templeton Says:

    An interesting take. There’s no question there’s a lot of emotion behind the fans and enemies of all these modes — as well as their related modes such as the other elevated railroads (like APMs and PRTs) and the private right-of-way streetcars which have the costs of private ROW but avoid having to mix with traffic (which is bad for the streetcars and bad for the traffic.)

    But one thing you rarely hear talked about is the energy. The name “light rail” is taken by many to mean the cars are light, but in fact it stands for “light capacity rail” meaning that it is lower capacity than trains and subways, which are known as heavy capacity rail. The cars are heavy and are among the least energy efficient forms of transportation in the USA (and that includes cars) depending on where the town gets its electricity from. The monorails, which have often suffered low ridership because most of them are short, suffer similar problems.

  2. Charlie Parker Says:

    The Wuppertal Schwebebahn (monorail) is still going strong after 110 year.

  3. Thomas Says:

    I can’t speak for other cities but the reason that the streetcar idea has been getting traction in Atlanta is because that city grew up around the railroad industry and there are hundreds of miles of derelict train tracks that criss cross the metro area, especially around downtown. These existing tracks can be re-purposed at a much lower cost than for building transport system from scratch.

    On the other hand, they’ve been talking about, surveying for and doing feasibility studies on this project for more than ten years now. Despite spending tens of millions of years on the endeavor, we’ve yet to see any real construction.

  4. Obbie Z Says:

    I just remember how quickly and cheaply the first line of the San Diego Trolley was built. The presence of derelict track helped a lot. I’m a big fan of doing as much as we can with existing infrastructure, and SD’s system was a great example of that.

    (@Thomas: I wonder how much of the delays you talk about have to do with resistance and obstruction. If I remember correctly, Atlanta was able to build the Metro in less time that what you’re talking about. Some sort of foot-dragging must be going on.)

    @Brad: “The cars are heavy and are among the least energy efficient forms of transportation in the USA (and that includes cars)…” I think you might be misinformed at best, or talking out of your southern orifice at worst. Steel wheels on steel rails have very little rolling resistance relative to rubber wheels on pavement. Most of the energy is used starting and stopping, which buses do far more often than streetcars.

    People resist buses because the bus endures the same traffic as cars. In fact, I’m usually able to keep up with buses on my bike, mainly because the bus stops so often. On the other hand, with rail (of any kind), there is (usually) a separation from traffic, which makes the streetcar/train much faster than driving. Once people learn how fast and convenient rail is, they’re sold for life.

  5. djangosChef Says:

    And the well practiced rejoinders immediately hijack the comments…

  6. Kevin Love Says:

    Toronto is a good example of this. The monorail at the Zoo was scrapped, and a massive $8 billion expansion of light rail is (maybe) about to happen.

  7. Max Power Says:

    Monorail, traffic-separated light rail, streetcars, busses, BRT, heavy commuter rail – they’re all just solutions to the problem of moving people. No one is superior to the others, it is an engineering question based on the origins and destinations of the trips, number of riders and the distribution over time, what infrastructure exists and can be built, and what it costs to build and operate the lines. Adding to the complexity is that it is all dependent on very long range forecasts of all of those factors, including the effect the new line would have on them.
    In the end, I think you can make forecasts that support any option, and the decision on funding comes down to which one captures the imagination of the politicans.

  8. Jack Says:

    As you rightly state, “there’s little a streetcar can do that a bus cannot” and “that a lot more people can make a lot more money if light rail or subway is built.” Unfortunately light rail also means those with political power gets it built where and how they want it, not what’s right for the larger community (see St Louis for numerous examples). Street car lines (and light rail) also means much greater risks for cheaper and more efficient transportation choices, like cycling!

  9. KelBel Says:

    @Jack As a cyclist, I’d rather contend with street cars or light rails than buses. They at least are fairly predictable and largely separated from a cyclist’s path. If you get hit by a lightrail (at least one like the new one in Phoenix), it is because you chose to ignore the very obvious signals that one was going to cross your path. Buses, on the other hand, are automobiles with great big blind spots that have to to frequently stop right in the bike lane. I can’t count how many times I’ve been cut off or almost hit by a bus as a bicycle delivery person (usually the small circulator buses). It’s not malicious–they just don’t see you sometimes.

  10. Marc Says:

    Monorails are enormously expensive as compared to light rail, both for the reasons already cited by previous commenters (light rail can often reuse existing rail tracks) but also for the obvious reason that monorails require a completely elevated structure. Those elevated structures are also not just extremely expensive but also present a visual nuisance. Personally, I think they look fine and fit in with the urban fabric of a city (certainly much more so than your typical ugly highway bridge) but some people don’t want anything to interrupt their view. I think this is one of the main arguments against Honolulu’s proposed elevated rail system.

    Also, I think a fair amount of people immediately think of “The Monorail Song” from The Simpsons when they talk about monorails, thus making it forever associated with ridiculous boondoggles :) .

  11. Jack Says:

    @KelBel, never said that buses were safer than light rail for cyclists. As you rightly state buses impose numerous risks, that’s obvious.

    In the StL area, many light rail stations have large FREE parking lots attached (which creates greater concentrations of traffic) and are used as major pickup spots for large buses. In addition, the original plans for the light rail infrastructure included adjoining bike paths. But those paths were eventually excluded due to numerous cost overruns. In effect, light rail meant the end of cycling routes, more traffic and more buses for cyclists and bloated budgets/higher sales taxes for the public.

  12. KelBel Says:

    @Jack. You are right there. My assumption.

  13. M@ Says:

    Buses destroy roads, and the double-damning thing is that the agencies that run them as public works do not typically pay motor fuel taxes used to repair the roads they destroy!

    Road wear is caused by weight-per-axle and numbers of miles driven: buses being one of the highest per-mile vehicles on local roads and around 18-21 tons (a fully-loaded semi-truck being double at around 40 tons).

    If you speak with engineers that study road wear, they will tell you the 2-3 ton vehicles that we drive (passenger cars/light trucks) are insignificant in terms of damage caused compared to buses and semi-trucks.

    The solution? Mass transit and freight goes on rail. I’m a big fan of mass transit — but as a bicyclist and an electric vehicle driver I hate buses as they clog the roads and damage ‘em. It’s also much easier to electrify rail…

  14. Scott Says:

    @KelBel, in Seattle, the tracks for the new South Lake Union Trolley (the SLUT) run in the curb lane for part of the route, so cyclists have to ride in the center lane and piss off drivers, ride too close to the curb, or ride between the tracks and take great care when turning.

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How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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