Should we bring back Streetcars?

By RailPAC President Noel T. Braymer — One of my earliest memories as a child was going to Los Angeles from our home in Orange County to watch the Dodgers play baseball at the Los Angeles Coliseum. This was back in the late 1950’s. What I remember most about that night, my first in the “Big City,” was seeing Streetcars for the first time. They scared the daylights out of me. I was very young and I think their size and the crackle of sparks from the trolley poles on the trolley wire is what scared me. But they made a lasting impression.

As I grew up I remember the conventional “wisdom” that Streetcars were “out of date” and that “they got in the way of cars and held up traffic.” This was in the post World War II era when there was massive road building. The hope was that if enough roads were built, traffic congestion would go away. It was also hoped that new, broader and straighter roads would mean safer roads. Well, neither turned out to be true. We now know that more roads cause people to drive more. The urban sprawl created from road building spreads out housing, jobs and shopping so people drive more, creating more congestion. The new roads proved little safer than the old ones. Wider, straighter roads encouraged drivers to go faster and drive more aggressively, which often caused more serious accidents. The latest fad in Traffic Engineering is “Traffic Calming.” Traffic Calming narrow roads and create twists and turns to force drivers to slow down and make roads safer.

1952 Pacific Electric billboard

A problem with private automobiles is they take up a great deal of valuable space usually carrying just one person on public roads. As you can see in a photo (above) published by the Pacific Electric in 1952, one bus can easily hold as many people as almost a city block full of cars. Now fast forward to today. The Los Angeles MTA Blue Line now has over 75,000 boardings a day during the work week. The Blue Line runs every five minutes during rush hours and runs in city streets for two miles in Los Angeles and two and a half miles in Long Beach. Each Blue Line train has three cars for a total of 228 seats. A single Blue Line train carries the same number of seats as six 40 foot buses, in less space and with only one operator. Those 228 passengers represent roughly four lanes of cars almost two football fields long bumper to bumper if they were in cars. If we talk about standees, which is the norm in rush hour, the reality is far greater.

A 3-car Blue Line light rail train in downtown Long Beach is the same as 6 buses. Noel Braymer photo

Street running with Light Rail today is best done with a dedicated median clear of other traffic. While there are accidents while street running, they are usually minor and the fault of the motorists. Serious accidents with Light Rail are usually at grade crossings on private right of ways. Getting use of a dedicated median is not always easy. First are the complaints of traffic congestion if a lane is lost to private vehicles. As I have already shown, street running increases a road’s ability to carry people better than double decking the roads. When trying to widen a street to fit in a median usually means eliminating street side parking. If there are merchants on a street, they will fight to the death to save “their” parking which is next to their store.

In America parking is usually “free,” but never cheap. Like a “free lunch,” someone is always picking up the bill. Providing “free” parking for customers and employees is a major business expense, which is passed on to customers and employees. When considering land values and construction costs, a space in a parking structure is usually worth more than the car parked in it. Rail Transit can save money by reducing parking demand while bringing more people to work shop, and to visit in a region. Two good examples of this are the downtown Baseball stadiums in San Francisco and San Diego.

It goes without saying that it is hard to find parking in San Francisco. SBC Park couldn’t function without nearby Muni Metro and CalTain service. Some people will say “that’s San Francisco, [it] couldn’t work anyplace else in California.” When Petco Park was being planned in downtown San Diego, the naysayers screamed it was a terrible idea. “Downtown is already too congested for a ball park, the traffic will be terrible and THERE WON’T BE ENOUGH PARKING! “The San Diego Trolley was a central part of the planning for Petco Park. The result is, a significant number of people ride the Trolley and Coaster to games, so parking and traffic has not been a problem. But downtown merchants and restaurants are happy with the new walk-in business on game days.

The best reason for looking at more street running is the cost. An old rule of thumb is for the cost of building on the surface, elevated construction costs three times as much while subway construction is ten times higher than on the surface. Subway construction is now over 300 million dollars a mile; elevated construction is around 100 million a mile; [and] building on the surface is about 30 to 40 million a mile. Many critical connections for light rail projects are put off because of high construction costs for fancy grade-separated solutions. To get the most out of public roads, light rail transit is the best use, not private cars.

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