I hadn’t previously been aware of it, but apparently there is a pretty vigorous debate in Seattle about the advantages of Trolley-buses (electrified buses) vs. Streetcars.
I hadn’t previously been aware of it, but apparently there is a pretty vigorous debate in Seattle about the advantages of Trolley-buses (electrified buses) vs. Streetcars.
37 responses to “Streetcar vs. Trolley-buses in Seattle”
I think there is room for both, but it depends on the conditions of the route. Here is a good map of the old streetcar network, circa 1930s. The old Trackless Trolley network followed this pattern too. This network also dates to when the city line ended at Nth 85th St.
I loved the trolleybuses! Especially over christmas when they painted/decorated the poles like candy canes.
I’ll assume that electric trolleys are in fact faster than streetcars – what about capacity and cost?
Why should it be an “either-or” thing? Seattle already has a good trolley-bus network, and they should incrementally expand it — add more buses, add more routes. And start now.
Plus, the tunnel buses are frequently dual-system — run on diesel until they reach the tunnel, then turn into trolley buses while in the tunnel. Why not just wire the tunnel bus routes to be electric all the way, and keep the diesel buses on the surface?
None of this precludes gradual extensions to the South Lake Union Streetcar network, or operating the 99 Waterfront Trolley (which, right now, appears to be served by a standard bus.)
That it is possible to incrementally build upon existing transit infrastructure – start with a diesel bus line (minimal infrastructure), then either add overhead catenary to go electric or build enhanced bus stops (this can be done in either order), then once you build enough demand the next logical step is streetcar (add rails and vehicles).
Portland, on the other hand, seems to be reinventing the wheel with building all new Streetcar lines while totally neglecting and ignoring bus riders; this is underscored by Portland’s fascination with building brand new streetcar routes while making zero investment in the existing bus network, much of it based upon historic (pre-1950s) streetcar routes and major transportation corridors which have evolved over the decades. For all the hoopla in “transit access” investments, Portland invests practically zero in access to bus stops (again, underscored by the fact that despite that bus stop access would have been an excellent stimulus program to generate a large number of jobs for concrete layers, and bus structure builders (Oregon Iron Works!) – bus riders got a paltry $250,000 in stimulus funds.
Even the SLUT line does little more than duplicate existing bus services. At least the Waterfront Streetcar had something going for it (tourist appeal, lack of duplicative bus routes, minimal cost due to the route using an abandoned freight railroad spur, use of low cost historic Australian streetcars).
Doug K. Just so you know, there hasn’t been the dual mode Breda buses in the Downtown Transit Tunnel is almost 6 years now. All of those buses have been converted to electric only buses and running on various routes in Seattle.
KC Metro and Sound Transit both use New Flyer Hybrid buses in the tunnel and will soon be joined by Link Light-Rail in the tunnel.
The Route 99 bus is barely surviving and is due to be cut the end of this year because of low numbers. The route, when the streetcar was on it, saw ridership numbers in the high 200,000+ range. Do tell me that streetcars dont’ work? The bus is free, the streetcar was (at the time, $1.25) to ride and still had higher ridership than its bus.
Buses simply do not attract the numbers that rail does. Countless cities have proved that endlessly. Tacoma Link proved that, Portland Streetcar proved that, Seattle Streetcar proved that, the Waterfront Streetcar proved that and even the older PCC cars that various agencies still use today, see higher ridership numbers than any bus line.
Now, buses always ALWAYS will have a part in a transit system, just like intercity rail, streetcar, buses, etc. Each mode has its advantages and disadvantages. The cities in the United States are finally catching up to the rest of the world.. if you don’t desire that change, Wyoming is a good place to go.
The big question–is why do trains seem to attract more riders on the same route?
* (Perceived) permanence of route?
* (Perceived) better service performance (regularity, speed; particularly for routes in dedicated ROWs)?
* (Perceived) more comfortable ride on trains (smoother ride on rails, less noise and fumes compared with diesel engines)
* (Perceived) better amenities; either on the vehicle or at stations/stops?
* (Perceived) Socio-economic prejudices–the view that only “low class” individuals ride buses; or one is more likely to encounter “riffraff” on the bus?
I put perceived by all of the above, because in many cases the factor isn’t really endemic to rail vs busses–with the possible exception of the smoother ride; when one travels on rails on doesn’t have to deal with things such as potholes, speed bumps, or other imperfections in the pavement.
But still–the prejudice is there, and is measurable. There are lots of folks who will happily ride the streetcar from PSU to the Pearl, who wouldn’t be caught dead on a bus. Unfortunate, but true…
from PSU to the Pearl, who wouldn’t be caught dead on a bus
And the existing Line 17 bus might serve those folks just as well.
as for portland there is a place for both, i think much of the citywide streetcar plan is better suited as trolley bus while streetcar is better for downtown circulators (existing & east side) or off-street routes (like to LO).
why i think trolley buses make more sense for the citywide plan is that trolley construction is cheaper so you could run the overhead all the way out to 205 while streetcar could really only be feasible out to about 45th/50th; trolleys can go around traffic and pull over which is important on 2-lane streets like belmont where backed up traffic would be a problem; these eastside streets want a some modest redevelopment, not pearl, sowa or inner eastside levels of redevelopment and the streetcar would probably put extensive development pressure on these streets; over longer distances (as is the case from downtown to 205) in-traffic trolley buses would be faster; and streetcars (at least the skoda inekons) are designed primarily for standees traveling short hop-on hop-off distances.
i could see trolley buses running on the 14-hawthorne to lents max station, 15-belmont to gateway max station, 20-burnside to gateway max station, 12-sandy to parkrose TC max, 15-23rd to thurman & montgomery park, 4-fessenden to st. johns. and i suppose also on the long distance crosstown and busy 72.
articulated hybrid diesel BRT on powell to gresham (plus on the westside on TV Highway) which i think is the plan anyway.
Brian Bundridge wrote: Buses simply do not attract the numbers that rail does. Countless cities have proved that endlessly. Tacoma Link proved that, Portland Streetcar proved that, Seattle Streetcar proved that, the Waterfront Streetcar proved that and even the older PCC cars that various agencies still use today, see higher ridership numbers than any bus line.
But you’re missing a few key elements:
1. When a bus line is started, does the transit agency build full out bus stops, including platforms, shelters, information pylons, etc., that are “standard equipment” at rail stops? Almost always the answer is a resounding NO! — bus stops are built cheaply. Only a small minority of bus stops in most cities – Portland and Seattle are no exception – have even a shelter, yet it’s hard to find a rail stop that doesn’t have one. Transit Tracker or NextBus signs are easily found at a rail stop but you can literally count the number of TriMet bus stops with such a sign on two hands – out of 8,000+ stops.
2. Fare inequality – the majority of the Portland Streetcar is fare-free, while a tiny minority of the bus system is fare-free, even for comparable trips. So the majority of people who would love to ride a bus aren’t going to step on a bus and pay $2.00 for a couple-block ride, but are more than willing to ride the Streetcar for two blocks (which is a tremendous waste of energy and effort) for free.
3. Tourist Appeal – My wife and I (and my son) rode the Streetcar last Sunday afternoon (since he wanted to ride a train) and while the train was crowded at times, the ambiance was quite clear that the majority of riders were not locals but were tourists (as evident by the number of downtown Portland maps in their hands, the overheard discussions, where people were trying to go). The Waterfront Streetcar was specifically targeted towards tourists and not locals; why pay $1.25 to ride a Gillig Phantom that I can ride in many cities – Portland included – if I’m just walking a few blocks? Let’s face it, buses aren’t a tourist attraction and that’s OK.
If rail is such a great attraction, even at a price, then the capitalist in me says that we shouldn’t be giving away rail – in fact we should be charging MORE to ride a train. $5.00 fares? Why not – we get away charging $4.00 to ride the Tram. Fareless Square should be eliminated for MAX/Streetcar, NOT the bus; in fact we should be reducing bus fares at the same time.
And, we should be heavily investing in better bus stops, but that seemed to escape the stimulus funds spending folks that would rather spend money on cooling systems in the I.T. server room rather than meaningful improvements to transit for riders (the public) while creating far, far more jobs that were publicly visible. (Not to mention, create “artistic” bus stop shelters that would have beautified the public environment.)
The problem isn’t “bus versus rail”, it’s that bus always get shortchanged while rail is always gold-plated. Show me a “barebones” rail system that is treated like a bus and gets higher ridership, and then I’ll agree with you. Show me a rail system in which only one in six stops is anything more than “the side of the road”, with rail vehicles that aren’t “historic” but are old and lack modern amenities…and then I’ll agree with you.
MRB: I’ll assume that electric trolleys are in fact faster than streetcars – what about capacity and cost?
I was in Zurich recently, and they have double-articulated trolley buses. One of those is a lot bigger than one of our streetcars, and is therefore cheaper to operate. And since it didn’t require ripping up the streets and putting down tracks, it was probably a lot cheaper to build as well. They should be seriously considered as viable alternatives to additional streetcars in Portland. They are also quieter, can move around stalled traffic, and if built with high quality platforms, have all the “permanence” of streetcar infrastructure.
Brian Bundridge: there hasn’t been the dual mode Breda buses in the Downtown Transit Tunnel is almost 6 years now.
They have them in Boston. If you take the “silver line” from Logan Airport, the vehicle is an articulated (there’s that word again) diesel that switches to overhead power once you get downtown.
I rode electric trolley buses in SF for years…much better than diesel, but they don’t quite measure up to the smooth, effortless feel on Streetcar. And my guess is that while Streetcar attracts investment (generally good, right?), trolleys will be viewed by investers as just another bus, with more wires than Streetcar.
Lenny, was it an old trolley bus in SF? The new ones are low floor, have big windows, automated stop announcements/digital displays, ie, they are very nice to ride. And I disagree with the notion that these won’t attract investment. Seattle and Vancouver BC have no (until very recently) streetcars. Yet politicians here are always putting these cities on pedestal. Why is that?
Build a level boarding platform and shelters that are distinguishable from a sidewalk and standard bus stop, and paint the vehicles differently. Give it a name. The only difference between that and streetcar, then, would be the lack of rails in the street. The infrastructure is just as permanent, and just as unique within the transit system. Cheaper, quieter, safer for cyclists, and far less prone to getting stopped behind a delivery vehicle. I don’t buy the argument that “developers” wouldn’t see that as a significant enough public investment to follow it with private capital, especially if it is coupled with the kinds of tax incentives that catalyzed the Pearl and an effective marketing campaign.
Well, Eugene has provided a real-life test case for a bus-based system with a name (EmX), distinctive paint job, level boarding platform, shelters, and so forth. It’s even free to ride, last I checked. We’ll see, in time, whether it has the same ability to attract riders, investors, development and so forth as a fixed-rail line.
Re: branding, SEPTA (Philly) calls their fleet “trackless trolleys” as opposed to trolleybus. That alone could go a long way toward defeating the image problem that buses have.
Many they should install cowcatchers on the busses, too? :)
in response to lenny anderson: I ride the street car all the time and it might be effortless to ride but it is not smooth at all every time i ride the streetcar it is quite a rough ride almost like theres a flat spot on the wheel or defects in the track and the clackity noise is quite loud compared to an electric bus especially going over the many switches near the max turnaround.
OK, so some Streetcars need to get their wheels ground now and then. I have never encountered such a bunch of bus lovers as on this blog! And frankly, I am not interested in cheap public transport…I want the best money can buy. Go buy Streetcar!
Personally, I want public transit that is effective; not just sexy. (Though sexy is part of the equation–a transit vehicle with nobody aboard but the driver does nobody any good).
Whether that transit has rubber or steel wheels, I don’t much care. Different applications call for different modes of transport.
A few posters here seem to posit a zero-sum game between different modes of transit, as well as between different geographical areas (the whole PDX-vs-the-suburbs debate). Obviously, if your route has a service cut while infrastructure is being built elsewhere, that kinda sucks.
That said, Tri-Met’s main goal is to increase the number of (potential) customers served by transit; not (necessarily) to improve the service experience for existing customers. They do do some of the latter, but most dollars for expansion go to the former. And unfortunately, the service changes when MAX goes online for bus riders are frequently negative–many of whom used to have an uninterrupted ride from their local bus stop to their destination, but now have to transfer to a train on the way. Having to transfer eliminates or reduces one of the main advantages to transit–being able to do something productive on the journey (as opposed to operating a car). Disembarking one vehicle, standing on a platform, and then boarding another interrupts that productivity.
Agreed, there is a range of transit services that need to be available; its not either rail or rubber, but how they fit together. We have farely complete bus system; the rail systems are only half built.
I believe growing ridership trumps service improvements for existing riders, though you have to do both. And by and large existing riders benefit from investments that attract new riders.
Private sector businesses do the same thing…but carefully; remember New Coke. They invest in new projects, products, processes in order to serve more customers with a better product at less cost. I think, and the record shows, that the public’s investment in both MAX and Streetcar do just that…serve more riders with a better product at less cost.
Most of the low hanging fruit has been picked for rail transit expansion. Unless TriMet can get private interests to foot big parts of the bill – think original Portland Streetcar or Airport MAX – taxpayers will be stuck with ever lower returns on rail transport expansion dollars.
I’m one who thinks that the eastside streetcar expansion has a chance over the very long term (i.e. several decades) because of the potential for redevelopment. The Lake Oswego extension is a much different story with prorated capital & operating cost likely to stay well above $10 per boarding ride indefinitely, coupled with longer trip times and less convenience for the majority of riders along the lines mentioned in Lenny’s post.
The idea of streetcar in every Portland neighborhood seems like way, way too much of a good thing. Any “specialness” would be lost, and developments in bus electric drive should soon make most trolley (bus or streetcar) systems obsolete.
The jury may well be out for a while on the green line and Milwaukie MAX. We’ll see.
“The idea of streetcar in every Portland neighborhood seems like way, way too much of a good thing. Any “specialness” would be lost, and developments in bus electric drive should soon make most trolley (bus or streetcar) systems obsolete.”
While “specialness” might be lost the actual advantages of trains over buses will not be, for instance:
1. They are trains; vehicles that can be as long as you want them to be while still running in the narrow corridors that buses do. this is due to their tracks.
2. steel wheels on steel rails will always produce less rolling resistance than rubber tires on blacktop or concrete.
3. buses destroy city streets, an externalized cost. Train tracks are the responsibility of the transit agency, I am guessing.
when you say “developments in electric drive” I assume you mean batteries? Will it really be cheaper or better in some way to add a battery to every vehicle rather than string a wire for the length of the route? As headways get shorter and there are more vehicles on a route this would seem to be an unwise choice.
Why would a “development in electric drive” benefit an electric bus, but not an electric train?
That said–there are reasons why busses (electric or otherwise) are more appropriate than trains for a given route. The obvious one is that busses can steer around obstacles; an issue for streetcars. Beyond that, for low-ridership routes, a bus is a more economical choice–the economic advantages of rail are only realized when the trains are full a good chunk of the time. Finally, some Portland streets cannot support the weight of streetcars–IIRC, this is one reason the Hawthorne streetcar proposal is likely a non-starter.
But lots of arguments against the train seem to be of the “it ain’t coming to my house, so I ain’t supporting it” variety.
“They are trains; vehicles that can be as long as you want them to be while still running in the narrow corridors that buses do. this is due to their tracks.”
There are limits as to how long streetcar or MAX multiple sets would get because of platform limitations and the relatively small size of Portland blocks.
“steel wheels on steel rails will always produce less rolling resistance than rubber tires on blacktop or concrete.”
Absolutely. This also leads to the problem that streetcars and MAX trains have significantly longer stopping distances than buses, especially at higher speeds. This is not a problem on 10th & 11th but might be on heavily trafficked faster streets such as 82nd, Sandy, Barbur, etc.
“buses destroy city streets, an externalized cost. Train tracks are the responsibility of the transit agency, I am guessing.”
I agree again, but heavy trucks do a number on pavement, too. (Yes, their operators do pay for road maintenance.) So streetcars might be good on routes with relatively few trucks but heavy transit, provided the streets were strong enough to support them.
“when you say “developments in electric drive” I assume you mean batteries?”
I’m thinking of a range of possibilities including batteries, supercapacitors, and fuel cells. Battery technology may be moving the fastest right now, but the others aren’t ready to be discounted over the long term.
We do agree that some routes with short headways (Jackson Park, for example) would be more efficiently served by trolley systems, given current technology. It’s just that there are many signs that on-board electrical power storage systems will become much more competitive in the surprisingly near future.
You have to assess the advantages on a route by route basis. No one has called for Streetcar up to OHSU, but a trolley bus on the 8 line makes sense; likewise for the 15 line.
Streetcar could work on Broadway/Weidler or Williams/Vancouver…plenty of lane space, redevelopment possibilities etc. Some issues with bikes. Sandy? maybe. Burnside couplet? Yes.
The jury is out on whether WES will generate ridership…it was Washington County’s idea. I think a Red Line MAX extension would have been better. So far all three MAX line have done well and now carry 1/3 of all daily ridership.
Den wrote: buses destroy city streets, an externalized cost. Train tracks are the responsibility of the transit agency, I am guessing.
You might want to look at TriMet’s Stimulus spending plan, as TriMet is looking at repaving 3rd and 4th Avenues in downtown Portland.
Meanwhile, it is equally argued that Streetcar spending requires external revenues – TriMet, our REGIONAL transit agency which serves Troutdale to Forest Grove and Sauvie Island to Oregon City is footing $3 million/year to the existing Portland Streetcar.
vehicles that can be as long as you want them to be
Streetcars can’t be coupled to each other, they are “lengthened” in the exact same way a bus is – you buy a bigger vehicle. TriMet has shown its infamous anti-bus bias but not buying bigger buses that are commercially available.
Meanwhile, MAX is restricted to two-car trains thanks to Portland’s “walkable” downtown city blocks.
Streetcars can’t be coupled to each other
Our Streetcars are quite capable of being coupled, although the stops are not designed to accommodate two-car trains and introducing them would require getting neighborhood buy-in for longer platforms (= reduced parking).
I’ve been wondering about this…
In other cities around the world (including a few historic lines in the US), people can board streetcars without platforms, just step on from the street.
Now, our streetcar line is new and is fully subject to ADA regulations. But would the ADA allow a “reasonable accommodation” of mobility device users in the front car only, if it meant not having to extend platforms and still allowing parking?
For example, all original high-floor MAX cars are coupled to newer low-floor cars, creating a policy of mobility devices in one car only on those trains.
As long as we could configure streetcar stops to that platforms always align with the front car, and provide full-length platforms only at places where the streetcar reverses direction in regular service (which is nowhere at the present time), could we do it under the letter of the law?
(Whether the ADA-community would support such a move politically is another matter?)
The point is we could relieve crowding just by making a one-time capital investment in additional cars, and the long-term operating cost would be incremental in terms of maintenance.
Question: Except in Fareless Square, where in our lifetimes will frequent service, single, 120 rider capacity streetcars be inadequate?
Bob, I honestly don’t know if ADA would allow that. I also believe there would be safety issues to work through.
But yeah, compared to what I saw in the Czech Republic, we are obsessive :-)
Bob R. wrote: As long as we could configure streetcar stops to that platforms always align with the front car, and provide full-length platforms only at places where the streetcar reverses direction in regular service (which is nowhere at the present time), could we do it under the letter of the law?
An ADA ruling last year required that train platforms must be accessible for the full length of the platform.
The ruling was for either an Amtrak or commuter rail platform but likely to affect a light rail platform as well.
“Mini-High” platforms specifically do not meet the ruling.
Chris Smith wrote: although the stops are not designed to accommodate two-car trains
First of all, thank you for the correction.
Secondly, why do the stops need to be redesigned?
After all, TriMet buses frequently open doors away from the curb, so a Streetcar just as easily can open away from the curb as well – no reduction in parking or construction required.
Frankly – the Streetcar doesn’t need an improved stop. Historically, Streetcars just stopped in the middle of the street…
I’m a bit confused by your comments … first you provide a link for an ADA ruling (thank you) which may undermine my idea of boarding from the street for a 2nd car without needing to modify our platforms, and then you post just 3 minutes later suggesting the very opposite, in agreement with my original remarks. Can you clarify?
Bob R. Says: I’m a bit confused by your comments … first you provide a link for an ADA ruling (thank you) which may undermine my idea of boarding from the street for a 2nd car without needing to modify our platforms, and then you post just 3 minutes later suggesting the very opposite, in agreement with my original remarks. Can you clarify?
Heavy rail and commuter rail platforms are something like four feet off the ground, which intrinsically makes them very different from light rail or streetcars.
MAX platforms no longer have the platform-mounted lifts, so clearly some allowance has been made, as long as the two-car consist includes a low-floor vehicle. Of course, the 2005 regulation Erik linked to does seem to address new construction.
But the parallel between buses and streetcars, in re: boarding is a little apple/orange. Buses have either lifts or ramps for street-level boarding (or curb level, at any rate), and I don’t think streetcars do — hence the platform.
Our streetcars do have ramps which meet the platform. The platforms have to be aligned just-so, even though they appear to merely be curb-height.
To make my original point more clear, I think Erik and I are talking about the same thing: We might be able to add a 2nd car to streetcars (if we wanted and if it were legal) to relieve crowding. Passengers with ADA-needs would always use the front car and existing platforms, all other passengers could use either car.
(Again, if it were legal… I could foresee a problem with mobility device users being crowded out of the front car, in which case we’d have to remove seats from the front car to make room for more, and then we’d have two different internal configurations of streetcars, which would make operations a bit more of a headache.)
We’ll have to see if the new Mall MAX line reduces the rush hour crush loads on the streetcar between PSU and Central Library.
Bob R. wrote: I’m a bit confused by your comments … first you provide a link for an ADA ruling (thank you) which may undermine my idea of boarding from the street for a 2nd car without needing to modify our platforms, and then you post just 3 minutes later suggesting the very opposite, in agreement with my original remarks. Can you clarify?
Legally, the streetcars require a full-length ADA accessible platform.
However buses are not afforded the same – a clear cut distinction which disfavors the bus.
1. Portland needs to make it a priority to improve bus access (which we both know won’t happen since Portland is so adamantly anti-bus), or
2. There’s no reason why we need to gold-plate streetcar/MAX stops, and Portland should seek a waiver from this silly ruling and provide the same boarding opportunities for Streetcar as bus passengers get (which is no guarantee of level boarding at all).
And this has absolutely nothing to do with the choice of vehicle, but rather our region’s attitude towards the gold-plated streetcar system that is fully invested while our bus system with pathetic stops, the majority of which are not ADA accessible or are barely ADA accessible. We as a region could take the $75 million in Streetcar funding and make great strides to improving bus stop access but it isn’t going to happen.
It has nothing to do with the fact that “it’s a bus”. It has to do with the giant egos like Rex Burkholder, Sam Adams, Fred Hansen, etc. at Metro, City Hall and TriMet who hate buses.
Erik Halstead: And this has absolutely nothing to do with the choice of vehicle, but rather our region’s attitude towards the gold-plated streetcar system that is fully invested while our bus system with pathetic stops, the majority of which are not ADA accessible or are barely ADA accessible.
Erik, if you’re going to continue to make this claim about bus stops, could you please provide data to back it up? The data and analysis I have seen, including the 09 TIP, list about 1/3 of the stops in the system needing improvement (mostly because they lack a sidewalk provided by local jurisdiction), with most of those still considered accessible.
Since Streetcar plans, at least for the near future, are limited entirely to urban areas with well-developed streets and sidewalks, demanding that they be the equivalent of bus stops on West Burnside or on the road to Estacada (examples of some of the most rural of service areas) hardly seems tenable.