Fantasies Filling the Heads of San Antonio Streetcar Backers

Published December 13, 2012

The idea that an expensive 19th Century technology will help meet the transportation and economic development needs of 21st Century urban areas makes sense only in a fantasy world where cost is no object and transport consumers are so hypnotized by shiny steel wheels on steel rails that they ignore the huge inherent disadvantages of a fixed-guideway system that doesn’t go where people want to go, takes a long time to get to where it does go, and can’t get out of its own way in the event of any kind of a problem.

Yet that’s what’s afoot in San Antonio, Texas. Plans to build streetcar lines in San Antonio are based on several critical fallacies, including claims that streetcars are superior to buses in their ability to attract riders and that streetcars promote economic development. In fact, streetcars are slower, less flexible, less capable of moving large numbers of people, and far more expensive than buses.

The biggest argument for streetcars is that they promote economic development. This is mainly based on the experience in Portland, where officials claim a streetcar generated billions of dollars of economic development. In fact, that development was attracted by roughly a billion dollars worth of tax breaks, tax-increment financing, and other local subsidies to developers.

Subsidies, Not Streetcars

In Northwest Portland, the streetcar serves two neighborhoods of roughly equal size, in one of which developers received hundreds of millions of dollars of subsidies while the other received none other than the streetcar. According to the city’s own tally, the first neighborhood received more than 75 times as much investment as the second. Clearly, it was the subsidies, not the streetcar, that attracted the new development. City officials who think a streetcar alone will generate new development have been misled.

Streetcars impose huge costs on taxpayers. Cities with streetcar lines spend three to four times as much to operate a streetcar one mile as they spend on buses. Far from moving large numbers of people, most streetcars actually carry fewer people, on average, than the average buses in those cities, and the cost of moving one person one mile is two to seven times greater by streetcar than by bus.

Low-Capacity Transit

Though streetcar advocates like to call streetcars “high-capacity transit,” they are actually one of the lowest-capacity forms of transit available. So-called modern streetcars can move only about 2,000 people per hour, most of them standing. By comparison, standard 40-foot buses can move well over 6,000 people per hour through city streets, all of them comfortably seated.

Double-decker buses are now available that can double this throughput without occupying any more street space. Claims that streetcars have some kind of a “rail advantage” that attracts travelers who won’t ride a bus are purely hypothetical. If there are people so snobbish that they will ride public transit vehicles only if those vehicles are on rails, taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to subsidize them.

As a practical matter, transit ridership is more sensitive to frequency, speed, and convenience than to whether tires are made of rubber or steel, and buses can operate faster, more frequently, and to more destinations than streetcars. So it is no wonder that, of seven cities with streetcars in the United States, the only two where streetcars attract more riders per vehicle mile than buses can do so only because they offer most or all streetcar rides for free to the riders.

Farebox Fantasies

Ridership projections for San Antonio streetcars assume the line would attract the average number of riders per mile carried by streetcars in the seven other American cities that have them. But the projections also assume streetcar fares would cover 15 percent of operating costs. The projections ignored the fact that most of the streetcar lines that attract large numbers of riders charge no fares, and that farebox revenues cover only 8 percent of the costs of operating the seven existing streetcar lines.

Streetcars don’t even have the virtue of saving energy or reducing air pollution. The average streetcar line today uses twice as much energy to move someone one passenger mile as the average car. In places such as Texas, where a major portion of the electricity used to power streetcars comes from burning fossil fuels, the streetcars end up causing more pollution per passenger mile than cars.

Stagnant Streetcar Technology

Proponents of streetcars often object to the description of streetcars as a 19th Century technology by saying automobiles, like streetcars, are also a 19th Century  technology. Yet automotive technology has advanced considerably since 1900, while streetcar technology has not.

For example, in 1900, motorcars had a top speed of about 15 miles per hour; today, people routinely drive five times that fast. By comparison, in 1900 streetcars traveled at average speeds of about 8 miles per hour, about the same as streetcars today.

Streetcars are an obsolete technology that does not belong in modern cities. They do not promote mobility; they do not promote economic development; they do not protect the environment. San Antonio should reject the idea of building a streetcar line.

Randal O’Toole ([email protected]) is Cato Institute Senior Fellow working on urban growth, public land, and transportation issues and author of “The Streetcar Fantasy” report.

Internet Info

“The Streetcar Fantasy,” Randal O’Toole: