Wednesday, March 6, 2013

No Streetcar is Better than a Bad Streetcar

Riverside's new Mayor, Rusty Bailey, has made the development of a streetcar network part of his platform. He mentioned it both during his campaign and in his State of the City address, and I have heard word of grants being written to study the issue. Obviously, the plan is very new, and so anything I say here is speculative at best, but I want to get out ahead of this thing. Streetcars are in vogue right now, and while they are undoubtedly cool, the details of the implementation of a streetcar plan are important to determine whether it will promote mobility and development, or whether it will simply be a shiny toy for City Hall to trumpet.

Here's the thing: streetcars in mixed traffic are usually worse for mobility than the buses they replace. This is because of the simple fact that buses can turn and get around obstructions (such as parking or turning cars, broken-down cars, traffic accidents, debris, etc.), while streetcars can't. There's some benefit to running streetcars in interior lanes with island platforms, or using off-board fare collection, but neither is intrinsic to streetcars per se-- buses stopping at the same island platforms and using the same off-board fare collection would also run faster. To really radically re-shape mobility in Riverside, streetcars would either need to run on a lower-traffic street, or need their own lane to run in. The former raises concerns, as lower-traffic streets are usually that way because few people want to be there, and I strongly doubt that there's enthusiasm for the latter at City Hall and among the automobile-attached residents of Riverside.

Second, the logical place for a streetcar is along the L-shaped corridor formed by UCR, downtown, and the Plaza (and in the future, perhaps as far as the Tyler Galleria). This is a route that is already served by RTA, and mobility along that route would likely be better-served by improving existing RTA service than building a local-stop streetcar along it. The streetcar will need to somehow do something that the current routes 1 and 16 don't do, and will also need to be well-integrated into the current transit system, both of which are a daunting proposition.

Furthermore, a streetcar is an expensive proposition. If the plan is a good one, by all means, we should turn our transit dollars towards that expensive proposition. I am, however, extremely wary of spending scarce transit dollars building and, more importantly, operating a streetcar that will not improve mobility in Riverside and that will cannibalize limited funds from desperately-needed transit expansion. I'd love to see good local rail service in Riverside, but I'd rather see all-night bus lines or additional frequency than a bad streetcar project.

Los Angeles' streetcar project is a great example of what happens when you don't take into account mobility outcomes when building a streetcar: you get giant one-way loops and low frequencies that will make the new streetcar less useful than the old DASH bus it's replacing, especially for the short downtown trips it's supposed to serve. And they're spending a bunch of money for little improvement. I don't want to see that kind of thinking move east.

As I said before, the plans for a Riverside streetcar are in their infancy-- but that just makes it all the more important to make our voices heard now, before a finalized plan becomes something that we can't live with. Better no streetcar at all than a bad streetcar.

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