Ed Tennyson: Streetcars use streets more efficiently

lrn_tor-lrt-stc-Rte504-dntn-bdg-pax-20120810-0255-x1_lhToronto streetcar downtown in August 2012. Photo: L. Henry

A recent Toronto poll found that opinions of metro-area respondents were almost evenly split on a plan to ban motor vehicles and allow only streetcars to operate on King Street (one of the downtown’s major thoroughfares) during morning peak hours, with 40% favoring the idea and 43% opposing it. While the plan had overwhelming support in the inner-city, the metro area’s more affluent, conservative suburbs (e.g., Scarborough) tended to oppose it. (Suburban voters have also tended to support conservative Mayor Rob Ford, who promotes policies similar to those of the USA’s Tea Party.)

The poll elicited the following observations and comments from Edson L. Tennyson, a renowned transportation engineer and consultant to the Light Rail Now Project. Ed is widely respected within the North American public transportation industry, having served as manager of several major transit agencies as well as Transportation Engineer for the City of Philadelphia and Deputy Director of Transportation for the State of Pennsylvania.

Without facts the people responding to that poll do not know what they are talking about. Since King Street is in the Old City, what business is it of Scarborough?

Let us look at the facts. A lane of autos waiting at traffic signals can move only 900 passengers per hour, not enough to keep a city busy or healthy. I do not know the streetcar headway, but with 56,700 weekday passengers, it sounds like 4,500 one-way in the peak hour, 5 times auto capacity. With 90 people per 4-axle car, that would require a 1.2-minute headway, 50 cars per hour. With articulated cars, a 1.8-minute headway could handle it.

The point is, who wants to allow 900 [Mayor Rob] Ford supporters to block the movement of 4,500 people per hour? Polls will not move anyone, but those 800 automobiles with 900 people will block 4,500. That is stupid, uneconomical, and grossly unproductive. When gridlock gets bad, transit speed falls to three (3) miles per hour. A streetcar costing $235 per hour will cost $78 per mile at three miles per hour; but at 6 miles per hour, which might be possible with no autos, the streetcar cost falls to $39 per mile, a saving of 50 percent for farepayers and taxpayers. If the media had the integrity and equity to explain it that way, I am sure the polls would change drastically in favor of streetcars.

[Misguided] politicians like Mayor Ford were running the U.S. Congress in 1959 when they banned streetcars from the District of Columbia [i.e., Washington, DC]. They did it to speed auto travel, but it did not work that way. It sped auto travel, all right — away from the city instead if into it.

Back then, Washington’s streetcars were almost as busy as Toronto’s streetcars. They made a profit to subsidize bus service, but they annoyed motorists. Traffic engineers wanted the streetcar lanes for auto left turns, a very low-volume use. Traffic engineers were trained at the Eno Foundation, then subsidized by General Motors. They were required to teach the need to eliminate streetcars.

The last [Washington] streetcar ran in 1962. Buying new buses escalated fares drastically and drove away most riders. Many downtown department stores went out of business. People with good jobs moved out of the city to escape auto congestion caused by automobiles, not streetcars.

From 1948 to 1975, transit use in Washington fell by 72%. The population fell from 750,000 to 590,000. By 1990 the City had so much debt it could not function. Congress had to bail it out, castrating City Council.

By then, MetroRail [rapid transit] was growing large enough to replace the streetcars and greatly reduce bus dependence. Transit increased almost 300% from 1975 to now. The Mayor just announced a tax cut as the city has too much money. The population is growing with higher-income people.

When MetroRail was planned they took a close look at Toronto to get it right. They did. [URT note: Washington, DC’s Department of Transportation has projects under way to re-introduce streetcar service to the city, thus supplementing the Metrorail rapid transit system.]

[This article has been slightly edited from the version first published on the Light Rail Now blog. Thanks to Light Rail Now for their kind permission to re-publish it.]

Cincinnati’s “Mr. Streetcar” makes case for Cincy project on radio

John Schneider photo

John Schneider [Photo: Cincinnati.com]

Cincinnati, Ohio — This city’s streetcar starter line project is under way … but so is the continuing fight against it by rail transit adversaries.

On Thursday, July 18th, local airwaves became a debate forum as John Schneider (co-principal of Urban Rail Today) sparred with 55KRC talk radio host Brian Thomas over the pros and cons of the city’s project, now surging forward with a fresh infusion of necessary funding (see Cincinnati signs streetcar construction contract). Here’s a brief description from the CincyStreetcar Blog:

John Schneider, aka Captain Transit aka Mr. Streetcar, was back on the radio this morning. He was invited to join Brian Thomas on his regular morning show on 55 KRC.

The two discussed the first phase of the Cincinnati Streetcar project in detail, and also discussed the merits of rail transportation in general.

The discussion started with Brian Thomas going on an uninterrupted prelude where he discussed the City of Cincinnati’s finances and its lack of ability to proceed with the project.

“The fundamental problem with Cincinnati, and the fundamental opportunity is we’ve lost population and we need to repopulate our city. We have a city that was built for 500,000 people, but we only have 300,000 people today,” Schneider explained to an agreeable Thomas. “But the snow still falls on Martin Luther King Boulevard and it has to be plowed, the grass still grows in Mt. Airy Forest and it has to be cut.”

Schneider went on to explain that investing in the Cincinnati Streetcar will help stabilize the city’s tax base and repopulate the city, in perhaps the greatest challenge and opportunity the Queen City has.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Thomas spent almost the entire interview using anecdotes and anti-city hysteria to support his points, but he did loudly profess how much of a bus fan he is.

CincyStreetcar Blog also provides its own link to a nice, compact recording of the full 55KRC program, lasting about a half-hour.

Yak jock Brian Thomas was not only adversarial, but also somewhat overbearing. After long orations of his own view, he’d ask John Schneider a question, then interrupt him about a couple of sentences into his response. In fact, it didn’t appear that John was ever able to complete a response without interruption. Neverless, John maintained a cool, professional demeanor and seems to have presented a good case for the Cincinnati project.

Much of the de facto on-air debate focused on Thomas’s claims that buses could do the job at less cost (the “Just like rail, but cheaper” argument). But (before being interrupted each time) Schneider managed to emphasize some of the major advantages of rail transit.

It’s almost a sure bet that rail transit opponents actually ride public transit extremely rarely, if ever — and, especially before an audience similarly unfamiliar with the actual differences, this sophistic anti-rail rationale can effectively hoodwink some observers. But the reality is that a streetcar is far more attractive to the public than a bus, even for what will be, in the Cincy CBD, short circulator trips. There’s more personal space, you can board/deboard much faster, the stops are far nicer, the trip is faster.

As a result, significantly higher ridership is attracted. And, in most cases, in turn, rail’s operating and maintenance cost per passenger-mile is lower than for similar bus service.

One of the more curious aspects of the debate was Thomas’s argument on the claimed drawbacks of rail’s route permanence, and his praise for the supposed superiority of being able to “flexibly” change a bus route at will. Despite Thomas’s professed devotion to bus transit, almost any seasoned regular bus rider might seriously wonder whether he really rides the bus as often as he claims. As most regular riders know all too well, “flexible” route diversions are one of the greatest banes of bus passengers, especially when these diversions occur frequently because of special events such as parades, marathons, street fairs, and similar activities.

What this “flexibility” means for many a regular commuter, for example, is that you walk vigorously to your usual bus stop for your after-work trip home, only to find it closed because your bus has been re-routed six to eight blocks away — and you can’t possibly make your bus on time. (But it’s probably delayed by all the street activity and re-routings, anyway.)

In short, while route “flexibility” might be very handy for the transit agency (and muncipal public works roadway department) … it’s hell for the passengers. The people of Cincinnati — and, indeed, any community considering rail vs. bus alternatives — need to ask themselves if this is the outcome they really want.

Winning transit ballot measures via good community outreach


Graphic: RochesterSubway.com

by Lyndon Henry

It’s one thing to pull together a good, plausible, workable, affordable plan for a new urban rail transit system in your community. But that’s only the first hurdle. The next big hurdle is pulling in public support — voter support — behind your proposed project.

Addressing that challenge was the focus of a paper I presented a few years back to the June 2007 Transit Initiatives and Communities Conference sponsored by the Center for Transportation Excellence (CFTE), a major national U.S. public transit advocacy organization.

Based mainly on my experience with rail transit ballot measures in six different cities over roughly a seven-year period, the paper is titled Advancing Transit Improvement Measures Through Effective Community Outreach (click to access full paper in .DOC format).

My PowerPoint version can still be accessed at the CFTE website here:

From the PowerPoint presentation, here are some excerpts that summarize particularly crucial issues:

Rail Transit Ballot Measures Are Very Different!

• Not like most electoral campaigns
• Rail (and sometimes Quality Bus) is usually unfamiliar
• Rail conjures images of freight trains
• Prominent – attracts intense scrutiny
• Impacts an entire corridor of neighborhoods
• Unites diverse range of opponents
• Well-funded brigade of professional critics

3 Main Allies in Transit Improvement Efforts

• Grassroots pro-transit groups
• Transit agency leadership and staff
• Local civic leadership

Transit Coalition Strategy

• Transit agency’s image is important
• Make sure accomplishments are emphasized
• Don’t miss opportunities
• Don’t promise the impossible (“Rail project will solve congestion”)
• Emphasize value of real-world, achievable goals (“Rail line will carry 30% of peak travel in the Lamar corridor by 2020”)
• Always assume it’s an uphill struggle
• Grassroots organizers critical – it’s not all mass media and official forums
• GOTV – and don’t forget early voting!

Responding to Critics

• Don’t ignore them
• Don’t miss opportunities, including debates (“ostrich” tactic doesn’t work)
• Don’t echo opponents’ slogans (They say “Transit Sucks!” We say “No!”)
• Don’t try to respond to every single detail
• Avoid confusing, mind-numbing “numbers trivia“
• Focus on refuting 2-3 critical points to establish credibility – try using humor
• Supporters’ credibility vs. opponents’
• Keep larger vision and message in view
• Beware late-campaign “bombshells” (endorsements, “research reports”, etc.)

Here are summaries of the paper’s conclusions:

Grassroots Pro-Transit Groups

• Major role in informing, “educating”, and mobilizing the public
• Valuable source of ideas and information for transit agency
• Need to avoid adversarial role with transit agency
• Need to understand dynamics of transit agency
• Need to learn art of persuasion

Transit Agency

• Need to respect & listen to grassroots input
• Transit agency’s image is important
• Make sure accomplishments are emphasized
• Provide facts & figures
• Avoid “answer panic”
• Be aware of informational resources

Civic Leadership

• “Grand Vision” important – but so are facts
• Public & voters expect some solid answers
• Focus on 2-3 most critical or vulnerable issues
• Don’t echo opponents’ slogans
• Don’t miss opportunities, including debates (“ostrich” tactic doesn’t work)
• Organize & coordinate campaign and message – ensure everyone “on the same page”

And there’s more! So if you’re involved in promoting urban rail for your community, I strongly encourage you to access both the paper and the PowerPoint presentation and check out all of this valuable information.

Cincinnati signs streetcar construction contract


Cincinnati’s modern 100% lowfloor streetcars will be constructed in Elmira, NY by CAF USA.

Cincinnati, Ohio — After many months of civic agonizing and political wrangling over a budgetary shortfall, this city’s streetcar project is back on track with the signing on July 15th of the major contract for trackage and other infrastructure with the consortium of Messer Construction, Prus Construction, and Delta Railroad.


The $71.4 million contract has been facilitated by the City Council’s recent approval of $17.4 million in additional capital funding to cover the unanticipated shortfall, and includes an extra $492,933 for increases in material expenses, labor and equipment, cold weather protection, and bonding costs. With the purchase of rolling stock and other expenses, total capital investment cost of the project is now estimated at about $133 million. That’s about $37 million a mile for the 3.6-mile single-track-loop route.

Under the revised construction schedule, all work will be completed by March 2016 and passenger service is projected to begin in September 2016.

Read more:

Construction Contract Signed

Cincinnati Streetcar Scheduled to Open Sept. 15, 2016

New light rail projects in study beat BRT

Phoenix light rail transit (LRT, left); Los Angeles Orange Line "bus rapid transit" (BRT, right). Photos: L. Henry.

Phoenix light rail transit (LRT, left); Los Angeles Orange Line “bus rapid transit” (BRT, right). Photos: L. Henry.

by Lyndon Henry

New light rail transit (LRT) projects came out ahead of new bus rapid transit (BRT) projects that were included in a research study I presented last November (2012) to the 12th National Light Rail Transit Conference in Salt Lake City, sponsored by the Transportation Research Board (TRB) and American Public Transportation Association (APTA). Dave Dobbs, a longtime colleague, helped me conduct the study.

In part, this research was a response to the assertions of critics of rail transit who maintain a constant barrage of attacks on rail, trying to convince the public at large and decisionmakers that public transit (especially rail) is just a waste of money … and that, if you must install something fancy, so-called “BRT” is invariably cheaper and better (or “Just like light rail, but cheaper…”). However, these attacks rarely appear in independent professional forums like this one, co-sponsored by the TRB (an affiliate of the National Academy of Sciences).

All papers accepted by the TRB for publication/presentation — including this work, titled Comparative examination of New Start light rail transit, light railway, and bus rapid transit services opened from 2000 — must undergo a rigorous peer-review process critically examining their methodology and conclusions.

My PowerPoint presentation to the conference has been placed online by the TRB and can be found here:


In addition, I discussed the study — both the methodology and the results — in several articles published in my online blog column at Railway Age:

Research study: New LRT projects beat BRT [26 November 2012]

Research: BRT can truly be pricier than LRT [14 January 2013]

Study: LRT ridership gains are spectacular [18 February 2013]

Here are some summary results, excerpted from the Railway Age articles:

How well did LRT and BRT final costs compare with budget estimates? LRT again did better, exceeding budget by only 2% on average, while BRT averaged 35% above budget.

In terms of capital cost, for “substantial” installations (5% or more of route length involving heavy civil works), LRT was a clear winner, with an average cost per mile of $80 million, less than a fifth of BRT’s average of nearly $452 million. (All costs in 2012 dollars.)

Where electric LRT really excelled was in achieving ridership goals. On average, LRT projects seemed to meet their ridership targets at about twice the rate of the BRT projects, using the “ridership achievement index” we developed for the study (which accounted for the pace at which projected ridership was being achieved).

It should be noted that some BRT projects didn’t do so badly — Cleveland’s “HealthLine” project (Euclid Avenue) was achieving its target at a 60% faster pace than expected, while Los Angeles’s Orange Line busway was reaching its ridership at nearly 3 times the projected rate.

But some of the LRT results were really spectacular. St. Louis’s St. Clair Extension of Metrolink, for example, was racing towards its ridership goals at over 7 times the predicted rate; Minneapolis’s Hiawatha line at six times; and Denver’s Southwest LRT at more than 6 times. (It should be noted that 3 out of the 20 LRT projects studied were failing to meet projected growth rate targets; nevertheless, the overall LRT average still exceeded BRT’s.

There’s a lot more, both in the PowerPoint presentation, and in the full Railway Age articles.