Streetcars Have Lost the Left
President Lyndon Johnson famously said of Missouri-born news anchor Walter Cronkite, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America.” Johnson was speaking about support for the war in Vietnam, but that quote comes to mind when thinking about recent pieces on streetcars.
On January 8, the Huffington Post published a piece titled “A Streetcar Named Deception,” by Lawrence Hanley, president of the Washington, D.C., transit workers union. Hanley echoes many of the concerns made in this blog and elsewhere:
Streetcars today are of little, if any, use to those who actually depend on public transit as their primary means of mobility. Unlike light rail, heavy rail, and bus rapid transit, streetcars don’t have dedicated lanes to keep them moving free of automobile traffic. And in many cases, they run slower than a standard bus. And unlike a bus, a streetcar can’t shift out of its lane to avoid an obstacle, causing more traffic.
Streetcars also divert taxpayer money away from mobility-focused transit that helps working people and into boutique transit loops meant for “choice riders.” Meanwhile, bus service that takes people where they really must go gets short shrift, with routes being cut and fares going up. Adding insult to injury, streetcars are usually marketed as “sleek,” “premium,” “clean” ways for the rising urban class to get around. Rather than investing in and improving transit for everybody, politicians and their corporate backers are intentionally developing parallel transit systems—one for the well-to-do and one for the rest of us.
A month later, the New York Times published a piece arguing that money spent on streetcars is largely wasted:
“Bus-based public transit in the United States suffers from an image problem.”
That fact, laid out in a 2009 report from the Federal Transit Administration, isn’t surprising, but it has led to a perverse outcome: Transit agencies are spending millions of dollars on new rail infrastructure that is no faster than existing bus service, simply because riders perceive a train as better than a bus.
Many who are serious about effective transit have abandoned streetcars as a viable option. Why do Kansas City leaders persist when no one, especially Kansas City voters, thinks this is a good idea?