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Part 1: Mark Baumer Reflection: Impounding Vehicles & Immigrant Rights

This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer . There's nothing graphic i...

A Streetcar Named Desire

Exhibit A


This is the block I used to live on. 

This is the trolley I used to take.

These are the bike lanes I used to ride in (and got doored in).

This trolley (the 34) is one of the major assets of the neighborhood (along with several others: the 13, 10, 36, 11, and--now, after being restarted!--the 15). It's the way lots of people get around. It's certainly a big part of why many historic buildings still stand, and haven't be razed to create parking lots (not to say that that doesn't happen in West Philly--ahem). It's a major aspect of what makes Philadelphia green. These trolleys are priceless.

These trolleys have a flaw, though. They don't have a right-of-way. They could have a right of way, and my hope is someday they will. Philadelphia could ban parking on this street, turn those lanes into wide bike lanes, and this street could be transit and bikes only (and this would keep the Portland-level bike commuter population from being doored, and the trolley riders getting out from being smacked with bicycles). But for now, what happens is that people who drive double park so that they can pick up a pizza or drop something off, or sometimes do more involved things. The trolley will come behind these double-parked cars, honk impotently, get backed up with three or four of its trolley brethren, and after a few minutes the driver will come out nonchalantly and continue on their way as if they haven't inconvenienced hundreds of people. Sometimes the people pop out of the trolley and walk blocks to the point where the trolley starts having a right of way, because they hope that there they might be able to catch a different vehicle coming on one of the other fingers of the trolley route map.

Exhibit B


This is one of the trolleys I grew up with. The suburb my grandparents moved out to post-WWII had two trolleys, but these differed from the 34 in a lot of ways. Most of these differences were to the 34's advantage, I should say. While Upper Darby is not a terribly sprawly suburb, it's less dense and mixed use than West Philly. It has a marginally more affluent population. The state has come through in the past fifty years and widened arterials such that, while the neighborhoods themselves are extremely walkable, the overall feel of the place still leads to many people driving.

But one of the advantages this trolley has is it has a right of way. It only has to deal with traffic at crossings. It mostly commands intersections. It travels long distances quickly. And it's stops don't compete with walking--this "local" will still get you places much quicker than you could walk, and probably quicker than you could bike either.

Now, obviously we can't have the kind of right of way that this trolley has, because that requires different land use than exists in our city. But we could certainly have the kind of right of way where cars are banned for all or part of a street, in order to give priority to transit. Doing this would be better for cars too, because so many people would be sucked into a useful streetcar service that the remaining lanes would be relatively free-flowing. Washington Street doesn't need cars to be on it.

Why Do You Hate Streetcars So Much?

I love streetcars (although I hate the verbal inflation we have going on where we call some of our buses "trolleys" and thus have to use the term "streetcar" to differentiate for a trolley that actually is a trolley.

Trolleys (or streetcars, if you will) are great things. And for sure, even the ones with no right of way are great. Because of the other factors that favor the 34, I'm certain without even having to check the data that far more people use it than the 101, successful a line as the 101 is. Providence has many of the density of development factors in its downtown that would make a streetcar useful.

The problem I have is that currently, what people in Providence complain so vociferously about is poor service. If you ask people, point blank, "Would you like a bus, or would you like a streetcar?" people automatically choose streetcar, because the association in America is that rail projects are legible, reliable, fast, and frequent. Our city is nicely walkable, both in scale and development style, so lots of people just walk to get around the bad bus service. Adding a streetcar to the mix without giving that streetcar preference over cars in its lane(s), to me at least, does not resolve this problem. 

Icarus, Flying Too High?

Progressives in the United States fear failure (now, there are lots of conservative reasons to be pro-transit, but that's another conversation). Apparently still anxious from the 1980 election results, the left tries to cut its losses because of the fears it has of failure. Instead of setting the bar high, and then entertaining compromise, the movement's leaders start with lukewarm only to go to cold. 

The Icarus story warns us not to fly to high and close to the sun, lest our wings of wax be melted. This is wise advise for many situations. Political overreach is one of the things that may trim the wings of the Tea Party in the coming years. But progressives should stop acting as though this is the only fable for how the world works.

Undercutting your strongest proposals by leading with compromise doesn't just get you mediocrity. Sometimes it endangers even modest change. As a nation, no matter where you fall on the political spectrum, unless you're an out-of-touch political hack, you're probably joining in the collective sighing and/or derisive laughter about how much of a joke the ACA website has been. The ACA was actually a crappy half measure from an administration that could have led with single-payer and been bargained down. Because instead the administration went with less efficient methods (to paraphrase the late John Kenneth Galbraith, "to run a public good through private companies, as if trying to feed the birds first by passing the seed through a horse") we're now left with a question mark for whether anyone can come from behind and try to make the half measures complete.

If we build the streetcar, I do think no matter what it will not fall on its face. I know people will ride it. I know it won't utterly fail, But my question is, what does this bring to the table that we don't already have in the buses? We should build a streetcar, yes, but as we do, we should demand things like rights of way, not only because that would be so much better than not having a right of way, but also because it prepares the public conversation in a way that informs people for the limitations of not having such a thing. 

Service matters. People hate a bus because it's unreliable, infrequent, illegible (the map is hard to read), and have bad spans (they don't run early or late). Frequency is actually far and away the most important thing for transit users, because much of the waiting is done on the platform, not in the bus. But a streetcar that gets stuck behind an accident or a double-parked car, or which just is stuck in mixed traffic, cannot deliver frequency. It will get bunched up like the 34 trolley does, and out onto the sidewalk will pour the many riders, to walk to work just as they already do.

I want to end this with something in bold. If you read this piece and you got the idea that I hate streetcars, you need to read it again. I'm not saying we can't build a good streetcar system, I'm just saying--much as I do about bikes--that we need to set our sights high.

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I encourage debate below.

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2 comments:

  1. While I agree with your broader point about transit right of way, I think you're off with respect to the Philly green lines. Difference trolley lines move at relatively different speeds.The 34 is slow, largely because Baltimore Avenue is a highly-trafficked corridor, and every block is a stoplight. It stops to pick up passengers and ends up hitting lights red. The 13 is much faster. It goes down Chester, which has fewer stoplights, and has less car traffic. I used to live at 48th and Warrington in West Philly and would always try to take the 13 from Center City, since it was much faster. This has little to do with right of way. And it's unclear that Providence corridors are so highly trafficked that they'd slow a streetcar all that much (especially since it would have right of way through the east side tunnel).

    The trolleys in Philly were always more enjoyable to take than buses, for a lot of reasons. Some reasons are very clear: they're integrated into the subway system, quieter, don't smell like exhaust, and are generally a smoother ride. Other reasons are more vague: there's more undefinable romanticism to riding a trolley than a bus, historical interest, and the feeling of a healthy city.

    And I think you're somewhat wrong about Providence. The density makes the city nice and walkable. One can EASILY walk from one side of town to the other in about 20-30 minutes. And since there's really no bus that does this, walking seems like an attractive alternative. But most people don't do it. Most people drive. Even from the west side or east side to downtown. Making travel from to and from various points in the city easier, more attractive, and more visible could help alleviate some of the Providence car culture. And a streetcar would be a good addition, even without right of way. It could improve the eminence of transit within the city of Providence. And if we're worried that the proposed streetcar covers an area that is "walkable" all we have to do is remember that most people don't currently walk it.

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  2. I particularly agree with this part of what you said:

    "The density makes the city nice and walkable. One can EASILY walk from one side of town to the other in about 20-30 minutes. And since there's really no bus that does this, walking seems like an attractive alternative. But most people don't do it. Most people drive. Even from the west side or east side to downtown. Making travel from to and from various points in the city easier, more attractive, and more visible could help alleviate some of the Providence car culture."

    About this:

    "The 34 is slow, largely because Baltimore Avenue is a highly-trafficked corridor, and every block is a stoplight. It stops to pick up passengers and ends up hitting lights red."

    I saw a study (i'll have to look for the link) for Spring Garden Street in Philly where they were trying to get around the stop light problem. They were going to have the buses stop on the other side of the light (I think it's called "far corner pick up", which is opposite of how most Philly and Providence stops are set up) so that when the light changes, the bus could keep going. This required moving the stops but not resignaling them.

    The study was also looking and protected bike lanes/cycletracks for that corridor.

    And something I liked was that the proposal was to have the buses stop pulling to the side of the street to let people off. There were going to be little islands, and the bus would stay in traffic, and that would slow the cars down, making things nicer for pedestrians, and keeping the buses out of the bike lanes.

    I don't think getting the streetcar to be speedy is the biggest part of why having a right of way is important. I actually think the double parking/car accident/traffic blockage is mostly a problem in the way of creating regularity and frequency. The best routes work when you don't need a schedule. In theory I treated the 34 that way, because it was very frequent, but when something went wrong and the trolleys bunched up, it could mean a very long wait.

    I think we should think about this question, because we want the streetcar proposal to explode transit use, and if people's first impression of the streetcar is that it can get blocked by accidents or double-parked cars, then they might not opt to use it as much.

    I do think you're right that most people drive rather than walk if they don't take transit, but I do also think that transit not competing with walking is an important thing. You want the stops to be far enough apart that people feel like the streetcar amplifies what they can do as a pedestrian, rather than just mirroring it. Some people will take a super slow bus/streetcar because they don't like walking, but you want to reach out to people (especially young people, I suppose) who are perfectly willing to walk and will only take transit if it is more efficient than walking.


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