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.
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.
I encourage debate below.