DC Circulator and Streetcar, to scale.
Not the same.
Streetcars are big in planning circles right now. DC and Arlington have grand plans for them, as do many cities around the US. Every time the subject comes up, however, someone poses the question what makes streetcars better than buses?
It’s a valid question, and it has a series of valid answers. Here are the most important:
- Streetcars have greater capacity than buses.
Streetcars are bigger, longer, and can be combined into multi-car trains. They can carry many more passengers than any bus, even accordion buses. For corridors with transit ridership too high for buses but not high enough for Metro, streetcars can be a good solution.
- Streetcars are faster than buses, even in mixed traffic.
Most streetcars have at least 3 doors, and many models have 4 or more. More doors mean passengers at stations can load and unload faster, meaning streetcars can spend more time actually moving, and less time dwelling at stations waiting for passengers to get on or off. Of course, an express bus making few stops or running in dedicated lanes will be faster than a streetcar stopping on every block in mixed traffic, but when other factors are equal, streetcars are faster.
- Streetcars can be more affordable than buses over the long term.
While it’s true that streetcars require a much larger initial capital investment than buses, that capital cost can be offset by significant operational savings year-to year, depending on the circumstances. In the long term, streetcars are more affordable on very high ridership routes. Streetcars’ higher capacity means that if there are lots of riders on your route, you can move them with fewer vehicles. Fewer vehicles means more efficient use of fuel and fewer (unionized, pensioned) drivers to pay. Also, streetcar vehicles themselves are much more sturdy than buses, and last many decades longer. While buses must generally be retired and replacements purchased about every 10 years, streetcars typically last 40 years or more. For example, Philadelphia’s SEPTA transit system is still using streetcar vehicles built in 1947 (although they have been overhauled once since then).
- Streetcars are much more comfortable to ride than buses.
One of the big reasons why many Americans don’t like buses is that they are so rumbly. They jerk you up, down, side to side. They’re simply not comfortable. Streetcars glide along a rail much more smoothly, offering a vastly more comfortable ride. Less motion sickness, easier to hang on. This issue isn’t often discussed in newspaper articles, and rail opponents like to pretend it’s not a big deal, but it is a really big deal. Comfort matters to customers, and no industry succeeds if it isn’t appealing to customers.
- Streetcar routes are easier to understand.
In any big city, buses are confusing. There are so many criss-crossing and competing routes, even on the same trunk corridor, that it can be intimidating and difficult to understand (for example, DC’S 16th Street has no fewer than 5 different routes, and two different ones are labelled the S2). New users are turned off because they don’t want to accidentally get on the wrong bus and end up far from their real destination. Streetcars, on the other hand, are easier to understand because their cost inherently limits the size of the system, and their need to run on tracks reassures riders of the route. Instead of an incomprehensible jumble, you get a simple system map that people can easily memorize. To be fair, the inherent route flexibility of buses can be an advantage for them over streetcars, but the specific needs of the corridor matter. In some places the simplicity & predictability of rail are more important, while in others the flexibility of bus rules.
- Streetcars attract more riders than buses.
Partially because of the above points, streetcars are always used by more people than buses when all other things are equal. They attract more passengers, which after all is the whole point of public transit.
- Streetcars are economic development magnets.
The presence of rail transit nearby is one of the best incentives for economic development in the world. Metro stations radically remade large swaths of the DC area, and streetcars can do the same (have done the same, in places like Portland and Toronto). Developers rarely base decisions around bus lines, but routinely follow rail investments with real estate ones. In fact, the additional taxes generated by rail-oriented development is often used to repay the initial capital investment of rail lines.
- Streetcars use electricity rather than gas.
This potentially makes streetcars much more environmentally friendly than buses, although it depends how the electricity is generated. And while it’s true that electric trolleybuses exist, they are almost never used in the US because of BRT creep, and no new US city has introduced them in generations.
- Streetcars are much quieter than buses.
Because they run on electricity, streetcars are very quiet vehicles. They are much less disruptive to neighborhood life than buses.
- Streetcars are iconic.
Trains are graphic symbols for the city in a way that buses simply are not. Every tourist knows about the DC Metro, the New York subway, and the San Francisco cable cars. Their trains are an indispensable part of those city’s brands, and streetcars will be too as soon as they’re running. With the exception of London and its double deckers, nobody ever sent a postcard featuring a picture of a bus.
- Streetcars are faster than buses, even in mixed traffic.
Of course, buses are useful tools, and are the right choice in many (even most) situations. Nothing here should suggest that buses shouldn’t be a major part of every city’s transit network. But buses are demonstrably different than streetcars. They don’t have the same characteristics, and don’t accomplish the same goals. Those who claim buses do everything streetcars do are demonstrably wrong.
A note on dedicated lanes: Obviously transit functions better in dedicated lanes than in mixed-traffic. This is true for both streetcars and buses, and is not inherent to either mode. The point of this list is to compare the modes when all other things are equal. A bus line in a dedicated transitway may indeed be better than a streetcar in mixed-traffic, but a streetcar in the same dedicated transitway would be even better.