A reader sent me a link to this Vox article on streetcars. What I thought was interesting is just how weak the case for streetcars is, even when made by folks are are presumably sympathetic to them. This page is entitled "Why do cities want streeetcars." The arguments are:
- Tourists like them, because you can't get lost like you can on buses. My response is, "so what." Unless you are one of a very few unique cities, tourists are a trivial percentage of transit riders anyway. Why build a huge system just to serve out-of-town visitors? I would add that many of these same cities (e.g. Las Vegas) considering streetcars are the same ones banning Uber, which tourists REALLY love.
- Developers like them. Ahh, now we are getting somewhere. So they are corporate welfare? But not so fast, they are not even very good corporate welfare. Because most of the studies they cite are total BS, of the same quality as studies that say sports stadium construction spurs all sorts of business. In fact, most cities have linked huge tax abatement and subsidy programs to their streetcars, such that the development you get with the subsidy and the streetcar is about what you would expect from the subsidies alone. Reminds me of the old joke that mimicked cereal commercials: "As part of a breakfast with juice, toast, and milk, Trix cereal has all the nutrition of juice, toast, and milk."
- Good for the environment. But even Vox asks, "as compared to what." Since they are generally an alternative buses, as compared to buses that have little environmental advantage and often are worse (they have a lot more weight to drag around when empty).
- The Obama Administration likes them. LOL, that's a recommendation? When you read the text, what they actually say is that mayors like the fact that the Obama Administration likes them, for it means the Feds will throw lots of Federal money at these projects to help mayors look good using other peoples' money
- Jobs. This is hilarious Keynesianism, trying to make the fact that streetcars are 10-100x more expensive than buses some sort of positive. Because they are more inefficient, they employ more people! One could make the exact same argument for banning mechanical harvesters and going back to scythes. Left unquestioned, as Bastiat would tell us, is how many people that money would have employed if it had not been seized by the government for streetcar use.
- Je ne sais quoi. I kid you not, that is their final argument, that streetcars add that special something to a neighborhood. In my mind, this is Vox's way of saying the same thing I did the other day -- that the streetcar's appeal is primarily based on class, in that middle and upper class folks don't want to ride on a bus with the masses. The streetcar feels more upscale than buses. The poor of course, for whom public transit is most vital, don't want to pay 10 times more for sexiness. Oh, and watch this video of Washington streetcars blocking traffic and crunching parked cars and tell me what it is adding to the neighborhood.
Every argument I have ever been in on streetcars always boils down to something like "well, all the cool kids like them." Once, after defending the US approach to rail (vs. Europe and Japan) as (correctly) focusing on productivity vs. sexiness, having gone into a lot of detail on the economics of freight vs. passengers, I got a one sentence answer from Joel Epstein of the HuffPo: “You should get out of the country more often.” That was it -- the cool cosmopolitan kids who vacation in Gstaad but never would be caught dead driving across Nebraska were all against me.