Can Streetcars Save All Systems Go?

Today’s Statesman finally has an article on one of the improvements being floated to the All Systems Go plan which attempts to address the vast gap between the commuter rail line’s terminus east of the Convention Center and the actual destinations of center-city workers (Congress Ave, State Capitol, University of Texas).

So would this plan, assuming they could get Capital Metro to go for it, work? I generally evaluate transit competitiveness on three simple metrics: comfort, reliability, and speed.

Comfort: Streetcars win out over shuttle buses big-time. However, they’re still not as good as staying in the same seat the whole trip (as 2000’s light rail route would have allowed, and as commuter rail extended to Congress Avenue could theoretically do). Transfers are uncomfortable – there’s no way around this; even transferring from one great ride to another great ride is a pain.
But again, compared to shuttle buses, streetcars win.

Reliability: No difference. Some people think there’s some magic in those rails, but unlike light rail, these railcars would be sharing a lane with cars. Stuck in traffic, just like the shuttle buses would be. Both the streetcar and the shuttle-bus lose out here to light rail (or a more sensibly routed commuter rail). What that means is that one day, your trip from the commuter rail station to your office might take 5 minutes, and the next day it might take 25 minutes. A transit alternative that is more reliable than the car (easy to do if it has its own right-of-way) is fairly attractive even if it has a small deficit in speed.

Speed: Worse (with proposed routing). If they were running in a street with higher average speeds, the streetcar might actually have an acceleration advantage, but the Dillo doesn’t have much trouble keeping up with cars now on downtown streets. The problem, of course, is that both the Dillo and this streetcar will be stopping very very very frequently. Both light rail and more sensibly routed commuter rail would win here. For transit to be competitive on speed does not mean that it must be faster than your car, especially downtown, but the overall trip must not be much slower than your car. This route fails that metric, especially if you’re going to UT or the Capitol.

So it looks pretty bleak, right? Well, actually, I like streetcars. Cities which have already developed a high-capacity high-performance transit “spine” (like Dallas and Portland) can get additional distribution benefits from a streetcar. (The key, though, is that the high-performance transit spine must be an attractive choice in and of itself, which the commuter rail line Cap Metro is pushing is definitely not). And the streetcar as a downtown distributor (ignoring the linkage to commuter rail) is more attractive than the Dillo, because the psychological effect of seeing rails in the street is more likely to make dense residential and commercial development attractive. As a matter of fact, one could argue that Cap Metro should build a streetcar like this on a couple of streets where there’s little possibility of light or commuter rail first and then go for light rail.

So in conclusion: Streetcars are neat. They’re good for Austin. But they can’t really make the All Systems Go plan any more competitive. Sorry, folks.
(modified May 2006 to account for streetcar route as indicated in Future Connections Study).



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