I am a notedstreetcar skeptic. I have written blog posts about their issues. As an objective analyst, I will however admit an advantage streetcars or trams have over buses.
This is not the ‘permanence’ justification that is often heard and easily disproved (i.e. where are they now if they were so permanent?). But it is related, once laid down, tracks are harder to move than buses, and tracks are more expensive, so it is harder to make routes circuitous. Many bus routes look like they were designed by drunk transit planners. One local bus the 370, which runs near my office and my home is so circuitous it is faster to walk even ignoring schedule delay. (It is not quite faster to walk end-to-end though, walking time is 2:30 vs. 1:14 on the bus, so the effective bus speed, assuming schedule compliance, is about 9.6 km/h vs. 4.8 km/h walking.) I have written about this before in Minneapolis, (and nearby Rosedale) and circuity is hardly an unknown problem.
Now there are undoubtedly reasons for every indirect deviation that diverts buses from the straight and narrow. However, every circuitous zig also loses passengers, and bus routes in the US are much more circuitous than travel by road. Serve this building, serve that one, cover this street, reduce pedestrian walking time.
In contrast, trams in practice are much more straight-laced, paragons of transit routing virtue. The historic Sydney Tram Map, as this map in wikipedia shows, gives a sense of routes that were pretty much as direct as possible.
Now it can be argued this particular bus provides and east-west service that no tram did, which is true in part. But that doesn’t mean trams could not. It also could be argued that almost no one rides the 370 end-to-end. Though I have not checked the Opal data, this is probably true as well. But a well-structured suburb-to-suburb transit network (my fantasy map is here, Jarrett Walker has done this as well) could avoid this. To be fair as well, the Sydney frequent network is not nearly as circuitous as the 370 bus, which has a roughly 20 minute headway
This paper describes the connection between stop spacing and person-weighted accessibility for a transit route. Population distribution is assumed to be uniform along the line, but at each station, demand drops with distance from the station. The study reveals that neither short nor excessive stop spacings are efficient in providing accessibility. For the configuration of each transit route, an optimum stop spacing exists that maximizes accessibility. Parameters including transit vehicle acceleration, deceleration, top speed, dwell time, and pedestrian walking speed affect level of accessibility achiev- able, and differ in their effect on accessibility results. The findings provide an anchor of reference both for the planning of future transit systems, and for transit operators to make operational changes to system design parameters that improve accessibility in a cost-effective manner. The study technically justifies the “rule of thumb” in setting different stop spacings for metro, streetcars, and other different transit services. Different types of transit vary in their ability to provide accessibility, slower moving streetcar (tram) type urban rails are inherently disadvantaged in that respect. Thus the type of transit service to be built should be of particular concern, if the transit is to effectively serve its intended population.
Accessibility is often not a performance measure for transit services. This study is conducted following the introduction of new timetables which intended to improve passenger throughput for Sydney’s transit services, but resulted in major delays experienced by passengers thereafter. Accessibility at 30-minute travel threshold before and after the timetable change are calculated between 8 to 9 am, to measure accessibility benefits, if any, from the new timetable. The results show a lack of systematic improvement by the new table, and downgrade of accessibility on average. The overall person-weighted accessibility dropped by 3%, from 45,070 to 43,730, and 63.3% of the population’s access to jobs would be adversely affected after its implementation. This study advocates for the inclusion of accessibility metrics into transit performance measures to connect with people who use transit.
My colleagues at the University of Minnesota just released Access Across America: Transit 2017. The time series here is a big deal, it is now possible to look at change at accessibility systematically from a national perspective, and compare cities. From the page:
Most U.S. metros increase access to jobs by transit
The 2017 edition of Access Across America: Transitreports that 36 of the 49 largest metros showed increases in job accessibility by transit. Though rankings of the top 10 metro areas for job accessibility by transit only changed slightly from the previous year, new data comparing changes within each of the 49 largest U.S. metros over one year helped researchers identify the places with the greatest increases in access to jobs by transit. Kansas City improved more than 17 percent. San Francisco, which ranks 2nd for job accessibility by transit, improved nearly 9 percent. In all, 42 of the 49 largest metros showed increases in job accessibility by transit.
“This new data makes it possible to see the change from year to year in how well a metro area is facilitating access to jobs by transit,” said Andrew Owen, director of the Observatory. “Transit is an essential transportation service for many Americans, and we directly compare the accessibility performance of America’s largest metropolitan areas.”
Key factors affecting the rankings for any metro area include the number of jobs available and where they are located, the availability of transit service, and population size, density, and location. Better coordination of transit service with the location of jobs and housing will improve job accessibility by transit.
Maps of cities with the greatest increases in job accessibility by transit
Why does Australia have higher transit use than the US?
This question has two major explanations: Driving is harder and using transit is easier. On the road side, as my colleague Wes Marshall says: “Policy-related differences include stronger and more extensive enforcement programs [in Australia], restrictive licensing programs, and higher driving costs.”
In places like central Sydney, narrower lanes and expensive parking also make driving a burden. The Australian motorway system is less developed than the US interstate highway system, though the government is funding major new urban motorways in Australia (e.g. WestConnex in Sydney).
Transit benefits because higher population and employment density (especially around transit stations ) within cities compared to most US cities (as well as a more urban population overall) reduces access time to and from transit and enables higher frequency service to serve the demand. The train, bus, and tram systems in Australian cities are relatively high frequency and fairly reliable, with all-day service. While the systems are imperfect (as any daily commuter will tell you) they are orders of magnitude better than most of the US.
Transit service is a positive feedback system (The Mohring Effect, named for Transport Economist Herb Mohring who first identified it). More demand calls for more service, the additional service is in the form of additional buses and trains running at different times than the original service, reducing schedule delay, making transit more convenient, calling for more service. This works two ways, so transit cutbacks increase headways (decrease frequency) making transit less convenient, lowering demand, resulting in more cutbacks.
From the 1920s when tram (streetcar) use peaked (notably excepting the spike during World War II) through the 1960s there was a process of Bustitution — substitution of buses for trams. Many cities around the world (notably excepting places like Melbourne, Toronto, San Francisco, and especially selected cities in Europe) instead of paying the costs of recapitalising their tram systems, opted to convert tram lines to buses that had much lower capital costs.
In the US, there is a grand conspiracy theory, about how this came about. While most of the conspiracy theory is over-blown, there was some evil doing, as is the wont of people infected with greed (better known as people). In Minneapolis the people who converted the streetcar to buses went to jail, not for the conversion but for crimes like bribing state legislators and giving kickbacks. In Brisbane, the Paddington tram depot caught (were set) on fire as bus conversion was being debated, answering the question.
In general, the reality is much more market-rational. Electric trams were first deployed in the late 1880s, so by 1950 the service was over 60 years old. Trams needed a major capital infusion to keep operating. That capital infusion was not forthcoming from fares; in the US trams had clearly been in decline for the better part of thirty years. It was a hard call for cities not to replace their trams with buses. The private sector, which financed trams initially, were unwilling to finance it again, leaving it to local governments to come up with money for the trams (or not, as it turned out).
So most cities became tramless. Those cities were losing transit riders before the conversion and lost more after the conversion. It’s a vicious cycle.
The new Light Rail mode (See Appendix) in North America kicked off with Edmonton (1978), San Diego (1981), and Portland (1986). In retrospect, many people regret the process of bustitution, and cities that later reinstalled LRT systems would with perfect foresight likely have kept their tram lines going and recapitalised them. Note that the actual coverage of these new system is much smaller than the historical trams, most tram lines were removed in most North American cites, as in Sydney.
Wikipedia reports the farebox recovery is lower in Australia than US cities, which implies a higher public subsidy. (I am not convinced there aren’t methodological differences in accounting here, but it is worth noting).
Why is Australia’s transit use rising when the US is falling?
The second question is more difficult. One response is that fuel prices remain higher in Australia. Another is that there has been more investment in transit, including more frequent service and continuous improvements to stations and vehicles. Third, Australian cities have recently rolled out smart cards (Opal in NSW) like the Oyster Card in London, and along with it pricing reforms to reduce the fare penalty for transfers, which has significantly boosted use of transit.
Australia does some other things differently from the US. Among them is increased use of contracting out to private firms to provide service. (This is not universal yet, but is growing.) This is also done in the UK and most of Europe, but not very much in the US. This has effects on costs and perception and unionization. The contractors are for-profit businesses aligned with the idea of higher ridership, so support for transit in Australia is bipartisan, while in the US, transit is considered a Democrat issue in most places, and Republicans are often actively hostile as it is not their constituents (or only support transit to their suburban districts with high cost, low value commuter rail systems like Northstar in Minnesota).
While transit in the US is perpetually in “crisis” (to listen to its supporters), in Australia (and Canada and Europe) it is a normal part of society that is widely used, and doesn’t have the same stigma associated with it.
What should the public sector do to increase ridership?
I asked on Twitter “Would restoring Sydney Trams to a network resembling that at their maximum extent (291 km), similar in scope to Melbourne’s Tram network today, be a good use of public resources?”
The response was
50% Yes, Benefits >> Costs
27% No, Benefits << Costs
23% Maybe, Benefits ~= Costs
Looking at Sydney the densities are much higher here than in most North American cites, aside from New York, San Francisco, Chicago. I previously examined the existing and planned trams in Sydney.
Because they are widely used, they have a strong constituency for their betterment, and government is responsive in expanding the system.
Convincing existing some-time riders to ride more is far easier than going from 0 to 1 as Peter Thiel might say.
I think early ridership gains come from going deep rather than going wide. A large fraction of the US still lives in areas designed around transit (basically pre-1920 America), including city cores and streetcar and commuter rail suburbs. Residents sometimes use transit now. These places are much easier to serve because the land use in conducive to transit, the densities are high enough and the networks are oriented for transit access and service.
Good, relatively cost-effective service like Minnesota’s arterial BRT (bus rapid transit ) (MetroTransit’s A Line, eg) have shown large ridership and user satisfaction gains with low investment. The system is made more efficient with things like payment before boarding, and all-door boarding, reducing time at stops and increasing driver and bus productivity.
The aim should be to serve users better, not help non-users by reducing congestion, which may be a happy byproduct, any more than building roads aims to reduce transit crowding.
Wesley E. Marshall (2018) “Understanding international road safety disparities: Why is Australia so much safer than the United States?” Accident Analysis and Prevention 111. 251–265
Mohring, H.(1972). “Optimization and Scale Economies in Urban Bus Transportation,” American Economic Review, 591-604.
Appendix: Streetcars and Trams vs. LRT
The difference between Light Rail and older streetcars or trams is primarily, but not entirely, one of branding. Anyone who says there is a clear formal difference that people abide hasn’t gotten out much. Different cities use the same words to mean different things. Still there are differences in degree:
Streetcars or trams often share right-of-way in the street, while Light Rail often has a mostly exclusive right-of-way with at-grade crossings, but either system can be operated either way.
Light Rail vehicles tend to be wider with higher capacity and longer with higher capacity, its longer vehicle is a heavier vehicle: Light Rail is not light, it’s only light with respect to commuter trains; it’s not light with respect to buses, cars, or people. Light sounds airy and like it should be less expensive, but it’s a only a little less expensive.
Transit vehicles and services form a continuum, you can operate streetcars in exclusive tunnels as in Boston. Both LRT and streetcars differ from commuter trains but it’s a continuum in regard to that as well.
While we are doing fantasy transit maps, here is my indicative sketch of an Inner Sydney Transit Grid (i.e. these are new high-frequency transit lines, likely some mix of tram/LRT or arterial Bus Rapid Transit with mostly dedicated lanes, assuming the already existing Sydney Trains and planned LRT and Metro [Red] lines remain, plus something on Parramatta Road [Green]). These are, of course, doodles, I haven’t done any modeling of them yet, and they would certainly replace existing bus routes in places.
The problem I am trying to solve is that the network is too radial in orientation, and even simple lateral movements are difficult on public transport. A clearly defined, not circuitous, high-frequency system that serves Sydney outside the CBD (without having to transfer in the CBD) seems useful. The lines are designed to connect existing and planned stations conveniently, so the routes are run on-street from station to station.
Little Bay – Drummoyne / Abbotsford (via the Airport* and Ashfield) [Brown]
Brighton Le-Sands – Mortlake (via Campsie and Burwood) [Silver]
There is also an interior branching route
Annandale – Alexandria [Avocado Green, Maroon]
There are some “new” thin radial lines shown, which track old tram lines, in particular around the University of Sydney and Newtown. And there are some new shuttle lines in Technology Park (and presumably on the Darlington side as well) (running along the rail lines) to better connect workers to the nearby stations, which are actually relatively far away given the large numbers of workers.
With most of these there is challenge finding right-of-way. I would take it from existing streets (these lines are mostly at-grade) so transit has priority. This assumes that transit service would carry more people than a laneful of cars, which likely will hold if the transit is designed to be effective. This is easier to do where there is on-street parking, harder where there is not.
* The Brown Line as shown, this assumes a rail line sharing tracks with existing rail service in airport tunnel. I am not certain the technical feasibility of this, otherwise it circumnavigates the airport somehow.
The University of Sydney is a large and growing campus, the largest in Australia by some counts, serving about 50,000 students and expected to expand by half again as many over the next 20 years. As a point of comparison, the Parramatta CBD, Sydney’s second CBD, has only 47,000 jobs, and so perhaps fewer daily commuters than the university campus.
Construction is already in process to serve up to 10,000 more students at the University. That expansion will reduce parking, and make it more difficult to drive to campus. Getting those students, and the staff who serve them, into and out of campus safely and efficiently is critical, and will get increasingly challenging as the transport capacity serving campus remains essentially fixed.
The University of Sydney is served directly by numerous buses, and indirectly by several train stations. The most notable of these is Redfern Station, about 8 minutes walk south of the Darlington Campus, but a nearly 25 minute walk from the north end of campus. Central Station is 22 minutes from the north end of Campus and 19 minutes from the Engineering Precinct. Macdonaldtown is 19 minutes from the Engineering Precinct and 22 minutes to the north end of campus. These are not inconsiderable access costs, experienced each way each day by train users, in a region aiming for a 30-minute city.
A new heavy rail line going west, but somehow missing the University of Sydney, the biggest market between the CBD and Parramatta, which is both growing on the main campus and due to interactions with the upcoming western campus at Westmead, is an opportunity that cannot be recovered from. Metro construction is about a once per century investment, and getting it right is essential, failure is irredeemable.
The argument against is that the next target station, the Bays District is farther north is true, so a line that picked up both the University and the Bays District would be circuitous, and thus slower for everyone on-board. There is a classic tradeoff between station number and ridership, lowered access times for higher in-vehicle times. So perhaps the same line shouldn’t pick up both stations, at least not in sequence. The Sydney West line could instead serve Central and the stations west of the Bays District, and Pyrmont and the Bays District dealt with separately.
One alternative would be to run a separate line to the Bays District, Pyrmont, Barangaroo, and downtown, and on to Zetland. While the Bays district (White Bay Power Station) has development potential, it remains speculative. Google for instance has passed on the site for its Australian headquarters. This map shows an earlier version of this alternative that should still be on the table.
From the transit agency perspective, the Bays District (just east of Rozelle on the second map) offers value capture possibilities. No doubt under the right negotiated framework that is true, and it would not just be a giveaway to crony developers. However, I suspect the University of Sydney is also an entity that would contribute towards the construction of a station serving its main campus and which could provide a high speed service between the main campus and its new campus in Westmead.
The good news is such a line is unlikely to be locked in before an election intervenes, so there is at least an opportunity to revise it over the next few years before serious money is committed and tunneling begins. Comments are open until May 18.
Disclosure: The author works for the University of Sydney and could benefit if such a station were opened. However given the timeframes, and where the author actually works on campus, such a benefit is small, and probably less than the amount of time spent researching and writing this blog post. This is not necessarily the view of the University of Sydney, Transport for NSW, or anyone else.
Professor Levinson adds: “One reason, I am told, that the government chose the Metro over trains for the new lines is that because it is a different technology, it will be easier to manage separately from Sydney trains (and will be privately operated under contract). It was a technology choice to achieve a policy aim of breaking the existing bureaucracy and labour unions.”
“To help ensure the political separation, the tunnels for the Metro line are just a bit too short, and the tracks too steep, for double-decker trains to use. This could have been remedied at little or no cost, providing future technological flexibility, but the government want to reduce the flexibility of future governments,” he continues.
“Flexibility would have been a potential benefit from providing compatibility. On the other hand, separation has some value from a reliability perspective, problems on the train lines should not cause problems on the Metro (except for crowding where people have a choice between the two), and vice versa.”
As Professor Levinson, professor of transport at the University of Sydney points out: the “game is the same. Just more territory is brought into the game.”
“Since the lines and stations for the Metro North West and City/South-West are already set, the landowners have already realised their price appreciation,” he says. “There is still a small fortune to be made on the Metro West line, since where the stations land is still not set.”
Full Interview below:
What are the problems with the current [Public Transport] system?
First, the rail system in Sydney, though like all systems engendering complaints, is actually really good, reflecting on the genius of Bradfield’s original rail plan. The evidence for this is the high public transport mode share in Sydney compared to other Australian (and similarly sized US) cities. That said, it is far from perfect. The signal system on the rail lines should be modernized to increase safety and throughput. The bus network needs to be completely rethought and streamlined, so the routes don’t go hither and yon. More on-street right-of-way should be designated exclusively for buses so they move faster and are less likely to be stuck in traffic. Tap-on, tap-off should be off the bus (at the bus stop) so that the buses can board and alight more quickly. The system as a whole needs more capacity in places. The rail stations should be modernized with more exits so the access time to and from stations is shorter, and so there are lifts for each platform.
Why has it taken this long to find a solution?
There have been fits and starts on expanding public transport in Sydney for decades (nearing a century on Bradfield’s plan, which is still not built out). The best theory I heard is the city exhausted itself with all the over-building for the 2000 Olympics, and then couldn’t get anything going until recently. These lines are on the maps and have been for decades, so it’s a question of money and willpower. The recent government has been far more keep to use the private sector for financing, and using asset recycling than previous governments. The advantage to private financing and control is that the infrastructure is sort of “off-the-books”, so since it is privately funded, users pay directly, as opposed to being intermediated through the political layer. This makes it easier to charge users more. This is especially the case for toll road construction as opposed to untolled motorways, but could be applied to public transport as well.
What has been confirmed / what are we still waiting to find out?
Sydney Metro Northwest is well under construction.
Sydney Metro City and Southwest, replacing the T3 Bankstown Line, is in engineering and early construction. What happens to service at the end of the existing T3 line (beyond Bankstown, e.g. Yagoona and Birrong) that is not served by Metro is unclear.
Sydney Metro West is in early planning stages, and the line has not been set, but some of the stations are locked in.
What are the challenges facing the new metro? Critics have pointed out that it is flawed – why?
The issue of Metros vs. Double-Decker Trains is a technology choice which has some practical tradeoffs. Metros have fewer seats (1 deck) and more doors, but a greater capacity, because they can run more frequently (because they can board and alight much faster, and because they are automated with modern signal controls). So for a short trip, fewer seats might be fine, since you save time. For a long trip, not being able to sit in rush hour, but standing for say 40 minutes, might be a bit tiresome for some people (noting that this is common in transit systems around the world). So one of the questions is whether this (Metro) technology is right for this (very long) corridor. I suspect there will be grumbling from people who want to sit and can’t.
One reason, I am told, that the government chose Metro over Trains for the new lines is that because it is a different technology, it will be easier to manage separately from Sydney trains (and will be privately operated under contract). It was a technology choice to achieve a policy aim of breaking the existing bureaucracy and labour unions.
To help ensure the political separation, the tunnels for the Metro line are just a bit too short, and the tracks too steep, for Double-Decker trains to use. This could have been remedied at little or no cost, providing future technological flexibility, but the government want to reduce the flexibility of future governments. See: link
Flexibility would have been a potential benefit from providing compatibility. On the other hand, separation has some value from a reliability perspective, problems on the train lines should not cause problems on the Metro (except for crowding where people have a choice between the two), and vice versa.
Sydney is the first Australian city to build a metro system. What does this mean for Sydney as a city? And for its inhabitants?
Not much. Note: Melbourne is also building a Metro. (Metro Tunnel). The distinctions between trains and Metro will not be terribly significant for most users, they will just see it as new and old trains. Now in the corridor that gets new service (especially the Northwest) this is new service (replacing buses rather than trains), so should increase people’s willingness to take transit for certain city-oriented trips. It will also encourage development in the corridor around stations.
What does this mean for property owners / property developers? Which suburbs will suffer and which will benefit? And how is current uncertainty over the lines affecting property / developers / homeowners? How does “value capture” come into play?
Value capture is way to help finance transport infrastructure by using property value appreciation to offset construction costs. This is not done systematically in Sydney, but should be. There are various techniques. (See my value capture study from about 9 years ago, still true)
Is the metro a game changer? i.e will it give massive buying opportunities for previously low density suburbs? Will only the long term gamblers benefit?
The game is the same. Just more territory is brought into the game. Since the lines and stations for the Metro NW and City/SW are already set, the land owners have already realised their price appreciation. There is still a small fortune to be made on the Metro West line, since where the stations land is still not set.
One cabinet paper stated the Metro West project would trigger a high-rise boom, from the sale of development rights around a dozen new underground stations – what does that mean for standard of living?
It means people who want to live in new high-rises near Metros (and the evidence is there are many such people) will have more opportunities and pay lower prices, and people who don’t will be largely indifferent. The neighbours of those new high rises will suffer more traffic, but have better restaurants and shopping.
Will Metro West deliver on the promise of housing, jobs, and business opportunities?
Jobs will come from construction, but Sydney is pretty close to full employment now, so if that remains so, it will attract workers for these jobs who otherwise would be working on something else, driving up the costs of construction and increasing inflation.
Sydney will not become significantly larger due to MetroWest (i.e. it won’t cause more babies to be born or increase national immigration, it might keep a few people in Sydney who otherwise would have gone to Perth or Hobart or wherever). However development with Sydney will likely concentrate around new stations to take advantage of the convenient accessibility the system provides, so station areas will attract housing and jobs that otherwise would have been more dispersed.
How does the new metro reflect on the building of new roads, such as WestConnex, largely funded by the tax payer? Why wasn’t the Metro West rail project wasn’t considered as an alternative to WestConnex.
I don’t know. The answer to these questions is usually “Follow the money.”
“The U.S. will continue to fall behind the rest of the world in investments in transit and ridership. London is set to open Crossrail (The Elizabeth Line), metros continue to pop up across China, even Australia is making large new investments in rail transit, and all these countries are seeing gains in ridership follow. In contrast, public transit continues to lose riders in most of the U.S. with low gas prices, and even the simplest investments are huge political battles.
The most interesting new trend is the rise of stationless bike-sharing in cities, making bicycling more convenient. Again, this follows from international experience especially China. Whether this works in the North American market is an important question to watch. E-bikes are also gaining popularity and falling in cost. Both challenge public transport for ridership for shorter trips.”
David Levinson, Professor of Transport in the School of Civil Engineering, University of Sydney