The Magic of Streetcars, The Logic of Buses | A Political Economy of Access

We are pleased to make available Chapter 11: The Magic of Streetcars, The Logic of Buses of A Political Economy of Access. It opens:

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King
A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King

Once upon a time (1888 to be precise), the United States and the world launched a huge building boom for urban streetcars. Companies like Twin City Rapid Transit laid miles of track in fast-growing cities, extending well past the built areas to serve greenfield sites for emerging suburbs waiting to be platted and built. They did this because the streetcar promoters benefited directly from the land sales. The availability of a new, fast transit system connecting to downtown made houses much more valuable. The fares from the new passengers covered the operating costs of the system.

An argument in favour of streetcars

I am a noted streetcar 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.

370 Bus Route on Google Maps
370 Bus Route on Google Maps

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

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King
A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King

Beneficiaries, Not Taxpayers, Should Fund Modern Streetcars

I wrote a piece for ULI: Beneficiaries, Not Taxpayers, Should Fund Modern Streetcars. An excerpt below:


This article is one of a three-part cities on the role of street cars. The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not the Urban Land Institute or it’s membership as a whole.

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King
A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King

Once upon a time (1888 to be precise), the United States and the world launched a huge building boom for urban streetcars. Companies like Twin City Rapid Transit laid miles of track in fast-growing cities, extending well past the built areas to serve greenfield sites for emerging suburbs waiting to be platted and built. They did this because the streetcar promoters benefited directly from the land sales. The availability of a new, fast transit system connecting to downtown made houses much more valuable. The fares from the new passengers covered the operating costs of the system.

Networks continued to grow until the 1920s and 1930s, when the bloom came off the boom. The new motor car served the prospective suburbanite just a bit better than the sluggish streetcar. By 1950, the streetcars were upward of 60 years old and needed a major infusion of capital to be maintained. Instead, they were abandoned en masse across the United States for buses in a process that in the transportation field has been termed “bustitution.”

Continued at ULI

More on StreetCars and America: Freemark: Transportation First, then Economic Development | Klein: Streetcars and the American Commitment to Rail

Streetcars on the Daily Circuit – (update) Monday August 12, 10am

Streetcars, source=

I am scheduled to be on MPR’s The Daily Circuit : tomorrow (Thursday August 8) at 11:00 – 11:20 am Monday August 12, 10am to talk about streetcars in the Twin Cities.

Toronto v. Minneapolis

Now at Toronto v. Minneapolis.

Toronto v. Minneapolis

I first went to Toronto when I was 12. I had been following the city for a few years, having written to the city’s economic development / tourism office asking for reading materials as a young wannabe planner the summer before (along with about 50 other North American cities, whose addresses I obtained from the World Almanac). I was born before the Internet made this information trivial to obtain, so I carefully hoarded and filed information about cities. To be clear, I am not so obsessive that I still have it … at some point space constraints dictated recycling … , the only files I retain from my youth are really “rare” new town planning documents from the 1970s and 1980s. At any rate, based on the idea of Toronto, it was the city I most wanted to visit.






My father took me to Toronto with one of his friends who was a general aviation pilot, and so I went in a Piper and landed at City Airport. The primary purpose of the trip from my perspective was to visit theCanadian National Exhibition (the Ex), a cross between a State Fair and World’s Fair (closer to a State Fair). The Ex, the adjacent Ontario Place, and the rest of the city was modern and seemed like the future. The underground city (PATH) connecting the retail buildings makes the city like a single super-structure, an arcology. The City Hall was a classic of modernist architecture, taking the glass box and shape-shifting into something not boxy. The Hilton, with its rotating restaurant and best breakfast buffet ever gives a magnificent view of the city.

Ontario Place, the World’s Fair-like part, (which was part of the Ex when I attended, but is now being redeveloped) with its pre-Epcot, post-Expo ’67 geodesic dome and skybridges connected to the waterfront. But oddly wedged between the Expressway and Lake Shore Boulevard (rather than the Lake), the CNE fairgrounds layout, the State Fair-like part, without Ontario Place would make a modern urbanist cringe. Looking at the maps (linked at the bottom of this page) the worst bit is putting parking on the waterfront, which at least during Fair Season, should be a major attraction. (Some may argue the freeway cutting the city off from the waterfront is the worst part, which is hard to dispute.)

Many years later, after a conference in Ottawa, I took ViaRail to Toronto. While staying at a Howard Johnson’s during its last week of operation (really never stay in a hotel that is about to close, staff does not care), I walked from downtown and revisited the CNE and Ontario Place grounds (well I looked at them through a fence) (not during Fair season), and like any set of unused buildings, it seems more like a Hollywood set of what the 1970s thought the future would be like.

Ontario Place is where they would have set Star Trek: The Original Series for an episode describing a slightly more advanced planet, where everyone was civilized and there was universal health care, but there was some twist, like once a week, all the men get on the ice and whack each other with sticks, which the peaceable crew of the Enterprise abhors. And then they force Kirk, Spock, and McCoy into hockey uniforms, and make them play against professionals. (This is not all that different from Minnesota, but is unlike the rest of the US, where men get on ice-free gridirons and run into each other) [200 Quatloonies on the newcomers].

Still Toronto is one of my favorite cities.

To help administer a PhD exam at the University of Toronto, I went back to the city and spent time in and around the University district. This year, with my wife I went for theIATBR and we walked the central city on foot, visiting different parts than previous.

Toronto was founded before Minneapolis, and has always been larger. It now has a population of 2.6 million people in the City, and 5.5 in the Metro, vs. 0.4 million in the City of Minneapolis and 3.6 in the CMSA. Today Toronto has a population density 4,149/km^2 vs. 2,710 for the City of Minneapolis. So we expect Toronto to differ. But it differs more than we expect. It is not just the same city larger, rather it is a city in a different phase of matter.

Both cities are on a grid, yet Toronto is continuously walkable, and has more walk accessibility. The block sizes are smaller in central Toronto than Minneapolis (i.e. each Minneapolis squarish block is bisected in Toronto to be more rectangular, though the long side of the rectangle in a Toronto block is a bit longer than the long side of the Minneapolis block). (This of course is an approximation, as the grids in both cities vary.) The houses are less likely to have a side yard in Toronto. So in a single family neighborhood near the City Center, Toronto has 22 houses per blockface, Minneapolis about 11. And since the densities are higher, there is more to walk to. Sections of Minneapolis are walkable, but it is hard to find a decent path connecting it all, Uptown to the University, e.g.

Minneapolis has a skyway, Toronto the underground PATH, I call that a wash, both are cool, and logical responses to Winter.

The tallest buildings in Minneapolis (IDS Tower and Wells Fargo) are 57 stories. The CN tower is 147 stories equivalent, but it isn’t really a building. There are taller buildings in Toronto, First Canadian Place is 72 stories, which is higher, and what we expect for a somewhat larger city. So we can’t say Toronto is more walkable because it is flatter (i.e. because it spreads its people out over more surface area) due to height restrictions.

Subways have organized mobility in Toronto since 1954, which has the third highest transit ridership in North America. The Subways are arranged in a tight U pattern, so it is easy to walk from the Spadina/University branch to the Yonge Street branch. But there is a crossing line on Bloor Street, providing great accessibility at the interchanges. The key is that it is not a simple radial system. Further there are still streetcars, which were not removed as they were elsewhere. The best analogy for Bloor Street is Lake Street in Minneapolis, in that it bypasses downtown (about 1 mile N) and has lots of activity. Bloor is much ritzier than Lake though.

The subway in Toronto is unusual in that one can walk between the cars, as they have accordion-like articulations. But since they are much longer than the single (or double) articulated bus, looking down the train from one end to the other as it rounds a curve is dizzying.

Toronto is on a lake, so like Chicago, to enable just as many people to have equal access to the “center”, you have to have higher densities than a city on a plane (like Minneapolis). I discuss this a bit in a previous post on The Theory of Constraints.

Toronto serves a different role than Minneapolis, it is a financial capital, having locked in its position when Montreal decided to be Francophone first.

Airport connections via Transit are much easier in Minneapolis. In Toronto, they are clearly and deservedly ashamed of their airport transit links. Unless you are already a local and have a transit pass or tickets, it is difficult to find them at the airport (it is at the Currency Exchange if you are looking), and that puts you on a broken-down bus that connects to the edge of the Rapid Transit rail system. The airport bus stops do not have shelter, or real-time information. The tickets are old-timey paper passes, which have probably been in use since buses were motorized.

So what can Minneapolis learn from Toronto?

1. Real urban density can work in a midwestern city without significant adverse consequences.

2. Not all the action is downtown. Where the radials connect is a point of high accessibility.

3. Annexation and consolidation are a feasible form of governance. The “city” of Toronto has 7 times the population of Minneapolis.

4. Cities must be opportunistic and welcome immigrants, be they disaffected Quebec bankers or oppressed minorities.

5. How to serve better food. The bagels and the sushi are much better in Toronto.

What can Toronto learn from Minneapolis?

1. How to connect an airport to the city.

2. How to tie a city to its waterfront.

What if we closed Hennepin?

Cross-posted from : What if we closed Hennepin?

What if we closed Hennepin?

What if we closed Hennepin Avenue S. to through cars? It is illustrated in the adjoining map.

The Design

Suppose you created a Hennepin Transit Mall, similar to Nicollet Avenue in downtown or Washington Avenue at the University of Minnesota, with room for bikes, pedestrians, and a high-quality fixed-route transit service connecting Uptown with Downtown (with a flyover/short tunnel somewhere to cross I-94).

Hennepin would be closed at I-94 on-ramps, at 22nd, 24th, 25th, and 26th. The closure in my plan would be half-block (or less), enabling the road to still be used for local access traffic, but not through traffic. The space devoted to car movement could probably be reduced to one-lane in each direction from 26th street to Franklin Avenue, with the rest of the space for streetcar/bus lanes and on-street parking, bike lanes, and sidewalks. Where the road was physically closed, there would be a small pedestrian/transit plaza.

Why would we do this?

(1) There are plans to run a Streetcar down Hennepin (forecast to carry 11,000 – 13,000 riders) plus there are existing buses. If the streetcars and buses had a more exclusive right-of-way, they could provide better service and carry more riders. The road is not able to accommodate the streetcar (at current standards of design and levels of service) and all the existing traffic. If the community truly wants transit to be the primary mode from Uptown to Downtown, the Right-of-Way needs to be turned over to transit.

Streetcars will make left and right turns awkward at best, especially with high traffic counts. Current vehicle traffic counts on Hennepin (2011) are 25,927 two-way at Hennepin just north of 25th street. Lyndale currently carries 14,680 two-way just north of 26th street (though the counts on Lyndale are highly variable, and just a few blocks north it supposedly carries 24,000).[I don’t believe that if we closed Hennepin, all of that traffic would switch to Lyndale, though certainly some would].

(2) Hennepin creates a large number of awkward intersections even in the absence of a streetcar. It violates the existing street grid. It is congested. There is a case in the transportation literature called the Braess’s Paradox which says under certain circumstances, removing a link can save overall travel time. I do not know if Hennepin is such a case (and even if it were, it might only be under certain traffic conditions), but the congestion creates spillovers. There are other paradoxes in transportation about traffic signals, and so on, but the main point I think is that this added capacity is less valuable than elsewhere because of the awkwardness of the network. Roads and cars have problems when intersections are not at 90 degrees and have more than 4 legs. To fix that, traffic engineers at some time in the past further bent the street grid.

New York had this problem with Broadway, which cuts a diagonal through the regular street grid. Its solution was to close it to through traffic i.e. to disconnect it in many places.

(3) More capacity leads to more traffic, less capacity leads to less traffic. This is the phenomenon of induced demand, and is well established, the best local example for which we have evidence is the case of the I-35W Bridge after its collapse.

(4) Closing Nicollet to private vehicle traffic downtown has not seemed to hurt economic activity there.

Why would we not do this?

(1) Lethargy.

(2) Businesses on Hennepin will complain. Neighbors on Lyndale will complain. [Businesses on Lyndale might quietly rejoice with the additional traffic though]. Change is hard.

(3) Removing the link will increase distances for drivers who continue to use their cars to travel between I-94 and Uptown. My estimate is total distance per trip will increase by less than 800m (0.5 miles) for cars, as the hypotenuse does not save more distance than that, depending on where you are going.

(4) Hennepin is the next major arterial at the approximately 1 mile grid spacing, removing it would maim the arterial system. [Comment, since Lyndale and Hennepin come together at I-94, the arterial system is largely ineffective anyway.]

What would happen?

Based on evidence about induced demand, some traffic would disappear and some traffic would reroute to alternatives. Substitute routes should see an increase in total traffic. My guess is the most affected route would be Lyndale. If my posited design were implemented, short sections of 22nd, 24th, 25th, and 26th Streets would also see more traffic as travelers from the North peel off from Lyndale to reach places on Hennepin that would have been accessed differently.

There would be fewer traffic conflicts at the remaining Hennepin Avenue intersections, though it wouldn’t go to zero, as sections of the route would still be open.

It gives us an opportunity to straighten the grid. Colfax, Dupont, and Emerson can be reconnected as through routes. We can also remove or modify a number of the traffic calming measures in the neighborhoods abutting Hennepin, as the spillovers would be of a different nature.



Word on the Street about Streetcars

Downtown Journal Online has a follow-up to their article on streetcars in Minneapolis. Seems opinion is mixed. Of course the person from the streetcar museum was in favor.