Place Mobility: Sometimes good transportation is slow
Streetcars are expensive and slow, and that drives Matthew Yglesias crazy. He fails to grasp Place Mobility, which can be an excellent transportation investment for a city.
Matthew Yglesias calls the under-construction Washington DC streetcar "the worst transit project in America," because it will run slowly, duplicate the service of a bus line, and supposedly slow that bus line down.
Yglesias is like a lot of mainstream thinkers who can't get their head around streetcars. They move slowly! They clog the streets! They are therefore a fad and a boondoggle! No doubt Yglesias, if he had been alive in the 1940s, would have been leading the public charge to get rid of them.
Now they are coming back, and that's crazy-making for those who think that the only purpose of mass transit is to move people at high speed. Streetcars are slow and expensive, and yet people keep building the darn things.
That streetcars can result in billions of dollars in economic development and that people simply like them is ignored or dismissed as irrelevant.
I'll stipulate here that sometimes streetcars are a good investment and sometimes they don't make sense. But this has nothing to do with the speed at which they travel and little to do with whether they slow down a bus. (I'm not dismissing this as a consideration for whether or not to build a streetcar, but I would also point out that Yglesias offers no documented evidence of any streetcar slowing down bus service in America).
So I don't think Yglesias's argument has anything to do with the bus line. He simply can't understand streetcars because he thinks that mass transit is all about speed and cost. Yglesias acknowledges in passing that streetcars benefit real estate and tourism, but adds "they're nearly useless in terms of transportation."
He goes wrong in failing to connect development and transportation. It's a form of tunnel-vision that is blind to Place Mobility.
Why Place Mobility is good transportation
Place Mobility may at first glance appear to be an oxymoron. Yet it is real and powerful and can be defined as the ability of a dynamic, mixed-use, urban place to enable people to get to where they need to go efficiently in a variety of ways.
In such a place, such as in the Pearl District of Portland, people can get around on foot — or perhaps bike — for half of their daily trips and sometimes more. The most efficient kind of trip is when you don't get into a car, bus, or train.
The Portland streetcar has been a catalyst for $4 billion-plus investment and up to 10,000 housing units in the Pearl District and other neighborhoods close to downtown. All of these people and businesses have Place Mobility. They use the streetcar for quick trips and to make connections — it doesn't matter that it moves very slowly because they don't have to go far. But the new people and businesses in the Pearl and downtown are not the only beneficiaries. All of the existing businesses and residences also benefit from rising Place Mobility.
When a streetcar -- or other catalyst -- creates a compact, dynamic place, other kinds of mobility become possible. The densest concentrations of bike-share and car-share stations in Portland are located in the area served by the streetcar. That's no coincidence. You can literally get anywhere without a car.
Place Mobility is not just a vague, airy concept. It now can be measured with Walk Score. As an investment like a streetcar is installed, and new businesses and people move in, the Walk Score (walkscore.com) rises. The values, activities, and efficiency in moving between these activities rise. That's tangible evidence of Place Mobility.
Place Mobility gets people where they need to go quickly and efficiently, but just not very fast. The not-very-fast part drives people like Yglesias nuts.
Here's another factor -- people like streetcars. That often results in higher ridership. In Portland, where they replaced buses, the ridership was six to seven times higher. The speed freaks can't understand why more people would ride streetcars if they are slow. It's all about speed and service, isn't it? But mobility rises when more people ride mass transit. More people ride when they like mass transit.
The capital expenses for streetcar lines, according to Yglesias, are $30 million to $40 million per mile. That's pretty expensive -- unless each line results in many hundreds of millions, or even billions, of dollars in economic development that revives the sense of place along a corridor.
None of this is meant to denigrate buses, or buses with dedicated lanes, which Yglesias supports. Buses are tremendously important for transportation in America.
But streetcars also have a place. Where they can boost Place Mobility, they should be seriously considered. They should be evaluated not on narrow thinking and tunnel vision, but on their true impact on a place over time.
Streetcars are less a mass transit tool than a placemaking tool. At its best, placemaking itself is mobility -- and often it is the most efficient kind.
Sometimes good transportation is slow.