Saturday, August 9, 2014

Advances in the Marketplace for Transportation

Megan McArdle, columnist/blogger for Bloomberg View, recently dipped into why streetcars are a bad idea
One of my favorite former colleagues, Emily Bobrow of the Economist, explains why streetcars are a bad idea. The short version: They don’t move faster than buses, at least not in the U.S., where they’re rarely given dedicated lanes. And because they require a big fixed investment, they’re very expensive, and inflexible, compared to buses.
So why are cities suddenly going streetcar-mad? Oh, you can cite the small advantages of streetcars -- they’re less likely to give people motion sickness, for example -- but these advantages don’t really seem to outweigh the huge costs. Yet American cities are laying streetcar track as fast as they can get financing.
My theory is that for cities, the high investment, as well as the inflexibility of the routes, may often be a feature rather than a bug. Building a streetcar is a way to attract investment to an area where you would like to encourage rapid development. And the reason that it’s attractive to investment is that once they’ve been built, the streetcars can’t be moved.
Megan concludes
So, ironically, the very fact that it is a big, risky investment may help everyone agree to rapidly develop a streetcar route, generating tax revenue for a city, cash for developers, and votes and campaign contributions for the politicians who install the thing. It’s hideously inefficient, of course ... but that’s politics for you.
This "it's fixed, it's great for development" mantra is something that has been often cited by Greenlight proponents.

At the 83 Degrees Media "Not Your Average Speakers" event on transportation held on March 12 in St. Petersburg, Mike Meidel, Director of Pinellas County Economic Development, recites that mantra precisely.

 "The important part of the rail really is the abililty to attract investment, at least on the economic development side.  And the advantage of that over a bus transit system is that it can't move."

When challenged by the questioner that a bus is infinitely more flexible, and a rail is fixed, "It's locked in", Meidel responded, "That's the beauty of it."

It really is not about mobility, its about development.

They said this would stimulate downtown Tampa development.
Another take, as Glenn Reynolds stated when linking to the McArdle post,
So the preference for those rails is a concrete embodiment of distrust of politicians. By this standard, the more corrupt the locality, the more likely it is to be enthusiastic about streetcars
Given the recent mea culpas from PSTA we've reported, we can only say "Exactly".

Then there's this peek into the art of possibilities, from one of McArdle's commenters, Sweet_Lou:
Applying advances in technology to streetcars would increase their popularity and usefulness.
Currently, streetcars are constrained in their routing. They can only travel where the tracks are. By fitting the streetcars with modern pneumatic tires, we could expand their possible routes to anywhere there are paved roads, and indeed, to some degree, unpaved ones.
Streetcars also require power lines -- unsightly, expensive to install and maintain, and, again, constraining potential routes. An onboard energy reservoir would reduce or even eliminate the need for these power lines. This energy reservoir need not be electrical -- an internal combustion engine, paired with a tank of diesel or even gasoline could power the drive train, either indirectly by running a generator, or even directly by means of a transmission and drive train.
But the most radical idea is to reduce the size of the street cars. These small, personal street car might even be produced at such a price as to allow purchase and ownership by groups or even individuals, facilitating privatization of the street car network. These small, autonomous mobility vehicles, or "auto-mobiles" as I like to think of them, would provide almost infinite variation in route, passengership, and even type of cargo.
One might, given a wild enough imagination, even envision companies springing forth to design, sell, insure, maintain, and fuel these "auto-mobiles", should demand provide sufficient.

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