Why Can’t We Just Run Buses to See if the Streetcar Will Work?

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Question: What would the harm be in dedicating buses to the streetcar route for a few years to see if the benefits are starting to be realized before spending $128 million to build the streetcar?

Answer: The harm would be threefold—direct costs, opportunity costs, and lack of probative value.

The direct cost would be the costs of acquiring and operating the buses.  In order for the bus experiment to be as accurate as possible, the buses would have to have a similar capacity and frequency to the streetcars.  I think we can all agree if the city were only running one bus along the route, it wouldn’t come anywhere close to approximating streetcar system. Similarly adding a few automobile ferries next to the Brent Spence Bridge wouldn’t accurately simulate adding additional lanes.

A single streetcar carries around 170 people.  A bus carries around 45.  The City plans on purchasing 7 streetcars.  A bus fleet with a similar capacity would number 26.4.  If you take into account maintenance and the need for spare vehicles, you could probably get away with 24 buses.  Each bus costs about $350,000, so 24 buses would cost $8,400,000.00.

Operating the buses would cost money as well.  Driver’s salaries are the largest operating expense in any transit system.  (One of the benefits of the streetcar is that a single driver’s salary is spread over 170 passengers instead of 45.)  To estimate the operating cost per bus I divided METRO’s total budget ($94.5 million) over the number of buses it operates (391) to come up with a per bus per year operating cost of $241,687.98.  Based on this projection 24 buses would result in a yearly operating cost of $5,800,511.51.

Running this system for a few years as suggested would be a very expensive test.  Three years would cost $25,801,534.53 in capital and operating costs.

But there are also opportunity costs as well.  The City estimates “Costs can be conservatively estimated to escalate $5.1 million each year beyond 2010.”  Delaying the streetcar three years would cost $15.3 million in inflationary costs.  With many construction companies in need of work and lower material prices, now is the time to build.   The other opportunity cost would be the delay of benefits to City that would come from having a streetcar.  I will not attempt to quantify them in this posting, but it is something of which to be aware.

Combining the direct and opportunity costs leads to a cost of the three year trial of over $40 million.  The next question: would this trial produce accurate results?  My belief is it would not.

The Streetcar will produce two main types of benefits—ridership benefits and economic development benefits.  The bus experiment will not accurately predict either type of benefit

Ridership on the bus experiment will be lower than it would be on a streetcar.  Route legibility of a bus route is worse than a streetcar.  Unlike a bus, someone unfamiliar with a streetcar route can see the tracks and know where the line goes.  People are more likely to get on public transit when they know where it is going.

Additionally the bus experiment assumes transit riders exhibit “mode-neutrality” when in reality they do not.  Mode-neutrality presumes that a transit rider will exhibit no preference for rail over buses.  This is not the case.  Many visitors to New York or Chicago will take the subway or the “L” but will not ride a bus to get around. For an example closer to home, think about the airport.  If you had to choose one or the other, would you rather take the train to Concourse B or the shuttle bus connection to Concourse C

Finally you will not receive the same economic development benefits with the bus experiment as you would with a streetcar.  The reason the streetcar encourages economic development is because it is a permanent infrastructure investment.  The tracks are laid in the ground and will not move.  People know that in 20 years the streetcar will still be running that route and make long term investments, like buying a house or opening a business, based on that fact.

By contrast, the bus experiment is not only temporary it is explicitly temporary.  Anyone who could wait to make an investment along the line likely would wait until the final decision on the streetcar could be made.  If an entrepreneur wanted to locate a new business along the streetcar line because it would attract more customers and make it easier to get to the store, she would likely wait until the decision had been made on whether or not to actually build the streetcar before making the investment. Fewer people will buy house or open a business along a bus route that will stop running in a few years and may or may not lead to a streetcar than would invest along an announced and funded streetcar line. Imagine if new exit was built off of I-75 that would be closed in two years if it didn’t receive enough usage, business owners would be reluctant to locate there for fear of their access being cut off.  The same would be true of a temporary bus experiment.

Because there will be lower ridership, less economic development, and considerable costs, conducting a bus experiment along the streetcar line would be imprudent and the results of such experiment would not accurately predict the success of the streetcar.  That would be the harm.

12 thoughts on “Why Can’t We Just Run Buses to See if the Streetcar Will Work?

    Brandon said:
    September 28, 2009 at 3:15 pm

    I would like to help out with your organizational efforts towards defeating issue 9. Please contact me with what I can do, or who I need to talk to.
    Brandon Brooks

    Brandon said:
    September 28, 2009 at 3:15 pm

    I would like to help out with your organizational efforts towards defeating issue 9. Please contact me with what I can do, or who I need to talk to.
    Brandon Brooks

    Quimbob said:
    September 28, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    Charlie Winburn likes the “bus test” idea.
    But then he thinks the mayor might try to poison you through the water supply, too.

    Mark Miller said:
    September 28, 2009 at 5:16 pm

    Atlanta seems to think the bus test is going to help them get their streetcar.


    Randy Simes said:
    September 28, 2009 at 5:43 pm

    ^Not quite Mark. The very article you cite mentions the fact that only a certain segment wanted to do this (like Charlie Winburn and Jason Haap in Cincy). But there are many more issues with The Peach than just that.

    1) You don’t have to transfer to another train when riding MARTA to Buckhead unless you take the north train to Doraville. If you wait on the North Springs train then it’s a straight shot that is half as long time-wise than the hour for The Peach.

    2) The biggest problem Atlanta will have with developing a modern streetcar along that route will not be ridership as it will be huge since everything is built along Peachtree or within 2 blocks of it. Instead the biggest issue will be space as much of Peachtree is built to the street and has no on-street parking. The road is already congested since there are virtually no alternative local streets to take.

    3) I think Atlanta needs to move past the thinking that everything has to be along Peachtree Street. A modern streetcar line that runs from downtown near the Centennial Park area, north through Midtown, and then west through the Georgia Tech area and beyond would probably be fantastic…plus they could capitalize on the growing investment happening on the west side of the Connector over by GT with higher densities. Not sure that Buckhead needs a streetcar when part of the allure to Buckhead is driving the strip and rolling around in your Maserati, Benz, Rolls Royce, etc.

    Mark Miller said:
    September 28, 2009 at 6:30 pm

    ^But even the naysayers acknowledge that if it works, they’ll have to shut up and give in.

    Massell, a former Atlanta mayor who is not known as a streetcar supporter, says that if the bus does well, it will show streetcar supporters that there’s a market.

    Are you telling me that if this thing achieves stellar ridership, streetcar supporters won’t be shouting that fact from the mountaintops? Of course they will, as they well should. There’s clearly beneficial information to be gained from a real world test.

      CincyStreetcar said:
      September 28, 2009 at 8:42 pm

      The only problem is that there is no way this bus line can possibly attract a similar amount of ridership as a streetcar system would. Across the country, streetcar systems regularly attract more riders than buses running along the same route.
      Cincinnati is currently planning a 6-mile streetcar line with a daily projected ridership of 1,150 riders per mile which is based on the average ridership of cities that operate modern streetcar systems. If the Atlanta system were to have a similar ridership per mile the 12-mile route would be expected to have ridership of 13,800 riders per day.
      According to Creative Loafing, the Peach runs every 30 minutes and takes an hour from beginning to end. To achieve a 30 minute headway on a two hour round trip route would require four buses running the route at all times. Each bus has a capacity of around 45 people, resulting in a combined total capacity of 180 people for all four buses. (About the capacity of a single streetcar). Assuming each bus starts totally full, runs for 18 hours a day, and on each one way trip there are 45 new boardings and 45 passengers who get off the bus then highest possible ridership you could obtain from this route would be 3,240—far less than a streetcar line would be expected to attract. (45 passengers per bus per hour for 18 hours).
      No wonder a streetcar opponent supports this plan—it is set up to fail.

    Randy Simes said:
    September 28, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    So then you acknowledge that a modern streetcar running from Downtown to Uptown will be successful then given the fact that the Metro bus routes are so successful. Great to hear you’re a supporter now. Welcome!

    Art Brown said:
    September 29, 2009 at 3:30 pm

    I was at a APTA Conf. in Toronto several years ago. We were invited to check out a rapid bus system in the York Regional Municipality (I think) They had a 3 phase plan. Street running rapid bus, rapid bus in a guideway at the center of the street and then light rail in the guideway. They felt that over a 3 to 4 year period that the route would be developed to the poind that light rail would work?

    UCstudent said:
    September 30, 2009 at 9:39 am

    Mark, the buses in Cincinnati initially ran along the old streetcar routes but never attracted similar ridership. How do you reconcile that with your position that buses are a cost effective substitute for rail?

    Reality Check said:
    April 19, 2010 at 12:54 pm

    When proponents of an idea make long convoluted arguments against running a test, it’s time to become very skeptical of the idea.

      CincyStreetcar said:
      April 20, 2010 at 8:11 am

      The Streetcar is an infrastructure investment and, really, there is no such thing as ‘test’ infrastructure. No one is suggesting building a ‘test’ Brent Spence Bridge or a ‘test’ extra lane on I-75 or a ‘test’ water main. For these investments just like the streetcar, you study them and then make the full commitment.

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