Should Steetcars Ply the Streets of Boston Again?

Boston should have far more street car lines than the 5 existing lines. When buses were taking over in the 1940s and 1950s, their maneuverability and low maintenance were good reason to use them. But there is a certain charm, at least, but a new economy with the return of streetcars. Many cities, El Paso, Dallas, Sacramento, Portland OR, and other cities have rebuilt their streetcar lines. New Orleans, which at one point had only its St. Charles route for streetcars, has returned them to the city streets and is still expanding. Certainly if streetcars were so uneconomical and the public so much against them, they would not have sprung up in these cities and thrived. There must be something else in play, something city planners here in the east are missing.

I think Boston should consider returning trolley to the streets of Boston and surrounding communities rather than limiting them to the exclusive rights-of-way as present. One area, which is growing and lacking in ground transportation, is the seaport area. This area is ripe for a streetcar line which could be built along the area’s broad streets. If you look at a map, a line could run in a circular route, starting at Summer Street at South Station, and continuing out to Black Falcon Pier, turning left on Tide Street and then left again on Northern Ave, then Seaport Blvd to Purchase Street where it would turn left until it reached Summer Street. There is a wealth of people who work in this area and another large group, visitors, who depart South Station looking for easy transportation around the seaport area but finding none. And if the MBTA got just a little bit creative, it would find a way to shuttle these streetcars underground at South Station making a very convenience connection to the Red Line.

The MBTA under the agreement struck with the Federal Government promised a return of the Green Line from Brigham Circle, where it ended for a long while, back out to Forest Hills. Businesses along the route complained it would tie up traffic and reduce parking spaces. Each of these argument could have been allayed by the MBTA at the time but instead they simply caved in to public pressure.

The present MBTA proposal for extending the Green Line to West Medford is extremely flawed and the expense involved shows this. The MBTA would do much better but simply putting the tracks into the streets, McGrath Highway out to Broadway, left of Broadway and out Boston Ave to West Medford. The need for building new stations eliminated, construction costs could be kept to a minimum. And with proper planning, road closures could be kept to a minimum. And as for the branch off to Union Square, that could easily be continued to Porter Square.

One thing streetcars have over buses in spades is lifetime. The eldest MBTA buses go back to the early 1990s where as some of the streetcars date back to the 1970s with the Mattapan Line cars dating to the 1940s. The point being, a properly maintained streetcar can easily have 3 times the life expectation as any bus.

Making the a little more interesting, the City of New Orleans orders throwback style streetcar which look old but have all the modern conveniences and are ADA approved. The City of San Francisco found the actual old streetcars valuable as a tourist draw and use them rather extensively. Those cities used their imagination and probably reasoned properly with the public to gain its support.

While downtown Boston certainly is far from ideal for a return of streetcars, when you go just a few miles from center city you find roads more than broad enough to hand both automobile traffic and streetcars. Washington Street, Tremont Street, Massachusetts Avenue, Beacon Street out to Watertown Square and many others could easily be converted but the MBTA has to want to and has to do its homework.

While this may sound like pie in the sky, the operation of streetcars today is far less than that of the bus. And who knows, the public may actually welcome their return!


Dealing With Traffic Congestion in America’s Cities

Even though I am addressing the growing problem of congestion in America’s cities, I am going to refer almost entirely to Boston as it is the city I am most familiar with.  In an article in today’s (August 5, 2012) Boston Globe entitled “Teh cure for congestion”  p. K10 by Derrick Z. Jackson, the method Stockholm Sweden used is put forth.  In 2006, it states, Stockholm began a 7-month trial where it charged each automobile entering the city about $1.50 on off-peak hours and about $3 during peak traffic hours.  It used 18 city entry points armed with cameras that took photos of the license plates of cars entering the city and sent the charges to the registered owners.  Public opposition t this idea ran as high as 75%.  But at the end of the trial period the amount of traffic entering the city had been reduced by 22%, and when the measure was put to the vote, the public passed the measure to make it permanent.

In 1991 I attended a professional conference initiated by then Senator Paul Tsongas at the University of New Hampshire where professional traffic management specialists put on a symposium.  At the time Boston’s “Big Dig” was in its infancy.  Even so, for reasons that eluded rational and reasonable explanation, the plan for the North/South rail link had been discarded.  And this in spite of the fact that it had been fully engineered and was included in the original plans.  For those of you unfamiliar with Boston, the city has two rail terminus, one called North Station and the other, South Station.  This is, and never has been, a rail line that links the two which has meant passengers coming from north of Boston have had to use other means of transportation to get them to South Station so they could continue the journey, if the so desired.   The additional cost of the North/South link, had it been carried out, would have cost in the tens of millions of dollars in a project that ended up costing over $15 billion.

But such short-sightedness, and political chicanery, not unusual in the world of Massachusetts politics.  To the contrary, anyone who lives in the state knows only too well the state in known for its political patronage which Bay Staters have been at a loss to do much about.

Curiously, Boston is home to one of the foremost schools for urban planning which exists within the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Moreover, the U.S. Department of Transportation has one of its larger research and development centers in Cambridge at the Volpe Center.  M.I.T. and the Volpe Center sit side-by-side not coincidentally.  But Massachusetts, in its infinite wisdom, has seldom seen fit to avail itself of these facilities most likely because its political influence does not extend to either.  By extension, if you look at other major American cities, you can find other private facilities which would welcome public monies in a state’s efforts to deal with its transportation problems.  These institutions, having no political agenda, would likely give a comprehensive and reason response to any transportation problem which is happening the city and state in which they reside.  And for far fewer dollars than corporate America can deliver with a product that would challenge any.

All major cities need a comprehensive system of rapid transportation.  By definition, that means subways systems and street cars, and any other facility whose movement is affected little, if at all, by street congestion.

Boston’s subway, the oldest in the nation, though by definition is a rapid transit system, suffers from its own form of congestion which during rush hours frequently renders it little faster than the street level automobile.  Worse yet, the infrastructure of the subway system itself is in need of extensive repair and rebuilding.  This, of course, is costly.  Worse, the system, the MBTA, is currently in debt to the tune of over $100 million.  The political response to this problem has been to raise fares, reduce service, and leave the long-term problems unanswered and unaddressed.  Other systems, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chicago, I have little doubt, suffer from similar problems.

What Americans do not understand, and which was brought out in detail at that 1991 conference, is that is costs many times more to maintain the nation’s roads per mile than it does to maintain the right-of-way for rapid transit and commuter trains.  Even more, public transportation has the ability to carry many more people between any two points per hour than even the best highway.

Why don’t Americans abandon their cars for the more economical and fiscally responsible public transportation.  Unfortunately public transportation has the tendency to be unreliable, uncomfortable, inconvenient and largely unattractive.  The “park and ride” facilities are frequently too small and inconveniently located.  Those that are heavily used tend to fill up early which provides a disincentive to the later commuter to even consider them.  In Massachusetts, for example, there is only one parking facility, the Interstate 95/Route 128 facility, that resides immediately next to a heavily used highway.  But there are more than 10 places where the commuter rail intersects with an Interstate highway.  Urban planners know, or should know, that easy of access is key to ridership in public transportation.  But Massachusetts, which has been increasing the size of its commuter rail had done absolutely nothing to address this.

The incentive to use public transportation, as shown in Stockholm, must be balanced with a disincentive to use the automobile.  Any person who has ever traveled to western Europe or the Far East and used their public transportation systems, knows how superior those systems are to any that presently exist in the United States.  In the world arena of public transportation, the United States is little more than a third-world country.

One thing the American public needs, to help it embrace public transportation, is knowledge of the cost to maintain a road per mile.  Politicians never give out such figures even though they have easy access to those figures.  Our roadways, as every American must know, are deteriorating faster than they can be rebuilt.  Roads that are in desperate need of rebuilding are patched which in itself is expensive.  Roads deteriorate not just from age, but also from the volume of traffic they carry.  The greater the traffic load, the faster the deterioration.  And that is extremely expensive.  Conversely, rail transportation can withstand increased use far better and much longer.  It only makes sense to shift traffic from roads to rails.

America would do well to take the lessons learned in Stockholm and other European and Asian countries that have adequately addressed their country’s transportation needed.  The solution to America’s traffic congestion is not easy but it does exist.