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Thursday, June 4, 2009

36 Reasons Streetcars Are Better Than Buses

36 Reasons Streetcars Are Better Than Buses » INFRASTRUCTURIST

Posted on Wednesday June 3rd by The Infrastructurist


If you want a system that really attracts riders and investment, many transit experts will attest that streetcars are the best dollar-for-dollar investment a city can make.

Of course, there are plenty of situations where old-fashioned bus service or newfangled bus rapid transit (which usually has dedicated lanes) are just the thing. But for cities facing a choice between building a streetcar system or high-end BRT–and the cost difference can be smaller than might think–it’s handy to know that transit riders overwhelming prefer streetcars. Well, overwhelmingly if the comments section from a recent story on this site can be taken as a fair sample. One reader posed the question, “buses or streetcars?” and the responses–from laypeople and transportation experts alike–came fast and furious. In the end, we were left with dozens of reasons why streetcars are superior, ranging from the obvious to the wonderfully creative.

As the comments added up, we became more and more intrigued. So we’ve edited the various reasons into a proper list. Did we miss anything? Do any of these not hold up? Disagree entirely? Let us know in the comments section and we’ll update the story–and the headline–as worthwhile additions come in.

1. New streetcar lines always, always, get more passengers than the bus routes they replace.
2. Buses, are susceptible to every pothole and height irregularity in the pavement (and in Chicago we have plenty). Streetcars ride on smooth, jointless steel rails that rarely develop bumps.
3. Streetcars don’t feel “low status” to transit riders. Buses often do.
4. Mapmakers almost always include streetcar lines on their city maps, and almost never put any bus route in ink. New investment follows the lines on the map.
5. The upfront costs are higher for streetcars than buses–but that is more than made up over time in lower operating and maintenance costs. In transit you get what you pay for.
6. There is a compelling “coolness” and “newness” factor attached to streetcars.
7. Streetcars feel safer from a crime point of view.
8. Steel wheel on steel rail is inherently more efficient than rubber tire on pavement. Electric streetcars can accelerate more quickly than buses.
9. Streetcars don’t smell like diesel.
10. Streetcars accelerate and decelerate smoothly because they’re electrically propelled. Internal-combustion engines acting through a transmission simply cannot surge with the same smoothness.
11. The current length limit for a bus is 60 feet, but streetcars can go longer, since they are locked into the rails and won’t be swinging all around the streets, smashing into cars.
12. Streetcars have an air of nostalgia.
13. New streetcar and light rail lines usually come with an upgraded street experience from better stops, landscaping, new roadbeds, and better sidewalks, to name a few. Of course, your federal transit dollar is paying for these modernizations, so why wouldn’t cities try to get them!
14. Perhaps the most over looked and significant difference between street cars and buses is permanence. You’ll notice that development will follow a train station, but rarely a bus stop. Rails don’t pick up and move any time soon. Once a trolley system is in place, business and investors can count on them for decades. Buses come and go.
15. Streetcars are light and potentially 100% green. Potentially they could be powered by 100% solar and/or wind power. Even powered with regular power plant-derived electricity, they are still 95% cleaner than diesel buses. [Source? -Ed.]
16. Streetcars stop less. Because of the increased infrastructure for stops, transit planners don’t place stops at EVERY BLOCK, like they do with buses (SEPTA in Philly is terrible for this). Instead, blocks are a quarter to a half mile apart, so any point is no more than an eigth to a quarter mile from a stop.
17. People will travel longer distances on streetcars. At one point, in the 1930s, a person could travel to Boston from Washington solely on trolleys, with only two short gaps in the routes.
18. Buses are noisy. I ride them every day in Chicago, and I am constantly amazed at how loud a diesel bus engine is–even on our latest-model buses [and] the valve chatter is an irritant to the nervous system. By comparison, streetcars are virtually silent.
19. Technological advances already make the current generation definitely NOT your grandfather’s streetcar. Low floors are standard, for easy-on easy-off curbside boarding. Wide doors allow passengers to enter or exit quickly. So streetcar stops take less time than buses.
20. Passengers can take comfort from seeing the rails stretching out far ahead of them, while ever fearing that the bus could take a wrong turn at the next corner and divert them off course.
21. Once purchased (albeit at high cost) streetcars are cheaper to maintain and last way the hell longer (case in point, streetcars discarded in the US in the 40’s, snapped up by the Yugoslavs, which are still running).
22. Streetcar tracks are cheaper to maintain than the roadways they displace.
23. People get notably more excited about the proposed extension of the streetcar system and expect revitalization of the neighborhoods around the planned stops.
24. Streetcars create more walkable streets. This is because streetcars, as mentioned above, are more attractive to riders than buses, which in turns prompt to more mass transit usage in general, which in turns prompts to more walking–a virtuous cycle that creates more attractive city streets.
25. Most European cities and countries kept investing in public transit during the decades when America was DISinvesting. Now I look across the pond and see dozens of European cities extending or building new rail transit systems, including many streetcar lines, and conclude: ‘They probably know what they are doing; we should do some of that too.’
26. You know exactly where a streetcar is going – but have you ever tried looking at a bus route map?
27. Streetcars are faster than buses or trackless trolleys (aside from 2 lines in Philly, do any other cities run trackless trolleys, or trolley buses anymore?) because trams tend to have dedicated lanes. Even if they don’t, if they operate on streets with multiple lanes, people stay out of the tram lane, because it’s harder to drive a car along tram tracks (the wheels pull to one side or the other as they fall into the groove).
28. In buses you’re still jostled by every pothole and sway at every bus stop. I thought bus rapid transit would be a significant improvement - there’s still a bit of sway and they concrete was not installed as smoothly as line of steel rail.
29. With buses transit planners are pushed by funding formulas to capture every pocket of riders thus you can get a very wiggly route – something that’s less practical on a fixed rail system
30. Buses lurch unpredictably from side to side as they weave in and out of traffic and as they move from the traffic lane to the curb lane to pick up passengers. In streetcars turns occur at the same location on every trip, so that even standees can more or less relax knowing the car is not going to perform any unpredictable lateral maneuvers.
31. Most streetcar riders don’t consciously think about the differences between a bus ride and a streetcar ride. But their unconscious minds–the spinal cord, the solar plexus, the inner ear and the seat of the pants–quickly tally the differences and deliver an impressionistic conclusion: The streetcar ride is physiologically less stressful.
32. An internal-combustion engine is constantly engaged in hammering itself to death and buses tend to vibrate themselves into a sort of metallurgical dishevelment. Interior fittings–window frames, handrails, floor coverings, seats–tend to work loose and make the interior look frowzy and uncared-for. By age 12 the bus is a piece of junk and has to be retired. A streetcar the same age is barely into its adolescence.
33. Streetcar stops are typically given more attention than most bus routes and the information system is more advanced. In Portland, the shelters even have VMS diplays that tell you the times of the next two streetcar arrivals. This valuable information gives people the option to wait, do something else to pass the time, or walk to their destination.
34. One great advantage of streetcars is that the infrastructure serves as an orienting and wayfinding device. The track alerts folks to the route and leads them to stops. Because they are a permanent feature of the streetscape, the routing is predictable and stable (unlike bus routes). So unlike a bus, a streetcar informs and helps citizens to formulate an image of their city, even if folks don’t ride it. It is a feature of their public realm. Because of this, these streets get greater public attention.
35. When you ride one of the remaining historic cars in Toronto or San Francisco you can tell they’re “old” in the sense of “out of style,” but when you look around the interior everything still seems shipshape, nothing rattles, the windows open and close without binding. The rider experiences a sense of solid quality associated with Grandma’s solid-oak dining table and 1847 Rodgers Brothers silver. And that makes everybody feel good. Unlike, say, an aging bus.
36. For those of you who cannot see the difference between a bus and a streetcar, I suggest riding a streetcar when you get the chance. Then, if you can locate a bus that more or less follows the same route, give that a try. Compare the two experiences.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009 at 7:39 pm and is filed under Uncategorized

27 Responses to “36 Reasons Streetcars Are Better Than Buses”

1. Peter Smith Says:
June 3rd, 2009 at 8:20 pm

i’m happy to see it being pointed out that the ride on a city bus is generally horrific. we deserve dignified transit, and buses just aren’t cutting it. and that goes for school buses — kids deserve dignified transit. they should be able to walk or bike, but if those aren’t feasible, then luxury coaches, short paratransit vehicles, streetcars, etc.
2. Eric Fredericks Says:
June 3rd, 2009 at 8:49 pm

Great article! Just as a follow-up to point #27, yes several US cities (and international cities) use the trolleybuses. Here is the list according to Wikipedia (

Boston, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s Silver Line Waterfront service.
Cambridge, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: SEPTA
San Francisco, California: San Francisco Muni
Seattle, Washington: King County Metro
Dayton, Ohio: Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority

I’ve been on the latter 3 systems, all three cities with some notable hills (not Dayton as much). I definitely prefer the streetcar. Riding the crowded trolleybuses on the hills is not much fun at all.
3. Woody Says:
June 3rd, 2009 at 9:50 pm

Only 36 reasons why streetcars are better than buses? Gotta be more.

I’ve seen it said that two or three streetcars can be hooked together to run efficiently as a train with one driver during rush hour, while adding more buses each with its own driver inevitably leads to bunching up. But I’m not an operations guy, so I just pass this one on.

I am the guy who made ‘the French know what they are doing’ point. Since then I came across a great site,, with great descriptions of 31 French cities with streetcars. Er, trams. Almost all of them are new lines in old cities. Thirty-one cities, with plans for hundreds of miles of added tram lines in France within a decade.
4. Steve LaCroix Says:
June 3rd, 2009 at 9:57 pm

Having spent some years living on Toronto streetcar lines, I’d offer two things:

Streetcars are part of the neighborhood fabric and ambience. They belong where they are, a real element of the place, like landscape and buildings. Buses are anonymous, transient, no attachment to place. They come, they wheeze and belch, they go, who knows where.

On crowded streets buses get trapped at the curb and have to muscle their way back into the traffic. Streetcars move down the middle of the street and marshal the traffic to suit themselves.

Toronto is planning a major expansion of its streetcar routes. I hope that happens soon.
5. alexjonlin Says:
June 4th, 2009 at 12:37 am

I agree with you about the streetcars, but just to let you know, Seattle has 14 high frequency ETB (electric trolleybus) routes, and San Francisco has 17. Dayton has 6, and Philadelphia has 5, too. But they do kind of suck.
6. Woody Says:
June 4th, 2009 at 12:57 am

Peter Smith makes an excellent point about schoolbuses. That is probably where the first indelible negative impression of riding the bus is formed. We force our kids to ride ugly, ungainly, uncomfortable, graceless schoolbuses and then we act surprised that everyone thinks the bus experience is not so nice. Well, duh.
7. John Says:
June 4th, 2009 at 1:35 am

These are basically 36 ways of saying people are racist against buses.

It sucks because if middle-class people rode buses they would make them good, because those riders would demand it and they have political influence, case in point go ride a bus in Berlin. The buses there are Mercedes brand. They are beautiful, quiet, and clean. Many are double-deckers which is really cool. They have LCD displays showing you the next three stops, and the three most important stops down the rode.

I was in a Canadian Cities class in Undergrad where we talked about why they tore up the streetcar in the 50’s. The prof was obviously nostalgic for Montreal’s old system. The real reason why they ripped them up wasn’t because of technology, or even (everywhere) because of the auto conspiracy. Everyone back then was for replacing them with diesel buses because they all dated back to the 20’s; there had been no major investment for decades. So most of them were rust buckets. Diesel buses were seen as the wave of the future.

We’re basically seeing this again now: buses are lower class, and there has been disinvestment in them. Any streetcar you see these days is new and fancy. So everyone associates streetcars with all that is good, and buses with all that is bad. When they’re old and in disrepair we’ll probably see the opposite movement.

Everyone who’s ever had to regularly ride the 501 knows that streetcars are in some senses actually less reliable than buses. But streetcars have steel wheels, and that’s what people are obsessed with for now. I’m sure we’ll see the backlash in a decade or two, but streetcars are in and that is that.

I wish everyone would just get a positive attitude about buses, so we could see a reinvestment in them and an end to racial and class disparity in transit mode, but I know that nowadays the people with influence over transit policy, aka upper-middle-class white people, only want streetcars. So I guess that is how it will be… streetcar neighborhoods will gentrify and poor people will be riding crappy busses.
8. Andrew in Ezo Says:
June 4th, 2009 at 7:43 am

Though I don’t totally agree with you, it is probably true that buses in the U.S. are dirty, inconvenient and basically “rubbish” because they primarily serve the poor/disadvantaged in most major cities. You give an interesting example of the buses in Berlin and their amenities. Likewise here in Japan, buses are much easier to use than in the U.S., with both verbal announcements and LCD/LED panels showing stops., as well as fareboxes that give change(!). Why these simple enhancements can’t be done in the U.S. is beyond me.
9. 36 Reasons Streetcars Are Better Than Buses « CincyStreetcar Blog Says:
June 4th, 2009 at 9:22 am

[...] under Uncategorized No Comments The readers of the Infrastructurist blog drafted this list. There is no question that buses are an important part of any city’s multi-modal [...]
10. The Bellows » Streetcars Better, Different Says:
June 4th, 2009 at 9:44 am

[...] Infrastructurist provides a nice list of 36 ways in which streetcars are better than buses. It’s fine so far as it [...]
11. BeyondDC Says:
June 4th, 2009 at 9:57 am

>These are basically 36 ways of saying people are racist against buses.

I’d like to hear your justification for how “streetcars are smoother”, “streetcars have higher capacity”, “streetcars cost less to operate”, “streetcars are more green” and “streetcars are more permanent” qualify as “racist agaisnt buses”.
12. Rockfish Says:
June 4th, 2009 at 10:05 am

This is an interesting post in how it reinforces an implied “hierarchy” in transit where every tier feels compelled to trash the one below it, and everybody aspires to move up in tiers even though they haven’t optimizedthe tier they have.
So, from top to bottom, you get HSR, Rail, Light Rail, Trolley/Streetcar, BRT, Bus, etc. Bikes and feet are not on this list because they are individual transit, not “mass” transit, and there are lots of variations, like monorails and people movers, that blur the lines, but in general, this is the transit world.
So “Trolleys are better than buses” is the same argument as “HSR is better than Rail”, Light rail is better than trollies, etc.
A lot of this is a no brainer, and what is perpetually missing is that improving bus service can be accomplished at orders-of-magnitude less cost and time than installing trolleys. Want a shiny new hybrid bus? Get on the phone and it will be delivered in a couple months. Want to install a street-bed rail and overhead power network in an existing city? Good luck doing that inside of 10 years.
As is the case with HSR mania, we keep obsessing about the shiny new solution and missing the low hanging fruit.
I LOVE trolleys as an alternative to light rail (which suffers from its own mania) but there’s really no need to trash buses to advocate for it. In fact, BRT is a realtively quick, cheap and easy way to establish rights-of-way and infrastructure that can be upgraded to trolley over time. Tey are not mutually exclusive.
13. digamma Says:
June 4th, 2009 at 10:20 am

“At one point, in the 1930s, a person could travel to Boston from Washington solely on trolleys, with only two short gaps in the routes.”

Really? What were the lines?
14. Streetsblog » Slow Ride, Take It Easy Says:
June 4th, 2009 at 10:39 am

[...] tidbits that have flowed past us in the fast-moving Streetsblog Network news feed: The Infrastructurist posts 36 reasons streetcars are better than buses. Orphan Road writes about increasing density along [...]
15. Rockfish Says:
June 4th, 2009 at 10:39 am

OK, this is so bad on so many levels we’ll have take them one by one:
Maybe if this were titled “One person’s opinion why they like new electric streetcars more than Chicago’s old diesel buses” this would be acceptable.

1. Absent stats, this is speculation
2. OK
3. This is totally dependant on the design and demographics.
4. Speculation
5. Absent stats, this is speculation
6. Contradicts #12
7. Subjective
8. Absent stats, this is speculation
9. Not all new buses are diesel, or smell.
10. Subjective. Also, not all new buses are ICE through transmission
11. This goes both ways, Extra lenght limits routes.
12 Contradicts #5
13. Speculative and subjective.
14. Rails are more permanent. However, development doesn’t automatically follow rails, Sometimes it avoids them.
15. Wrong. Streetcars are heavier than buses by a signifcant margin, and electicity is electricity. An electric bus is as green as an electric anything else.
16. This is a design and routing decision. It is not inherent or exclusive to streetcars. In fact, it applies equally to BRT, which the author seems intent on trashing.
17 Speculation.
18. Electric buses and streetcars are probably the same. Apple-to-oranges comparisons abound.
19. New buses posess many ofhthe same design improvements.
20. Subjective. Bordering on WTF?
21. Absent stats, this is speculation
22. Absent stats, this is speculation
23. Speculation
24. Speculation.
25. Factually correct, speculative conclusion
26. Subjective
27. Absent stats, this is speculation
28. Subjective.
29. Trolleys dont need funding?
30. Subjective
31. Absent stats, this is speculation
32. Apples to oranges, again. Also, part of streetcar’s substantial extra weight goes to durability, as their expense must be amortized over longer periods.
33. Not exclusive to streetcars
34. Speculative, and not exclusive to streecars
35. Comparing a tourist attraction to public transit? This crosses the line into WTF territory.
36. One last nonsensical subjective assertion.

OK, gotta get back to work now!
16. Peter Smith Says:
June 4th, 2009 at 11:08 am

man, someone made the bus guy angry.

moving on…

This is an interesting post in how it reinforces an implied “hierarchy” in transit where every tier feels compelled to trash the one below it, and everybody aspires to move up in tiers even though they haven’t optimized the tier they have.

don’t agree with the ‘feels compelled to trash’ stuff — that’s just a bizarre statement. but there a transit hierarchy — implied and otherwise — it’s called the Green Transportation Hierarchy, and we should build our policy to match this hierarchy which seems to derive from natural law:


carry on!
17. tex Says:
June 4th, 2009 at 11:09 am

noise, noise, noise.
that’s probably my #1 gripe against buses, and why i long for streetcars

noise pollution doesn’t get the recognition it deserves, and buses are a large cause
18. Eric Says:
June 4th, 2009 at 11:14 am


There are advantages to streetcars over buses period (why bring race into this discussion?). To your point, I will say that the “upper middle-class white” commuters that are driving transit policy are quite happy here in Charlotte with their express bus services to the suburbs (although they would prefer to see more light-rail and commuter rail), and it is acutally the “lower class” communities of Charlotte that are clamoring for streetcar, because the streetcar is seen here as a positive improvement mobilizing their community identity and pride. The reason streetcar is going to these communities is to serve the largest transit dependent population of our city.
19. Are Streetcars Really Better Than Buses? | Only Hybrids Says:
June 4th, 2009 at 11:40 am

[...] Infrastructurist certainly thinks so, and provides 36 Reasons Streetcars Are Better Than Buses. I agree, but let’s not gild the lily here; streetcars are not without a few [...]
20. joeBoy Says:
June 4th, 2009 at 12:09 pm

Streetcars are safer for bicyclists, and other vehicles to commute with on the street.

Whenever I find myself riding my bike next to a streetcar, I am not concerned about it swerving to the side suddenly and killing me - whereas whenever I am cycling next to a bus, I know my life is in grave danger. Busses, with their many stops weave in and out of traffic constantly often behaving erratically and worse still - making sudden changes in course with little to no signal. On top of it Bus Drivers almost NEVER signal, and are among the most careless drivers on the street (probably because they do so much driving and are so much better protected in the event of an accident than other motorists and cyclists. Signaling with a streetcar is a non-issue, because I can see where the track is going, and I know which side of the streetcar to be on.

There is a slight issue with the streetcar rails being a hazard to cyclists, but no cyclist who is paying attention is going to ride into a rail gutter. That’s nothing a but of unfriendly pavement texture and bright yellow paint can’t fix.
21. Streetsblog » Slow Ride, Take It Easy Says:
June 4th, 2009 at 12:11 pm

[...] Other tidbits that have flowed past us in the fast-moving Streetsblog Network news feed: The Infrastructurist posts 36 reasons streetcars are better than buses. Orphan Road writes about increasing density along [...]
22. Are Streetcars Really Better Than Buses? | Says:
June 4th, 2009 at 12:22 pm

[...] stuck in traffic on Queen Street, Toronto The Infrastructurist certainly thinks so, and provides 36 Reasons Streetcars Are Better Than Buses. I agree, but let’s not gild the lily here; streetcars are not without a few flaws. 1. they can’t [...]
23. » Are Streetcars Really Better Than Buses? Says:
June 4th, 2009 at 12:24 pm

[...] Infrastructurist certainly thinks so, and provides 36 Reasons Streetcars Are Better Than Buses. I agree, but let’s not gild the lily here; streetcars are not without a few [...]
24. Urbanis Says:
June 4th, 2009 at 12:27 pm

I wonder where subways fall in the mass transit hierarchy mentioned earlier?

I would say light rail/streetcars are my favorite mode of urban transportation because you get to remain above-ground and enjoy the daylight and city sights. There is also the comfort and aesthetic factors mentioned above. In New York, my primary mode of transit is the subway, which I am grateful for, but is lacking in aesthetics (deteriorating stations, noisy cars, and perpetual dark underground).

I’ve ridden trolleybuses and they generate a distinct electric whine when running that is not so pleasant.

Overall, I think the quality of one’s ride on a bus, streetcar, or other mass transit modes depends less on the inherent “virtues” of the mode and more on the care and expense lavished on the mode. For example, the express buses in New York can be very plush and comfortable to ride compared to being crammed on a packed and noisy subway car during rush hour. On the other hand, riding a Metro-North train can almost be a Zen experience.
25. The Bike Pittsburgh Blog Archives » The Headlines: 6.4.09 Says:
June 4th, 2009 at 12:28 pm

[...] 36 reasons streetcars are better than buses INFRASTRUCTURIST [...]
26. Teresa Nielsen Hayden Says:
June 4th, 2009 at 12:57 pm

Streetcars aren’t nearly as prone to kill bicyclists.
27. Rockfish Says:
June 4th, 2009 at 1:25 pm

Not a bus guy at all. Just tired of hearing everybody say “their” way is superior to the “other” ways when what we need is in fact more of all modes of transit. It doesn’t further the discussion to argue for one versus the other, even though I do understand that resources are limited and decisions have to be made. But each individual case is so unique that making broad, general arguments for any one mode is not useful.

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