Just today I found this 2014 Matthew Yglesias article from VOX that mentions the dismal ROI of street cars. It turns out Matt has written lots of articles on street cars and public transportation more broadly (see this and this, for example), often arguing that buses are a better solution (partly because of cost). That in turn lead me to relisten to this EconTalk episode with Bent Flyvbjerg on megaprojects, which I highly recommend.
In recent years Seattle has opened two new streetcars, which appear to me to be totally useless, and I was happy to see Matt agreed in general. One of the strangest things is that the streetcars run on normal surface streets for portions of their routes, which means they’re subject to the same traffic delays as cars…and buses.
It lead me to look up some data on Seattle’s South Lake Union Trolley (affectionately known in Seattle as the S.L.U.T.).
Even a glance at the Wikipedia page presents trouble. Built in 2008, the S.L.U.T only carries 2,200 people per day, but has a capacity of 12,600, meaning daily ridership is less than 20 percent of capacity. Second, ridership has gone down (!) several hundred riders from the peak years 2011-2013. The South Lake Union area of Seattle is home to Amazon and many other companies and is being built up extremely quickly (new condos all around the area). Traffic there is simply horrific, which makes the ridership numbers even worse since it means people are using public transportation less as traffic worsens.
Matt suggested buses are a better alternative, which seems intuitive after you see how these trolleys operate. The S.L.U.T ended up costing $56 million (it’s just 1.3 miles long), and again as Matt suggests seems much more geared toward making the area seem hip and cool and shuttling around Amazonians than it does toward decreasing congestion. Indeed, this Seattle PI article details some of the political aspects of the plan, notably that “Paul Allen’s Vulcan owns 60 acres in the neighborhood, much of it along the streetcar line.” Vulcan was a major proponent of the project. A prominent selling point to local businesses was that property values would go up $100,000 or more.
I ran some simple numbers to compare the S.L.U.T with a comparable investment in buses. Out of the $56 million spent on S.L.U.T., 25 million was fronted by South Lake Union property owners (again, suggestive of why it was built in the first place), money that certainly wouldn’t have been available had buses been purchased instead. This leaves a potential $31 million budget. Buses cost around $500,000k for diesel options and as much as $1 million dollars for newer battery-powered coaches.
Running some numbers from King County Metro gives an average of 210 passengers per bus during weekdays. Even if Seattle went with the more expensive battery-powered buses and left $15 million for operating costs (meaning the city purchased 15 buses), daily capacity would still be 1,000 passengers more than ride the S.L.U.T. daily. And even this figure is misleading because the 210 number is based on people that actually ride the bus, not total capacity, which is likely much higher.
What’s more buses have many more advantages. For example, you don’t have to block roads for months at time to construct tracks within the road. And since they don’t run on tracks buses are obviously more geographically flexible. Additionally, the average bus route is much more than 1.3 miles in length and buses serve poorer areas, which South Lake Union certainly is not.
Politically, though, this was never going to happen. Seattle buses are run by King County Metro Transit, but the S.L.U.T. was paid for by the Seattle Department of Transportation.