Thursday, August 7, 2014

Who Blames Roger Rabbit?

Mixed traffic streetcars are all the rage right now. Just in the past week Tuscon, Arizona started operations and Washington, D.C. started training for new lines. Dozens of other cities are planning or proposing similar systems. These are almost all bad projects because the trains operate in mixed traffic. The D.C. system, while on it's first day, highlights some of the problems:
On a day when the District wanted to show how four streetcars operating together for the first time on H Street Northeast would blend with the usual traffic flow, the system encountered the kinds of problems that have raised questions about whether streetcars will be able to efficiently move people once passenger service begins this year.
Starting at the intersection of H and 3rd Streets Northeast, the first streetcar, piloted by D.C. native Saundra Harrison, lurched into traffic on its fixed track shortly after 10 a.m. 
“Today I guess there are just more people watching,” said an excited Harrison, who has been operating the streetcars on the isolated Anacostia test track.

Her excitement was short-lived. She maneuvered the hulking red and gray vehicle just a few blocks before she had to stop. A fire truck and ambulance were blocking the tracks in the heart of the H Street commercial district, tending to an injured pedestrian.
 Of course keeping a clear lane is a matter of enforcement, but I'm starting to think that Roger Rabbit is to blame for such blind support for mixed traffic streetcars, and that's a shame.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was a movie that helped popularize the myth that there was a grand conspiracy, masterminded by General Motors, to demolish the streetcar systems of the U.S., in particular the Red Cars (error fixed) in Los Angeles. This conspiracy myth has been popularized for decades. It is not true. It follows that if the main reason streetcars disappeared is because of nefarious action on the part of an auto company, then simply building new streetcar systems will help regain what was lost. This if/then scenario assumes away operational deficiencies that are the true reason streetcars failed. Which leads to today's mixed traffic systems.

If the dominant narrative about the decline of streetcars focused on operational problems (including not enough fare revenue to support maintenance) I doubt there would be the enthusiasm for mixed traffic streetcars we see today, and perhaps we could focus on more important public investment for transit. We should blame Roger Rabbit.

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