The Jack White History Group has been having some conversations about the use of streetcars in Fort Worth and the outcome of the streetcar project which has foundered, at least for the moment. The slightly edited text below was originally posted by me to that group.
I’m kind of in the middle ground on this. I've attended several of streetcar public meetings and I’ve been reading all the posts on the Jack White pages as well as those on the FW Forum and Kevin Buchanan’s Fort Worth Streetcar FB and his Fortworthology blog. As I have said in many of these forums in the past, I think that there is a place for streetcars in Fort Worth. But right now I’m not gonna get into the pro & con.
As briefly as possible, I want to bring out some mistaken ideas, misconceptions and in some cases deliberate attempts to mislead that have popped up on both sides.
- Old vs. new: Modern streetcars, unlike the heritage McKinney Street or the St. Charles St. New Orleans line, streetcars do tend to run at curbside instead of in the middle. This creates some new problems as well as solves others.
- Streetcars will clog traffic: A streetcar will take up no more room in downtown city streets than a bus of comparable size. There are lots of buses in downtown FW, some of which might be displaced if streetcars ever were added.
- Ugly overhead wires? The overhead wire on a tangent or straight section of track downtown can be simple and unobtrusive. However, when you start bending wires around the corners you have to use what are called pull-off’s or wires attached at intervals and run out to poles or attachments on buildings that would hold the trolley wire in a curve. They are not simple and could be called unattractive by some.
- They are both boxes on wheels: Streetcars are not more efficient or “modern” than buses. In Europe, both are made by the same manufacturer. Both can have articulation, low direct loading and for a given length will hold the same number of passengers. Both can be furnished with the same seats and fittings from simple to plush.
- Don't garble it: It is important not to confuse streetcars with light rail(Dart), interurbans (Historic), or commuter rail (TRE or the Cotton Belt commuter plan). They aren’t the same at all. When someone says they take the TRE it is not the same as taking a local bus or streetcar.
- Sleaze: The consultants and planners say: “Streetcars are better because the rails let the prospective rider see where they are going.” This is sheer voodoo and is one of the stupid things that has turned me off when used by the supposed “experts” & consultants during the streetcar presentations. I suppose that if you had a single loop of track going round and round in one direction that this might just barely be valid. But if the track further down the way branches off into three or four different lines going different places, then the whole premise is idiotic. And If there is a feeling that somehow the tracks give a warm and cozy feeling to those that won’t read the route signs that exist for both buses and streetcars at a downtown stop, then why not take some cheap silver paint and inexpensively stripe two lines four feet apart along the curb to represent tracks?
- Misdirection: It was interesting that the race card was played in the late streetcar controversy. And that it has been brought up here on this group. The suggested streetcar plan never was promoted as public transportation. It was sold entirely as an “economic development” plan and went nowhere near any areas where dependent populations could easily use the lines.
- Streetcars are more desirable: Historically both buses and streetcars were public transportation like the current “T” bus system is. I guarantee that if you ran streetcars in the same place that you run buses today, that you would see the same ridership mix based on a particular area or neighborhood.
- Right next to the parked cars: Now "modern" streetcar tracks are laid next to the curb instead of on the center crown of the road. They are just like the bus lanes in downtown Fort Worth. The idea is to enable the rider to get on at curb height and to accommodate disabled persons. Obviously this makes a (dangerous) left hand turn across traffic a necessity and it restricts the radius of a right hand turn requiring that the streetcar be articulated (expensive) to accomplish this. It’s a trade off.
- A little more sleaze please: Interestingly, the consultants and planners now spin the streetcar as a short haul vehicle and suggest buses for the long haul. I say “spin” because historically in Fort Worth streetcars ran as far north as NE 34th street, south as far as the Seminary, west as far the the shores of Lake Como & east almost halfway to Handley. Buses were the solution then for short term low ridership routes. I’m not suggesting that these long routes be built now, I’m just disgusted that the planners have tried to spoof unthinking people into the idea that the only place for streetcars would be short routes. It doesn't take an expensive “light rail” car to run a 5-7 mile route.
- One more item: We see the pictures of the swoopy “modern” articulated streetcars that look like a stripped down Buck Rogers spaceship. What we don’t see from the planners who are also supposedly “studying” bus alternatives are the pictures of the “modern” bus that has a curbside entry height and can be articulated if necessary. These buses are already at the Lancaster & Pine street bus barn of the “T” undergoing testing and training runs for future use.
- Fossil fuels: Interestingly enough some comment here and elsewhere has been made about the advantage of electric street cars not burning fossil fuels. Which is correct. However, in Texas about 70% of the electricity will come from fossil coal and fossil natural gas generating plants with the balance coming from nuclear & wind generation. Is anyone aware that the bulk of the “T’s” buses are powered by (gasp) natural gas which is by far the cleanest of the fossil fuels?
- Weather: You made a good point about public transit requiring no more than two walking blocks between stops. Consider this: Given the extreme Texas heat, the northers, the ice, deep cold, the occasional snow, the driving rainstorms, etc., can anyone really believe that anyone would stand for 10-15 minutes at a bus or trolley stop if they didn't absolutely have to do it?
- Let's get a GOOD survey: During the streetcar meetings which I attended the results of studies were touted saying that nationwide there is a trend to more urban living and a desire for less use of automobiles, particularly by younger people. I will have to assume that this is true. However, studies of a national nature are typically made using a sample base of around 1000 respondents which statistically give about a 5% margin of error. The sticking point is the lack of localization to determine what the real feeling of a regional or local group may be. To do this, ideally the survey would have to be run on about 600-1000 residents of Tarrant county or Fort Worth. The result might mirror the national survey, but instead I would bet that there would be significant differences show up that would have to be factored into the decisions. In any case this ought to be done as due diligence.
My main interest is that in a consideration of this kind, all the inaccurate lore, lies, and misconceptions be filtered out to get as honest a picture of the transportation system as possible. Both sides have been guilty of some of this.