There’s been a rollicking online debate the past week on the subject of “slow transit.” Matt Yglesias at Vox and Yonah Freemark at Transport Politic noted the downsides of two transit projects — the DC streetcar and the Twin Cities’ Green Line, respectively — arguing that they run too slowly to deserve transit advocates’ unqualified support.
Robert Steuteville at Better Cities & Towns! — a publication of the Congress for New Urbanism — responded by defending slow-moving streetcars, saying they help create walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods that make fast, long-distance trips less necessary. Then Jarrett Walker ran a response from a Human Transit reader questioning whether streetcars are a worthwhile way to achieve Steuteville’s goal of increasing access to a wide range of destinations.
Jeff Wood, co-host of Streetsblog’s Talking Headways Podcast, wades into the debate today at his blog, the Overhead Wire. He says there’s some tension between a walkable urban fabric and surface transit that moves through places as quickly as possible:
By trying to maximize connections to the community, the transit line has to stop more often, slowing speeds. And if built into a legacy urban fabric, this also includes negotiation with tons of cross streets where designers don’t give priority to the transit line. This happens in Cleveland on the Health Line BRT as well as the Orange Line in Los Angeles, even though it has its own very separated right of way. The Gold Line Light Rail in LA and the Orange Line originally had the same distance, yet one was 15 minutes faster end to end. A lot of this had to do with less priority on cross streets given to the Orange Line, not because it was a bus or rail line.
Wood says that while Portland’s streetcar certainly doesn’t deserve all the credit for the development of the Pearl District, it’s hard to argue that the project didn’t help construction, overcoming zoning and NIMBY barriers. But that type of transit doesn’t work everywhere, he says, listing a few ways to harmonize fast transit with walkable urbanism: