David Parvo at the Placemaking Institute defends the City's plan to run streetcars in shared lanes through downtown Austin. He argues streetcars are an economic development tool and a tool to "help expedite a much needed generational shift that will better manage congestion in the long-term." Read the original, but his response to Mike Dahmus's criticism that streetcars will only worsen congestion itself deserves a response:
[O]ne hallmark of a successful city is congestion; the more successful a city becomes, the more congested it will be. And, thus, congestion can never be solved but only managed.
Those who try to solve congestion are being "utopian."
This is wrong. The hallmark of a successful city is crowds of people going places; congestion is the hallmark of a city that can't manage those crowds of people. Congestion is equivalent to a tax on going where you want to go. It's a tax paid in lost time rather than money but it has the same effect: it discourages trips at the margin. It manages crowds only by shrinking them.
Running a shared-lane streetcar through downtown Austin will not manage congestion, unless by "manage congestion" one means "make it worse." Shared-lane rail will be slower than buses. A lot of people will ride at first, but in the long run they won't settle for a slower, less convenient form of travel. Shared-lane streetcars won't expand the flow of people through and within Downtown but will merely reduce the throughput of our roads and buses. They will make it more expensive -- measured in lost time -- to get downtown, or to get from UT to South Congress, or to get from Caesar Chavez to 12th Street. They will hurt Downtown in the long run.
Reserved guideway rail on the other hand will increase the carrying capacity of our transportation network. People will be able to get around Downtown or from UT to South Congress more conveniently and (I hope) more quickly than by using cars or buses. Reserved guideway rail will not eliminate congestion for cars and buses. I'm no utopian. But it will give people a congestion-free alternative for getting around. And that alternative will become more valuable as central Austin grows denser. Shared-lane streetcars will be progressively less valuable as the streets grow more congested.
Let me add that I know Dave and some of the guys at the Alliance for Public Transportation and in DAA and DANA and CNU who support the in-street rail plan. These guys share my preferences and goal for Downtown. We disagree on the method. As Dave notes, Glenn Gadbois & Co. do deserve the credit for getting rail back on the agenda. But they should not settle for half measures that will make things worse. Go all in.
NB. Dahmus links this in the comments. Skip mine and read that instead. (Should I have put this suggestion at the beginning rather than the end?)