When I first stumbled across the streetcar vs bus rapid transit (BRT) debate, I was strongly biased towards streetcars. My opinion was largely shaped by the few weeks I spent in Berlin this past summer. While I was in Germany, I relied most heavily on Berlin's friendly yellow Metrotrams. I really only used the U-bahn and S-bahn when I had to make long, cross-city trips, where the travel time difference was more than 10 or 15 minutes. I used the bus system only once, despite the fact that it was just as extensive as the Metrotram lines.


At the time, I naturally gravitated towards the Metrotrams without consciously considering buses, its main substitute. For all obvious intents and purposes, the bus and metro systems are basically equivalent, so it's strange that I used one so heavily while all but ignoring the other. I can think of a few reasons why this might have happened:

  • As a first-time visitor to the city with a limited grasp of the German language, I liked the sense of direction the fixed tracks offered. When trying to figure out how to get somewhere, it was nice to see the rails trailing through the city, clearly marking the Metrotram's route.
  • Somehow the trams felt more predictable and dependabe than the buses. This is plainly wrong – bus routes as just as well-defined and stable (at least in the short-term), and all transit options in Berlin run almost perfectly on time (yay for German precision, unlike the Catrain and BART...). My hypothesis is that this perception is another byproduct of the fixed tracks, because they foster a sense of permanence that boosts the entire system's credibility.
  • I've always associated buses with the sketchiest, most obnoxious transit riders. My main exposure to buses has been riding SF's dingy, smelly cars crushed by mobs of drunk Giants fans and overly talkative tourists. I'm confident in saying that buses have a similar image problem among most middle-class Americans. My stigmatized perception of buses governed my transit decisions, despite the fact that Berlin's buses are actually very clean, and its riders are on the whole very polite.

Upon further reflection, I see that streetcars' advantages (as expressed in a previous post) all have one trait in common: they are a product of perception. Meanwhile, buses' advantages are far easier to quantify. As a result, it is easy for BRT advocates to dismiss streetcars' advantages as petty and unimportant.

I have begrudgingly come to agree that BRT is the way forward; streetcars' modest advantages simply cannot justify their cost. However, rather than dismissing them entirely, it is critical that planners incorporate streetcars' advantages into BRT systems. A few ideas for how they could do this:

  • Paint bus routes directly onto the streets. This paint would serve the same function as tram rails running through the city, offering a sense of direction and permanence for a fairly low price.

  • Emphasize a clean aesthetic on both the interior and exterior of the buses. Implement a zero-tolerance policy for messes, and design the interior and exterior of the buses with long-term aesthetics in mind.

    • All forms of public transit –– but especially buses –– are vulnerable to stigmatization as being dirty and unsafe. Given the sheer volume and diversity of riders, it's easy to descend below a basic level of sanitation, comfort, and even safety. Any public vehicle quickly devolves into a moving trashcan and graffiti canvas without proper custodial attention. (Never use Caltrain's onboard bathrooms towards the end of rush hour. Just don't.) However, this is not inevitable!
    • Immediate cleanup of messes reminiscent of the NYC subway's zero-tolerance policy for graffiti in the mid 80s could minimize broken windows behavior.
      • Riders take far less care with their messes when a space is already dirty, which means that once a vehicle is gross it often spirals down to the depths of disgust until it is finally cleaned. It's important to keep to cleanliness above that critical threshold to ensure that it doesn't enter that spiral.
      • People are less inclined to use transit if it is dirty. This results in thinning out of riders, leaving the space to sketchier characters. I for one feel much more safer riding public transit alongside a large, diverse group of people rather than in a vehicle that is nearly-empty with the exception of one or two sketchy people. This has a cyclical effect –– without a critical mass of reputable-looking individuals, others are less likely to take that form of transit. This leads to a downward spiral of perception as well as actual safety.
    • Certain materials, colors, and designs are better suited for long-term use. For example, the brushed aluminum seats on the Seoul metro (to the right) are easy to clean and long-lasting, and they're even shiny! Those cars look like they belong in an industrial kitchen, not an urban transit system. In contrast, seats in many American buses are made of much less durable materials. I have a particularly vivid memory of the buses that hauled my elementary school classes off to various field trips. The seats were outfitted with an ugly vinyl that were brittle and cracked, revealing filthy yellow padding below. A simple choice of more durable, attractive materials would have single-handedly improved my childhood impression of mass transit. (Lucky for the school, we were a captive audience.) If the seats had looked more like the radiant blue of the bus seats pictured to the right, I would have seen mass transit as just another way to get around rather than as a stinky death trap.

It's true that none of the benefits of streetcars account for tangible differences. If riders' only goal was to get from point A to point B as fast and cheaply as possible, BRT would categorically sweep streetcars in this debate. However, riders care about more than just speed and cost; their transit decisions are also influenced by comfort and safety, and they are just as much shaped by perception as the actual experience.

Streetcars clearly win on this count –– they are just so cute! They harken to an older time, and they feel more permanent and sturdy than buses. These factors do not outweigh the advantages of BRT, but they should not be ignored. The perfect system would incorporate the advantages of both options, and there are easy, low-cost steps that could be taken in that direction.

I'd love to hear others' ideas for incorporating the advantages (and cuteness!) of streetcars into BRT systems! Feel free shoot me an email or tweet at me with your thoughts.