Experience Tells Us What Engineering Cannot

Here at the beginning of the 21st century, as our society struggles to move beyond the information revolution into a more complete, holistic post-industrial society, I notice a regressive trend in many areas of society. Now that we have applied several different levels of technology to some of our problems, we are capable of comparing the results and making informed decisions about their relative effectiveness. In many cases, technologies and techniques that were once prematurely considered obsolete are now being reintroduced (often with modern improvements) because they have proven superior to their supposed successors. Some good examples:

  1. Streetcars
  2. Whole bean coffee
  3. Popcorn
  4. Fresh produce
  5. Windows
  6. Sidewalks

In the late 19th and early 20th century, every town that could manage it was installing an electric streetcar system. These streetcars generally ran on rails embedded in existing roads and received power either through the rails or from and overhead power grid. Electric streetcars reshaped American cities, leading to the development of some of the first real suburbs. In the 1930s and ’40s, however, practically all of these streetcar lines shut down (except for those in New Orleans and San Francisco). Their demise is closely tied to the rise of the automobile, though government tax incentives and oil company takeovers contributed. Electric streetcars were generally replaced by diesel busses that ran directly on the roads. Busses required a smaller initial investment (because they did not require the laying of rail) and their routes were more flexible. They seemed to have no downside.

In very few cases did bus systems ever come close to providing functional mass transit to their cities, and most analysts assumed that their failure was due to the popularity of private autos. In 2001, however, Portland built the first modern streetcar line in the country, and its success surpassed the expectations of its most optimistic supporters. In its first year of operation, Portland’s new streetcar attracted 1.4 million riders, and the numbers increased steadily until 2009, topping out at over 4 million per year. Property values along the lines increased more than enough to pay for the initial construction. Following Portland’s lead, several other cities across the country have rushed to reinstall electric streetcars in their city cores that should have already been served by bus.

What makes streetcars so much more attractive than busses?  To be sure, their historical charm contributes to their popularity. Streetcars evoke an era before the the politics of racism and drug violence destroyed our inner cities and the reputations of their bus systems. But busses also smell like diesel, generally have high beds, and offer a rough ride on their rubber tires. In the subtle details like engine vibrations and noise, streetcars offer a much more comfortable ride. In addition, the visibility and relative permanence of streetcar rails make trip planning less daunting to riders and reassure property owners of the value of their location. An engineering analysis of the two systems would almost always favor busses, but humans are not disinterested rational decision-making commodities that need to be carted from place to place. We want a good experience; we want to enjoy what we do, even if what we do is travel to a destination. Streetcars offer a better riding experience, and that small difference seems to be just enough to convince us to get on a public transportation system instead of driving our own car.

More analysis to come on the other list items, but probably with much less narrative.

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