How Streetcars Fit into Transportation Safety

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Looking out a streetcar window at cyclists in Amsterdam. Photo used with permission from Flickr user deltrems.

Looking out a streetcar window at cyclists in Amsterdam. Photo used with permission from Flickr user deltrems.

Last month, in an op-ed in the San Antonio Express-News, rural Oregon’s most prolific streetcar critic, Randal O’Toole, asserted that a streetcar is a safety problem.

Transportation safety is a serious matter: highway fatalities are the leading cause of death for Americans 8 to 24 years of age and the leading cause of work-related injury death.  In the last year reported, there were over 32,000 highway fatalities. The American Automobile Association notes, “… the societal costs associated with motor vehicle crashes significantly exceed the costs of congestion.”

However, there was just one fatality related to light rail or streetcar for every 1,600 people who died in a car or truck. In 2011, there were nearly five times the traffic fatalities in San Antonio as there were light rail or streetcar fatalities in the entire U.S.  So, a discussion about transportation safety in San Antonio shouldn’t start with a streetcar. Once again, Mr. O’Toole, streetcars are not the problem nor are SUV’s the solution.

The San Antonio metro area traffic fatality rate is 50 percent greater than the average of the 50 largest metropolitan areas. A resident of San Antonio is twice as likely to die of a traffic accident than a resident of, for example, Portland.

metro crash rates streetcar

While it would be a stretch to say that a streetcar would definitely make San Antonio a safer city, it might. Research by the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute found that traffic fatality rates of cities decrease as transit use increases. “Rail transit cities have significantly lower per capita traffic death rates,” a 2004 institute report states.

Incidentally, VIA Metropolitan Transit now experiences over 138 transit passenger-miles per capita, which makes it one of the busiest “bus only” transit systems in the U.S. and in the range of the “small rail” cities in the chart which follows.

Increasing transit ridership and reducing the traffic accidents per capita are two totally compatible goals of SA2020. Another SA2020 goal, reducing the vehicle miles of travel per capita, will also make San Antonio safer. The Centers for Disease Control noted that motor vehicle death rates are higher in sprawling cities because of the higher vehicle miles. According to a report published in the American Journal of Health, “… traffic safety can be added to the other health risks associated with urban sprawl—namely, physical inactivity and air and water pollution.”

deaths versus transit usage

O’Toole mentions bicycle safety as a streetcar issue. While cars and trucks hitting cyclists cause over three-fourths of bicycle fatalities, it is true that bicycle spills happen when the wheel of the bicycle gets caught in the flange gap of a streetcar track.  However, the bicycle and the streetcar have coexisted in U.S. and European cities for over a century, and, normally, cyclists avoid this problem by just crossing the track at about a 90-degree angle.  However, streetcar cities conduct cyclist information campaigns and incorporate design features and signage in order to improve cyclist safety.

So, transportation safety is definitely an issue, particularly in San Antonio. However, rather than making the city less safe, a streetcar is likely to make it safer.

*Featured/top image: Looking out a streetcar window at cyclists in Amsterdam. Photo used with permission from Flickr user deltrems.

Related stories:

Some Streetcar Fact Checking

Clearing the Air at Streetcar Town Hall Meeting

Downtown Tax Funding Kansas City Streetcars

Toronto: The City that Saved its Streetcar Tracks

The True Value of Streetcars in San Antonio

2 thoughts on “How Streetcars Fit into Transportation Safety

  1. Mr. Barker tries quite hard to be fair and reasonable in his analysis. I applaud him for this.

    But, you can’t have it both ways.

    Don’t tell me “The San Antonio metro area traffic fatality rate is 50 percent greater than the average of the 50 largest metropolitan areas” and then
    share “VIA Metropolitan Transit now experiences over 138 transit passenger-miles per capita, which makes it one of the busiest “bus only” transit systems….”

    Clearly, San Antonio safety issues are NOT resolved by mass transit. Other factors are at play.

    To suggest that streetcars “might” make San Antonio safer is not a justification for a very small system that doesn’t much get people out of their vehicles or change the freeway miles driven which is where most of the vehicle fatalities are likely. The streetcar system will create difficulties for motor vehicles, bicyclists, and pedestrians on very narrow downtown streets.

    There are many arguments against this streetcar system. This article did not present a good justification for the system.

  2. Streetcar planning should aim to minimize streetcar-traffic conflict points, which the current VIA plan does not appear to take into consideration . . . unless closing major streets and cross-streets to most if not all car-based traffic and turning (as illustrated with the photo above) is part of the plan?

    If this is the case, the city should follow New York in pedestrianizing these streets now – ‘lightly and quickly’ (paint and planters), as well as follow Sao Paulo in removing any minimum parking requirements for development.

    Regardless, I’m surprised that VIA has not embraced existing rail right-of-ways (and established rail-traffic crossing points) with their planning – including the potential to follow existing rail right-of-ways (which San Antonio has in spades) from the airport to downtown to Lackland AFB / Pearsall Park – connecting colleges, parks, shops and Avineda Guadalupe en route.

    San Antonio’s existing rail right-of-ways would also allow a second line / loop to connect Brooke Army, the AT&T Center, the Alamodome, Sunset Station / Amtrak, Roosevelt Park, and Blue Star Arts with downtown, the west side and the airport-Lackland / Pearsall Park line.

    Further expansion of the River Walk (along with re-connecting Avenue A) north and new pedestrian and public transport options along (currently low traffic) Avenue B could connect with downtown most of the tourist sites and neighborhoods to be prioritized with VIA’s streetcar planning along Broadway.

    This is the scope of streetcar / pedestrian and public transport corridor planning envisioned with Federal funding (making the most from the least and existing infrastructure) and needed by San Antonio’s homegrown millennials and other residents and fly-in visitors- serving the greater 410 loop and bringing VIA closer to achieving the area served by streetcar in the 1920s.

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