A RR Primer: VIA’s Modern Streetcar Plans

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VIA transit buses on Houston Street.

A crowded bus stop on Houston Street. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Bekah S. McNeel

Am I the only person in the city who was surprised by the amount of political heat generated by VIA’s modern streetcar propsal? The image of the streetcar as a benign mode of urban transit seems but a faint memory, as it has now become a flash point for hot debate.

But for every impassioned advocate and opponent, there’s another taxpayer wondering if it will be more practical than the city’s past rail-dreams.

In 2010, VIA Metropolitan Transit launched a community-driven study to generate data on our travel habits, and ways to make them more energy, time, and cost efficient. This study is known as SmartWay SA.

SmartWay SA Goals:

  • Efficient connections to and among future activity centers
  • Transportation options not subject to roadway congestion
  • Significantly improved transit travel times for major trip movements
  • Transit system service quality and facilities, all ADA accessible, that will attract additional transit users
  • Opportunities for transit oriented development
  • Improved connections to other regional mobility and transit systems
  • Infrastructure to support long-term sustainable growth in the San Antonio Metropolitan Area
  • Connections to major urban centers, to enhance San Antonio and Bexar County’s place in the regional economy
  • Reliable, attractive alternatives to the single occupancy vehicle, especially during peak periods
  • Identification of the first corridor(s) to move forward into the next phase of development

The research findings have been compiled to make recommendations for transit solutions known as the Long Range Comprensive Transportation Plan (LRCTP), which was adopted by the VIA board of trustees on July 26, 2011. The plan includes bus improvements, bus rapid transit lines, rail systems, downtown circulators, Paratransit improvements, VIA VanPool improvements, and cyclist/pedestrian integration.

SmartWay SA, used with permission

With the Bus Rapid transit rolling out on December 17, we now turn our attention to modern streetcars.

To elucidate VIA’s streetcar vision, we turn to Brian Buchanan, VIA’s Director of Developement:

RR: First it would be great to hear  how the streetcars will work.

Nov 28, 2012, VIA public meeting at Sunset Station

BB: The Streetcars will operate as an urban circulator service, enhancing access to and connecting high activity employment and destination areas in downtown with areas of new growth and neighborhood commercial services.

While a precise operating plan and alignment still needs to be determined for the two initial routes, they will extend to the Westside Multimodal Center, Robert Thompson Transit Station at the Alamodome, lower Broadway and Southtown.  There will be points of intersection with VIA’s bus services at the two transit centers and at various points along the two routes.

RR:  What is the purpose of the downtown circulator system? How does it differ from other elements of VIA’s plan for mass transit?

BB:  Currently, VIA’s bus services primarily intersect within the River Bend in the center of downtown, where most of the 40% of passengers on those routes transfer to another route.  VIA’s approach includes improvements to downtown transit infrastructure and bus service with the intent to provide access to downtown destinations that 60% of our downtown-destined patrons currently enjoy, and reduce bus congestion without reducing the level of service.

VIA Streetcar/Trolley in Alamo Plaza

VIA Streetcar in Alamo Plaza. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

VIA’s current services require an increase in downtown capacity in order to serve areas of current and future growth in addition to consistent ridership growth on existing services. Its current routing structure through downtown needs modification to deal with these demands without increasing transit congestion.

VIA also needs to improve its patron amenities and services to offer better conditions for patrons waiting to transfer from one route to another.

As VIA grows and continues to add higher capacity commuter services that enter downtown, and with the eventual implementation of L-Star passenger rail services, a circulation and distribution system will need to be established to handle additional volumes of people without having a large impact on auto and pedestrians circulation through downtown.  Investments in Streetcar and transit centers, along with modifications to bus services lay the ground work for dealing with current and future demands on the system.

RR: How will the downtown circulator system stimulate business?

BB: The success of economic development is primarily a function of market demand.  There is a demand for growth downtown, a willing development community, and public policy in place to make this type of investment work in San Antonio. As downtown population increases, there will be increased demand for retail and services, which will ultimately stimulate business downtown.

While demand primarily dictates whether development can be possible, it may not dictate where and how these projects are implemented.  This brings us to the function of the Streetcar and its relationship to economic development, which is to physically connect places, both new and existing, which have not been connected before, and provide improved access to these places, increasing the potential foot traffic along the length of its route.

Where these parts of downtown are just beyond typical walking distance from one another, the Streetcar will serve as the organizing principle for growth downtown.  Investors and businesses will have a higher level of confidence in testing a new market knowing that people have a system of accessing their product and others, which is legible and predictable.

RR: How do street cars play into future plans for mass transit? 

VIA transit buses on Houston Street.

Crowded bus stop on Houston Street. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

BB: The Long Range Comprehensive Transportation Plan for 2035 outlines a number of transit infrastructure investments, including high-capacity commuter services in various corridors (referenced in first response above).  These services will be able to move more people throughout the region, and inevitably include access to downtown.

The Streetcar will serve an established circulation and distribution function for future high-capacity commuter services as they enter downtown, allowing greater flexibility for infrastructural considerations associated with these services.  This initial investment also serves as a starter system for future expansion of the urban circulator.

RR: How will the project be financed? (How much will each ride cost and will we be taxed?)

$51,800,000 from VIA Farebox revenue bonds

$92,000,000 from TxDOT Texas Mobility Funds

$55,000,000 from City of San Antonio contributions

$10,000,000 from MPO STP-MM funds

$1,200,000 from FTA Alternatives Analysis Grant

Fares have not been determined, though the current assumption is that Streetcar fares will match standard bus fares.

No additional taxes will need to be levied to build or operate the Streetcar system.


RR: How can we offer input?

BB: Go to public meetings!

As they collect feedback on proposed routes, VIA will take into consideration connecting destinations, operations (frequency and coordination with other modes of transportation like buses and bike hubs), costs, ridership (who would ride which

Citizens offer feedback on potential streetcar routing.

routes), road sharing with automobiles, Historical and Cultural compatibility, and economic development. VIA asks the public to think long-term, and even make suggestions for future phases of the rail system and integration with other forms of mass transit.

So give them some feedback, San Antonio!

Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.

13 thoughts on “A RR Primer: VIA’s Modern Streetcar Plans

  1. One question I have (that I haven’t heard clearly articulated yet): Of the options available, why does a streetcar system make the most sense? I completely support the objectives and the investment in public transportation infrastructure. Moving existing bus congestion out of downtown really needs to happen and I’m glad to hear the routes are being modified along with the location of the transfer points. But why does fixed rail make more sense in this application than a rubber tire system, perhaps using high capacity buses? Boston has a system with buses that draw power off the grid like a streetcar, but can also finish routes on combustion engines.

    My point here is to separate the discussion of “Should we invest in downtown-area transportation?” from “Should a streetcar system be the means to do so?” I support the former and at this point I’m neutral on the latter. Honestly, the only pro-streetcar argument I’ve heard is the dubious claim that the perceived prestige of it will attract more ridership than the existing buses. (Surely there are others: Efficiency? Reliability? Impact on traffic? I just haven’t heard those yet.) Meanwhile, those arguing against it don’t seem to offer an alternative besides scrapping the project and making no improvements. That, I believe, would be a huge mistake.

    • Regarding the question of “Should a streetcar system be the means to do so…”

      While “attracting more ridership than the existing buses” is probably not so dubious, the statements from the article offer a possible advantage to the Streetcar investment:

      “This brings us to the function of the Streetcar and its relationship to economic development, which is to physically connect places, both new and existing, which have not been connected before, and provide improved access to these places, increasing the potential foot traffic along the length of its route.”…with particular emphasis on the physical nature of the required infrastructure (rails and wires), and the foot traffic that urban retail depends upon. …and…

      “As downtown population increases, there will be increased demand for retail and services, which will ultimately stimulate business downtown… Where these parts of downtown are just beyond typical walking distance from one another, the Streetcar will serve as the organizing principle for growth downtown. Investors and businesses will have a higher level of confidence in testing a new market knowing that people have a system of accessing their product and others, which is legible and predictable.”

      Surely, a bus alternative can serve the basic function of access and circulation, though without the physical aspect, which serves as this “organizing principle.” There is demand for downtown living, and this will occur regardless as we move into the near future, inevitably creating demand for retail and services for these residents. I think its a matter of importance that this neither occurs haphazardly nor lacks a defined system of circulation that new and existing users will find useful. If the bus routes change, that may be confusing at first for current users of VIA services, and as new people move in, they should find reliance on a clear way to get around that does not require them to go to their car, drive a few blocks, find parking, and so on. Imagine adding 7,500 living units downtown and having the people who live there drive 2 or 3 times a day to get where they need to go instead of using a rather useful transit system.

      I ride the bus every day, and happen to think that our city’s bus system is pretty useful to those of us who need it and those of us who choose to use it. I’ll admit though that until you get the system down, its confusing in a way similar to learning your way around when you move to a new city. Just ask yourself why you don’t ride the bus (if you don’t that is). If your answer is because “I don’t have good service where I live or any at all,” well you chose to live there, which is fine. If you live somewhere with excellent service as in my case, I find that people I ask who are in similar situations say that they are afraid of getting on the wrong bus, the bus system is large and confusing, or they just don’t know what to do. A physical connection like that offered by streetcar (other than being an “organizing principle”) might actually get some folks past these percieved fears because its quite “legible and predictable,” then they may even venture into the bus system as well and get rid of their car as I did.

      Also, if you look at VIA’s long range plan, it includes things like light rail and BRT that end up downtown. For these services to be effective it seems to make sense that having an “established circulation and distribution function” could be rather useful for planning how to get such high-capacity services into downtown.

      In short, I don’t think the claim of attracting riders is all that dubious, and the physical connection of places helps to organize inevitable development in way that a bus route cannot. Nice interview Bekah.

      • Good points, Jason. And I agree that this is great discussion and I’m super happy Bekah conducted this interview. It’s the kind of stuff I’ve been wanting to read.

        Also, don’t get me wrong—I’m largely supportive of the initiative. I’m just curious how and when you choose streetcars over other modes of public transportation. BRT gets a lot of this right including the elevated platforms, dedicated lanes, information systems, and onboard wifi. You have to admit, this level of investment in buses in the downtown area would result in very nice buses and transit stations. In my mind, it would effectively be a streetcar system, albeit on rubber tires.

        Now, addressing the streetcars ability to “physically connect places”—Absolutely!—but that’s an argument for public transit in general, not streetcars specifically. And there’s my problem: there’s a big part of me that loves the streetcar because it’s both a nod to our history and a symbol of a new, progressive era. I love what it represents. I just want to be able to support the project with pragmatic arguments as well as emotional ones. My hope is that our urban planners feel the same way.

        Are streetcars more efficient at each transit stop? Do they interact better with existing traffic? Is the system less expensive in the long run per passenger mile? Those are the questions I’d love to see answered. If anyone can point me to any online resources with this sort of insight, I’d really appreciate it. Thanks, Rivard, for hosting this discussion.

        • Todd, I definitely appreciate the discussion, and I hope you take my responses as friendly dialogue. It seems that what BRT and Streetcar are achieving and the type of service they would offer are different. This is just my opinion though. Its definitiely a fair thing to question.

          As for your passenger-mile comment, I think efficiency and cost-effectiveness should be compared by passenger trips rather than distance. If you and I worked at the same place, and I have to drive 3 miles when you have to drive 13 miles, distance is not as much a factor as is the utility of the trip. I take a trip to work as do you, and I think the trip itself is easier to compare than distance, particularly when discussing different modes. Since I started riding the bus about 4 years ago, I’ve come to think getting into a car in terms of getting onto a bus. If my wife and I drive her car to eat, thats two trips (one for each of us), just like if the bus is packed as it usually is when I go home from work, that could be as many as 40 trips all on one bus, regardless of how far people are going. If I can walk 4 blocks to HEB, but you have to drive 2 miles, its still a trip comparison.

          I’d say the appropriate question to ask about streetcar is whether it is more cost effective per trip. It seems like this streetcar is mostly going to serve people traveling short distances, though lots of people. Just because someone might have to drive 30 miles a day doesn’t mean that they are being more efficient than someone who rides the streetcar 2 miles a day….they’re both getting to where they need to go.

    • Here’s some great discussion I found about streetcars vs. buses and mobility vs. accessibility. It’s a fantastic read. It briefly mentions the argument of rail bias for ridership, which may support the idea that streetcars will enjoy more passengers. Love to see data there—maybe Portland has it.


      Finally, perhaps there is a valid but emotional reason. If the permanence of rail line does a better job of encouraging a business owner to believe in the downtown revitalization efforts and invest in the area, that’s a net win. Is the real merit of the streetcar what it represents rather than what it provides? Perhaps, but I’d still be hopeful to find an argument with more teeth.

  2. I’m ignorant of public transportation. However, I am interested in knowing a few more details about who utilizes public transportation, the demographics of those who ride public transportation, how many people (not how many times does someone) ride on public transportation. I heard a ridership number, but if that number includes a person who rides the bus 200 times a year, I think the ridership numbers are misleading. While stopped at a light next to a VIA bus I quickly scan the riders. What I typically see is a bus filled from maybe 10% to 50% capacity. I also wonder how much public subsidies VIA takes in annually-that is how much funding is needed to operate VIA that does not come from the riders. Street cars, rail cars, and the like appear to me to be romantic ideas for an ideal city, but that just may be my impression because I do not know all the details of VIA’s operation. Someday, when time permits, I may make that a goal, but for now, my attendance at a public meeting will probably not make much, if any, impact on any decisions VIA leadership wants to make. Thanks for the article. It has given me an opportunity to voice my thoughts regarding VIA that have been on my mind for sometime now. Ken

    • I don’t know the demographics of riders, but I do know that as a daily user of VIA services, there are several different types of people that use it. I’ve read somewhere that VIA’s fares cover about 17% of their operating expenses if I’m not mistaken, so that does mean that 83% is subsidized.

      In terms of your comment on subsidy, I would ask you when the last time was that you paid a fare to use a road. I promise you help pay for the reconstruction and maintenance of those roads even if you don’t use the majority of them, even if many of them are often without traffic, and its all subsidy, and far more expensive than operating buses in total.

      In terms of your comment on empty buses, you’ve never been on my bus ride home everyday. All transportation infrastructure regardless of type is built for peak capacity. That includes highways, roads, parking lots, and buses. Haven’t you driven on I-10 late at night with just a handful of cars immediately around you? I’ll bet though that you’ve been stuck bumper to bumper on I-10 as well, and its a good thing its as wide as it is or the peak traffic would be worse. Ever wonder why parking lots at say Wal-Mart or the mall are so huge, like who would ever park in that distant spot? Then comes black Friday! I promise you during peak hours on heavily traveled routes, we’re all packed in like sardines most days. They operate the same type of bus on all routes, even if they never reach capacity (which might also explain your empty buses, but it seems like it would be less expensive to have to operate and maintain one type of bus instead of different sizes for different routes. Less labor because all the staff can be experts on how to either drive or repair all the buses.

      Lastly, regarding your people vs. ridership comment, I think it would be pretty much impossible to figure how many specific people ride the bus. Traffic counts on streets don’t differentiate how many specific cars use a street, its just volume of cars regarless of whether someone uses it once in a year or 200 times. Traffic counts, like ridership determine peak volumes, which is why a roadway is wide or narrow. You want to count total riders, not individuals. A trip is a trip that likely needed to be made, so the service did its job and spent your money well whether someone needed VIA one day, or uses it several times a day…just like the streets and highways.

    • Ken, I find that VIA does a really good job of providing public information about their revenues, expenses, and operations.

      Roughly 71% of VIA revenue comes from the half-cent transit sales tax in VIA’s service area and the one-eighth-cent sales tax under the Advanced Transportation District. Passenger Revenues account for about 13.9%.

      Remember, though, that the highway / road system is also heavily subsidized. The numbers are harder to pin down, but a full half of all highway funds are subsidized beyond the ‘usage taxes’ paid at the pump by drivers. And that number doesn’t account for surface street construction and maintenance paid for by the municipalities (funds again raised through taxes). Cars, Buses, Trains, Planes: I really don’t think there is a major transportation system in the U.S. could operate on ridership / usage revenue alone.

      Meanwhile, VIA measures ridership based on numbers of boardings, also known as passenger trips. All of VIA’s services carried 45.4 million passenger trips during FY 2010-11. I understand your interest in measuring unique riders, but that would be pretty hard to pin down accurately. Beyond that, I do know that passenger ridership rose 6% in 2011, with a decent percentage of that increase involving “choice riders”—those who have other transportation options but still chose the bus system.

      Here’s some more information directly from VIA:

  3. All interesting food for thought, thanks! My only objection is Jason’s statement in equating economic development (ED) with increased “retail demand and services”, and connections thereof. Pls note that this is not ED, these anticipated spin-offs are nothing more than business development activity. Nothing wrong with it, just don’t call it ED. The ED term implies public sector activities and benefits, not private sector activities and benefits.

    It would be great if more planners & pundits better understood the conceptual difference in terms re: economic public policy, and their implications. Thanks.

    • Fernando, your point is taken. For the sake of clarification though, if a public sector investment like streetcar serves to help organize the inevitable private business development that follows population growth, and if that same investment in streetcar offers ease of access to potential customers for these private sector “spin-offs,” is that not at least a function of Economic Development? Not to mention, the early adopter private investment only pencils out if public incentives are made available. I was merely quoting the article before, which was discussing a relationship between streetcar and economic development. I’m not arguing for this point necessarily, but perhaps a clarification of yours will help my understanding. Thanks.

      • Jason: thanks for your reply; you sound so reasonable! Yes, I’d love to share some additional supporting info. Pls forward your email address; if you’d like some published material, pls forward your snail address, as I don’t have it all archived.

        I’ve published with Progressive Planning magazine (Cornell Uni.), local publications, and currently blog for a U.K.-based economic strategies group, based in London.

        I like your ideas as well. Best, Fdo.

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