The Wave—An Idea Whose Time Has Passed
Recent reports that The Wave streetcar for downtown Fort Lauderdale is going to cost far more than anticipated should cause city officials to rethink the whole idea of building an expensive, old fashioned system that is likely to make traffic worse, rather than better. That does not seem to be much of a return on an investment that is now pushing $200 million.
As planned, the streetcar will run on rails and be powered by overhead electrical wires. This is the kind of system that once was found in many cities, but today survives only as a novelty in a few places. San Francisco is one, but San Francisco has also preserved its cable cars, which are so funky and historic that they are a tourist attraction. They also make some sense on some of the extreme inclines in that city. New Orleans also has old streetcars, but they run unobstructed in wide medians of roads and therefore get people around pretty fast. Philadelphia once had an elaborate streetcar system, but the only one that survives has the advantage of running underground beside the subway system until it clears downtown congestion.
Most cities gave up streetcars decades ago because they ceased making sense. The advantage of putting a lot of people in one electric vehicle was an idea that preceded the widespread use of automobiles. Eventually their efficiency was offset when they slowed traffic by occupying traffic lanes, and their need to stop virtually every block to serve passengers.
There are cases where they still make sense, but only as part of a more elaborate rail system. A good illustration is Denver, where multiple-unit cars run on dedicated lanes in the downtown. They don’t impede other traffic and get the right-of-way at traffic lights. They stop every few blocks, but then they connect to the main rail corridors and become commuter trains, whisking people to suburban destinations such as Littleton, or the airport, 25 miles away. If The Wave connected to the FEC corridor where Tri-Rail plans commuter service, it would be a great idea. But that is not planned. What is planned is the kind of service other cities have deemed obsolete. And that includes the overhead wires that at least one public figure, Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler, sees as totally out of character with leafy Las Olas Boulevard. Note that promotional renderings for The Wave (above) show modern vehicles, but not the overhead wires. Nor do they show traffic backed up behind the rail cars, which is the reality of such a system.
Its proponents emphasize that The Wave is a first step in what could be expansion to the airport and west Broward. Nice idea, but only if the streetcars have a dedicated right-of-way, and there are no plans for that.
It isn’t as if there aren’t options, and vastly cheaper ones at that. Electric buses, running on batteries, are silent, non-polluting and require no overhead electrical system. With improving technology constantly expanding their range, they are gaining popularity. Some experimental electric buses have gotten more than 250 miles on a single charge. Chattanooga, which has serious air pollution problems, has run small electric buses on a downtown shuttle for 20 years. They run every five minutes and are great fun. They are also free, supported by parking fees, although patrons are asked to make a contribution of a quarter at the major terminal. We suspect most do.
This is a modern version of Atlantic City’s famous jitneys, mini buses that have run on several major streets since 1915. Buses, of course, share the same traffic lanes with other vehicles, but they are more flexible. They can pass stopped traffic, and often get out of the way when taking on passengers. It says here that The Wave idea should be shelved and electric buses given a shot. The system would be inexpensive and, if it didn’t work, you could always sell the buses to Chattanooga, who loves them.