For years, Jarrett Walker has been making the point that streetcars do not provide much transportation value over buses. They have higher capacity, because trams can run longer vehicles, but on a medium-ridership bus line without capacity constraints, this is not relevant. As I note in comments, tramways can use rail signaling to get marginal speed advantages, but it’s not a big advantage. They also have slightly lower minimum headways – a single bus route running more often than every 3 minutes will hopelessly bunch, whereas tramways seem capable of higher frequency – but this is again a matter of capacity. And yet, there is an observed rail bias, even when other factors are kept the same: a Transportation Research Bureau report by Edson Tennyson concludes it is 34-43%, using evidence from North American cities in the four decades after WW2. In this post, I would like to propose one mechanism that may produce rail bias even when speed, capacity, and frequency are unchanged.
Low-floor vehicles make it easier to board from raised curbs. Passengers do not need to climb steps as they do on older buses and streetcars, but can walk straight to the vehicle. This speeds up boarding and improves the passenger experience: see p. 14 of a presentation about commuter rail level boarding, p. 64 of a book about low-floor light rail, and a study about bus dwell times in Portland. It’s especially useful for passengers in wheelchairs: as the Portland bus reference notes, the difference between low- and high-floor buses’ dwell times is especially noticeable when there are wheelchair lifts, because operating a wheelchair lift on a low-floor bus is much faster than on a high-floor bus. Low-floor vehicles’ ability to not lose too much time every time a disabled passenger boards or disembarks improves reliability, which in turns allows schedules to be less padded, improving trip times even when no passenger in a wheelchair uses the route.
While high-floor buses and high-floor trains serving low platforms are similar in requiring passengers to climb multiple steps, low-floor buses and trains with level boarding (regardless of whether high or low) are different. Trains run on guideways; they can have the vehicle’s edge exactly level with the platform edge, with narrow horizontal gap. My attempt to measure this on SkyTrain in Vancouver yielded a horizontal gap of about 5 cm, and a vertical gap of perhaps 2 cm; with such gaps, passengers in wheelchairs can board unaided. While SkyTrain is automated rapid transit rather than light rail, nothing about its technology makes the rail-platform gap easier to resolve than on other rail lines.
In contrast, low-floor buses do not have true level boarding. The bus floor is still raised from the curb somewhat, so modern low-floor buses typically kneel, increasing dwell time by a few seconds per stop, to reduce the platform gap. While it’s possible to raise the curbs as at light rail stops, the buses are still buses, and cannot align themselves to be as close to the platform as trains are: without rails, they sway from side to side, so a safety margin is required from the platform edge. As a result, passengers in wheelchairs cannot board unaided without a retractable ramp, which adds considerable dwell time. On board the bus, the more sudden acceleration also requires the wheelchair to be strapped, adding dwell time even further.
Because there is no way to prevent a bus from incurring schedule risk if there’s a passenger in a wheelchair, bus schedules are inherently more vulnerable than train schedules. While few transit passengers are in wheelchairs, passengers who have luggage, walkers, or strollers can get on and off much faster when there’s perfect level boarding, and are slowed by the need to navigate steps or a wide vehicle-platform gap; the schedule will have to take this into account. Low-floor buses reduce this problem, but do not eliminate it.
The limiting factor to bus frequency is not stopping distances, unlike the case of trains. Instead, it is bunching: at very high frequency, small variations in boarding time compound, as fuller buses are harder to board. Soon enough a slightly delayed bus becomes even more delayed as passengers take more time to board, until it bunches with the bus behind it. This effect can be reduced with off-board fare collection, but when the bus is crowded, the combination of narrow passageways and a significant platform gap means that boarding time is nontrivial no matter what.This effect means that all else being equal, a low-floor tramway will be faster and more reliable than a low-floor bus. In practice, all else is not equal, and in particular, in mixed traffic, the bus’s ability to get around obstacles will make it faster. But with well-enforced dedicated lanes, tramways are capable of running reliably with less schedule padding than buses. A familiar experience to North American bus riders – sitting for several minutes as a passenger in a wheelchair boards, and maneuvers awkwardly through the narrow spaces to where the bus driver will strap in the chair – is not an issue on any train with level boarding.