Say what you will about streetcars, they have an unmatched appeal. I mean, there must be a reason why it’s hard to imagine a smoldering love affair between Marlon Brando and Vivian Leigh with a bus theme.

Or, as the inimitable Dan Savage says:

Why is this so hard to understand?… People like trains. People hate buses. [emphasis his]

To wit, the P-I recently interviewed folks about the new Seattle streetcar and elicited what I imagine are fairly typical sentiments:

Bryan Lenning… could take the bus downtown… But for some reason, he’d rather take the streetcar. “But I’d never take the bus.” He’d rather walk or drive downtown.

Mari Stobbe… “I’d never take a bus. I’ve never been on a bus. I’ve never had any desire to be on a bus,” she said. “(But) the streetcar seems like it would have a different feel.”

Okay, sure, there are plenty of reasons to carp about streetcars—they’re expensive given their capacity and distance; they can absorb bus funding; the tracks can threaten cyclists—but fixed-rail travel has an instinctive appeal that is simply not matched by other travel modes. I’m not arguing that the attraction is rational, or even that it’s right. I’m arguing that it’s real. And I’m suggesting that maybe our transportation planning should acknowledge the preference.

Personally, I’m mostly a least-cost planning guy. I want to know which transportation choices are the most cost-effective—for public dollars, health, and the climate. And buses tend to pencil out better. But then again, many people (myself included) sort of hate riding the bus for some reason.

I’ll bet there are lots of potential transit riders out there. People who currently ignore buses, but would happily ride a streetcar. Maybe it’s nostalgia or maybe it’s something much deeper. So while our transportation investments should make responsible use of public money, they should also provide alternatives that the public really craves. Cheapest doesn’t always mean best. And I don’t think it’s revolutionary to suggest that boosting transit ridership is easier if people fall in love with transit.