The Case for Caution When It Comes to Building Streetcars

There are several reasons to be excited about streetcars — and several others to be skeptical.

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Reuters

The Atlanta streetcar is expected to open in spring 2014. Needless to say, city officials are pretty excited. The mayor's office sent out a press release in March just to announce that a few sections of the track had been laid. Officials believe the new streetcar line will provide crucial connectivity to the MARTA bus and rail system, encourage enormous local development, and generally improve alternative transport in the city [PDF].

Not everyone shares in the excitement. Writing in the Atlanta Journal Constitution last week, transit planner Jarrett Walker tempered emotions by questioning how useful the streetcar will really be. The piece is behind a paywall, but suffice it to say that Walker answered his rhetorical question with: not very. While everyone hopes the streetcar will "make people value transit as a whole," writes Walker, the fact is the Atlanta streetcar won't run frequently enough to improve mobility:

The Atlanta streetcar line will only be 1.3 miles long from end to end, and a streetcar will come every 15 minutes if everything's on time. So if you just missed one, should you really wait? Or should you just start walking?

Walker's question applies to cities far beyond Atlanta. A streetcar revival movement has been sweeping across the United States for the past several years. Charlotte, Dallas, Kansas City, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, Cincinnati, and Baltimore are just some of the cities looking to add or expand streetcar lines. Washington, D.C., expects to start service sometime this year on what planners hope will become a 37-mile, 8-line network. Last week, as if to counter Walker's skepticism, Salon asked if streetcars are "the future of public transportation."

In many ways the attraction to streetcars is understandable. Advocates such as Darrin Nordahl like to point out that streetcars are far more charming than buses and are capable of drawing all types of riders — not just commuters. Done right, as in Portland, streetcar lines can be parlayed into millions or even billions of dollars of economic development for a corridor. Well-planned routes can also expand a city's transit footprint into areas where subway or metro expansion wouldn't be financially feasible.

In just as many ways if not more, however, the attraction is a very curious one. For one thing, as Walker makes clear in his op-ed (and a popular old post from his blog, Human Transit), they don't offer much in the way of mobility improvements. At the end of the day, there's very little they can offer that transit buses can't.

There are several reasons why that's the case. In the abstract, streetcars can carry more passengers than buses, perhaps 200 to 120, but if the frequency isn't as great then that advantage gets lost. Streetcars can't navigate around delay like buses can, so if the tracks aren't well-placed from the start — in exclusive lanes away from parked cars and other moving traffic — they will lose time to the general flow of a street. Walker has held up the F-Market line in San Francisco as an example; any street upgrades that facilitated streetcar movement, such as island platform boarding and conflict elimination, could have been made with buses:

I'm saying that they are a major capital expense that requires a justification other than mobility ("getting people where they're going fast and efficiently") when we compare them to the bus routes they replace, or that could be developed instead.

Often that justification is economic development. Here, too, streetcars are no automatic fix. As Yonah Freemark has pointed out, cities often forget that streetcars won't lead to transit-oriented development if zoning doesn't permit mixed-use density in the corridor. Portland's streetcar corridors have experienced a boom because they did just that. Other places, like St. Louis, have overlooked the role of zoning in streetcar development, according to Freemark:

In places where regulations make building large, mixed-use buildings difficult, transportation projects that will not do much to improve mobility will be incapable of encouraging much construction either.

Even where strong development does occur, cities must be mindful of the transformation they're encouraging. The H Street corridor in Washington, D.C., for instance, exploded with businesses following streetscape improvements made in advance of the streetcar (which, of course, could have been made for buses). But as wealth gathers near the tracks, cities must consider how to keep the corridor affordable to the residents whose lives the line was supposed to enhance in the first place.

Yet another reason for streetcar caution, offered by transit scholar David King, is that few cities were demanding the lines before the federal government began to hand out money for them. King has wondered whether this temptation makes streetcars the "latest incarnation of the people mover," those old monorail systems that a few cities rushed to pursue with federal grants. Just last week he noted how rare it was for a streetcar feasibility report to find the streetcar line unfeasible — a sign that political interests, rather than mobility needs, are driving the trend.

(One notable exception to King's point about feasibility was a study of streetcars for Red Hook, in Brooklyn, which recommended against the project on many of the grounds noted above: namely, a low expected ridership increase, significant costs, narrow streets that would have hindered streetcar movement, and zoning policy that precluded mixed-use development.) 

Ultimately these concerns must be addressed one city at a time. For some places, in some corridors, with proper planning, streetcars might inspire that perfect blend of development and mobility and community. But if everywhere were Portland, then everywhere would be Portland. What many cities need to ask is whether they really want streetcars or just really don't want to ride the bus. If it's the latter, then streetcars are rather expensive therapy.

Top image: A man rides a bicycle down the Canal Strees Street Car line in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Sean Gardner/Reuters)

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