Are Streetcars Mostly for Tourists?

Evidence that streetcar ridership is unrelated to service frequency, bus connections, and job proximity. 

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D.C.'s getting a streetcar, but commuters may not ride it. (AP)

Another day, another massive U.S. streetcar project cost overrun. This time it's Arlington, Virginia's planned Columbia Pike line, which reports now say will cost as much as $100 million more than the latest county estimate. The news follows word from earlier this year that Atlanta's streetcar will cost "significantly more" to operate than anticipated, and from last fall that the proposed Los Angeles streetcar could double in costThis is exactly what streetcar advocates don't want to hear, because it's exactly what streetcar opponents have vocally feared.

To be fair, we should expect mega-transportation projects to come in way over budget. Whether as a result of the "planning fallacy" (people like their own ideas too much) or "strategic misrepresentation" (officials lie about the cost), roads and rails routinely cost more to build than initial projections suggest. Just because something is routine doesn't make it comfortable — think: colonoscopy — but taxpayers generally accept the higher cost in exchange for the promise of a social return on investment.

What's getting harder to see in the case of streetcars is how this return translates into improved mobility. Transit experts already question whether streetcars offer benefits over city buses, especially if the trolley runs on tracks that share a lane with general traffic. The data also suggest that streetcars aren't treated as integrated parts of larger transit systems; outside of New Orleans, no major streetcar accounts for more than 2 percent of all passenger miles traveled on city transit.

Some new figures further strain the connection between streetcars and core city mobility. Florida State planning student Luis Enrique Ramos recently led a comparison of ridership factors on U.S. streetcars versus those on light rail. (The work, not yet published, was presented at a recent conference.) What he found was that streetcar ridership was unrelated to service frequency, bus connections, and job proximity — the very factors that make light rail attractive to everyday commuters.

In other words, streetcars serve a completely different population of travelers than light rail does. Which population is that? Ramos and collaborators can't say for sure, but they have a theory: tourists. Just look at the hours of operation for the Tampa streetcar — beginning at noon on weekdays? — and ask yourself who rolls into work after lunch. (And please do let us know, because we want that job.)

None of this is to say that streetcars aren't necessarily worth it. Commutes make up a fraction of total travel in metro areas. Trolleys can operate very effectively in dense cores by running along a dedicated track, and when they arrive frequently they can promote a lively pedestrian culture. When paired with mixed-use zoning, trolleys can also lead to significant economic development (though arguably less than other modes, like bus-rapid transit).

That leaves emerging streetcar cities with a mostly-tourist attraction they hope will generate business — an amenity that feels similar in spirit to a downtown sports stadium. Again, sometimes city taxpayers conclude that an arena is worth it, and many cities no doubt feel the same about trolleys, cost overruns notwithstanding. But residents who hope the streetcar will improve mobility should be careful to consider whether they're paying for a ride, or getting taken for one.

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