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The Best Reader Comments: The Great Streetcar Showdown

Toys for tourists or valuable transit? Or both?

Vintage Kansas City streetcars negotiate heavy traffic. (Wikipedia Commons)

CityLab recently looked at two Midwestern cities that just launched downtown streetcar lines: Kansas City, Missouri, and Cincinnati, Ohio. The doughty streetcar has been enjoying a modest resurgence over the last decade, with many cities across the U.S. bringing back their systems for a second act. While ridership has been pretty strong so far in both KC and Cinci, the jury is still out on whether this venerable transit option can bring wider economic benefits and compete with buses as an efficient people mover.

Readers with strong feelings on the topic wrestled with the question in the comments. Here’s a look at the conversation.

Cincinnatian Travis jumped right out of the gate with a beef against the article’s emphasis on how well the city’s new streetcar might serve commuters.

Transportation planners need to stop fetishizing “the commute” from home to work. Perhaps it’s years of listening to politicians talk about “job creation” and "connecting people to jobs,” but your trip from home to your job is not the only trip that matters.

I take many trips each day and only a few of these involve me going between my home and my job. I take far more trips that involve me going from work to a restaurant, from home to a park, from home to the grocery store, etc. It has become trendy for many urbanists to hate streetcars because they're used by people going to restaurants and bars, instead of commuters going to work — the horror! — as if those aren't legitimate transportation trips.

Why design a transportation system exclusively for getting to work? Isn’t that how we end up with highways that have enough lanes for rush hour but tons of excess capacity every other time of the day?

Several others, like Watching From Other There, hopped aboard to agree.

Most transit systems in America think they're doing a good job if they answer the question, “How can we get people to and from work efficiently?” … But to have a great transit system, you need to ask the question, “How can we make it easy to live without a car?”

Philip Peter Watson compiled a six-point list of reasons why streetcars are better than buses. Here’s one point:

Busses are for poor people, people who have no other choice; not that there's anything wrong with that, but the folks who are moving back into cities now are generally not poor, and they have transportation choices. A sexy transit system invites ridership; busses aren't sexy.

Philip, like many streetcar aficionados, also praised European tram systems.

I lived in Montepellier, France, which has a very well-developed light rail system, as well as bike share and a dense, walkable core. I used the light rail for my commute, but also to go to the grocery store, the beach, random neighbourhoods I picked off the map, bars, etc. I could do this because lines are predictable, and system maps are transparent.

I'd love to see a rebuttal article that explains show light rail systems are more than transit: they're place shapers.

But Noibn48 wasn’t buying the idea that transit planners could avoid putting the needs of commuters first.

Let's not get ahead of ourselves. Let's indeed begin with the commute routes, the heaviest volumes of the day, and get folks out of their cars for that. If that is accomplished, then we can work on the lower, more sporadic ridership and the needed routes (which would be more costly due to the lower ridership).

CapitalistRoader, meanwhile, steered the conversation toward an issue that the story didn’t directly address: autonomous vehicles, which would “likely make mass collective transit like streetcars and buses obsolete.”

Compare the 20th Century technology of landlines to 21st Century cellphones: Why on earth would anyone want a phone that you can't take with you? Similarly, why on earth would anyone take a streetcar or bus when it doesn't actually pick them up from where they are or take them to where they actually want to go?

Instead of spending billions in taxpayer dollars on streetcar infrastructure, metro areas will distribute AV car service vouchers to the poor. The rest of us will simply pay a monthly car service fee, much like we pay a monthly cell phone fee today.

Yet the word autonomous or driverless doesn't appear even once in this article. The author is clueless.

The AV issue launched a lengthy side-trip down the self-driving mystery highway, with several readers arguing over how shared autonomous vehicles would affect mass transit. (That’s a whole other story.) Reader Igor took particular issue with CapitalistRoader’s claims.

[T]he way to make autonomy a reliable transit system ... is the same non-sexy investment that never gets done for transit: dedicated lanes where single occupancy vehicles are forbidden. Without this—you just have your fancy autonomous cars sitting in traffic ... big whoop!

Once you have dedicated ROW .. the mode becomes less important, but as your ridership grows, you will again gravitate to having less wasted space around the passengers and end up with ... tadah! a 200-1000ft long steel tube full of hundreds of humans! aka a train!

Alejandro chimed in with a view from Tucson, Arizona, where a new streetcar line has been in service since 2014.

The Tucson streetcar is a pretty big disappointment IMO. The only important places it links are 4th Avenue, downtown, and the University of Arizona.… That's great if you're a student who lives on campus, but pretty much useless for the rest of the city. We would have gotten a lot more bang for our (partially federal) buck simply improving the existing bus system, but I guess that just isn't flashy enough.

Like several readers, Alejandro remained un-wowed by the modest scale of the modern American streetcar revival. But streetcar booster Neil C. from Cincinnati counseled a longer-term view.

This gets people who would otherwise never ride mass transit to try it out and builds support for something better down the line. Cincinnatians are notoriously provincial people who don't really venture too far from home … so if you don't know what good transit is like and you are generally apprehensive about change … then you’re not going to want something that may benefit you in the long run unless you understand it. Cincinnati is totally the “show me city.”

This may not be the case with all streetcars, but in Cincinnati’s case it’s a valuable tool to help build support for something better.

Gerhard W. Mayer brought a similarly broad perspective to the story’s thesis.

Of course the streetcar alone won't save your city. But the streetcar gives us the opportunity to build a different city around it. And that will save us.

To join the debate, go here.

And for more urban transit talk, see these related stories.

About the Author

  • David Dudley
    David Dudley is a senior editor at CityLab. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of Urbanite magazine and features editor for AARP The Magazine. He lives in Baltimore.