Reuters

Are they primarily about economic development or getting people around a city?

Next City recently published a piece by Aaron Wiener called "Why Streetcars Aren't About Transit." Wiener used the pending launch of D.C.'s system to consider the role that streetcars play in a city's overall transit network — if any. The story is behind a paywall, but the tease hints at the core question: "are they legitimate ways of transporting a city’s people, or novelty items meant to deliver gentrification to voguish neighborhoods?"

Whether streetcars are a tool for city mobility or economic development might seem like a needlessly nuanced discussion. In fact, it has very practical implications. America's streetcar renaissance is being paid for largely with money that would otherwise go to traditional forms of public transportation. So if money for transit is going to projects that chiefly promote economic development, city mobility is going to suffer.

Transport scholar Jeffrey Brown of Florida State University made some progress toward answering this question with an analysis of seven streetcar lines [PDF]. Brown considered streetcar systems in Little Rock, Memphis, Portland, Seattle, Tacoma, Tampa, and New Orleans for their role as a public transit mode. His goal was to gain insight into their "level of integration with and role within the larger transit system in the community."

At some level, writes Brown, all these streetcar systems can be considered transit; after all, each one operates under the city's transit agency. (TransitKC, a streetcar supporter, tweeted as much in response to Wiener's piece.) Brown also found that most of the systems (five out of seven) allowed free transfers to buses, suggesting an expectation of connectivity between streetcars and the larger transit network.

But this level of integration didn't hold up as strongly when Brown looked at streetcar ridership as a share of fixed-route ridership in each city (i.e. bus or rail). In New Orleans, for instance, 40 percent of all fixed-transit passenger trips occurred on streetcars — an indication that the system is integral to the city's larger transit network. Elsewhere, however, streetcar's transit trip share was quite low, only cracking double digits in Memphis.

Related statistics were equally discouraging for every system but the historic one in New Orleans. While that streetcar accounts for more than 30 percent of all passenger miles taken on city transit, no other system exceeds 2 percent. (And while the streetcar accounts for about 20 percent of all transit vehicle revenue miles in New Orleans, it makes up less than 5 percent everywhere else.) Even within the context of transit's already low share of overall travel, a streetcar trip is a rare bird that doesn't fly far.

There are optimistic ways to interpret this data. The low shares of unlinked trips and system mileage could mean people are using the streetcar primarily for that critical first and last mile of travel. Indeed, average streetcar trip lengths are less than a mile in Seattle and Memphis, according to Brown. (New Orleans, meanwhile, has an average trip length of nearly 2.6 miles.)

Still, Brown suspects that even transit agencies don't necessarily see streetcars as integral parts of the transit network. The fact that Tampa didn't even track transfer activity between buses and streetcars, for instance, gave the impression that streetcar ridership was a bit like a bonus. Brown concludes that agencies themselves probably view the streetcar "more as development catalysts or as devices used to serve tourists and shoppers as opposed to regular transit riders":

Whether this is an effective strategy or not is also something beyond the scope of this study, but it is indicative of a dilemma in these fiscally-constrained times, given that streetcar projects funded by the federal government's resource-strapped capital grants program use resources that might have been used for other projects designed primarily to transport regular transit riders.

This gets back to the heart of the discussion. Streetcar systems are expensive to build. They cost more to operate per passenger mile than buses (a range of $1.58-6.18 versus $.78-1.65, per Brown), run slower (half the average speed, per Brown), and generally don't stretch across a whole city. Some cities will choose to make these sacrifices for the benefits of economic development — though these too have been challenged — and charming, walkable cores. They should understand that mobility at large may suffer as a result.

Top image: Julie Botnick of New Haven, Connecticut works on her smart phone as she travels down the St. Charles Ave. Street Car line in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Sean Gardner/Reuters)

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