More political challenges await Cincinnati's streetcar line. @cincistreetcar

Not on its own, at least. But boosters in Cincinnati, Kansas City, and elsewhere are banking that their new lines can keep resurgent downtowns booming.

Two weekends ago, for the first time, Cincinnatians could load up on pretzels and hot metts at their vast Oktoberfest celebrations downtown and then hop on a streetcar. And almost 30,000 people did just that: The city’s brand-new streetcar system packed on crowds on its first weekend of full-fare service. The weekend before, about 50,000 residents of the Queen City got a free ride for grand opening of the 3.4-mile Bell Circulator, named for sponsor Cincinnati Bell.

Streetcar boosters, who have been patiently awaiting the resurrection of a system that was mothballed in 1951, are justifiably delighted. Cincinnatians who pushed for a trolley redux had to overcome two ballot initiatives that tried to halt the project, in 2009 and 2011—plus fierce resistance from the state’s governor, John Kasich, who withdrew $52 million in promised federal funding in 2011. Then a decidedly anti-streetcar mayor, John Cranley, stormed City Hall in 2013, replacing the term-limited Mark Mallory. Only the fact that the new rails were already half-installed kept the decade-long project alive: The estimated costs of halting the streetcar exceeded what it would take to complete it. (Enjoy the whole tortured history of the project here.)

So far, ridership has been quite strong, with weekday averages of around 3,200 riders a day and big crowds on weekends, says Derek Bauman, the vice-chair of the pro-rail organization All Aboard Ohio. And the bruising tone of the public debate has largely (but not entirely) faded. “Now that it’s finally happening, the rhetoric is almost gone,” he says. “Even opponents are saying, ‘Now that I‘m using it, it’s great. Where are we going to lunch?’”

A similar lovefest is raging over in Kansas City, which unveiled its 2.2 mile streetcar line in May. The KC Streetcar claims an average daily ridership of 6,800, well above early projections, and is earning raves for its free fare service, its well-designed route that connects the city’s major downtown attractions, and its outrageously funky theme song, by the local rapper/urbanist Kemet the Phantom. (Seriously: It’s really good.)

It’s hard not to succumb to the charms of the streetcar, the frisky chocolate lab of urban transit. Urbanists delight in their walkability-promoting scale and commitment to permanency—those rails stuck in the street seem to embody the faded promise of public transportation itself. Environmentalists dig their cleaner emissions (assuming your local grid isn’t coal-fired) and greater passenger capacity, compared to diesel-spewing buses. Older folks appreciate their nostalgia factor and low-floor boarding, which makes them easier on wheelchair users and aging knees. The business community enjoys the developer-friendly subsidies and other sundry tax breaks that that often accompany their construction. And just about everyone likes the whole Euro-classy vibe they evoke—the way they make Tucson look sorta like Prague.

So what’s not to love? Though the current generation of new-wave streetcars—which have also appeared in cities such as Washington, D.C., Tampa Bay, Florida, and Little Rock, Arkansas, and are soon coming to Detroit and Oklahoma City—have been been a favored target of small-government skeptics, they’ve also got all kinds of non-ideological critics, too, as CityLab can attest. The fact that both Cincinnati and KC’s systems are more popular on weekends seems to support one of the fundamental arguments against them: They’re more tourist toys than transportation systems used by residents and commuters. Too slow and short to function as bona fide people-movers, they’re just expensive downtown amenities for out-of-towners, opponents say, gobbling public dollars that should be devoted to more useful forms of public transit. (Tampa’s trolleys once didn’t open until noon; the system began offering weekday morning service for commuters this week for a 6-month pilot program.*) And when you look at the overall ridership numbers of today’s streetcar cities, you can see the point.

The model modern streetcar, in Portland, Oregon, may have helped usher in a swelling wave of imitators, but so far none have been able to duplicate its success, says Jeffrey Brown of Florida State University’s department of urban and regional planning. He’s co-authored a series of recent studies examining the streetcar renaissance and found that Portland’s system—which now boasts of carrying almost 15,000 passengers per weekday and is about as efficient as the city’s bus network—is something of an outlier in this regard. (By contrast, Little Rock’s line carried 400 people on an average weekday in 2012, when Brown studied it.) As one of his reports concludes:

Portland’s experience is the result of a unique combination of external factors (local population and employment patterns, the health of the real estate market) and local decisions (land development policy decisions, financial decisions, other public investments, streetcar alignment location and length, streetcar operations decisions, streetcar fare policy decisions) that may or may not be applicable elsewhere.

Brown isn’t swayed by the usual economic development arguments often put forth by trolley-promoters who insist that these lines lure tourists and new residents to struggling downtowns. “That’s a separate question from whether it’s a good transportation investment,” he says. As long as it’s being built with transit dollars, the streetcar should be judged solely by how well it moves people. “I’m skeptical, but willing to be convinced. They do have an appeal—they have more an ‘it’ factor than a local bus. But it’d be nice if they were carrying more people,” he says. Plus, those property-plumping intangibles that streetcars are reputed to deliver aren’t so clear, he adds. “The jury is out on whether there is an economic development effect.”

In Portland, for example, the streetcar arrived in 2001 with redevelopment already well underway, and it was able to ride that wave, leveraging its location in a large and densely populated downtown area. It’s often credited with billions of dollars in rising property values, but there’s a chicken-and-egg question that hasn’t been settled. The transit consultant Jarrett Walker, who wrote extensively about the Portland model in 2009 on his blog, Human Transit, called the city’s streetcar “a result, not a cause, of Portland’s success.”

Yonah Freemark, whose own transit blog, Transport Politic, has been tracking the current building boom in urban rail, sees some parallels between streetcar-building and the vogue for downtown sports stadiums, convention centers, and other brand-building urban projects of debatable value. What makes Cincinnati and Kansas City potentially different is that these cities are launching streetcars with economic momentum in their favor. Both are enjoying residential growth in their cores, and both streetcar lines thread through downtowns stocked with several major new attractions that are already open. “It’s all about the timing,” Freemark says. “In the past 30 to 40 years, many investments in cities have come in the context of declining downtowns. But when streetcars are constructed simultaneous with other investments, it can be mutually beneficial.”

Bauman, a police officer in the Cincinnati suburb of Mason who moved to the city’s gentrifying Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, enthuses about the system’s potential as a mover of residents and workers. “This is not a clang-clang tourist trolley,” he says. “This is built to light-rail standards and can be the spine of an expanded system.”

A key hurdle for promoters of the line is building its long-proposed next stage, which would connect to the University of Cincinnati and open up the possibility of bringing some 40,000 students aboard regularly. Bauman stresses that a key role for the current system is to draw in such new, younger riders, who might not otherwise get excited about riding public transportation. And he’s confident that the overpowering charm of the streetcar will win the day in the end, despite the skeptics and political headwinds.

“This is the camel’s nose under the tent,” he says. “People are going to see it. They’re going to like it. And they’re going to want to expand it.”

CORRECTION: Schedule information updated.

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