Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Pricey downtown streetcars like Detroit’s QLine underperform as transit—and can undermine overall mobility. But that isn’t stopping city after city from building new lines.
A few weeks after the city of Detroit began charging riders a few bucks per ride on its brand-new downtown streetcar, ridership dropped 40 percent, according to the Detroit Free Press. Sadly, few observers were surprised.
“The streetcar doesn’t even connect directly to the city’s primary bus station,” remarked the transit consultant Yonah Freemark on Twitter. “It runs a total of 3 miles in a huge region. Set up to fail.”
The streetcar, dubbed the QLine, is carrying 3,000 riders per day, short of the projected 5,000 to 8,000 per day required to break even. Sure, it’s still early; the line opened in May. But a similar story is playing out across the country’s other 21st century streetcars: Pokey, infrequent, and generally disconnected from other transit, line after line keeps bottoming out.
Atlanta saw a 60 percent drop in ridership after its 1.3-mile line, which opened in 2014, started asking for $1 per go. The line is in the process of being transferred from the city’s authority to the metro’s transit agency, which may consider making it free again. But it’s been bedeviled by administrative and financial issues. Since it opened in September 2016, Cincinnati’s Bell Connector line has seen about two-thirds of the daily ridership consultants predicted. Salt Lake City’s Sugar House line has fared even worse, with just about one-third of the passengers originally projected. Even Seattle, for all of its other transit successes, is seeing about the same sorry share of original predictions.
Not all streetcars underperform: Since it opened in 2001, Portland’s successful streetcar network has managed to grow to 16 miles and 16,000 riders daily, a success story that clanged the bell for a streetcar resurgence across the U.S. downtowns. Kansas City’s streetcar has been drawing considerably more riders than critics surmised, and Washington, D.C.’s H Street streetcar isn’t doing so terribly—but rides on these lines are still free.
Overall, as critics have often pointed out, the record is pretty poor when these projects are judged as transit. Which might be the wrong frame. Actual transit riders aren’t well served by them, but developers and downtown business boosters tend to be pleased.
In D.C., “officials and business groups credit the streetcar’s arrival for the H Street corridor’s rapid transformation, as luxury apartments and trendy restaurants and retailers continue springing up along the line,” reports WAMU. Cincinnati’s Bell Connector is getting at least some credit for feeding the ongoing resurgence of the once-struggling Over-the-Rhine neighborhood: “The streetcar is a strong complement to efforts we’ve already been making to build up the retail,” a local developer told the Urban Land Institute. In Salt Lake City, whose two-mile streetcar cost $37 million, officials haven’t been apologetic about the real impact: They have suggested the S Line is responsible for over $400 million in local investments. "[That] will make this streetcar an excellent return on investment," the city's transportation director told the Salt Lake City Tribune in 2014.
Nothing is inherently wrong with a streetcar beloved by developers, so long as developers are paying for it. But they’re not, at least not on their own. Taxpayers are picking up most of the bill for the 21st century streetcar renaissance—money which could otherwise support more effective forms of public transportation. Overall mobility suffers when transit dollars are diverted to projects that are more about real estate than riders.
This is how Detroit winds up with campaigns like this one, a protest of the QLine by the Detroit People’s Platform, a network of local social justice organizations. More than $74 million of public funding from local, state, and federal sources went to build what the DPP calls a flagrant example of “transit gentrification”:
The cars will have heated stops with corporate branding; rails that are snow plowed; Wi-Fi internet in the cars, and more bike racks than are typically offered on DDOT buses. [...] This is public funding that could have addressed the 30 minute to 1 hr wait times that are common on many of the bus routes that travel into Detroit neighborhoods where transit options are limited.
And yet more and more business-friendly streetcars keep coming. Milwaukee is tearing up roads now to build one of its own. Boise is taking another swing at its downtown, rail-based circulator. Even transit-rich New York City may be getting in on the action: A 17-mile streetcar line along the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront—part of which has been labeled the “innovation coast” by tech industry boosters—has been pitched as both a response to and catalyst for increased development. Backers of the $2.5 billion project originally claimed the streetcar would be “self-financed,” but leaked memos in April showed that was wishful thinking, and that some amount of city dollars would be necessary.
A streetcar in New York City would have to try pretty hard to fail to attract riders, given the extraordinarily high share of the population that does not own a car. But lots of studies have identified corridors in much higher need of service—most of them in Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island.
Supporters of the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, or BQX, contend that with the MTA in a state of profound dysfunction, what is possible to build is more important than what should be built. The nonprofit group created to propose and support the project, Friends of the BQX, represents several large development firms, as well as some smaller community groups. “At end of the day, with New York City transit, more is more is more,” says Ya-Ting Liu, the executive director.
That logic may well hold in New York City. But in nearly every other city in the U.S., where bus service cuts and unreliable performance are sending transit ridership into steady decline, streetcars really do seem to be the enemy of good.