Streetcars: What are Reasonable Expectations?

Seattle's Lake Union Transit Streetcar, from wikipedia.

The United States has an interesting relationship with the streetcar in the last 100 years. Cities expanded by leaps and bounds with the high speeds (compared to walking) of streetcars and interurban railways in the early 20th century. Development followed a “spider” pattern with a circular center city and suburbs within walking distance  of rail lines. With the advent and heavy subsidization of the automobile, streetcars slowly died and in urban areas were replaced by diesel bus service.

Recently, streetcars have made a comeback. New modern streetcar systems are being planned in many major cities, from Tucson, Arizona to Cincinnati, Ohio. These systems are similar to their older counterparts in that they are street running rail systems, but these new systems are publicly owned and operated and utilise stylish low floor vehicles. Streetcars represent a capital investment in transit, effectively making a promise to citizens and businesses that transit service along a streetcar corridor will not stop in the foreseeable future. Bus lines can be rerouted and cancelled easily, hence they represent a much less concrete commitment to transit along a corridor and do not encourage development. The sleek look and hipness of a modern streetcar system, coupled with its low cost, make streetcars a politically popular tool in cities. Unfortunately, many of the promises made about new streetcar systems are simply untrue.

Streetcars have been cited as an effective tool to raise land values and spur new development. In Portland, Oregon development has clustered around the new streetcar line, as expected by planners. Portland is basically the only city to have a sizable modern streetcar network in operation at present, so I am going to use it for a brief case study. Portland, Oregon is the center of a fast growing metropolitan area that has a disproportionate number of young, well educated residents. Technology, health and service employment dominate the local economy and deindustrialization affected Portland much less than many cities elsewhere in the United States. These factors make Portland rather unique and are one of several reasons why a large amount of growth around streetcar lines may not be the outcome in other cities.

In Portland, the construction of a modern streetcar system was coordinated with Portland’s regional light rail system, dramatically improving transit connections. In cities like Cincinnatti, Ohio, which lack all other forms of rail transit, usage and utility of a streetcar system is likely to me much lower. Also, Portland’s streetcar project included large scale pedestrian improvements to the streets in which the streetcars run. If streetcars are build in the median of six or eight lane arterials, as proposed in some cities, they will be useless because of the hostile pedestrian environment around them.

The bottom line is that streetcar systems are effective at promoting growth if cities satisfy other criteria first. In Cincinnati, where car culture is well-established and transit service is poor, a streetcar will likely do little to aid redevelopment. Cities must realize that streetcar systems are a perfect compliment to a pedestrian oriented city where density reduces distances between destinations. Remember that streetcars are only slightly faster than local buses because of their street running and frequent stops. For these reasons, I believe the current “fad” of streetcar building is unsustainable and really quite silly. Like nearly all matters of transportation, streetcar systems are being used as a political tool to reelect incumbent politicians. A brand new streetcar system is a lot more sexy than increased bus service or maintenance money for a heavy rail system, but in most situations the latter two investments are more sorely needed. The need to get reelected again trumps reality in politics. Alas, democracy is the worst system except for all the others.

In the end, my message is this: streetcars are great when they accompany a pedestrian friendly environment and connect to regional transit. Otherwise, a new modern streetcar system is a band-aid on top of a bullet wound – a step in the right direction, but coming nowhere near solving the problem of auto dependency.

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About Karl Tingwald

Civil engineering student at the University of Southern California with a severe transportation compulsion.

Posted on May 26, 2010, in Streetcars and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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