Category Archives: Streetcars

A True Rapid Transit Plan for San Francisco

Considering the huge amount of time it took me to create this map, I only have a few words to go with it:

The main ideas on this map are:

1. Geary/19th Avenue BART Line including a Second Transbay Tube

2. Folsom/Van Ness BART Line also connecting to the Second Transbay Tube

3. Replacing the N-Judah Muni Metro line between 19th Avenue and the Market Street Subway with tunneled LRT

4. Los Angeles-style busways on San Francisco freeways, including mid-freeway stops as noted

5. A north-south LRT line in the Sunset

6. A bus terminal and transit hub for the Golden Gate Bridge at Van Ness and Geary

7. Extension of the F-Market and E-Embarcadero lines to the Palace of Fine Arts

8. Extension of the T-Third Street line to North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf

9. Infill stations at 30th/Mission and Oakdale

The Downtown Los Angeles Streetcar

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been building new rail lines at breakneck speed for the last 25 years, beginning with the Blue Line and continuing to the (hopefully) soon opening of the Exposition Line. Measure R, a new sales tax, will continue this transit expansion for at least 20 more years. Like most transit systems in the United States, the center of LACMTA’s Metro Rail network is Downtown Los Angeles. The Red Line Subway has helped increase the density of Downtown Los Angeles, including many very tall office towers, but surface parking is still prevalent in the area, especially southwest of the financial district along Figueroa Street. Surface parking is the largest inhibitor to a walkable environment. It creates blight, public safety problems, and dangerous curb cuts along sidewalks.

Luckily there is a solution to the surface parking epidemic in Los Angeles: a long planned streetcar line. Although I argued in a previous article that streetcars in pedestrian unfriendly areas are a waste of funds, the Downtown Los Angeles streetcar is in a unique position in that it will replace and supplement a well used shuttle system operated by the Los Angeles City Department of Transportation, DASH, and the streetcar will have excellent connections to regional transit. In designing this streetcar line, Los Angeles must look to Portland, Oregon where an effective program of streetcar lines coupled with pedestrian improvements has sharply increased land values and spurred development. Downtown Los Angeles would be a much more walkable and pleasant place if much of its surface parking was eliminated or replaced with structured or underground parking and a streetcar is the perfect tool to fill in the gaps of DTLA’s urban fabric.

As you can see on my map above, most of the land used for parking lots is south of seventh street and the Metro Center station. This area has just recently started to see increased development including 7-10 story upscale housing, a Ralph’s grocery store and the gigantic LA Live entertainment complex. Further development could be encouraged with access to permanent guideway (rail) transit, showing a commitment to developers that transit is there to stay. The area southeast of the Pershing Square Station is largely industrial, with most building being used as garment factories. A streetcar could encourage higher value land uses and reduce automobile traffic and crime making the east side of Downtown LA a much more hospitable place.

LADOT has not yet chosen any definite alignments for the streetcar, so I’ve proposed a loop to begin with. This loop travels up Hope Street, including a tunnel between Wilshire and 4th Street, then turns onto Temple Street. Following a stint on Temple Street, the line turns onto Los Angeles Street and finally completes a loop turning right onto Olympic Boulevard. The two main advantages of such a starter alignment are providing local service in the Financial District where there are over 100,000 commuters a day, and also providing access to the southeast part of Downtown LA which is rife with development opportunities.

Sadly you may notice that a large amount of land adjacent to current and future rail stations is being used as surface parking. Evidently, the promise of fast, frequent rail transit was not enough to develop these lots into buildings, especially around the Pico Station. This suggests that future transit investment may not attract sufficient new building growth that funds will be wasted. This isn’t true, instead, a key piece to the puzzle is missing: favorable regulation and tax breaks from local government.

In order for a streetcar to be a good investment, the City of Los Angeles must improve its tax incentives and regulation regarding new development. By encouraging large amounts of private development around both rail stations and the future streetcar lines, LA can increase its tax revenue and reduce its transit subsidies by virtue of increased ridership. All in all, a potent combination of transit investment, pedestrian improvements and growth incentives could turn around Downtown LA and make it a brilliant place in which to work, live or play. If any of these aspects are ignored, the others will befall a terrible fate, facing low usage and a generally lukewarm rise in land values instead of the sharp spike possible with all three steps.

Downtown LA may be one of the most car oriented major central business districts in the United States, but a few million dollars for a streetcar, pedestrian improvements and tax breaks could change it into the most vibrant downtown on the west coast, not just the one with the tallest buildings and most surface parking.

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.