Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Why the Streetcar Can Kill Public Transit

I recently came across an article titled “Are Streetcars the Future of Public Transportation?”. I immediately became horrified. As the article states, streetcars have recently taken off in U.S. cities like wildfire. Mayors and city officials across dozens of cities in states all over the country, including Obama’s new USDOT Secretary Nominee, are responsible for trying to revitalize their downtowns with a new “public transit” addition: the streetcar. Many of these cities have looked to cities like Portland—which has seen relative streetcar success by bringing about $3.5 billion in dense economic development along the line—as role models. Support for these often charming lines has been high by the public compared to other transit functions. Its permanence yet affordability provides a great mix that beats out light rail in the eyes of voters and decision makers. However, if this frenzy continues, streetcars can very well be the death of public transportation in the U.S. as we know it.

The acknowledgment by the President of the United States of a Mayor bringing a streetcar line to its city center as a “public transit achievement” makes me rather uncomfortable. The investments in streetcars are happening for all the wrong reasons. The streetcar is an economic development tool, and does very little beyond that in terms of providing a transit service. Public transportation should be implemented with the goal of providing adequate service where there is a demand and need for the movement of people. Although using transit to revitalize an area economically may has its benefits, making this the driving factor for transit decisions is rather dangerous. The impacts of such actions have already been seen with the Portland’s choice to prioritize MAX expansion rather than focus on securing revenue for continued bus funding for transit dependant neighborhoods. These kinds of priorities are obviously driven by the economic growth factor that comes with them rather than need of service for underrepresented populations.

Although funding availability for capital projects is greater at a federal level than sustaining operational costs for buses, if cities changed their priorities the federal government would likely listen to the message. I fear that the growth of streetcars, a mode known for its walking pace speeds, will lead to greater inequities in transit financing at a local level across the nation. Why would a local government choose to put more money towards bus service for outer city residents when efforts can be put towards city center streetcars that will attract retailers and tourists, generating more money for the city, have potentially less operational costs, and possibly even equal ridership numbers of a bus line? The answer is, they probably wouldn’t.  

Even if you are a promoter of public transit as an economic development tool, there is still reason to be wary of the streetcar boom. The fact is there is no proof that streetcars are a quick fix for that either. Without proper zoning and external support, a corridor cannot be simply transformed into an economic development masterpiece by just adding a streetcar to the equation. Such projects become even less certain once taken out of downtown districts. St. Louis can attest to this, as their streetcar line outside the downtown core that pledged to have “urban infill and TOD along the route” has seen no such success due to zoning issues and lack of existing density. Portland’s east side expansion of the streetcar may play out to suffer from the same fate.

Overall, these slow, often infrequent, traffic affected, short streetcar lines may still have their place for development of tourist industries or downtown core travel. However, they should not be taken any more seriously than that when considering public transit options to serve our cities.


Don’t Forget the Zoning by Yonah Freemark

The Case for Caution When it comes to Building Streetcars by Eric Jaffe

Are Streetcars the Future of Public Transportation? By Jeff Turrentine


  1. Darwin-

    Interesting piece.

    When you mention the President getting excited it reminded me of this NYT article:

    The key quote being:

    "Charlotte, whose success as a financial center has helped its population grow toward 800,000, takes transit seriously, said David Howard, a member of the City Council and chairman of its transportation and planning committee. The city tries to channel growth into manageable areas, he said, by filling in the urban core with new development and encouraging new construction along major transportation corridors, including an expanding rail line. “It didn’t happen by mistake,” he said.

    The rail line was projected to reach a ridership of 12,000 people within 7 to 10 years; it hit that level in the first month and a half, he said. President Obama has nominated the city’s mayor, Anthony R. Foxx, to be the next transportation secretary."

    I understand you're talking about street car not nec. light rail but I think it echoes your overall sentiment a little: this stuff (transportation investment and strategy) has purpose(s) and nuances that sometimes get over-shadowed by, to some degree, the next big thing rather than the real work that needs to be done and the real people that need to be served.

  2. Darwin, I am glad you wrote about this. I totally agree that the Streetcar caught on like wild fire as a "solution" to all of life's economic development problems. I think many cities around the country thought they could simply build a street car and everything will turn into the Pearl! Well, I think the missing piece in all of that is the market that the streetcar is intended to serve (not to mention the strategy and commitment to building high rises along the lines). As your article mentions, Portland is prime territory for streetcar users: tourist not expecting fast speeds to get to their destination, and urbanites who are basically living directly above the line's stations. It always makes me wonder why people prefer the streetcar over the bus. The buses are usually cleaner, faster, more frequency, more comfortable, and great for people watching!

  3. Thanks for the reply Tom and Art. Tom, I wonder that a lot as well (the preference of streetcar over bus). Nationally, this country seems to have a negative stigma around buses that associates them with poverty and a "last resort" option. For whatever reason, this stigma can't seem to be broken in most parts of the country, even as efforts are made to make buses cleaner, safer, and more reliable. Once again we see that human behavior and habits are playing a large role in shaping the transportation landscape, regardless of what the cost and efficiency realities for different modes of transportation really are.

    1. I think your right again - habits are hard to break as are stereotypes and stigmas.
      I've actually been trying to cobble together an Op-Ed on this subject: "Bus Stigma", but finding material that addresses it head-on has been more difficult than I expected.
      Why would that be? Is 'stigma' information that is too hard to gather, qualify or quantify? Especially when it's not directly tied to issues of safety but of class.
      The genesis for my bus stigma idea actually came from the same NYT article I posted previously - the key paragraph being:

      Ted Boyd, whose job involves helping develop the city’s South End into a Brooklynesque neighborhood — Mr. Mauney is opening two stores there, one to sell women’s shoes and another men’s underwear — often rides the bus to work. He decided to drive less after a trip to New York, with its extensive options for mass transit, but admits “it’s a little trickier in Charlotte.” Office wear still stands out on the city buses, and “you get some interesting looks sometimes,” he said, that seem to assume an unpleasant reason for why he isn’t behind the wheel: “Is this a D.U.I.?”

    2. I completely agree that there isn't enough literature on this yet, and your reasoning could very well be true. Issues of race and class are still highly influential when it comes to transportation options, yet they seem to still be too touchy to tackle or quantify when it comes to research.

    3. Art, I found these (a little debate on bus stigma) and thought they might be of interest to you:

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    5. Darwin - Thanks, 

      Yes, I've read those. There are a few other blog posts, etc. that touch on it as well - it has been the academic articles that have been tricky to find.

      Another thing that I found that I thought was interesting was this effort by Los Angeles Metro to re-market or re-brand the transit service (mostly bus) to try and reach 'discretionary riders':


Basically the thinking was (quoted from enclosed video in link), "Auto industries spend over 20 Billion a year promoting automobiles - what would happen if transit agencies spent a similar amount promoting mass transit?"

      There is also an image in that link of one of their promotionals, "Let other superheroes wrestle with traffic" that sends a number of messages in who it's trying to reach: the hispanic wrestling dude is (maybe) a nod to the 'transit-dependent' riders but notice the professional woman in the back reading and not concerned with the guy with a cape and mask on only 5 feet away - this tackles safety, race and possibly class issues in one stroke.

      At any rate - it all seems to acknowledge that mass transit currently has an image problem which is nothing that a little time and money can't fix.

  4. I agree with many of your points about Portland's streetcar. But I think the negatives associated with streetcars such as slow speeds and lack of exclusive right of way are mostly about execution rather than a problem of streetcar systems generally. There's no reason streetcars can't have better stop spacing, better signal priority and exclusive right of way at key choke points. I can think of many European examples (Geneva comes to mind) where streetcars form the backbone of a very robust and efficient transit network.

    That of course doesn't address the larger issue of how we prioritize transit investment. We'll be talking about that Monday when we finally get to our discussion of transit policy.

  5. I agree that the modern streetcar is exhibiting some very strong symptoms of a typical American pop culture fad. I also agree that streetcars need to be thought of in more diverse terms than that of economic development.
    On the other hand, when urban design lends itself to such a feature, I think it should be utilized. Indeed, many urban areas in this country would be much better served by more effective busing. Especially areas that need and rely busing as a primary transportation.
    The streetcar though, represents a mode of transportation that runs only on electricity, readily available on the grid. While streetcars serve as an economic development tool and an effective method for attracting the guy with the family, the fanny pack and the Nikon. They are also an important tool in America's movement away from the hydrocarbon.
    I think development of streetcar infrastructure for this reason makes it worth the investment. If it is done wisely, with appropriate zoning and development accommodations. Because the streetcar is only one part of the solution to the problems we will face in the future.

  6. Darwin, I agree. I've enjoyed taking the streetcar but I haven't been able to see how it is an efficient transportation model in major cities that already have bus/rail systems in place. Even though Gabe raised the point of them being run solely on electricity, electricity is not carbon neutral by any means, so is it an important tool in the move away from petroleum or coal-based energy sources? Not sure about that. It takes a lot of energy (and not carbon neutral energy) to build streetcars and the infrastructure needed for it mostly to serve a small(ish), relatively affluent portion of the population. Why cater to such a small number of people with the streetcar when there's such a relatively small number of people that are already using public transportation? Shouldn't we hold off on "fancying" the system for a time when there is actual demand?

  7. Very interesting post and discussion, thanks Darwin et al!

    This reminded me of the streetcar discussion in Jeff Speck's "Walkable City," where he suggests that streetcars be thought of as "pedestrian accelerators" and not "pedestrian generators." That is to say, a well executed downtown streetcar system can expand and enhance an already existing pedestrian-friendly district. But a streetcar alone won't create pedestrian life where the environment doesn't support it.

    While a streetcar may not become the backbone of a regional or metropolitan transit system (although Arlie does well in reminding us that they can be designed and operated to be more high-speed), it can knit together a much larger area of downtown for pedestrians than sidewalks alone. This short to medium distance transit niche tends not to be as well served by transit-oriented bus, though "downtown shuttles" often do. See the DC Circulator for a good example of this.

  8. Darwin, thanks for the post. I too often think about the disparities in Portland's transit investment priorities. TriMet service cuts have disproportionately impacted transit-dependent residents in East Portland, including communities of color and low-income individuals and families. Meanwhile, Portland's streetcar expansion, focused on tourism and economic development for close-in neighborhoods, raises a number of questions about transit equity and justice that TriMet and the City need to address. Hopefully we get some answers and changes sooner, rather than later.


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