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