Should the streetcar ride? (again)
As they typically only cover a few miles of track, the streetcar is no panacea for most of the serious transportation issues in many of America’s urban cores.
Nonetheless, in surveying the transportation infrastructure development that policymakers are considering to link the densest parts of their cities (i.e. downtown districts and their surrounding neighborhoods), the streetcar has proven to be a saleable and attractive agenda item. A few dozen cities are actively planning a local line, while many more are exploring the idea. If integrated with other policy areas, the benefits could extend beyond mobility to include economic and real estate development, to complement existing transit options, or to substantively improve a city’s public realm. Recently, voters in cities such as Los Angeles, Kansas City, and Durham-Chapel Hill all agreed, and approved tax increases to partially fund construction of new lines.
For citizens, planners, and transportation advocates alike, these efforts are a policy opening to ensure that the construction of these lines delivers on the intended impact. Planners especially will need to show that newly constructed lines will actually promote changes in the built environment or improve the transportation options for local residents. In particular, they must demonstrate that they are the right tool to match local needs. Otherwise, and stemming often from their high cost (though, at an average of about $100 million, they are only about 10 percent of the cost of a typical subway line), they become vulnerable to criticism and local opposition. Or, once they are actually built, lack of community support will mean that operators will not be able to secure the long term investment to keep up with maintenance or expansion, or to adapt to changes in local social or economic contexts.
A few recently completed lines have been criticized as “boutique” systems, catering to tourists, promoting development along a small downtown route, or satisfying a sense of prewar nostalgia. A recently constructed line in Tampa, for example, runs along the waterfront and through the downtown core to link main tourist destination sites. It does not start running until 11 AM on weekdays, easily preventing the ability of a commuter to use the line (last year, ridership on the streetcar dropped by 15 percent). Many other streetcar lines in the US are planned to operate with regular traffic, making them slow and inefficient options that, at best, duplicate existing transit routes. Though a streetcar could be valuable in acting as a powerful urban symbol, it is difficult to justify a streetcar’s cost on purely aesthetic or marketing grounds.
A better strategy is for planners to capitalize on the full potential impact of streetcars as viable transportation options. A feasible policy action is to therefore encourage the cities that are planning the lines to learn from one another and especially from many European cities, which have spent decades developing and fine tuning their lines to work for local residents.
The German Marshall Fund is exploring different types of mobility strategies and informs the transformation debate using European best practices. Last fall, Urban and Regional Policy fellow Tony Mazzella studied the integrated transportation strategies of Zurich and Munich. As Mazzella shows, the streetcar is most successful if it is part of a comprehensive transportation strategy in which a municipality uses a full range of available transit options and strategies.
In other words, when a city promises streetcars, it must also commit to an agenda that encompasses public transit, high commercial and residential densities, and extensive public outreach. Otherwise, the city runs the risk that its streetcars are framed as expensive and irrelevant, and that it will lose time and effort better spent to pursue more viable and more meaningful transportation strategies.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.