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Streetcars Still on Track

January 4, 2013

It’s an exaggeration — but only a minor one — to state that there’s not a sizeable city in the country that isn’t considering, planning to, or hasn’t already added a streetcar to its transportation system.

“There are many, many cities that have initiated planning for streetcars,” says Martin Schroeder, chief engineer for the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) in Washington, D.C. “Every major city has looked at streetcars and decided to build for obvious reasons.”

What are those “obvious reasons,” given that streetcars are a slower form of transportation, a seeming drawback when people increasingly demand information and services immediately? “People like streetcars,” Schroeder simply says. “They’re different, often historic, and interesting, and people come downtown to ride them. It’s still a very popular mode of transit.”

Developers are often among the fan base. “In places like Portland, Ore., and even places like Spokane and Tacoma, Wash., and Tucson, Ariz., streetcars are very much supported by the development community,” says Mariia Zimmerman, a principal at MZ Strategies, an Arlington, Va., consultancy Zimmerman launched after working in the Obama administration to help communities better link transportation and economic development goals.

“Having them there shows there’s an interest from developers in investing in infrastructure and transportation to regrow an area. What’s interesting about streetcar proposals is that it’s the development community, with the public sector, that promotes these, which isn’t always the case [with transportation projects].”

Can streetcars live up to all the expectations planners and developers have for them? There’s evidence to support high expectations, but experts caution that streetcars alone may not be responsible for all the positives attributed to them.

The Streetcar Is Reborn

Streetcars aren’t new by any stretch of the imagination. In the last half of the 1800s and first decades of the 1900s, the “street railway” was a major catalyst of urban development, according to APTA. However, the Great Depression forced the closure of some lines, while the decline of others was triggered by growth of automobiles after World War II.

What exactly is a streetcar? “Streetcars are a form of urban circulator,” says Schroeder. “They’re typically defined by vehicles operating on rails and powered by electricity, and they’re usually smaller than light rail vehicles.”

They generally fall into one of three categories:

  • Traditional systems – “This is the San Francisco and New Orleans trolley or streetcar, whatever you want to call it,” explains Jeffrey Boothe, executive director of the Community Streetcar Coalition in Washington, D.C., which advocates for streetcar projects. “They’re legacy systems in the few cities that didn’t destroy them or that have been able to acquire the streetcars from private operators. Right now, Kenosha, Wis., runs an old car. Memphis, Tenn., runs streetcars that were built in the 1950s or 1960s. Dallas runs old streetcars as part of the McKinley Avenue project. They’re authentic — the real deal.”

  • Heritage systems – “There are also new heritage systems whose cars look like old streetcars but are newer, modern cars,” explains Boothe. “Cities like Little Rock, Ark., and Tampa, Fla., run heritage cars. They tend to be more a tourist operation as opposed to a city-building tool to shape economic development and land use. In Tampa, the system operates only eight hours a day, doesn’t run with great frequency, and connects tourist locations. Little Rock, for example, connects to the William J. Clinton Presidential Library.”

  • Modern systems – “Modern cars are those first introduced by Portland in the early 2000s,” says Booth. “These systems envision streetcars to be something very different. It’s still about circulation, but we also see streetcars as an economic development tool.”

Whatever category they fall under, most streetcars differ from light rail in important ways. “They’re less schedule driven than other transit, like light rail,” says Boothe. “They make a circulation by running down a corridor with great frequency, like every five or seven minutes. They also tend to be on a shorter system, say from one to five miles maximum. There are more frequent stops, the stations are closer together, and people use them to get on and off at their leisure. Light rail has been more commuter focused, so stations tend to be further apart, and trains tend to operate in a dedicated right of way, where streetcars tend to be in the streets. Light rail also tends to board in stations, while streetcars tend to have side boarding, meaning, boarding along the sidewalks.”

Portland Sparks Resurgence

Portland’s streetcar system opened in 2001, but planning began eons earlier. “We opened a light rail line — which tends to have half-mile stops and is used to get to suburbs quickly — in 1986,” says Rick Gustafson, executive director of the Portland Streetcar. “Our efforts were underway to plan a second line, and subsequently we added other lines. But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the city decided that having that same quality of transit for inner-city neighborhoods was equally important. We started exploring the feasibility of streetcars in denser, urban neighborhoods.”

Funding wasn’t easy to come by. “I was there in the relatively early days when Portland was trying to get federal funding to make the streetcar a reality,” recalls Zimmerman. “We were struggling because it wasn’t seen by transportation folks in Washington, D.C., as legitimate transportation or by the people at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as a legitimate type of urban development project. It was kind of this orphan that was hard to get off the ground.”

That forced Portland to fund its system locally. “We built the first four miles on our own, with the property owners being the first contributors,” says Gustafson. “The cost was about $103 million for the whole four-mile line.”

In 1996, Earl Blumenauer, who was a Portland city commissioner during the streetcar planning, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where in 2002 he introduced the Community Streetcar Development Act. That legislation became part of the 2005 SAFETEA-LU Act, which authorized federal funding for smaller transportation projects like streetcars.

With about 50 percent of that newly available federal funding, Portland has expanded its system, opening a new $148-million, 3.35-mile line in September 2012. “Portland Streetcar operates on 12-14-minute frequencies and averages nearly 12,000 riders a day, with about 4 million riders a year,” says Gustafson. “Up until September, two-thirds of our line was in Portland’s free-rail zone, which allowed you to get on and off at no cost. The new fare for a streetcar-only trip is $1.”

Where Do Streetcars Work?

Portland’s streetcar success triggered interest throughout the country. “One thing that broke the logjam for streetcars really was the success of the Portland streetcar project, where people could touch it, feel it, and see that the development community was really coming in there,” says Zimmerman. “But it wasn’t until the Obama administration that the Federal Transit Administration started to fund streetcars. We went from very few communities having streetcars to now having about 40 communities that have funds in place or are working to get a streetcar funded.”

The economic impacts are stark. “In the first 10 years of our four-mile line, we generated $3.5 billion in private and public investments in developments within 750 feet of the line, including 10,000 new residential units,” says Gustafson. “Our goal was 5,000 residential units. We basically blew away any goals we had for attracting residents and new development. Our $3.5 billion took 10 years. Seattle’s $3.2 billion in economic development after it launched its streetcar took two years.”

Washington, D.C., is among the cities planning a streetcar system with an expected summer 2013 launch. “A streetcar is a green technology,” according to Carl Jackson, associate director for progressive transportation services for the District Department of Transportation. “Rather than putting more fuel-powered vehicles on the streets, streetcars can carry 130-140 people. And it’s a mode that helps increase economic development because it’s permanent, fixed and integrated into the community. We’re already starting to see an increase in real estate, small-business and commercial activity on what will be our streetcar line.”

Zimmerman says that’s happening along many planned streetcar lines. “In places like Tucson, Ariz., which in 2011 got a $60-million federal grant for a streetcar, they’re already seeing redevelopment along the corridor on which they’re building,” she says. “Kenosha has a small, $6-million line, and it’s generated an estimated $150 million in economic development.”

However, transit experts, including Gustafson, are quick to qualify economic development figures. “I’d be careful never to use the words ‘caused by the streetcar,’” he explains. “The streetcar serves as a catalyst and can pull together thinking about the total investment you need for development to occur, and it’s a good marketing tool. But I’d stop short of saying streetcars caused the growth in economic development. There are a lot of reasons development occurs.”

Are there places where streetcars don’t make sense? “While the costs of streetcars are lower than light rail, they’re still more costly than improved bus service in most instances,” says Zimmerman. “Also, because it’s not as fast as light rail, there’s a certain point where streetcars don’t make sense. If you’re looking to connect multiple communities, it may not be a streetcar that’s the best investment. It may be light rail or bus rapid transit because you can get higher speeds.”

Will Streetcars Still Generate Desire?

What’s the future of the streetcar? “More and more people are deciding to live in the urban environment, so the demand for streetcars can only go up,” predicts Schroeder. “And we may see more streetcars running without overhead wire contact. They’ll be running on a battery and may charge while in a station. A number of those systems are being tested today, and I suspect we’ll see more of that.”

Boothe says the continued success of streetcars depends on planners’ goals. “That gets to the more important issue of what we want these projects to do for us,” he says. “We’re finding that people are moving back downtown and to close-in suburbs, and the streetcar is becoming a tool to make those areas attractive places to live. Ridership numbers are typically pretty high for the cost of a streetcar project, but they’re also city-shaping. We don’t care where you’re going, just that you’re using the system.”