“This article is part of a three-part series on streetcars and economic development. Read the articles by Gabe Klein and David Levinson. The opinion expressed here is that of the author and does not represent the Urban Land Institute nor its membership as a whole.
The recent efforts of cities across the United States to build streetcar lines running through their downtowns have been heralded by some as an ideal amalgam—an investment in improved transportation that also leads to adjacent private development. Streetcar proponents from coast to coast have welcomed federal aid for the construction of new systems, arguing that the projects will bring vitality to center cities that need a boost.
In this way, the focus on streetcars is reminiscent of the economic development strategies urban planners previously used in attempting to spruce up their downtowns, like pedestrian malls in the 1960s, festival marketplaces in the 1970s, and convention centers in the 1980s, none of which was particularly successful in reviving any downtown. Indeed, the phrases used to describe the value of streetcar systems—that they “drive development,” “revive downtowns,” and appeal to “the hearts and souls” of the youth—are little different from those rolled out for past efforts to spur economic growth. And unlike most other transportation investments, but like those earlier downtown strategies, streetcars are frequently promoted to boost tourism.
How can cities ensure that streetcars are not just another gimmick, another public subsidy for a few out-of-towners?
The answer is clear: make the streetcar system work as transportation for locals; make it effective enough to convince people who drive to get out of their cars.
A streetcar line should be designed to provide a transportation option affordable for users that complements the existing transit network. It should connect popular destinations, office districts, and dense residential neighborhoods and improve peoples’ lives by speeding their commutes, or at least making them more comfortable.
When done right, this kind of streetcar line will provide essential transportation for the people who live, work, and play near it. In doing so, it will naturally bring economic development to the areas near its stops. Just as highway interchanges sprout automobile-dependent big-box stores, streetcar stops can produce effective urban centers by encouraging foot traffic, which in turn brings coffee drinkers and clothing buyers to local retailers.
Unfortunately, this is rarely how streetcar lines are designed. In fact, streetcars are too frequently not thought of with local riders in mind.
The biggest problem is that they are typically too slow to be useful for most people. Because they usually share driving lanes with cars—a result of the political difficulty of removing lanes of traffic used by drivers—streetcars get stuck in traffic. They are held up by turning vehicles; they are caught up in traffic congestion; they are delayed by red lights. Even worse, they are made significantly slower by the fact that streetcar, of course, have to stop to pick up passengers. And, moreover, they cannot change lanes because they are required to follow their tracks, even when there is a broken-down vehicle right ahead of them.”
Freemark, Yonah. Urban Land 10 June 2015.