Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, January 13, 2014

STREETCARS ARE ABOUT TRANSIT, just in a different way from how most people are accustomed to thinking about it

Flickr photo of Portland at night, by Ian Sane.

This is in response to the Next City article "Why Streetcars Aren’t About Transit: The Economic Development Argument for Trams," written by the Housing Complex columnist of DC's own Washington City Paper.

Generally, the focus on the economic development aspects of such services, without properly planning to achieve such outcomes beyond the construction of a transit program, tends to be unsuccessful. 

Streetcars and other types of intra-city transit networks such as "circulators" and "people movers" are transit and should be developed as transit, recognizing their special significance in terms of simultaneously achieving economic development objectives in repositioning and rebranding cities and/or city districts as preferred places to choose to live, conduct business, or visit.

Image of the tram in Bilbao by Neil Jennings from Flickr.

Bilbao as a good example of revitalization planning that includes transit development.  There are two excellent papers by Matti Siemiatycki about the development of new transit services in Bilbao as an element of overall revitalization programs.  "Beyond Moving People: Excavating the Motivations for Investing in Urban Public Transit Infrastructure in Bilbao Spain" published in European Planning Studies, is about the subway program; and "Return to the Rails: The Motivations for Building a Modern Tramway in Bilbao Spain" is about the development of light rail services as a component of the transit mix in Bilbao.  Both papers provide citations of similar types of studies.

While the subway system was planned before the region developed a metropolitan revitalization plan, the tram was an add-on to the plans, and wasn't a part of the original set of plans.  It was developed out of a recognition that surface transit improvements were necessary to fully achieve the projected benefits from new attractions, in particular the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.  Now, other light rail projects are underway and the original line to the Museum has been extended). 

Just as how the success of the revitalization process in Bilbao is frequently attributed, mistakenly, solely to the effect of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, rather than to the realization of a broad ranging and deep revitalization plan and program, streetcars are merely a repositioning device.

Defining transit networks is a necessary step to understanding what transit can accomplish.  One of the many important characteristics of the Transit Element of the Arlington County Virginia Master Transportation Plan is that they define what they call the "primary" and "secondary" transit networks for their community.  From the document:
Definition of the Primary Transit Network. The key concept of the County’s long-range transit plan is the development of a network of high quality transit routes that will be known as the Primary Transit Network (PTN). The PTN is envisioned as a network of transit lines that operate every 15 minutes or better for at least 18 hours every day. In addition to Metrorail, it will include Metrobus and ART bus operations and new streetcar or Bus Rapid Transit service. ...

Definition of a Secondary Transit Network. While the Primary Transit Network is intended to provide high-frequency, concentrated service on high-demand corridors, other parts of Arlington also require transit service. Where land use is less intensive and demand is lower, lower-frequency service is warranted. These services make up Arlington’s Secondary Transit Network (STN) for which the goal is to cover sufficient area to provide service throughout the County, while minimizing the route miles traveled.
The document goes on to specify in great detail the characteristics that mark each subnetwork.

That set of definitions encouraged me to further define the transit network more completely: (1) broadly in terms of network breadth; and (2) narrowly in terms of network depth so that a complete framework of interconnected and interrelated transit services can be conceptualized.

1.  Metropolitan and sub-metropolitan transit network definitions.  In a presentation called "Metropolitan Mass Transit Planning presentation" the transit network is defined at three scales within a Metropolitan area, at Metropolitan; Suburban; and Center City scales; and then within each is a set of subnetworks.

For example, in the DC region, the Metrorail subway system and railroad commuter services comprise the foundation of the Metropolitan network, and different services build on that structure.

The transit networks/subnetworks for the Washington-Baltimore region are defined in this piece, "Reprint (with editing): The Meta-Regional Transit Network" and there is further discussion of the concept here, "Without the right transportation planning framework, metropolitan areas are screwed and that includes the DC area."

2.  Defining the mobility shed and the transit shed at the scale of the transit station or stop and catchment area of the the transit system respectively.  See "Updating the mobilityshed / mobility shed concept."  (Just last week I mentioned that this concept needs a slight update to better incorporate electric-powered vehicle support infrastructure within the framework.)  This piece is relevant to planning at this scale also, "Transit, stations, and placemaking: stations as entrypoints into neighborhoods."

3.  Defining the global and national mobility networks.  "Reprint (with editing): The Meta-Regional Transit Network" defines the overall transit network at five overarching scales:

-- international
-- national
-- regional and mult-state
-- metropolitan
-- sub-metropolitan

The basic difference between regional and metropolitan scales is that a region is defined as more than one metropolitan area.  So Baltimore and Washington, two metropolitan areas, comprise a region.  This segmentation makes sense particularly in terms of railroad and airport planning.  (Arguably, I could separate out regional networks from multi-state networks.  I have to think about it.)

4.  Why transit effectiveness matters to the success of intra-city transit services such as streetcars.  The idea of the set of center city networks was further discussed in this entry, "Making the case for intra-city (vs. inter-city) transit planning," which lays out a variety of types-modes that can be used to serve intra-city transit transit networks, 3 types of bus services and 4 types of rail services.   THIS ARTICLE is particularly relevant to the Next City piece.

Streetcars are just one type of intra-city (or suburban) transit mode.

People Moving
Detroit People Mover photo by cmu chem prof from Flickr.

It happens that I discussed these issues in the last half of this blog entry from last week, "Reason Foundation: roads are a better investment to reduce congestion."  The section was a response to a related article in Salon called "Tram wars! Why streetcars are back — whether you like it or no: Across the country, battles are raging over this retro form of transportation."

In some places, so far, streetcars have helped to reposition a district in significant ways--not unlike how historic preservation does the same thing--and Little Rock and North Little Rock, San Francisco's F Line heritage streetcar network, and Portland, Oregon are the best examples so far of this.  That being said, each of these places involves many other revitalization elements.

The system in Little Rock and North Little Rock is a heritage streetcar system--and is but one component of a larger revitalization plan, including the Clinton Presidential Library, and in North Little Rock, the "new" River Market public market.  See "CAT: Making More with Less" from Mass Transit MagazinePhoto above from Rail Preservation.

Portland's streetcar is about transit connectivity too.  Portland's streetcar was built originally to spur redevelopment of the former railyard--the neighborhood was rebranded the Pearl District--next to the train station and north of Downtown.  But there was a revitalization plan in place, as well as a transit plan for the city and a Downtown Plan ("Summary of my impressions of Portland").  The streetcar was but one element of a broad-ranging program.  (And the streetcar has since been extended.)

At the same time, the Portland streetcar didn't just aimlessly and exclusively serve the Pearl District, it extended east to the Nob Hill neighborhood and commercial district, and it extended south to Downtown and to Portland State University.  And as a transit service the streetcar also connects to the light rail system and the bus mall--both Downtown.

The same is true in Seattle.  The streetcar there is an element of a redevelopment plan for the SoDo district.  When it was first constructed there wasn't the opportunity to provide connections to other surface rail transit.  But now the streetcar system is being extended to Capitol Hill and will connect to the Sound Transit Link light rail system there.

Streetcars in Shaker Heights, Cleveland.  From "Streetcars in Jacksonville: What Will It Cost?" from Metro Jacksonville."

In many cities, streetcars aren't enough to spur "economic development" by themselves: legacy system examples.

But in other cities, it's not clear that streetcars in and of themselves are enough to push revitalization forward, without other steps, and even with other steps.

For example, Cleveland, New Orleans, and Philadelphia have legacy streetcar systems and those areas served by transit, while doing better economically than comparable areas without such service, they aren't necessarily doing hyper well--definitely not like the Pearl District in Portland.  Something's different... of the Girard Avenue Streetcar (Rte. 15) in Philadelphia, from Flickr by BeyondDC.

Philadelphia has brought back legacy lines, such as on Girard Avenue, and the streetcar hasn't been enough, in and of itself, to spark massive loads of revitalization energy and investment.

Other examples.  Streetcars in Tampa haven't been superlative revitalization engines.  Detroit's People Mover hasn't fixed the city either.  Etc.

That's because in such cases more than a streetcar is required to achieved the stated revitalization goals.

Interestingly, in "Frankly MARTA, I don’t Give a Tram" the Trip Planner blog argues that streetcar systems are likely more successful serving tourists than residents, although the systems in Portland and Seattle are definitely resident-focused.

Revitalization expenditures need to accomplish multiple objectives and outcomes.  Planning for streetcars and other forms of intra-city transit services requires that both transit and economic development elements be considered simultaneously.

When the systems fail/do not achieve the stated outcomes concerning revitalization, such as in Detroit, the failure casts a long shadow on transit promotion within those communities and nationally.

Similarly, most circulator type bus services don't accomplish very much, although there are significant exceptions such as in Baltimore and in Downtown DC.

This relates to a point that I make all the time about revitalization planning, that everything you do has to accomplish multiple objectives to maximize return on investment, because the amount of funds you have to work with is limited, and your competitors are moving forward as well.

It's about planning and spending smarter, not just spending money.

This great table is from the Trip Planner blog.

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At 3:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The old people on Capitol Hill, who are the most resistant, need to get over their fear and dread of new streetcars. The sooner we have streetcars on the HISTORIC & oldest streetcar route in the city - which was 8th street s.e., the better.

At 4:20 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

true, but just so you know, 8th st. se isn't the oldest route. I think it was between Downtown and Georgetown, horse-drawn cars on rails.

At 7:07 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

This is a a great post, and a great rebuttal. Well, maybe a great rebuttal since I didn't get to read the original article.

I can see why you admire Arlington (and Portland) because they are more planning oriented than DC. However, I'd say Arlington has fallen prey to the lure of new toys on streetcars as well. The transport need isn't getting people up and down the Pike, the need is getting people North-South in the county.

Alternately, it is getting businesses to locate on the Pike as the place is a residential ghetto and is suffering as a result.

But in either case, the streetcar probably isn't the right answer.

And in DC, the arguments for extending the streetcar down on K seem a bit weaker on a transit side. I think officials are ignoring a key reason why the Circulator is so popular on the K st route -- it is much cheaper than the metro for getting cross town. No question that the metro should be a better experience, but I see a lot of lower income people riding the streetcar all the way from farragut to union station.

And the plans for redoing K st don't include the non-streetcar buses and commuter buses which severely jam up traffic (and will continue to do so) during rush hours.

Honestly the best place for a streetcar in DC would be the crosstown route, or Georgia Ave. I do think Georgia Ave has the possibility of exploding in next 10 years.

At 7:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the oldest route was the Georgetown - Navy Yard route which went partly on 8th street- and also went thru downtown . I had a friend once [ he since passed away] who had an ancestor who used to drive the horse drawn trollies on this route which started in the 1860's. It is shameful & disgusting that this neighborhoods primary historical association is hardened against streetcars and prioritizes parking over this innovation. Just about everyone I talk to in Capitol Hill who is ober 60 years of age is against the streetcars and horrified that the city will put it back on 8th street. The CHRS is a pack of idiots and NIMBYs and should be disbanded or changed back into a real historical preservation society.

At 10:13 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

1. Just because Arlington is "good" at planning doesn't mean that they always make the right decisions. My defenses to the contrary...

2. One of the problems in recent discussions about "streetcars" and "trams" and "light rail" is that a lot of the discussion lately, including in GGW, has been muddled.

There is a difference of opinion on how to define the difference between streetcars and LR. Jarrett Walker says the difference is really based on distance between stops.

I argue that streetcars are a form of "intra-city" more like "intra-district" transit with frequent stops that is designed to provide access more than it is speed. It's definitely not about commuting, unless it happens that the district is an employment center anyway.

3. I think people get "confused" because LR can "act" like a streetcar in a city's core. This is how it works in Portland, theoretically in Baltimore, and in other places.

and even though the mixed traffic operation sucks, in the core, it's functioning as a streetcar. However, it generally operates with signal priority, which speeds it up a bit.

4. But for me LR is about the size of the vehicle, speed of the system, and general intent of the service.

As you know, in most places where it is deployed it is for longer distance trips, in places where heavy rail doesn't make financial sense (not enough riders to justify the cost).

- cont -

At 10:14 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

- cont. -

5. In the case of the proposed services in ArCo and DC, some should be LR, not streetcar. That's been one of my biggest criticisms of the DC planning effort for at least 5 years.

6. As you know in our comment back and forth with the last entry, you made the point that the ArCo services aren't designed to be well integrated into the transit network.

I don't know the particulars of that area well enough to say. But it is that discussion that made me react so vehemently to the Next City piece.

If you say "it's for economic development, the transit effectiveness elements don't really matter" you're likely to f* it up.

Because if it doesn't work on a need basis, it's not going to do much for "economic development" unless people want it for the "entertainment value."

There isn't that much of that. You could build an incline railway instead...

7. The reason DC has pushed a streetcar in Anacostia is for ec. dev. and access reasons. It's out of a sense of social equity.

But I argue that you want to lead from strength and the f*edupedness of the community (an issue in Takoma too wrt streetcar) caused significant delays that weren't worth it.

The streetcar from Benning to Georgetown makes sense because you have to think of it as 4-5 intra-district lines--Downtown to Georgetown, inside Downtown, Downtown to Union Station, H Street to Union Station, Benning or wherever to H St.

But I can't imagine the city is thinking of it that way.

It is the 15th St. to Minnesota Ave. section that has the most economic potential--rebuilding Hechinger Mall, the northern parking lots of RFK, Pepco site, etc. And then the long term benefits beyond Minnesota ave. in terms of repositioning.

8. That being said I agree with you that building the Crosstown Line first would have been the easiest way to build support overall, and that long term, a line on Georgia Ave. (although I'd prefer it to be light rail) will also have great ec. value--PROVIDED, and this is very controversial, and I would be pissed myself were I affected by it, that it is accompanied by an upzoning process comparable to what Arlington did for the Wilson Blvd. corridor.

Oh, but then such an upzoning would support the idea of a separated yellow line up Georgia Ave. and partway into Montgomery County (with a branch for MoCo from Fort Totten out New Hampshire Blvd.).

At 10:16 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

anon. -- thanks for the correction. I'll have to check it out.

At 10:25 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

There are other examples of "tram" services in the US--what we define as light rail--like in Baltimore, Buffalo, arguably the River Line in New Jersey (Greater Camden)--that in and of themselves haven't been enough to spur substantive economic revitalization of those communities.

In doing more reading about Bilbao, there is a great great article based on a master's thesis, that makes the point that if the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is going to be touted as the quintessential example of arts-based revitalization, then it is very important to understand what happened in all its particulars, that the example can't be generalized without deep practical and theoretical understanding of what happened.

That is equally true of "streetcars" and "economic development" and the Portland (and Seattle) experiences.

In both cases, the streetcar was an element of a broader revitalization program. If the streetcar hadn't been built, in both cases, revitalization still would have been quite successful.

In the case of Portland, it wouldn't have been as successful, but it would still have succeeded.

In the case of Seattle, it wouldn't have made much difference at all. They could have done a circulator bus. Or nothing. But the streetcar created an incredible sense of branding for SoDo.

Here's what the conclusion of the cited journal article about Bilbao says:

"... even though it appeared within the framework of an international tendency that is producing similar examples, the Guggenheim Bilbao was a specific creation that resulted from special historical, social and political circumstances and should only seen as such. Its uncritical replication could only produce indifferent clones, which would not only be deprived of any originality but would also perpetuate the misuse of art and of the museums that host it."

I like the phrase "uncritical replication."

That tendency costs us a lot of money and time in revitalization and produces a lot of failure or at least significantly substandard results.

At 10:54 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Yes the naming stuff is had -- I wouldn't have called the Red line RTA in CLE a "Streetcar".

Honestly, if you want public support for streetcars in DC talk up the ability to fire a lot of WAMTA employees after you build it. That will be a winner!

I'm not an expert, but I think the "upzoning" you need on GA may not be R-B levels. Just upzone it enough that surface parking lots get built over.

At 11:29 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

What bugs me about the rest of the blogosphere on this issue (except sometimes in comments) is how uncritical they are in touting and explaining surface rail transit, pushing for it, etc.

The primary reason I comment in GGW is in hopes that it will steer some of the thinking to a better place.

It doesn't seem to though, at least for the main articles.

At 6:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Need additional cross-town routes including the connection of areas west of Woodley Park to Adams Morgan and east, a crosstown along Military Road and via Kennedy to Ft. Totten or Brookland would be great, and uptown routes along Wisconsin and Connecticut Ave. Build a transportation network that people can use.


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