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.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

DC and streetcars #2: STREETCARS ARE ABOUT TRANSIT, just in a different way from how most people are accustomed to thinking about it

In the previously mentioned off-line discussion about DC and streetcars, I referenced this entry, which was published in January 2014, almost two years ago.  It still reads well and is worth reprinting given that DC's streetcar looks to enter operation within the next couple months.

Part of the discussion on the original post is worth highlighting, too, which is reprinted in the next entry (DC and streetcars #3).  The originally intended second piece, will now be #4, and will further discuss H Street's streetcar in terms of economic development.   I've discussed it before ("A crisis in confidence and the capacity of local government to execute transit projects," December 2014), but it's due for an update, given recent developments, and that streetcar service wills start "soon."


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 4:04 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

I got this link from alex's blog:

and of course I thought of your "great streets" concept and a pushback to street oriented development rather than zoning.

At 7:52 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

.... it's "signature streets" but yep, aims to do all that.

Excellent cite. Thank you. JJ had similar points about the grid.

But you can definitely see it in the old blocks on Capitol Hill or other places in the city. YOu had the street grid, and then the way it was leveraged by builder-developers was pretty straightforward.

pattern books and manufactured architectural adornments helped to provide affordable "customization" while being of a type so there was a harmoniousness for the ensemble at the building by building scale.

But yes, zoning and land ownership defers to the owner, rather than making clear that certain connections between properties and places need to be standardized and optimized.

If you get the basic structure right, like what L'Enfant did, and his innovation was the radial avenues, it's pretty resilient and it's hard to mess it up too badly, providing you follow the form, which urban renewal contravened.

Add high capacity transit to the grid and you further scale advantages.

That's why I joke that the city can f* up a lot, because L'Enfant's plan is pretty robust.

Although we're blowing it in many ways, by not expanding Metrorail, by not strategically adding density here and there, lopping off floors to placate vocal residents, and by doing "by any means necessary" promotion of sustainable modes instead of privileging automobility for the most part.

we disagree on the height limit, and I think the moment to have significantly expanded it has passed, given all the reduction of demand for commercial office space, but that's another element.

By intensifying we could have raised the money required to expand Metrorail.

At 8:03 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

the thing he says about City Beautiful as leading towards the automobile is true.

When I first read JJ I couldn't believe she was critical of CB. But over time I understood, because it was about a turn of the century urban renewal and superblocks.

Sure they got the beauty of the buildings right, but didn't understand the issue of scale and of fitting the buildings in. You know that diagram by Leon Krier...

But CB was about exalting the state, of making the human seem small at the feet of the gods. That fit in with later rounds of urban renewal too.

Union Station was urban renewal. The creation of the station and the yards eradicated what was considered an Irish slum. It wasn't like they provided relocation assistance.

The same with Ellen Wilson's efforts to eliminate alley dwellings less than 10 years later. Again, they didn't provide location assistance. People were displaced.

But they learned from Haussman.

Anyway, the point from all of this is to take away and use the good stuff and discard the bad, to not "uncritically replicate."

And that's mostly what JJ was about, as well as her writer disciple Roberta Gratz, whose books are very good, I've learned a lot from. JJ and RG criticize the big projects which are comparable to the big projects of the CB era.

Even though the buildings can end up doing good things too, they can come with big costs.

At 8:04 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... note though the other reason the city could f* up a lot was the steady employment and real estate development engine of the federal government.

We don't have that so much anymore. That leaves us a lot more vulnerable and much less resilient to mistakes.

At 6:39 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Right, sorry the holiday stress finally got to me. Signature streets. Much better term.

I think CB can be a human scale. So can skyscrapers -- think of Rockefeller Center. Even freeways can be human sized.

But at some point we stopped building for humans.

Have yourself a good holiday and remember that life isn't a circle,but a straight line. But we try really hard to pretend it is a circle!

At 1:23 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

agreed about scale. A great book by Kirkpatrick Sale (he wrote _SDS_) is on this topic, but more organizational, from the same time, called, yes, _Human Scale_.

In a private e-mail exchange when asked a question about HP and a particular Historic District's history of creation, I made the point that when today people complain about something being contradictory, that there isn't a lockstep definition of what congruence means in terms of size, style, or use.

That big and little can fit, etc. (Not that you don't know that.)

Generally freeways unless they are underground or parkways are "bad" because they split places up, but...

e.g., I was thinking about this sort of, with "suburban" shopping centers and their parking lots.

We think because most are, that they are always s***. The reality is that the out of the box thinkers make them nice.

Buildings are just envelopes too. They can have great stuff inside or the same old, same old.

Was at a shopping center in Orange County, CA the other day that proves this point. It has a lot of exclusive homeware chain stores that are not like chain stores, plus independents, with a kind of market hall at the center.

The parking lot, for a parking lot, is planted amazingly...

Best wishes back at ya! I appreciate as always (since this is a time for thanking) your comments and prodding and how they strengthen and improve my thinking and writing.

At 2:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a professional traditionalist fine Artist it really sickens me to see so many planners against City Beautiful without understanding anything about the Art and culture it gave us that we never had before. CB gave us the civic acropolis we lacked in western hemisphere cities- in Europe the large cities all had giant and beautiful civic centers but we had nothing here like that. Imagine DC w/o a Union Station? Do we really want a gigantic Silver Spring transit center in the center of DC to replace Union Station? Are we to forsake the incredible majesty of this world renowned masterpiece because of the demolition of a crummy neighborhood? And what about the life and businesses that this rail hub brought to DC? Before we are so blunt and stupid about CB lets consider the atrocities that have been perpetuated on other cities that gave up their CB masterpieces. And let's not forget that JJ herself was against Penn Station coming down- so in a way I see her stance against CB as hypocritical especially in light of Penn Station

At 3:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

At 8:48 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

architecture, quality, beauty, investing in civic infrastructure : yes

superblocks and mostly "single use" but civic centers, that sadly are empty most of the time (e.g., Cleveland, pretty, but empty), no

Train stations are an interesting counter example. Because they were mostly about commerce-mobility they were great activity centers.

As the professor Alex Wall said in writing about Victor Gruen, "commerce is the engine of urbanism."

The European train stations are vital city centers and anchors, have incredible retail/commerce. In Germany they are often anchors of pedestrianized shopping districts, etc.

I guess another criticism JJ had of CB was that it was single use, as opposed to her precept of "mixed primary use."

e.g., she discusses the creation of the PGH arts district in Oakland, which required separate and dedicated parking which wasn't used during the day and comments had these assets been constructed Downtown, they could have shared existing arts assets.

... although in the recent decades, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust has done an amazing job revivifying the cultural assets Downtown.

At 8:51 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Of course, DC's Union Station, Penn Station (though now ugly) and Grand Central are great activity centers.

Many of the other ones that are still used were built slightly out of the city center (like Philadelphia or in Chicago) so they don't have the same kind of anchoring and enlivening effect.

It has been decades since I've been to Boston, so I don't know about their stations and the impact they have inside and around.

Denver's got a great revivification, but the area around the station though revitalized still feels kind of empty.

The stations in Portland and Seattle aren't particularly noteworthy activity centers.

All were in the day of railroad primacy.


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