Modern streetcars are transportation projects,not merely economic development augurs: but intra-district not inter-city services
Streetsblog has an entry, "The problem with America's new streetcars," reporting on research, "Streetcar projects as spatial planning: A shift in transport planning in the United States," on new streetcar systems from the Journal of Transport Geography. The article makes the point that modern streetcar services in cities are about economic development, not transit.
That's a common, but wrong interpretation. Although yes, streetcars were always a development tool, as an urban history touching on the topic elucidates (e.g., the seminal text, ,Streetcar Suburbs: The Process of Growth in Boston, 1870-1900, by Sam Bass Warner).
All modes of transportation impact economic development. Streetcars are about transit and economic development, simultaneously.
And like every form of transportation--freeways, roads, railroads, ships and ports, airports, etc.-- all stoke economic development, but in different ways.
And as modes change and others decline in the face of the surge of other ways to get around, economic development opportunities integrated with transportation wax and wane.
Streetcars serve intra-district transit needs--short trips, not inter-city long distance trips. What seems to confuse people is that streetcars are a form of "intra-city" or "intra-district" transit when most people think about transit only in terms of longer distance trips and from out of the city to the center city.
I've been writing about this for some time, starting with "Make the case for intra-city versus inter-city transportation planning" in 2011, which I followed up in 2014 ("The argument that streetcars are "good enough" but "imperfect transit" is flawed") and 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 response to arguments similar to that mentioned in the Streetsblog piece.
The point is that people need to understand how streetcar service stokes economic development. It happens I've been discussing this in a private email group, and recently I made the point that not unlike how arena projects can in fact "be good for cities" something I wasn't willing to concede for a long time, modern streetcars help to redefine, reposition, and revalue urban districts that had otherwise been economically devalued by suburban outmigration.
Elements that support successful intra-district transit
Walking-Transit City Urban Design vs. Automobile-City Urban Design is fundamental. Peter Muller, in "Transportation and Urban Form: Stages in the Spatial Evolution of the American Metropolis," discusses the three primary spatial stages of American cities.
Cities constructed with a tight grid network of streets and blocks have the type of urban design that supports sustainable mobility more generally -- not just transit, but walking, biking, and car sharing, among other elements.
In 2010, University of British Columbia's Patrick Condon authored a book, Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities, touting the historic streetcar city model. The book was discussed in a set of articles in The Tyee, an alternative weekly in Vancouver, and the piece "Why a Streetcar Is Something to Be Desired: Rule 1 for sustainable communities: Restore the streetcar city," highlights the tight links historically between streetcar transit, urban design, and how neighborhoods were designed and constructed.
Today, with the dominance of automobility and the lack of even rudimentary transit, biking, and walking systems in most communities, a streetcar project is no panacea and it may take a long to see success.
Some civic and cultural assets. Museums, libraries, schools, parks, performing arts centers, public market buildings, etc.
A still functioning employment district at the center. Most cities still have some office districts, medical campuses, courthouses, and other daytime employment centers and business destinations. Banks, remaining large corporate headquarters (e.g., in Indianapolis, Eli Lilly; in Cincinnati, Procter & Gamble; etc.).
A commercial district capable of supporting restaurants and some retail. People need third places--coffee shops, restaurants, a yoga studio, etc.--to help center their neighborhoods.
Denser housing stock. To support frequent transit and local retail in the face of e-commerce, deconcentrated housing districts don't work. Multiunit residential buildings likely need to be part of the mix. Attached housing, interspersed with apartment buildings, provides for more population than a typical tract housing district.
Streetcars as tools for transit and economic development
Streetcars helped to make the newly created Pearl District in Portland a reality and languishing and disinvested neighborhoods like the Over the Rhine District in Cincinnati and Downtown Kansas City highly valued and in-demand locations when they hadn't been for many decades previously. Heritage, not modern, streetcars have been an important element of the revitalization program in Little Rock and North Little Rock, Arkansas.
The Tucson streetcar system, unusually in that its creation was a response to citizen advocacy, seems to be stoking renewed attention downtown, although the city seems to be having issues in managing transit service more generally.
And arguably the Market Street Railway's heritage streetcar sub-system in San Francisco has contributed to some of the city's more recent resurgence also.
Return to the Rails: The Motivations for Building a Modern Tramway in Bilbao Spain").
The streetcar has been successful stoking development in Washington, DC ("DC and streetcars #4: from the standpoint of stoking real estate development, the line is incredibly successful and it isn't even in service yet, and now that development is extending eastward past 15th Street," "DC streetcar is opening on Saturday and the opportunity to reflect on the 14 year long process to get there," and "Update on the DC Streetcar program on the verge of launching Sunday service") even though it is not yet a useful transit line, and it needs to be extended both east and west to achieve all that is possible from its integration in and addition to the city's transit mix.
The fact that we have examples of success and failure in terms of both economic development and transit service of both heritage and modern streetcars demonstrates that the issue isn't whether or not the streetcars are modern or heritage. Instead, it has to do with the conceptualization of the service, success at execution, the various elements of the broader revitalization program, and urban design and other conditions.
But streetcars haven't been so successful stoking development in Tampa (a heritage line) and Tacoma and the "intra-district" nature of the Atlanta streetcar has been widely derided.
In the first piece I have a typology of types of intra-district service, but I realize it needs to be updated:
1. Bus transit malls--Portland, Minneapolis (Nicollet Mall), Denver
2. Circulator bus services in various iterations--the latest have modern, more comfortable buses, better branded services, and more frequent headways (DC, Baltimore)
3. Various lane priority schemes
3. People Mover type services (Detroit, Miami) [note that Nigel points out that such services within airports demonstrate that campus serving opportunities for people movers can make sense, such as for a hospital center spread out over many acres, like the medical center in Houston)
4. Monorails (earlier truncated line in Seattle, more modern service in Las Vegas, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and other systems in Asia--Nigel, being in New Zealand, has experience with these systems too, which mostly have a limited number of stations)
5. Heritage streetcar systems (McKinney Street, Dallas, Little Rock, Tampa, etc.)
6. Modern streetcar systems (Portland, Seattle, plans for Washington, DC and Arlington, Virginia and many other cities)
1. Bus transit malls--Portland, Minneapolis (Nicollet Mall), Denver (16th Street).
2. Various intra-district lane priority schemes for surface transit, usually bus but also streetcar ("Council approves King St. pilot to prioritize streetcars, but bows to taxi industry," Toronto Star)
3. Circulator bus services in various iterations--the latest have modern, more comfortable buses, better branded services, and more frequent headways (DC, Baltimore). Note some of these lines are free, such as the Baltimore Circulator.
This includes intra-district services such as the way that Tempe, Arizona has configured its Orbit bus system ("Earth Day and intra-neighborhood transit") as spokes connecting to the downtown transit center hub.
4. Shuttle/microtransit programs, which can be demand-response, such as the FRED program in Downtown San Diego ("Intra-neighborhood (tertiary) transit revisited because of new San Diego service"). [It happens I intended on writing about this later today, using Capitol Hill DC as an example]
5. People Mover type services (Detroit, Miami) [note that Nigel points out that such services within airports demonstrate that campus serving opportunities for people movers can make sense, such as for a hospital center spread out over many acres, like the medical center in Houston)
6. Monorails (earlier truncated line in Seattle, more modern service in Las Vegas, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and other systems in Asia--Nigel, being in New Zealand, has experience with these systems too, which mostly have a limited number of stations)
7. Heritage streetcar systems (McKinney Street, Dallas, San Francisco, Memphis, Little Rock, Tampa, Kenosha, etc.)
8. Modern streetcar systems (Portland, Seattle, Tacoma, Washington, Salt Lake, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Atlanta, Dallas, Tucson, and many other cities)
Often, free fares are an element of intra-district transit service, so it's worth separating this out as an element of intra-district transit promotion. Furthermore, new streetcar services are introduced with free fares, which boosts usage. DC's streetcar still hasn't been set up to collect fares, although the DC Circulator system does charge fares. Because free service tends to boost ridership, streetcars are often criticized when ridership drops as fares are instituted ("Atlanta Streetcar ridership plummets, and many don't pay," Atlanta Journal-Constitution).
Portland's was probably the best known, but similar districts existed in Seattle, Pittsburgh, Calgary and Salt Lake City.
But after the Great Recession of 2008, in a budgetary move, Portland, Seattle and Pittsburgh dropped those programs.
10. City-wide free transit service. Rather than being specific to certain services, some communities provide free transit overall.
It's rare, but not uncommon, especially in resort communities and tourist destinations where it is a transportation demand management strategy, such as Park City, Utah; Breckenridge, Colorado; and Summit County, Colorado.
Tempe's intra-city Orbit bus system is free also, although free transit doesn't extend to "metropolitan" services provided by the county transit agency. Scottsdale developed a similar kind of intra-city free transit service too, modeled after Tempe.
Another variant would be university campus shuttle bus systems, which usually require the presentation of a student, staff, or faculty id card to ride.
11. Free transit on specific routes. As discussed above, some shuttle and circulator systems are free, especially in downtowns, to promote transit use rather than automobile trips. Examples include the King Street Trolley in Alexandria, Virginia, the 500 bus route in Salt Lake serving the State Capitol with a connection to the light rail system, and travel on the grounds of the Minneapolis airport between its two light rail stops. And the University Shuttle bus system for the University of Maryland provides free service between the Metrorail Station and the main campus.
If you can't marshal the right arguments, success is even harder to achieve.
Labels: commercial district revitalization planning, sustainable mobility platform, transit, transit and economic development, transportation management districts, urban design/placemaking, urban revitalization