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.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Modern streetcars are transportation projects,not merely economic development augurs: but intra-district not inter-city services

Go By Streetcar
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.

Yes that is economic development.  But if the streetcar isn't a useful transportation device, it's not likely to be used, and therefore isn't successful at repositioning and revaluing a district, and isn't successful in attracting new investment, residents, and business.

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.

Another interesting example is how Bilbao incorporated trams to complement subway service, to provide more direct service to the Guggenheim Museum and within the neighborhoods along the Nervion River as a form of intra-district rather than inter-city transit service ("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:

Original List

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)

New Typology

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.

The San Diego Free Ride's "FRED" shuttle service features five-passenger, all-electric vehicles. Photo: Civic San Diego. 

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)

Fare Systems
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).

9. Fareless Square as a transportation demand management strategy.  Like transit malls, "fareless squares," a section of the transit system where riding is free, usually in a downtown district, is another form of promoting intra-district transit use and discouraging driving. 

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.

Conclusion.  People need to better distinguish between types of transit services and their profiles before saying that streetcars aren't really transit services.  They are.  Such services have certain strengths and certain weaknesses, but there is no question that their ability to reposition, revalue, and reshape former disinvested communities and areas is often seen as more important than a streetcar's service profile.

Understanding what streetcars do well is important, because even successful streetcar programs like Kansas City--the most successful modern streetcar in the U.S. right now based on ridership--find their expansion programs stymied in the face of opposition organized by anti-transit, anti-government, anti-tax interests ("KC voters deal blow to streetcar expansion, reject Chastain plan," Kansas City Star).

If you can't marshal the right arguments, success is even harder to achieve.

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At 3:14 PM, Anonymous Alex B. said...

When critics say 'streetcars aren't transit' they don't literally mean it; they mean that streetcars are bad, poorly planned transit. And they're largely correct.

And I'd reject the premise implied here: that good economic development outcomes can excuse (or justify) bad transit planning. Those two aren't mutually exclusive outcomes.

H Street's streetcar could've been much better planned and executed while still seeing the exact same economic development impacts.

Conversely, the boom in development on H Street without an actual, operating streetcar shows the converse is also true. If you're going to build a streetcar, why not build a streetcar that works?

At 5:18 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

planning and execution has nothing to do with whether or not transit is intra-district or inter-city oriented.

No one can argue with a straight face that the DC program was not poorly executed.

It's not an excuse that poor planning didn't matter because it has been successful economically.

People still miss the point about intra-district vs. inter-city transit. IMO anyway, it colors these kinds of articles, including the ones I responded to originally.

What does one say about a streetcar that is successfully executed, provides a decent transit service, and generates economic development?

Often people still criticize it as "not being real transit."

I'd argue it did its job. Portland and KC and Cincinnati might be the best examples of hitting on all three measures. Little Rock and Bilbao too. Arguably Tucson.

I didn't mention Seattle originally. It's arguable how effective the SoDo line is transit wise but again, definitely effective economically. The system was well executed, in fact my joke is that DC and Seattle started streetcar planning in 2003 and while Seattle's first line started running in 2007, DC's took til 2016.

The thing about Seattle's expansion is that because of Seattle's ongoing intensification it's not likely you can argue that the streetcar is pushing development forward, independent of light rail and Seattle's general success. Not SoDo, but everything else would be a stretch to attribute to streetcar.

I don't know enough about Atlanta. It wasn't poorly executed from a construction and execution standpoint. But it didn't seem to be enough of an intra-district service and it doesn't have enough oomph to push economic development forward.

Interestingly, just having been in Salt Lake, while I'd argue the streetcar doesn't seem to be particularly well used, it sure seems to have helped rebrand and reposition the Sugar House district in a manner similar to H Street, leading to significant new development. (From a design, planning, and engineering standpoint, the SLC streetcar project was fine.)
And I'd say that either I am a terrible writer, if one reads this piece and says "it's ok to do crappy streetcar projects because they can create positive economic returns" or that you didn't grasp the argument.

In any case, I don't believe such projects should be pursued unless they can achieve sound transit goals--recognizing the legitimacy of intra-district transit service as something to do--and economic development goals simultaneously.

Fortunately I have not fallen prey to blaming the mode for the failures of its execution.

That being said, DC has screwed up execution of the streetcar so badly, it's hard for me to be positive.

PLUS, the fact that DC put out an RFP to build and expand the streetcar system and then never dealt with the responses.

And the development community offered to take over and fund and operate the streetcar program and the city blew them off too.

It does definitely make me question the ability of the city to execute on important infrastructure.

At 2:43 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

@AlexB; has you position changed on streetcars over the years. I think you were more an fan say 4 years ago?

I threw this idea out there before -- that you've got got the focus on the corridors as much as the endpoints.

(In DC, it is 14th vs 15th street).

You're absolutely right that the intra-district idea isn't making headway, but I think part of the problem is the word.

If I paraphrase your point, you're saying streetcars are worth it, even in mixed traffic (contra AlexB's points), because you can use them to re-create a walking city.

As am example, I do walk on K from about 11th to 23rd but most people don't. A streetcar could recapture the walking mode.

Likewise, the example of H st.

Intra-district is a very technical term, doesn't have any emotional meaning.

At 11:03 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...


When we discussed this a long time ago in a comments thread on the H Street streetcar I said something like you have to look at what the streetcar will do in sections, although yes, I said "intra-district".

H Street is the core of the service now

On the east I'd extend it to Minnesota Ave. on the north and to Benning Road station the south and maybe further beyond BR Station.

On the west you get H St to 4th ish.

4th to 15th (McPherson Sq.)

McPherson Square to what 20th ish

20th ish to lower Georgetown



At 11:17 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I can't claim to be an expert on streetcar systems. The only ones I've ridden are Portland, New Orleans, San Francisco, and Salt Lake.

I still haven't ridden the DC one or Seattle's. And I haven't had the occasion to go to KC, Cincinnati, or Atlanta.

And I haven't ridden Portland's system since it has expanded beyond the original footprint. So I don't know how it works now, if the extension acts as its own "intra-district."

But the streetcar in Portland in its original footprint fits exactly what I mean in terms of intra-district and what you hit on in terms of making-creating-extending-strengthening "walkable districts."

That's why I was amazed when DC did a fam trip to Portland and the residents came back saying it wouldn't work.

It works so seamlessly there between Downtown, Pearl District, and Nob Hill that it is unbelievable. PSU embraced it which helped (contrast that to schools like USC, Norfolk State and UMD all which fought transit accessibility at first).

Imagine how it was when the Fareless Square was in operation! (Although the FS didn't extend to Nob Hill.)

At 12:10 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Two things:

1. On the rhetoric; I just don't think Intra-district captures what you mean. I'm not very good at the meme or word creation game but you've got to play with it. "use streetcars to recreate a walkable city" isn't very portable either.

My idea that you can create a continuum of "Smart streets" going from just a road to bus service to streetcar to subway.

2. And I'm not entirely sure I agree with you. In this framing, basically the DC streetcar is a success, *the Columbia Pike was ok (up zoning did the trip) and the Purple Line will not be a success (you're not really creating a corridor in the section that move quickly).

So the AlexB point that don't do new streetcars in mixed traffic still have validity.

* I think you previously sold the DC streetcar and it crate denser developer further from the metro than it normally exist.

Nobody likes density. Everyone walks to walk to a store.

At 1:43 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

the streetcar isn't a success now except economically. I've never claimed otherwise.

Purple Line is light rail so I don't think it's right to use this framework for it.

HOWEVER, this framework also functions within my transit shed/mobility shed framework. But the mobility shed for a light rail or subway station works a bit differently from a streetcar or bus.

Columbia Pike has both inter-city and intra-district transportation elements.

yes, this needs a lot of work in terms of wordsmithing and defining etc.

It comes out of the transit shed/mobility shed writings first, and then the later Signature Streets concepts.

I also have a bunch of allied pieces on "Streets as places."

The series of pieces on Silver Spring in the context of the Purple Line series is a good description of other elements.

Also "Transportation Management Districts," which I suppose is another way of saying "mobility shed" but with planning and programming.

At 1:46 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

and yes, this is true:

Nobody likes density. Everyone wants to walk to a store.

The other way to think about this without finesse is "benefits."

I think a lot of people in planning aren't very good and making the tie up between these things (transit, density, etc.) and benefits -- functioning stores in your neighborhood, safe parks, frequent transit, economically healthy city, etc.

Another thing I say is that the point of planning and zoning is supposed to be improved quality of life.

People don't seem to see the connection.

Nor my point that if the routine outcomes produced by these processes aren't producing improved quality of life as a matter of course, then we need to look backwards at the processes that are generating the outcomes, and fix them.

e.g., the flip side of nudge, which I will be writing about in honor of Richard Thaler's award.

At 1:48 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... maybe I need to go back to Portland. It happened I spent 10 days before, during, and after a conference there in 2005, and I stayed in Nob Hill.

So I got a deep and fine grained introduction to streetcar facilitated intra district transportation within a walkability framework.

At 9:52 AM, Anonymous Alex B. said...

I guess I'm not sold on your concept of 'intra-district' transit service as a specific goal. And certainly not on the cost of building a streetcar in order to provide it.

More broadly, the idea that a streetcar must be solely about what you call intra-district transit is what I think is wrong. And that's a broader failing of US streetcar planning. Thinking of these things solely as 'pedestrian assists' is wrong. That's the original sin, the fatal flaw.

The technology is too expensive to 'waste' it on routes and services that are conceptually inefficient.

Portland's streetcar is just about the only one that is remotely successful in terms of paid ridership. And it could've been just as successful as an aid to walkability if it were planned to be faster and more efficient from the start. Just look at the Paris trams. That should be the model, not US streetcars.

As far as my view on streetcars, I suppose it's evolved somewhat. But the broader, categorical rule should now be 'don't do new, mixed-traffic streetcars under nearly any circumstance.' I think DC learned this lesson now that H Street is operational; I've pushed hard to ensure that K Street won't meet the same fate - though H Street's effects might not allow for K Street to become a reality.

At 1:16 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I never said streetcars are only about intra-district. I said that intra-district is a key element.

And to decide on investing hundreds of millions to do a streetcar is a big decision. I would never say a "streetcar" is required to effectuate intra-district transportation.

Frankly, I'd have started by converting the X bus to double deck buses and maybe consider making certain zones free.

But to do so you'd still have to swipe on, and you'd have to swipe off to get the credit.

That would have been a lot cheaper than a streetcar. But I don't know if it would have accelerated and fostered the real estate development that has occurred in the same fashion.

But all that being said, again as a device to reposition and revalue urban districts (just as arenas can do so), a streetcar can be a justifiable tool.

It's paid off for Portland and SF (the F line), probably for Seattle. Probably it's fair to say it will for KC and Cincinnati. Probably for Tucson, but over a longer time frame than KC or Cincinnati.

When I say paid off, I mean in both a transit usage and economic dev. standpoint. I would argue that success is only defined when both are achieved, not when only economic development is achieved.

But I also argue that the transit element shouldn't be satisficed. And that the ec. dev. element shouldn't be the primary focus or overwhelm sound decision making on transit policy, planning, funding, choice of projects, etc.

WRT Portland, I don't think we disagree. It could have been made to be more frequent and faster. The frequency isn't that great. (I am only referring to the original routing, I haven't experienced the expanded system.)

While I am not sure if I would say categorically don't mix traffic, better prioritizing the streetcar or providing transitways obviously makes sense to me.

That's why I am so fascinated by the King Street experiment. The streetcar line there has something like 270,000 daily riders. Why wouldn't the street be transformed to be a dedicated transitway?

(As should BRT lines in NYC. Etc.)

Similarly, I think a lot of Melbourne streetcar streets function as a kind of dedicated transitway.

It sounds crazy but my idea of doing tolled tunnels for through traffic would then allow for capture of more surface street ROW for things like this. Of course, it's an expense far beyond what the city could expect to do. But dealing with through/commuter traffic on streets like 16th and North Capitol would make a difference.

Technically K Street doesn't have the same kind of function, but moving through traffic underground would allow the ability to use the street surface much differently.

At 1:16 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

not related to AlexB's comment, I wonder if the intra-district effect varies significantly if the line is circular vs. linear?

At 6:14 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

At 9:44 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

FRED is successful, will be expanded:


At 4:20 PM, Blogger RossB said...

Streetcars are transit, obviously. The problem is, very rarely are they the best choice. Jarrett Walker nailed down the two obvious advantages ( existing tracks or extremely high ridership. But even when ridership is very high, it may not be the best choice. With a high density corridor, a subway (even though it is a lot more expensive) is a better value. Thus you are likely to have a corridor where a subway, as well as a streetcar are covering the same area. This is consistent with your emphasis on short trips. They make sense where using the subway is too much bother (especially in cities with large stop spacing and deep bore tunnels) but you still have plenty of demand for short trips. This is quite reasonable in places like Toronto, New York or Paris, but rare for most U. S. cities.

Furthermore, the corridor has to be relatively stand alone, as opposed to a confluence. In many cities (like Seattle) you have buses streaming in from other areas that have to follow that corridor anyway. In Seattle, for example, you have tens of thousands of riders who take a bus from one end of Third Avenue to the other. Yet there is no bus that only limits itself to that route. Riders simply hop on the first available bus, and it is more frequent than the proposed streetcar (two blocks away) will ever be.

The whole point is, very rarely (only in extremely high density areas, with existing high quality subways) are streetcars worth it. In all the other cases, you are better off just running buses (or building a subway).

Walker did not talk about rail bias, and I'm sure there is a little of that. But that is more likely to be from a development standpoint, rather than a user standpoint. This is why people often emphasize the development aspect of streetcars. It also stands to reason. In most cities, streetcars are rare and special. No one in Seattle would say their business is "right on the bus line" if they are anywhere near the center of the city, but could easily advertise the streetcar if they weren't. Furthermore, streetcars are (I assume) all electric, whereas as in most cities, the buses are diesel. Thus the areas served by the bus has a negative connotation (stinky) instead of a positive one (charming).

But riders, by and large, don't care. Speed, reliability and frequency matter a whole lot more than mode.


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