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Streetcars Make a Comeback
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New Orleans streetcar
New Orleans is among many cities that are expanding or launching streetcar lines, an inexpensive and appealing way to alleviate urban and suburban traffic congestion. Wikimedia Commons/Howchou

Cities across the country are investing in streetcar systems as a relatively inexpensive way to relieve congestion and spur economic development along specific urban and suburban corridors.

February 5, 2013—In 1835, the City of New Orleans opened the St. Charles
Streetcar Line, and streetcars have remained an indelible part of the Crescent City ever since. During a railway strike in 1929, the “po’ boy” sandwich was created as an inexpensive and filling meal for the “poor boys” on the picket line. “The same streetcar providing service on the same line has been providing service for generations,” says Patrice Bell Mercadel, the director of marketing for the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority. “So for us the return to [streetcars] made sense. We never left it. It was never just a tourist ride.”

American cities, of course, used to be filled with streetcars. Gradually the lines were torn up, and streetcars were replaced by buses and cars. In recent decades, though, some cities have tried to re-create a variety of circulator-type people movers, including such cities as Miami and Detroit. Now, ironically, streetcars themselves have come full circle and are making a steady comeback.

According to the Federal Transit Administration, since 2010 the U.S. Department of Transportation has awarded more than $477 million for 13 streetcar and urban circulator projects across the country, including projects in Atlanta, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Detroit, Milwaukee, Dallas, New Orleans, St. Louis, Salt Lake City, Tucson, Portland, and Fort Lauderdale. Other cities planning or in the process of building streetcar systems include Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. Some of the new streetcar projects are extensions of existing networks, such as in New Orleans, but most are brand new and meant to function—in the near future—not as stand-alone projects but as links in growing transit systems that might also include light-rail, commuter rail, and bus rapid transit (BRT). Since 2010 the U.S. DOT the poured roughly $5.7 billion into more than 40 such capital transit projects.

There is no firm line in the sand differentiating light-rail systems from streetcars. But generally the former tend to be faster, bigger, and geared more toward long-distance hauls to major nodes—from suburbs to downtown, for example, or to an airport—while streetcars typically are smaller, slower, and geared more to circulator service, short trips, or service off a main line and into a neighborhood. Further, most light-rail systems operate in some kind of dedicated right-of-way or separate guideway, while streetcars operate in traffic.

So why are they on the rise?

Streetcars occupy a flexible planning space between the cachet of a light-rail line and the economy of a bus. Streetcars, after all, operate in traffic and are not much faster than buses. But with their tracks and catenary lines, they feel more rooted and permanent. “It’s not about the speed, it’s about the experience,” says Ted Orosz, the director of long-range bus planning for New York City Transit and a member of the Transportation Planning Division of the American Planning Association in Washington, D.C.

Moreover, streetcars are generally less expensive to build than light-rail lines. Seattle’s new streetcar system, for instance, cost only about a quarter as much as its (also new) light-rail system. “It also doesn’t offer the same capacity and the same speed,” says Ethan Melone, the rail transit manager for the City of Seattle Department of Transportation. “It’s a question of what is the appropriate level of investment for what you’re trying to accomplish.”

And what cities are trying to accomplish, in short, is economic development.

“The real estate people like them,” says Orosz. “I don’t know if there’s a chicken and egg thing there. Did development start to bring the streetcar, and that brought more development? There’s definitely a symbiotic relationship.”

John Mrzygod, P.E., the transit program manager for the Engineering and Property Management Department of the City of Charlotte, North Carolina, notes that streetcar systems can facilitate “a more continuous development corridor” than light-rail. The stops are typically closer together—a third of a mile versus one mile, on average. “What you’re looking at is a continuous development pattern,” he says. “With light-rail your nodes are farther apart.”

And streetcars are indeed providing some of that economic development. The City of Tucson, Arizona, for example, began constructing a $197-million, 3.9 mi line last March. According to the city, the project has already brought in more than $800 million in private and public investment to downtown Tucson, including 48 new restaurants, more than 1,300 units of student housing, and a new senior housing development.

In 2007, Seattle opened the $53-million, 1.3 mi South Lake Union line, which helped spur economic development in two neighborhoods that, says Melone, “had a lot of development capacity but were underdeveloped and had been for decades.” The streetcar was a big reason why online giant Amazon decided to relocate and expand its headquarters in the city. The company has spearheaded more than $3 billion in investment in the area, and the South Lake Union line had 750,00 riders in 2012, an average of about 2,000 riders a day.

Now the city is constructing another line, the $134-million, 2.5 mi First Hill line, which will begin at the edge of the city’s stadium district and run through several large neighborhoods, including Capitol Hill. Melone says planners chose a streetcar system over light-rail in part because the new line required tunneling, and tunneling for light-rail would have been prohibitively expensive.

Even New Orleans is reporting a boost from its short, new 0.8 mi Loyola Line, meant to spur economic development in the central business district. Mercadel says the Loyola Line has already helped lure in a Hyatt Regency hotel, a $100-million sports entertainment complex, and retail development, including a supermarket.

After years of failed attempts to fund a light-rail line, Kansas City, Missouri, is moving ahead with two BRT line extensions and a $100-million streetcar line that may end up duplicating part of the linear, north-south route of the city’s initial BRT line. What’s the difference, then? “In this case, what you don’t get with buses that you do get with rail … is the economic development that goes with it,” says Patty Hilderband, P.E., the transit agency liaison for the city’s department of public works. It might also allow the city to recapture some of its once vigorous urban swagger, or as Hilderbrand puts it, “the density that Kansas City was once known for. We were originally a streetcar town.”

Seattle’s Melone notes that more people are interested in riding streetcars than buses. “That’s one of the factors. In terms of its fit with neighborhoods, a streetcar is quiet and predictable. The way it interacts with neighborhood settings is kind of different than a bus rumbling through. Streetcars are perceived as an amenity package that gives character to a neighborhood.”

Streetcars may be something of a fad, but Orosz says, “I think it’s a fad that certainly has not run its course. I think we’ll see more of them.”

That may be true even if an initial streetcar project never gets past its starter line. “Any mayor would be only too pleased to cut the ribbon on one,” Orosz points out. “That’s not a bad thing. Let’s say you put one in. It might in fact be more of a gimmick than a [real transit line]. But what it can do in a lot of cities is generate interest in transit.”

Or remind a city of its roots. The New Orleans line having opened just in time for the Super Bowl, city planners are not resting on their laurels. Construction of a new streetcar line that will skirt the northern edge of the French Quarter will begin in early 2014. “It’s something we love and something we’re committed to,” says Mercadel. “It’s a gracious symbol of who we are as New Orleanians. We’re holding onto the traditions we hold dear.”  


 

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