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Your Great-Grandma’s Public Transport Is Making a Comeback

July 25, 2017
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Your Great-Grandma’s Public Transport Is Making a Comeback
Portland, Oregon's streetcar began service in 2001, and was one of the first modern systems in the country. Courtesy of Portland Streetcar
Streetcars are more than just nostalgia — for cities across the U.S., they're a key method of going green and spurring redevelopment.

When Elon Musk announced his plans to build a Hyperloop that would travel between New York City and Washington, D.C., in 29 minutes, Twitter had a field day, with users imagining the ways the technology could be used in their cities (take a bow, NYC subway).

But in the more immediate future, there are a number of cities that have taken up something old as a way to bring about the new: streetcars.

Streetcars — which differ from light-rail systems in that they share the right-of-way with cars, pedestrians and bikes — were used heavily post–WWI in cities like New York, San Francisco and Philadelphia. These urban hubs found that the electric wiring of cars for mass transportation was more effective than the mechanical cable cars of the the previous century. But after General Motors financed a national campaign in the 1930s for the use of buses, streetcars went the way of the buggy. By the mid-’50s, they were considered obsolete.

But then something strange happened: Since 2000, streetcars have seen a resurgence in popularity. Cities like Portland and Seattle set off a national trend by using streetcars less for tourism, as they are in San Francisco and New Orleans, and more for general public use. Most are currently financed by federal and state grants. And the benefits have been measurable, from rejuvenating formerly blighted neighborhoods to offsetting carbon emissions.

But President Donald Trump recently argued to cut federal funding for streetcars, saying they should be built using local dollars. As more cities plan to lay tracks and federal funding appears uncertain, here’s what to consider before ordering a whole fleet of streetcars.

Neighborhood Renewal

For any government official interested in implementing streetcars, the gold standard can be found in Portland, Ore., which launched its system in 2001.

There, streetcars connect two major universities and hospitals, and have been credited with building up the artsy Pearl District, a former industrial neighborhood that saw millions of private-investment dollars pour into the development of mixed-use buildings along the streetcar line (though PolitiFact pointed out that a sizable chunk of those buildings were already in the works).

Former Portland Mayor Charlie Hales paid tribute to the streetcars’ effect on the Pearl District’s popularity in 2013, saying that the city “no longer [has] to provide subsidies for downtown development.”

Other cities have reaped similar rewards. Since announcing the launch of its KC Streetcar system, which began operations last year, Kansas City, Mo., has seen an increase in businesses, such as hotels and restaurants, that line the route, along with a sales tax growth of 58 percent.

Kenosha, Wisc., built its system in 2000 with a $6 million grant, and has seen its downtown perk up in the years since. A hotdog shop owner told the Associated Press in 2013 that before the streetcar, the area “was very dark. Now it’s lit up more, there are businesses,” with shops, bookstores and cafes bordering one side of the line.

Not hailed by all

Despite their popularity and proven economic benefits, not everyone is on board with the streetcar.

Less expensive than putting down light rail systems, a Federal Transit Administration report found that Portland’s streetcar system — the one lauded by transit advocates — cost $60 million per mile to build. The same study, though, gave an example that Little Rock, Arkansas’ streetcar helped spur $800 million in development between 2000 and 2012.

Jeffrey Brown, a Florida State University professor and public transit researcher, told Future Structure that investing in streetcars is “just the latest variance of that downtown revitalization agenda” and that buses — though not as trendy — would be more effective in keeping transportation costs down.

Another study done by students at the Florida State University found that compared to other modes of public transportation, streetcars underperform in bringing in transit revenue.

And streetcars are also more expensive to operate compared to buses. The Federal Transit Administration in 2014 found that streetcars cost $1.50 per passenger for every mile they ride. That cost is cut to $1.05 for buses. Another FTA report said that “regular bus service improvements are likely to be the least costly of all measures to increase transit capacity.”

So why the appeal? In Kansas City, for example, they were cheaper to build and more environmentally friendly than traditional buses. When its LEED certified streetcar started service, the system was lauded by local and state press for bringing an “eye-popping” edge to the city’s developing downtown area, and for being part of a larger city infrastructure plan committed to eco-friendly design and development.

Want more? Check out these reads on the challenges and rewards of streetcars:

All-American Streetcar Boom Fuels Urban Future

Tram wars! Why streetcars are back — whether you like it or not

Homepage photo courtesy of Courtesy of Portland Streetcar

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