America’s Streetcar Renaissance

Since 2007, 10 cities in the United States have opened a new streetcar line or have expanded upon an existing network. There are currently three other cities with streetcar systems in the pipeline. Prior to 2001, a new streetcar had not been built in the U.S. since before World War II. Rather than adding rail transportation infrastructure, most American cities from New York to Los Angeles were tearing up hundreds of miles of track as suburbs proliferated and automobiles dominated. Why then are streetcars, which were nearly rendered extinct 50 years ago, making a comeback in cities like Atlanta, Kansas City and Seattle? What is causing America’s Streetcar Renaissance and what benefits does it hold for city residents and businesses?

Before jumping into a discussion of those questions, I want to be clear about how I am defining a “streetcar,” because the distinctions between different forms of urban rail transport are a little murky. Streetcars are rail-bound vehicles, made up of only a few cars that travel in mixed traffic, sharing road space with cars, trucks and buses. Light rail systems, like the Metro in LA and Sound Transit in Seattle, operate similar rolling stock to streetcars but their right of way is generally separated from street traffic, they carry more passengers and share more similarities to a subway than a bus.

boston greenline
MBTA Green Line, Boston

In the context of this blog post and in the interest of avoiding semantic arguments about what is and what is not a streetcar, perhaps the most meaningful classifier is not a physical characteristic but what its backers intend a rail line to be. The LA Metro, Boston’s MBTA Green Line and even Toronto’s TTC streetcar are dozens of miles long and were created to and do carry hundreds of thousands of riders everyday and form a important component of citywide public transportation. New generation streetcar lines however are in many cases only two or three miles long, carry only a handful of riders and do not connect to other public transportation modes in a meaningful way.

Although they are billed as such, new generation streetcars do not function particularly well as transportation modes because their primary goal is not people-moving efficiency. Instead, these streetcars are meant mostly as drivers of neighborhood change and economic development. This is an admirable goal, but not one that should be furthered by tax dollars meant for projects that actually improve transportation projects in a city. I want to point to a few examples of these new streetcar projects in American cities that can cost hundreds of millions but are often slower than walking.

DC Streetcar

DC Streetcar
DC Streetcar, Washington DC

The DC Streetcar began revenue service in 2016 along a 2 mile long stretch of H Street three years after it was scheduled to open. The streetcar was immediately panned for slow speeds (5.7 mph) and low ridership (3,000-4,000 per day) along a corridor already well served by buses. It is clear that the streetcar has not been very successful as a mode of public transportation since it opened two years ago. However, according to CityLab:

If economic development rather than moving people around were the only metric for the streetcar’s success, it would be viewed as an unequivocal triumph. Between June of 2010 and January 2018, the median home value in the Near Northeast neighborhood, which encompasses a significant part of the line, jumped from $441,000 to $705,000, according to Zillow, an increase 10 percent greater than the District overall during that period.

Property value numbers like that underscore the appeal of streetcars; millions of taxpayer dollars earmarked for transportation end up boosting profits for developers. While the Washington Metro, the backbone of DC area public transportation, suffers along with its 750,000 daily riders, the DC Streetcar putters along H street carrying only a fraction of that number.

Atlanta Streetcar

atlanta streetcar
Atlanta Streetcar

According to the same CityLab article, against the low bar set for these projects as transportation modes, the DC streetcar is relative success. The same cannot be said for the Atlanta Streetcar, which shares many characteristics with DC and has a shockingly poor safety record. MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Regional Transportation Authority) has threatened to shut the streetcar down due to a string of accidents and non-compliances with Federal regulations. The 2.7 mile loop operates trains on only a 15 minute headway, carrying a measly 1,200 riders per day. However, according to Curbed Atlanta, improvements may be on coming by way of data analytics and greater coordination with the existing MARTA network. On the economic development front, Curbed writes, “one thing is clear: The neighborhoods along the streetcar line have experienced major investments since the line was first announced, and more projects are planned in coming years.”

Detroit QLine

QLine, Detroit

The title of this Streetsblog USA post says it all about the shortcomings of the Detroit QLine streetcar: How Detroit’s Streetcar Overlooked Real Transit Needs to Satisfy a Well-Connected Few. There can be no misconceptions about the intentions of this 3.3 mile long rail line in downtown Detroit, as it was originally the brainchild of the billionaire owners of Quicken Loans and Little Caesars pizza, both with real estate interests along the route. Though its backers tout billions of dollars of private investment in the area, the reality is,

“The streetcar does not improve accessibility for transit-dependent populations, who are largely black Detroit residents with needs for connections to regional jobs and opportunities… Not only will it fail to enhance accessibility, it could harm accessibility through displacing some bus service.”

Indeed the same can be said in many ways about the DC and Atlanta streetcars and about other projects in Cincinnati, Salt Lake City and more. Cities that decide to build a streetcar are choosing their perceived economic development benefits over real transportation improvements that could be achieved by utilizing buses, which are cheaper and more flexible. Further, cities are choosing token trophy projects downtown over poor and minority areas that are starved for transit access of any variety. The billions of dollars that have been spent on streetcars in the past 10 years could have bought hundreds of buses and started dozens of new bus lines. Instead, buses and public transportation systems overall are hemorrhaging riders. According to the Washington Post, “Transit ridership fell in 31 of 35 major metropolitan areas in the United States last year, including the seven cities that serve the majority of riders, with losses largely stemming from buses.”  It’s unclear what it will take for cities stop opting to build streetcars and to embrace less glamorous buses and realize their incredible potential, as I discussed in an earlier post. Cities like Curitiba, Brazil have shown for over 40 years how buses, if done right, can operate as efficiently and carry as many passengers as a subway, for a fraction of the cost.

Bus Rapid Transit in Curitiba, Brazil