The Great Streetcar Debate continues.

June 7, 2010 view of a Seattle Streetcar by By SDOT Photos
(Allie Gerlach), and used via Creative Commons license. Click for photostream.

As more American cities seek voter approval and government funding for new streetcar projects, residents and critics continue to question whether such undertakings are a worthwhile investment in transportation infrastructure.

The Wall Street Journal examined the issue a few days ago in this piece by reporter Caroline Porter, which includes a useful graphic of some current projects as well as a video report. Porter frames the debate quite neatly, with relevant statistics and the usual cast of characters: Urbanist streetcar advocates, skeptical local business owners and opponent Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute. And Portland. Gotta have Portland.

O’Toole’s least effective argument: “Putting 125-year-old technology into modern cities is going to create more congestion, dangerous situations for pedestrians …”

Streetcars continue to serve effectively in cities around the world, including several in North America. Any vehicle bearing down on a pedestrian at more than a walk creates a dangerous situation, including the gas-guzzling SUVs so beloved of many conservatives. Managed properly — including proper signage, public education and passenger facilities — streetcars are perfectly safe. The congestion question is valid, but again, reserved HOV lanes for streetcars or any transit vehicle can be quite effective in the right circumstances and with both proper signage and enforcement. Then too, the idea of tracks in the streets may be antiquated, but the vehicles typically being used on these new systems are anything but.

O’Toole’s most effective argument: that streetcars “… divert taxpayers’ money from transit that people really need to transit that is silly.”

Sometimes, yes. I absolutely agree. As I said in this 2010 post (which also sets out some history of the modern streetcar movement and technical descriptions), “Remember that development doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and effective public transit is only one tool – albeit a powerful one which is finding increasing favor across the country.” That applies to streetcars as one of many modal options.

There are those who argue that if you build it, they will come — namely, that streetcars themselves foster growth and development in cities. That’s too facile an answer, and neglects key elements of consumer choice and self-interest. It may have been generally true that growth followed streetcars in 1900, when other mechanized transportation was all but absent and trolleys were the only way for many urban commuters to work in one neighborhood and live in another. They weren’t just convenient but a passport to a better quality of life.

A throng of passengers — most of whom probably just came out of College Subway Station, wait to board westbound Toronto streetcar 4049 at Carlton and Yonge streets on March 17, 2012. Whether transit passengers should have to walk out to the middle of the street — and whether buses could handle the job as effectively — is a debate that’s not likely to be settled anytime soon. Click to view my flickr photostream.

Can that argument be made of all modern streetcar projects? Will they change the way people live and commute and draw more residents out of their cars and onto public transit? I don’t believe there is a definitive answer to that question.

Rather, the success of such projects will depend on what other transportation options are available. Streetcars continue to provide high-capacity transportation in places like Toronto and Philadelphia because they serve busy corridors and are thoroughly integrated elements of comprehensive urban transportation networks. People don’t ride them for novelty but because they are an effective means of getting around where automobiles may be less so.

If you want historic trolleys, build a line billed as such and place it where tourism and preservation are the most important community goals. If you want high-capacity modern street transportation designed to enhance and extend heavily-traveled urban corridors, consider new streetcars. But understand the difference. O’Toole is right in taking aim at those who don’t, and who would spend our tax dollars in the name of a fad. Even among those who do understand the difference, I think we are right to worry whether they are spending too much and placing too much blind faith in streetcars as engines of renewed economic prosperity in communities whose economies suffer from much bigger structural problems than local transportation. The result is destined to be disappointment for all concerned and damage to the credibility of streetcars among policymakers and the public.

Just today, according to The Detroit News, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Detroit’s $137 million streetcar project is on track to win federal backing, and he hopes to make a “very good” announcement on funding soon.

Will six new streetcars serving 11 stops truly help reverse endemic urban decline that makes Detroit look like one of the most spectacular failures in the capitalist world?

To wit, this quote from the WSJ piece: “I would love a rail system that actually gets people to work, not just to buy a sandwich,” said Josh Spring, the director of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition.

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2 Responses to The Great Streetcar Debate continues.

  1. Christine says:

    Nicely done.

    I also see some merit in O’Toole’s argument that streetcars could take money from other transit, but one is not a substitute for the other. There are plenty of people, whether residents or visitors, who would never ride a bus but would ride a streetcar. I think that the success of streetcars for residents often lies in its role as a connector; the remainder of the trip may be by bike or walking or bus. I have done this myself, often walking one way for lunch or shopping and then returning by streetcar.

    It never ceases to amaze me that people in general seem very aware of the costs to build streetcar and light-rail systems, but have no clue about freeway and highway construction and maintenance costs. They would never question those costs either, because it’s just something you have to do, like buying shoes for the kids.

    As for O’Toole’s safety concerns, streetcars were dangerous back in the old days, because people generally had to run across traffic to board the streetcar. As your Seattle photo shows, streetcars more often have a protected boarding are and better signage.

    Thanks for the compelling and informational post!

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