Streetcars: Is Desire Enough?

May 8, 2014, 11:59 AM


This year, the County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, an annual report of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, added some new measures, including transportation, to help track what communities can do to help improve population health. Researchers have found that more than three-quarters of workers drive to work alone and among them 33 percent drive longer than a half hour each way. Driving contributes to physical inactivity, obesity and air pollution.

One idea that has sprouted as an alternative to cars is actually a throwback: Streetcars. First introduced in the 1820s and drawn by horses on rails that let wagons move faster than they could on unpaved roads, many cities later added electricity by the 1920s to create early transit systems. They then added buses—and often faster underground rail lines—to transportation options as the 20th century continued, and then usually discontinuing the streetcar lines.

Planners say resurgence has come with plans to revitalize downtown areas as well as attract tourists, who often fly into town but then look for inexpensive and accessible ways to go from site to site. But funding, including grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation, is sometimes awarded for streetcars on the promise of using the lines as an inexpensive transit mode to get to and from work. An opinion piece in The New York Times last month proposed that idea for people who live in lower-income neighborhoods a mile or more from subway stations, which can be a deterrent to looking for higher-paying jobs outside of home neighborhoods.

But some researchers remain skeptical that streetcars will meet that and other promises made by some developers, including reducing car emissions and the need for parking spaces in cities. A study published last year in the Journal of Public Transportation by Jeffrey Brown, an associate professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Florida State University, said there is “a lack of information about how these investments [in streetcar lines] function as transportation modes as opposed to urban development tools.”

Brown said few streetcar rider surveys have been done, but where they have been ridership so far does not indicate they’re being used as a transportation option for work. A Memphis survey found that only 9 percent of streetcar rides transport workers between home and job, while 58 percent of bus rides are for transportation to work and back. And surveys of the Portland system, the heaviest used streetcar system in the United States, show that streetcar users tend to have higher incomes than users of the city’s other mass transit modes. 

According to Brown, there are a number of reasons streetcars may not be an optimum daily transportation mode:

  • In most cities streetcars are slower than buses, operating at 4-7 miles per hour, rather than a bus’ 11-12.
  • Where surveys have been done, riders tend to be visitors and tourists, often because that’s precisely the rider the developers have intended the systems for.
  • Some streetcar systems, such as Tampa’s, don’t have good connections to local transit and schedules are not well coordinated.
  • Streetcars can be less expensive to build than rail systems, but can be more expensive to run than those systems on a per-passenger basis.

Brown said Portland’s streetcar ridership is currently 14,000 people per day, but the next-highest use is in Memphis where only 3,300 use streetcars each day.

“If the objective [of streetcars] is expanding affordable transportation for people who need access to it, then a streetcar doesn't make sense and resources might be better used expanding buses because buses are more flexible—you can send them other places, if a route doesn’t work out,” he said.

And while the streetcars give cities a “wow” factor and bring in tourist revenue, adds Brown, the concern is that some funding has come from transportation money “and if you’re using that you’d be better off using it in other ways for something that delivers more effective transportation for people who need it.”

Brown is working on a survey of the development community to find out the reasons they chose a streetcar system. Researchers don’t say streetcars can’t be effective as heavy lifting transportation modes that help improve the built environment, but planners have to ask the right questions. A 2010 study by the Transportation Research Board of the National Academy of Science Streetcars looked at 45 streetcar systems in various stages of planning or construction and found that “little in-depth work has evaluated this streetcar resurgence, leading to an interest by policymakers and planners to have a better understanding of how this mode of transportation interacts with the built environment, particularly since changes in land use and development patterns are often cited as a justification for investment in streetcar systems.”

The study offers recommendations for developers considering streetcars or streetcar expansions including:

  • Document before and after impacts of streetcars on the amount, type, density, and value of development within specified distances of streetcars
  • Thorough rider surveys
  • Impact on economic development
  • Impact on carbon emissions, car use and city congestion
  • Impact on reduced need for parking spaces, increased bike and walking lanes

Some communities are starting to ask key questions. “Inflating Streetcars’ Economic Effect Isn’t Helpful” was the title of a news story in the Kansas City Star last month. “The concern remains, however, that streetcar backers are overstating its effect when it comes to stimulating development, setting people up for unrealistic expectations,” according to the story.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.