Making Streetcars Real

October 28, 2014 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Car Stop 

The return of streetcars to a growing number of American (and European) cities is a good thing.  New streetcar lines have brought development, increased use of public transport by the middle and upper-middle classes and new attention to the rise of inner cities.

If those of us who welcome streetcar and want to see their presence spread and  move forward, we must do more than cheerlead.  We must also look at what still needs to be done to return streetcars to the central role they once played in cities.

An article by Eric Jaffe, “Overall, U. S. Streetcars Just Aren’t Meeting the Standards of Good Transit,” published by Citylab on September 3, 2014, addresses some of the actions that need to be taken to make streetcars real transit.  Mr. Jaffe identifies three shortcomings:  the short length of streetcar lines, their slow speed – a function of the fact that most run in mixed traffic – and insufficiently frequent service.  I think he is right on all counts.

As Jaffe notes, frequent service could help mitigate the problems of slow speeds or short lines.  Both of those problems require long-term, expensive fixes.  Running frequent service is not all that expensive.  New Orleans’ St. Charles Avenue line can afford to do it:  it offers a car every 9 minutes during morning peak, every 8 minutes at midday and every 10 minutes at night, according to Jaffe’s article.  I have ridden that line a number of times and it almost exemplifies the old slogan of many streetcar systems, “Always a car in sight.” That slogan sets the standard modern streetcar lines should aim for.

But as Jaffe notes, looking at streetcar systems opened since 2000,

“few U.S. streetcars run every 15 minutes, or four times an hour, which is generally considered the minimum standard for true show-up-and-go service that eliminates the need to check a schedule.  Three systems (Little Rock, Salt Lake City and Tampa) never hit that mark.  Two others (Dallas and Portland, Oregon) only hit it at one of three travel periods.  The one (Seattle) that does meet the every-fifteen-minutes threshold at each period never exceeds it.

And again, that’s the minimum standard.  Good public transportation requires trains or buses to run every 10 0r 12 minutes, five or six times an hour.  Only two streetcars (Tacoma and Tucson) hit this mark.”

In all fairness, Little Rock and Tampa are clearly tourist-oriented services, Salt Lake City’s Sugar House streetcar has been up and running for less than a year and Dallas was originally an all-volunteer operation that has just recently grown into a significant downtown circulator.  Portland and Seattle should increase frequencies as those systems continue to expand and ridership grows.

For the reintroduction of streetcars to be a long-term success, they must once again perform the large role they had in our cities 100 years ago.  That role is central to bringing the cities themselves back.  If we content ourselves with lines a mile or so long, running infrequent service and running no faster than urban street traffic, streetcars will be nice to have but not all that important.  So here’s what we need to do in order of priority (and difficulty):

  • Running streetcars at 10 minute intervals, at most; the goal should be “always a car in sight.”  That may require buying more streetcars, which are not all that expensive, and adding more passing loops, which cost a good deal more.  But streetcars will not play the role in restoring our cites we want them to play if people can walk the line faster (including wait time) than they can ride it.
  • Give streetcars traffic light pre-emption.  This too does not cost much, but it significantly raises line speed. Ideally streetcars should get more right-of-way where they do not have to compete with cars; making downtown streets with streetcars in conjunction with pedestrianization can also spur retail sales and spur development.
  • Once a successful starter line has shown the community what streetcars bring, start to build a system.  A system has many lines, service all the important parts of the city.  That costs a lot of money, but if FTA were to get serious about reducing construction costs if could cost less that it does now.  If streetcars are to be more than a “ride,” we need streetcars systems, not just streetcar lines.

I can and do endlessly lament the wonderful streetcar systems our cities had and threw away.  We did not know it at the time, but we were also throwing away our cities.  Their return must also be in tandem, because cities need streetcars.  Cars are inimical to the city, and no one wants to ride a bus. For those of us who know what streetcars can do and once did, it’s time to think big.

William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation