Many urban transportation historians point to Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s successful campaign to rid New York City and its boroughs of the streetcar as one of the key turning points in crippling public transportation across the country. It set a trend that made eschewing streetcars a trendy thing to do. He was heard to comment that streetcars were as obsolete as the sailing ship, perhaps reflecting his drive to banish any “relics” from the city that reminded him of the “old country” (LaGuardia was the son of immigrants himself). Well, sixty-five years after the demise of the last streetcar in New York City, I can confidently report the that streetcar (and its similarly healthy big brother, light rail) are doing just fine.
Take France for example. Since 1985, twenty-six new urban tramway systems have been opened in French cities. Many of these have expanded their systems and two new systems have already opened this year. The French tram systems also have many characteristics of light rail systems, including the general requirement to provide exclusive rights-of-way for trams except at intersections. The French took the lessons of the oil shortages of 1973 and 1979 to heart and adopted a long term strategy to improve mobility choices for French urbanites and provide a high quality, viable alternative to the automobile. Their ultimate objective was to create healthy, pleasant, attractive urban environments where short trips could access jobs, education, recreation, retail activity and health facilities without relying on the automobile. These systems were also designed with connectivity to other modes in mind. Each system (except Brest) has easy access to the local train station and expanding travel options (including high speed rail).
Now shift to the United States. It may be surprising to some but American cities have built 20 new light rail systems since 1981. Click below on our website for the details:
Now enters the streetcar. To date, a total of nine (9) new streetcar systems are under construction (and one extension to an existing streetcar system) and firm plans for a further ten (10) streetcar projects are progressing across the country. This has sparked the usual hue and cry from the naysayers. They blare that streetcars are obsolete and they get in the way of automobiles (and slow down traffic), and are expensive. But, maybe, just maybe, streetcars reflect and address the trends that many have detected across the country. The outward migration of people and their cars into the suburbs appears to have been slowed and actually reversed in some cases. Young people and young families are moving back into the city, drawn by the attraction of being in close proximity to their jobs, being able to walk to shopping, entertainment and recreation, and (in some cities like Portland, OR) take a short streetcar ride to these destinations. Survey after survey has revealed that many people are making the calculation that rather than spending two hours in their cars commuting, they want to move closer to jobs, recreation, shopping and the like in urban centers and have more time to spend with their families and enjoy other pursuits. To our delight, we conservatives (along with a large contingent of other different political persuasions) are finding that streetcars bring economic development, reinforce walkable environments, and encourage and cement cohesive neighborhoods. Streetcars also end up helping reduce our over-dependence on foreign oil by reducing the need to hop in the car for trivial journeys.
It is interesting to note the emerging trends that a number of studies have validated. These studies find that Americans are driving less (down 9% since 2008) and that many young Americans are not getting drivers licenses (In 2010, 26% of young Americans do not have a drivers licenses versus 21% some 10 years earlier). This latter trend says that many young people are forgoing owning an automobile, an increasingly expensive proposition (it now costs about $8,000 a year to own and maintain an automobile). Where streetcars are popular, so is biking and walking (and walkable environments).
Yale Professor Robert Spiller was recently quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying that “Young people don’t read newspapers, they don’t have landline phones and maybe they won’t buy suburban houses anymore.” The same article noted that the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Benjamin Bernanke, who is feverishly trying to revive the American economy through overworked printing presses, has commented a number of times that there are some things even aggressive monetary policy can’t change. The age of social media (smart phones, i-pads, tablets, texting, twitter, Facebook and the like) has diminished young people’s need for an automobile, indeed to see the automobile as a rite of passage. Increasingly, it is a very changed (and changing) world out there. The desire for streetcars in urban areas is but one reflection of that change.
It is also interesting to note that in a US News and World Report list of ‘The Ten Best Cities for Public Transportation’ in the U.S., nine of those cities have rail transit service (and the 10th is building an automated rail system). And seven of these cities are either operating, constructing or planning streetcar systems. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
Today’s opponents of streetcars clearly have an well-“oiled” ax to grind. Otherwise, why would they rely on obfuscating strategies rooted in misinformation? And why else do we get titles such as ‘The Streetcar Swindle’ and ‘The Great Streetcar Conspiracy,’ hyperbolic titles saturated with fear of a future that won’t benefit entrenched interests.
In my next installment, we’ll look more in depth at the streetcar in the U.S. and its pace of development in numerous cities across our great land.
Glen Bottoms serves as Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation, based in Arlington, VA
We at The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation believe that our dependence on foreign oil is a continuing major risk that imperils our national security and ultimately our economy. Transit, especially rail transit, can provide the mobility alternatives that we need to help reduce our reliance on foreign oil. So how do we respond when (some) conservatives lament that we have reduced our dependence on foreign oil over the last five years, yet our oil and gasoline prices remain high?
Yes, we have reduced our use of foreign oil. It still remains, however, that we import, by the latest available figures (2010), 49 percent of our oil needs from foreign sources. While Canada remains our biggest source (and a politically stable one) with a 24.4% share, the Middle East with 20.6% continues as a major source of the foreign oil that we import. As long as we consume 25% of the world’s production, and possess little more than 2% of the world’s proven oil reserves, we clearly remain at considerable risk.
Now back to those rising gasoline prices. Determining the price of a barrel of oil is a function of the world market, whether we like it or not. When we go to the world market to procure our oil, we are competing with a number of other countries around the world for this finite commodity. This includes China, India and other maturing, dynamic economies. Granted, there is a multi-tiered market pricing system for oil. Oil originating in the North Sea is traded as Brent Crude on the London market. Oil production from other parts of Europe, Africa and the Middle East shipped west takes the Brent Crude benchmark into account. This is also true for OPEC countries which use the OPEC basket benchmark. About two-thirds of oil produced for world markets uses the Brent Crude benchmark.
Oil produced in North America uses the West Texas Intermediate (WTI) benchmark. The disparity between Brent and WTI prices reflect transportation and risk factors (i.e., Iran and U.S. ‘saber rattling’). Right now, Brent Crude is priced about $15 higher than WTI and, for the most part, this reflects the current state of affairs in the Middle East. Both Brent and WTI oil are priced on the world market; hence when Iran makes threatening noises to close the Gulf of Hormuz (through which 20% of global oil consumption flows), or Israel hints at attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, gas prices climb in the U.S.
While we have made strides in extracting “hard oil” and gas deposits (through hydraulic fracturing, popularly known as “fracking”) in this country, the fact is no amount of domestic drilling (Alaska, off-shore, etc.) is going to make an appreciable dent in our dependence on foreign oil. While we have increased domestic oil production by 9% since 2008, only a combination of measures will dramatically reduce foreign oil imports. Expanding public transportation alternatives (especially rail) to the automobile, improving CAFÉ standards, instituting rational land use policies through dual codes (sprawl and Traditional Neighborhood Design (TND)), and, yes, greater domestic production are the main solutions. We at The Center think that we might have a win-win situation here as expanded use of rail based transit solutions reduces the need for foreign oil while fostering economic development and where dual codes are in place, more efficient market-driven land use patterns.
So the next time you think about the price of a gallon of gasoline, reflect on our over-reliance on oil-based conveyances. The automobile consumes 50% of daily oil usage in this country. Don’t blame the President (Bush or Obama) when prices edge up. It’s like howling at the moon; it might feel good but, frankly, there’s no effect. Democrats did it when Mr. Bush was President and Republicans are doing it now to our current President. Dramatic oil price increases reflect world conditions. Thus, our over-sensitivity to world events is a direct result of our addiction to oil.
Oil has us literally over the barrel. If this situation is to change, we will all need to recognize that our present course is not sustainable. All of our institutions are geared to an era that was designed for a different set of circumstances that mainly relied on cheap domestic oil. That day is over. We need to realize it and embrace a future that recognizes that fact. That future must include public transportation, especially rail. Delay simply pushes future prosperity and enhanced mobility that much further from our grasp.
Glen Bottoms serves as Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation
Detroit has suffered another disappointment, this time at the hands of a Republican Governor (and some very shaky municipal finances), with the apparent cancellation of the M1 Woodward Avenue light rail/streetcar project.
This has a familiar ring to transit historians. Detroit has studied and pondered workable rail rapid transit projects many times in the past, some dating back to the early twenties and some getting tantalizingly near to actual implementation (see Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950, by Robert M. Fogelson, for the details).
Detroit’s last streetcar line (Woodward Avenue as history would have it) was its strongest, supporting headways of 90 seconds in the rush even up to its untimely demise in March, 1956. Although the streetcar network was owned and operated by the City of Detroit, the automobile industry and especially General Motors had their sights on replacing the rail service. After all, this was (and is) the Motor City. After several unsolicited studies of Detroit’s transit system by GM in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s (all of which recommended, unsurprisingly, an eventual all-bus network), the city was unable to resist GM’s constant pressure. Although the city had embarked on a modernization program after World War II (which included purchasing 184 new PCC streetcars delivered between May 1947 and October 1949), it all went for naught. The streetcars, some only seven years old and hardly depreciated, were packed off to Mexico City at fire sale prices. Various efforts in subsequent years (especially during the Coleman Young administration) to build a subway under Woodward Avenue were unsuccessful. There was no money and only hostility from the surrounding region. Mayor Young’s own hostility issues didn’t help matters.
The current effort was spearheaded by a private entity, The Kresge Foundation, which led a private business group to commit $100 million for a 3.4 mile line from Detroit’s riverfront to Midtown. The Kresge Foundation pledged $35 million of its own money to the effort. This modest endeavor blossomed into a much larger project extending an additional 5.9 miles to reach Eight Mile Road. The expansion of the project was made possible by the promise of federal monies. What had originally been envisioned as a modest $150 million privately funded project had ballooned to $600 million.
The stated reason for pulling the plug was that the Feds feared the city would not be able to fund the operating costs ($10 million annually) for the expanded line. This was and is no small concern since the city has been teetering on the brink of insolvency for some time and finances have recently worsened. That this was only recently noticed by the feds leaves us incredulous and concerned. The current mayor of Detroit, Dave Bing (yes, that Dave Bing, of NBA fame) has been working feverishly to improve the fortunes of the city but he can pull only so many rabbits out of an increasingly tattered hat. The bus service currently operated by Detroit’s Department of Transportation (DDOT) is slow, inefficient, and woefully underfunded. Even the automated downtown people mover has operating cost issues and might have to shut down.
Stepping in to save the day, Michigan’s Republican Governor, Rick Snyder, announced plans for a network of high speed buses, or Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). Governor Snyder’s 110 mile regional plan calls for BRT to supplant the Woodward rail line and connect the city to the three surrounding counties. And all for $500 million (a similar plan contemplated earlier had an $800 million price tag). One can only surmise why the project became cheaper by almost 40%.
However, buses normally have higher operating costs than rail. So, how will BRT solve the lack of operating money issue?
Will it get built? As Billy Crystal muttered in The Princess Bride, “It’ll take a miracle.” While previous plans have tripped over the issues of regional cooperation, regional governance and the like, the governor’s BRT proposal makes no attempt to address these critical issues.
A bright ray of hope was detected on Monday, December 19th, when Rip Rapson, the President and CEO of The Kresge Foundation, announced that his group even now remained committed to the original 3.4 mile project. He pointed out that the “mere prospect of a light rail line” had spurred substantial development along the corridor, encouraged large employers “to move or expand their investments and footprint in the city,” attracted over $100 million in new grants and loan guarantees by national foundations and financial institutions, and – – maybe as important as the other factors – – had given long suffering Detroiters a degree of hope and excitement that the line could be a transforming force for their neighborhoods. Rapson stated that he thought the M-1 project would work well with the Governor’s BRT plan. He did not mention, however, who would pay the operating costs for the smaller project.
A number of members of Michigan’s Congressional delegation have now asked for reconsideration of the decision. They understand the potential of the M-1 rail project to transform the corridor that it will serve.
It will be interesting to see if the governor can make room for this private initiative in his BRT proposal. If not, we can probably conclude that BRT is just a stalking horse for suppressing Woodward rail. If so, the governor will have perhaps revealed his true colors. He’s really for continued dependence on automobiles.
As a Republican, the governor should be championing an initiative from the private sector as consistent with conservative principles. This project represents the private sector at its finest, stepping forward to provide a majority of funding and leadership for a worthy project. It could become a model for private – public cooperation.
Conservatives should watch this closely. The original project makes sense. It fosters economic development, provides funding for most of the project, and promotes a sense of place and stability in an area that dearly needs it. What will “conservative” Governor Snyder do? Stay tuned.
Glen Bottoms is Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation