The Greek General, Pyrrhus of Epirus, remarked after attaining three victories over the Romans, “If we are victorious in one more battle, we shall be utterly ruined.” Well, Cincinnati’s streetcar has won two referenda, endured raucous political debate, and finally, survived a bombastic effort by the new Mayor, John Cranley, to bring the streetcar to a permanent halt. Hopefully, there won’t be a need for that fourth victory to insure the completion of this project.
The city of Cincinnati has taken the right step, choosing to complete its oft attacked streetcar project rather than taking a huge financial hit and halting all work (shades of the abandoned Cincinnati subway, two miles of which continue to molder away under city roads). The new mayor, who actively campaigned to stop the streetcar in its tracks (pun intended), found that his election didn’t turn on this project but on the fiscal problems now plaguing the city and dissatisfaction with the previous Mallory administration. His ultimately futile effort sparked an amazing grass roots effort (spearheaded by Believe in Cincinnati, organized immediately after the new mayor was elected) to save the streetcar. The first segment of the streetcar project (costing $133 million for 3.8 miles) was grounded in revitalizing a section of the city (Over the Rhine, or OTR) while laying a basis for extensions into other parts of city. From the start, the streetcar has held great promise in Cincinnati for revolutionizing how people might choose to travel in the city proper. The streetcar could also provide the entry trackage for any light rail system built to connect with the surrounding suburbs.
Trying to divine the reasons why the new mayor so abhorred the streetcar might be a fool’s errand. Perhaps, as with many unschooled in the intricacies of transit, he equated the streetcar with the bus and saw a huge disparity in costs, additional costs unjustified, in his mind, by the mode. But the streetcar is much more than simply getting someone from point A to point B. Heck, Roman chariots could do that (with real horsepower but also, at a ratio of one operator per passenger, high operating costs!). The streetcar can succeed, as part of a well-conceived and implemented plan, by sparking quality economic development, such as is now being experienced in the OTR district. Streetcars are ridership magnets. This translates into fewer trips by car, especially for those trivial trips easily served by the streetcar. In Europe, planners talk of the “tram bonus.” When a European city substitutes streetcars for buses, city planners expect to reap an additional 25 -50% riders over the previous bus line (and they get it!). For those all important Millennials, now increasingly moving into downtowns around the nation, streetcars offer the quality transportation they expect in walkable, pedestrian-friendly urban environments. Finally, and no less important, the streetcar provides a sense of place, of permanency, and of official commitment. Streetcars can and do foster and bind cohesive neighborhoods in ways that buses simply cannot. We conservatives look kindly on streetcars for these very reasons. [N.B.: This is not to ignore the venerable bus. It is and will remain the workhorse in our nation’s cities, large, medium and small. It holds a significant place in furthering mobility, especially for lower-income groups, in our nation’s cities. Preserving and enhancing bus service is always a key component in any city’s transit operation.]
Cincinnati is not alone in choosing the streetcar as a catalyst for change. By my count, a total of thirteen (13) U.S. cities are currently constructing streetcar lines (including the Queen City). Our website lists all streetcar projects under construction (or just opened), authorized, or moving toward approval and can be found at: www.theamericanconservative.com/cpt (scroll down on the right side of the home page to Urban Rail Statistics and click on Streetcar Projects Across the U.S.).
The most successful streetcar operation in the country is Portland, OR, where almost 17,000 Portlanders take the streetcar every weekday, followed by Seattle’s South Lake Union streetcar. Both cities have experienced robust growth along the route of the streetcar. In Tucson, AZ, which looks to open its 3.9 mile streetcar line in mid-2014, city officials are already pointing to $250 million in downtown development sparked by the coming of the streetcar. At least an additional $1 billion is expected over the next decade as the streetcar becomes part of the urban fabric. Washington, DC’s H Street, NE corridor, to be served early in 2014 by the first streetcar to operate in that city since January, 1962, has experienced a burst of renewal activity, the first in that corridor since the 1968 riots.
We are gratified that the project will move forward, and hope the city’s leaders will grasp the importance of extending the streetcar to the University of Cincinnati campus, a major source of urban activity and an obvious key destination. Maybe this will be that fourth victory, but unlike poor Pyrrhus, Cincinnati’s fortunes will only improve and flourish. They can thank Believe in Cincinnati for that!
Glen Bottoms serves as Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation
Arguments in favor of busways as an alternative to rail transit are gathering steam, in part because of the success of Cleveland’s HealthLine, which connects Public Square with University Circle via Euclid Avenue. As a Clevelander, I know some things about the HealthLine and the development it has supposed to have brought that non-natives may not be aware of.
First, the reason the HealthLine is a busway instead of a streetcar line is political. The project was undertaken during the administration of President George W. Bush. That administration, which was owned by the oil industry, hated passenger rail, Cleveland knew that if it requested federal funds for any rail project on Euclid, the answer would have been “no.” So it requested a busway instead, and got the money.
Shortly before the HealthLine opened, I was given a tour of it. An RTA official, who took me on the tour, told me the above. He made it clear he knew the streetcar would have been better. But a busway – – a real one, not just some lines painted on a street – – was better than nothing, and nothing was the only other option. He added that the busway project had done all the necessary work, such as utility relocation, so converting it to streetcar would be simple, just a matter of laying the track, putting up the overhead and buying some streetcars.
It is important to note that building the HealthLine busway was about as expensive as a streetcar line. Studies that compare its construction cost with the construction cost of Light Rail are setting up a straw man. A stand-alone Light Rail line down Euclid Avenue, all running in-street, would make no sense. The venue is appropriate for streetcar, not Light Rail.
Busways, as their ridership rises, become more expensive to operate than light rail or streetcar because each vehicle requires a driver. Cleveland streetcars had a long history of pulling trailers, which in effect doubled capacity without additional labor costs. Ottawa is a current good example of a busway strangling on its own success. The number of buses required to accommodate exploding demand overwhelmed the busway and downtown streets. Consequently, Ottawa is currently building a light rail line to replace the busway and provide the capacity needed for the near present and future demand in the corridor. The Orange Line in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley also reveals the biggest flaw in busways. The line is essentially at capacity and adding more buses only results in a much slower service and higher operating costs, denying the service its full potential. Each additional bus adds another driver and increasing labor costs.
Don’t get me wrong; the HealthLine has been successful, in terms of both ridership and effect on development, compared to bus-on-arterial it replaced (which was nonetheless Cleveland’s heaviest bus line). But that is very different from saying it is better than streetcars would have been.
Looking at claims that the HealthLine has brought billions of dollars of new development to Euclid Avenue, some local knowledge is useful. Much, perhaps most of the development traces to the expansion of Cleveland Clinic. Cleveland Clinic’s growth goes back long before the HealthLine was conceived, and would have occurred busway or no.
Another important factor is the shift of the epicenter of black crime east and south, which has permitted an economic and social upturn not only along Euclid but more broadly in the area from Public Square to University Circle, stretching north from Carnegie Avenue to Lake Erie. A large influx of Chinese immigrants into this area, especially west of E. 55th Street, has brought major improvement. I know, because my church is on E. 55th between Euclid and Superior. A few years ago, the only pedestrians on E. 55th were black. Now, many are white or Asian. Since the black rate of violent crime is twelve times the white rate, a change in the ethnic mix is important for economic reasons.
While the HealthLine has seen an increase in riders-from-choice compared to the previous bus line, the Euclid Avenue route remains heavily used, especially in rush hour, by transit dependents. The HealthLine’s success does not demonstrate that busways are as effective as streetcars in drawing riders-from-choice. Since riders-from-choice usually have significant discretionary income, they remain key to spurring economic development. From that perspective, rail transit is still in the motorman’s seat, while busways have yet to prove their case.
Some busway advocates no doubt really believe they can do as much for urban redevelopment as rail transit – - again, an unproven assertion. But many remain closet advocates for continued automobile domination. They know rail transit compete successfully with automobiles, while buses usually cannot. They push buses instead of rail because their real loyalty (sometimes connected to their pocketbooks) is to cars. That game has been going on since the 1920s, and urbanists should not let themselves fall for it. The proven case remains clear: if you want to get people out of their cars, give them rail.
William S. Lind serves as Director of the The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation
Two years ago, the city of Jerusalem opened its first light rail line. Just over eight miles long, the line now carries a healthy 130,000 passengers a day.
An Israeli publication, Globes: Israel’s Business Arena, reported on October 31 that, as we have repeatedly seen in this country, the advent of light rail has substantially increased pedestrian traffic in the area the line serves. Globes stated that
Two years after the light rail line began operating, preliminary figures indicate a sharp increase in the number of pedestrians in the Jerusalem city center, which can mostly be attributed to the light rail. The number of pedestrians in the city center’s Nahalat Shiva areas rose 87% from July 2011, when the light rail line began operating, to August 2012. The overall number of pedestrians in the city center rose 41% over the same period.
Pedestrian traffic is the lifeblood of nay city. So it stands to reason merchants should be strong proponents of building light rail and streetcar lines in the streets that serve their shops.
Regrettably, that is often not the case. My former home town, Alexandria, Virginia, offers a sad example of how merchants often work against their own best interests. Alexandria needs a streetcar line down King Street, connecting the Metro station with Old Town. King Street once had such a line; the rails exist even to this day, buried under inches of asphalt (The line had a healthy ridership within the confines of the city as well as providing a busy commuter connection between downtown Alexandria with downtown Washington. Alas, the line fell victim to the loss of its terminal in Washington to the Federal Triangle project and highway interests who wanted the trolley off the highway bridge over the Potomac). With one-way streets on either side of King Street, automobile traffic would suffer little inconvenience; even if King Street were converted to a pedestrian mall (streetcars and pedestrians co-exist nicely, unlike automobiles and pedestrians). Pedestrian traffic would increase substantially, bringing King Street’s business more customers.
But the merchants are strongly opposed to streetcars on King Street. Why? Most probably do not know how rail transit increases pedestrian traffic. All they can think of is customers arriving by car, even though there is little parking on King Street.
Some may also fear prolonged interruption to access to their businesses, due to streetcar construction. This has happened in some places. But Portland, Oregon has pioneered an approach to building streetcar lines where access to a given block is only interrupted for two weeks. In view of the large increases to pedestrian traffic streetcars bring, two weeks of inconvenience is a small price to pay.
Rail transit has increased pedestrian traffic almost everywhere it has been built, in the area it serves. Why are people in places not now served by rail transit seemingly unable to learn from the experience of cities that have it? I do not know the answer to that question, but I do know it is one of the more important questions facing the rail transit industry.
William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation, Washington, DC