Clean Transport

Published on April 17th, 2010 | by Zachary Shahan


Streetcars Are Making a Comeback, Thanks Largely to Obama

April 17th, 2010 by  


Thanks to a small transformation in federal transportation policy since Obama took office, cities around the nation are looking at the real possibility of creating new streetcar lines within the next year or two.

In a series of momentous moves, the Obama Administration has made it easier for cities to start or expand streetcar lines. The crux of the changes come from the understanding that streetcars are not just about saving people time, they are also highly useful in building an attractive urban landscape, stimulating and channeling investment and growth into the urban core and into other specifically targeted areas of the city, and attracting non-transit riders to efficient mass transit.


Why Streetcars are Making a Comeback

David Vozzolo of HDR Engineering highlights three key things the Obama Administration has done to make way for streetcars:

• Last June, FTA announced that it would evaluate New Starts and Small Starts applications on the basis not only of cost-effectiveness (as judged by how much travel time is saved) but also the land uses that the transit project would support and the economic development the transit project would bring about. Approximately equal weight would be given to each of those three factors.

• In December, DOT announced that it would make grants of up to $25 million each for ‘urban circulator systems such as streetcars and rubber-tire trolleys.’ It noted that these systems foster ‘the redevelopment of urban spaces into walkable mixed use, high density environments.’

• In January, DOT rescinded a Bush policy that had required New Starts projects to achieve at least a ‘medium’ rating on cost-effectiveness. That rating relied on criteria that tended to favor longer-distance modes of transit, such as bus rapid transit. Gustafson points out that no streetcars were able to qualify for funds under the Bush measure of cost-effectiveness.

Streetcars, and transportation in general, are not just about moving people from place to place. Transportation is a major part of life, and streetcars can improve that aspect of our lives. They can also help in the evolution and recreation of cities.

“’A streetcar does not save any travel time’ (a key standard of the Bush Administration), [Rick] Gustafson [executive director of Portland Streetcar Inc. in Oregon] concedes. Rather, a streetcar makes movement within a city more convenient, and helps build up relatively dense, walkable, mixed use corridors. It also reduces dependence on automobiles. ‘In ten years, there’s been $3.5 billion of private investment along the Portland Streetcar line,’ Gustafson says. ‘Fifty-three percent of the development in downtown since 1997 has been within a block of the streetcar line. Seattle has experienced $2.5 billion in development, with locating its headquarters on the streetcar line.’” (emphasis mine)

In Portland, calculations have predicted that 30% more people ride the streetcar than would have ridden a bus.

Streetcars are common throughout Europe, where I now live, and you can see all kinds of people riding them here. They are a convenient, efficient mode of transport in large or dense cities. Many people give up on the thought of streetcars in US cities as soon as they hear it because they think that US cities are not built for transit. But that’s exactly the point — streetcars help to transform a city and make it transit-friendly.

Largely due to Portland’s efforts, streetcars themselves (not just the lines) are beginning to be built in the US again as well.

Maybe you could see a streetcar in your town soon.

Image Credit: Metrix X via flickr under a CC license

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About the Author

is tryin' to help society help itself (and other species) with the power of the typed word. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director and chief editor, but he's also the president of Important Media and the director/founder of EV Obsession, Solar Love, and Bikocity. Zach is recognized globally as a solar energy, electric car, and energy storage expert. Zach has long-term investments in TSLA, FSLR, SPWR, SEDG, & ABB — after years of covering solar and EVs, he simply has a lot of faith in these particular companies and feels like they are good cleantech companies to invest in.

  • common sense

    People who favor street cars have even admitted that they are too good and elitist to take public transit and sit with the common people. The growth of Portland was not due to the streetcar, but favorable tax breaks for those in the areas effected by the street car. We are building one in the city where I live at the cost of $120 million for 4.5 miles of track. And the area effected has been in a building boom for the past two years without the assistance of streetcar. And what about the operating costs. Unfortunately we have a generation of people that are spoiled and think money grows on trees.

  • Uncle Bill

    The Red Cars from Dallas came to Boston in the late 1960s or maybe earlier. They were the double-enders and were on the Huntington Line (E) that went to Arborway.

    BTW: I sure hope GM does not get a role in building the trolleys, given GM’s criminal efforts to destroy the trolley systems we had from 1920 to 1950.

  • jim

    I hope that President Obama is able to build a network of rail transportation and create a clean and efficient way for americans to get around our urban centers. However, my fear is that some states like the one I live in (Florida) are so backwards that even if the federal money is there, they won’t build it or if they do, will build it in the wrong place and doom the project before it starts. An example is the new proposal from Amtrak to run on the old F.E.C. tracks from Jax to Miami which has not had passenger service since ’68. Hard to believe two cities that size with a common rail line had no service for 40 years. Everything was on track and the money was there but just today I read there not sure how the money will be used and also logistical problems with station placement could delay the project further. Typical! Also, google TRI-RAIL and read about all the finance problems they have to deal with, and this a commuter line that has been a winner even with political hacks who have tried to destroy it.

  • Gino

    So, the bus network, which can utilize any street and where buses and routes can be shifted to make most efficient use of available buses and accommodate the most riders is to be replaced by inflexible street car routes. There’s a reason streetcars were replaced the minute buses showed up and it had nothing to do with Ford and lots to do with the speed and flexibility of buses and their routes.

    And some of you are grateful because those mean old rules about requiring “moderate” cost effectiveness are being replaced by “low” or “no” cost effectiveness. Brilliant.

    The article should have mentioned Portland’s controversial land use rules- which may have had a little more to do with development than street cars.

    • Gino, you seem to be inadvertently touching on a couple of key points: 1) the ‘inflexibility’ of streetcar lines is exactly what drives investment and thus property and sales tax income — maybe rather than ‘inflexibility’ it is the ‘permanence’ of these lines that is the investment driver; 2) yes, it is a development tool as much as (or more than) anything, and Portland’s excellent, attractive development patterns of the last couple decades is one of the major reasons why it is considered one of the best US cities to live in (in contrast to Atlanta, say, which was in a very similar place as Portland years ago but chose a completely different path).

  • Sven

    I love electric vehicles directly connected to the grid. But this is 2010, can’t we find a better way to do it? Google SkyTran. That should be the future.

  • Tony Green

    The featured picture shows streetcars from Toronto, Ontario.

  • Dior

    This is a good thing. I hope it continues. Streetcars are one of the best forms of transportation.

  • a

    Wow so street cars were fun to ride The real question is are they cost effective or will this be another government subsidised program that cost tax payers money Maybe Bush didn’t offer the money becasue they aren’t cost effective I have riden street cars they are fun but not the best transportation over the miles

    • @a: they may not be “cost effective” in a limited, transportation sense. but they often generate much more private investment and resulting property tax income than other modes of transport. in Portland, the revenue to cost ratio was about 4:1 (if i remember that correctly…)

  • George Heid

    I live in Pittsburgh, a city that had one of the largest street car networks. Like many major cities in the USA, these companies were bought up by big automobile, gasoline or tire manufactures. I believe, in Pittsburgh, it was the Philadelphia Company (Philco) a division of Ford Motor Company.

    In the mid to late 1930’s the PCC (Presidential Conference Commission) Cars were designed and built to last 100 years. Yet the “Un-Holy Trinity” began scraping the trolley cars shortly after buying them.

    It’s a crime and shame that such “free-enterprise” scandals are so easily put on our society. But now, we have to do the right thing. Our cities have inefficient and un-sustainable transit systems to ignore the classic Street Car. I’m all for Street Cars to make a real strong comeback throughout the United States.

  • These are really great fror sprawling urban areas and should do well, but where do they get the right of ways that taken many years ago ? Are they not just being brought to our attention ? Ain’t nothin’ new here ……..Just media hype ………


    I’ve been preaching STREETCARS for over 50 years. The worse things city govts ever did was fall for the BUS COMPANIES bill of goods. Anybody could get just about anywhere cheap. In St.Petersburg,Fl. thecar ran down the middle of the street on rails set inthe paving and they were smooth. The cars were much lighter in weight than todays monsters.They didn,t have engines.The power line was overhead(electrical)with a rod on top of car that rode the wire providing electricity.I personally think electrical is better than polluting,heavy bulky DIESELS SPITTIN’ POLLUTION gulping up petroleum. JUST MY OPINION.

  • Yes, this is good and glad to see this coming back. Many cities had a good reliable street rail transportation system throughout the latter half of the 19th and well into the 20th centuries. Two thumbs up!

  • David A. Budka

    The only trouble is much of the U.S. is still powered by coal-fired power plants. Most of the historic street car and interurban railroads were powered by such stations. The Pacific Northwest and California have numerous hydroelectric dams to power streetcars. However, Chicago and its Metra and South Shore commuter lines are powered by coal-fired plants. Most of Amtrak’s northeast corridor electrification is powered by coal-fired or oil-fired power plants. Wind power is still in its infancy.

  • DonR

    I can remember as a small boy in Dallas we rode the “red car” as it was known back then. They were electric, quiet and only cost a nickel to ride. Life was so much more fun and we interacted with our neighbors and family. Too bad today’s young folks

    can only play electronic games and don’t get the joy

    of climbing a tree, swinging from a tire swing or playing hide n’ seek with a kissin’ cousin. So much fun when found she found ya.

  • I like the idea about streecars when i was young we had them and it was fun riding them

    Stree cars made life slower and not so hectic

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