Streetcars Are Making a Comeback, Thanks Largely to Obama

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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• In January, DOT rescinded a Bush policy that had required New Starts projects to achieve at least a ‘medium’ rating on cost-effectiveness.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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Zachary Shahan

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