Confirming the claims of many a city planner (like myself), a couple of recent studies have shown that modern US streetcars have been able to stimulate economic development and shape land use development in their vicinity, and that light rail lines actually do get people to switch from their cars to transit.
Streetcars Stimulate Economic Development
Regarding the streetcars study, “Researchers Andrew Guthrie and Yingling Fan of the University of Minnesota recently completed an analysis of building permits issued around New Orleans streetcar lines over roughly two and a half years following Hurricane Katrina.” New Orleans offered an especially useful case study, as the city built quite a fairly extensive streetcar system (#2 in the nation) but doesn’t have heavier rail options (such as light rail) that could interfere with the findings. Here’s a bit more on the study from Planetizen:
Guthrie and Fan geocoded permits representing commercial or residential new construction and major repairs, and grouped permits by downtown or neighborhood location and walking distances up to half a mile from streetcar stops. Next, they modeled permit frequency as a function of distance from stops, controlling for storm damage, distance from the central business district and pre-storm concentrations of commercial land use, median income and residential vacancy rates.
Within prime walking distance from streetcar stops, commercial permits in neighborhood areas got roughly 20% more frequent for every 100’ closer to stops. Crucially, distance to streetcar stops was a stronger predictor of commercial permit frequency than distance to pre-existing commercial areas. Residential permits were more common overall, but declined in frequency near stops, in almost a mirror image of the trend found for commercial permits.
The full study article can be accessed for free until January 15, 2014.
One last point worth noting for now, though, is that the study indicated that streetcar lines have a more geographically gradual, subtle effect than larger transit-oriented developments based around light rail lines.
“While such neighborhood revitalization effects may be less visible than the attraction of large TOD projects, stimulating supportive reinvestment in—rather than the transformative redevelopment of—existing, traditional urban neighborhoods is a major planning goal of numerous cities,” note the authors of the paper, Andrew Guthrie and Yingling Fan (who was actually a PhD student at UNC–Chapel Hill when I was a grad student there).
“Streetcars’ impacts are less intense and transformative at individual stops, but act on larger, continuous corridors in ways potentially well suited to supporting the reinvigoration of traditional, mixed-use neighborhoods,” Planetizen‘s mystery blogger adds.
Light Rail Entices Drivers
Even in car-centric Los Angeles (or perhaps especially in car-centric Los Angeles) light rail can apparently entice drivers out of their big, moving boxes and into even bigger boxes transporting other humans.
“A study from the University of Southern California of the new Expo light rail line — which opened in two phases last year and runs 8.7 miles west from downtown – found that people living near stations significantly reduced their driving,” Angie Schmitt of Streetsblog DC more appropriately summarizes.
More specifically, households within ½ mile from the light rail line drove 10–12 fewer miles (or 40% less) each day than those in the control group. Notably, that equated to a 30% or so cut in the households’ greenhouse gas emissions.
“USC researchers tracked the travel behavior of 103 subjects living in neighborhoods within one-half mile of a station. The results were compared against another set of people with similar demographic characteristics who live more than a half-mile from a station. Both groups had the same travel habits before the light rail line opened, and no one in either group was told they were participating in a study of the Expo Line.”
Furthermore, as you would expect (and hope), those living closer to the light rail line also exercised a bit more. “The subjects who had the lowest levels of physical activity increased their daily exercise by as much as eight to 10 minutes a day, the study found.”