10 Reasons to Love a Streetcar
The 'streetcar effect' offering Austinites far more than a free ride
For the answers, we turned to the recently published Street Smart: Streetcars and Cities in the 21st Century. Rich in well-documented case studies on cities like Portland, Ore.; San Francisco; Tampa, Fla.; and Little Rock, Ark., that are running successful new streetcar systems, Street Smart compellingly makes the case that "It's time for a streetcar renaissance." It explains why Austin is one of 80 U.S. cities pursuing, or already operating or building, a new streetcar system.
Below, for the benefit of Sen. Watson and our readers, is a summary of received wisdom from Street Smart on why streetcars when compared to buses are an innately superior circulator-transit beast.
1) Streetcar systems shape a city positively. Well-conceived streetcars do much more for a city besides move people from point A to point B. As fixed-rail transit, they uniquely shape urban land-use, development, and growth patterns. The "streetcar effect" serves to stimulate desirable development along the line. In fact, streetcar lines shaped how most American cities (including Austin) developed in the early 1900s.
A streetcar system's power to affect land-use patterns will never be shared by buses; the public investment in streetcar rails along a fixed route is an assurance of permanence. Developers and investors need to mitigate risk; they get no help from a bus route, which could move or disappear overnight. Emerging data from numerous U.S. cities show that developers will vigorously invest in compact, high-density development along a streetcar line, almost from the moment that it's confirmed.
2) Streetcars are place-making tools that promote compact, walkable, people-friendly development. Streetcars help create the kinds of streetscapes where people want to walk, bike, shop, and hang out in a neighborhood. With their frequent stops and supportive effect on storefront shops and cafes, they excel at shaping lively and appealing "people places."
Streetcars also are proving themselves as popular image-makers for rising neighborhoods: As an amenity, a streetcar makes a neighborhood more desirable to live, shop, and get around in. Known as a "pedestrian accelerator," the streetcar encourages outings that are part walking, part streetcar ride. Streetcars shaped the older neighborhoods (like Austin's Hyde Park) that we now celebrate for being handsome, walkable, mixed-use, and human-scaled. These central-city neighborhoods remain popular because people are drawn to diverse, interesting areas where they can walk to destinations.
New transit-oriented development can be required to include livable-city amenities such as affordable housing, public open space, desired redevelopment, high-quality urban design, and public art. (TOD planning is ongoing in Austin for MetroRail stops and would occur around the streetcar line as well.) When backed by intelligent planning and policy, a positive place-making effect becomes a positive tool for shaping the kind of city we all want.
3) People like to ride streetcars. Mass transit will only work if people choose to use it. Getting people out of their cars requires enticing "choice riders" people who own a car but choose to use transit instead. Everyone knows it, so let's say it: Buses lack sex appeal and yuppie appeal. In our image-conscious culture, who wants to ride the bus? Yet in cities around the world, people love taking the streetcar. Maybe it's our happy association with the choo-choo trains of childhood whatever, it works.
Both affluent and working-class folks are attracted to the streetcar's image of comfort, convenience, and charm. The ride is smoother, quieter, more comfortable and somehow more upscale. Recruiting white-collar transit users is tough in Texas; a streetcar is the "breakthrough" ride that can change attitudes. (Of course, downtowns also want to attract the disposable-income set as consumers of entertainment and shopping.) Plus, like developers, we're all reassured by the permanence of rails in the ground. People don't mind standing at a trackside stop for 10 minutes, because they feel confident that the streetcar will come even without seeing a schedule or route map. Other American cities recently have replaced bus lines with streetcar lines on the same route, then documented their power to attract many more riders.
4) A streetcar entices people to ride regional rail. As circulator transit, a streetcar system typically serves just a few miles in the central city. (Cap Metro's current recommended alignment for Austin, at 6.7 miles, is fairly long.) An interfacing streetcar system provides the critical "last mile" connection for riders on regional commuter rail (such as the 32-mile MetroRail Red Line from Leander that opens in Austin in late 2008).
Commuters will only switch to transit if they are delivered to their final destination within a couple of blocks. Failing to provide that "last mile" transport can doom an entire regional rail system. If far-flung suburbanites hate the bus, and their offices are too far to walk from the last rail or rapid-bus stop, then they'll just keep driving, however long their commutes.
In Austin, the new MetroRail Red Line currently plans to deposit its suburban commuters at the Convention Center. Then what? (ROMA urban designer Jim Adams has suggested only half-joking that Cap Metro should meet the first year of commuters at the MetroRail station with hired limos, to take them to work and keep them using the train.) The proposed streetcar line would scoop up those commuters, carry them across Downtown and at least up Congress Avenue. If the entire proposed route up through the UT campus and out to Mueller is built, it effectively will link regional rail into much of Central Austin.
Folks who have good experiences taking the streetcar become open to using other transit. In this way, streetcars can help build ridership (and voter support) for expanded regional rail and rapid-bus systems.
5) Streetcars are green transportation. All the enviro-reasons that mass transit is preferable to cars for clean air quality, for environmental sustainability, for climate protection apply equally to streetcars. Because streetcars promote 1) high-density, compact development instead of sprawl and 2) regional transit use, they pack a far stronger sustainability punch than their short routes suggest. As an incentive for patterns of sustainable growth, a streetcar fits neatly within the Envision Central Texas goals being increasingly embraced by regional governments and organizations.
Every transit user is one less car on the road, which helps reduce traffic congestion and emissions. Streetcars run on electricity, not gasoline and emit no exhaust. In fact, some cities have tapped federal programs for reducing traffic congestion and emissions to help fund new streetcar systems.
6) Streetcars attract tourists, conventioneers, and visiting grandchildren as fun "transportainment." A city's visitors, tourists, and convention attendees can be counted upon to deliver a steady base of riders provided that the streetcar conveniently takes them where they want and need to go. Neighborhoods with streetcars and cool places to see or visit typically become tourist destinations. Cities with streetcars linked to their convention centers and major tourist destinations have become more successful at attracting major convention business. That yields more "bed tax" and rental-car and parking-fee dollars which can in turn be used to fund the streetcar system.
7) Where streetcars go, private development follows. Quality development becomes more economically feasible when it requires less parking. (In Portland, new streetcar-area housing averaged just 1 to 1.3 parking spaces per unit.) With structured parking in Austin costing up to $25,000 a space, a developer can save tens of thousands on parking for projects near transit. This can offer an "in lieu" revenue stream to help fund the streetcar system. Developers are able to build higher-quality and better-designed projects or to fund community benefits like affordable housing and parks.
8) By generating new value and revenues, a streetcar system can pay for itself. The built-in development boon from streetcars makes a new system an excellent public and private investment. The "streetcar effect" predictably raises property values for three blocks on either side of the line, immediately for existing structures, dramatically for new high-rise development. If properly captured by the public sector, the increased property-tax yield (in Austin, to the city, county, and Austin Independent School District) can sustain investments in the streetcar system.
Streetcars also tend to boost retail and restaurant sales and, thus, sales-tax revenues. Business improves because more customers are walking down the street and because new residents flock to the transit-oriented development.
In most cities, funding comes through public entities from the business sector often through special tax assessments or tax-increment financing on surrounding business-improvement districts.
9) Streetcars are much less expensive than light-rail. Streetcar systems can be started up for less than $10 million per track mile; typical costs are $10 million to $15 million per mile, rising up to $25 million per mile for systems with new, modern trains. By contrast, light-rail systems run $30 million to $50 million, even up to $75 million, per mile. At roughly one-third the cost of comparable light-rail, streetcar systems have about 65% the rider capacity.
They're also fast and simple to build, impacting traffic and neighborhood on each block for just a couple of weeks as they go in. The lines fit easily into existing neighborhoods and streetscapes, with minimal disruption. They don't require the expensive infrastructure like passenger stations and parking garages needed for regional rail.
Streetcar systems are also a cost-effective investment over decades. Cars last at least 30 to 50 years and can be refurbished for another 50 years of service. Buses, by contrast, wear out after eight to 12 years. Plus, tracks don't require the constant maintenance and expansion of roads.
10) Streetcars can be historic and charming or sleek and modern. Vintage streetcars have been retooled and put back in service in Seattle; Memphis, Tenn.; and San Francisco. New replicas of vintage trolleys were ordered up for Tampa and Little Rock. Old systems with vintage cars still survive in New Orleans, San Francisco, Toronto, and Philadelphia. Systems using modern streetcars which Cap Metro has favored for Austin operate in Portland and Tacoma, Wash., and are planned for Atlanta, Miami, and Washington, D.C.
Modern vehicles are faster, quieter, larger, carry more riders, are more comfortable, and don't have to stop as long. But they're also far more expensive ($800,000 vs. $80,000) and less historically charming as "transportainment." San Francisco has acquired some 90 vintage streetcars from around the world to gradually refurbish for service; their colorful variety is part of the fun. Replica cars (which can be air-conditioned) provide a middle ground of practicality and charm.
*For the supporting data, see Street Smart: Streetcars and Cities in the 21st Century published by the nonprofit Reconnecting America, with the American Public Transportation Association and the Community Streetcar Coalition. It may be ordered online: www.reconnectingamerica.org/public/books.