Monday, June 25, 2012

Is a streetcar speedy? And other red herrings

Courtesy Charlotte Area Transit System
Here's the thing about the proposed Charlotte streetcar expansion, the one the City Council today is probably going to pitch from the city's five-year capital improvements plan. A streetcar is not only about speedy transportation. To judge it from that point of view is to miss the point almost entirely.

A streetcar is about economic development and trying to buttress the city's tax base. Which, let me point out, grew only about 7 percent overall 2003-2011, with a frighteningly high proportion of the city's acreage seeing declining home property values, not rising ones. (See map at end.)

That point seems to be lost amid debate about streetcar speed and the fact that it stops at traffic lights. Even my former colleagues at the Charlotte Observer's editorial board seem to be assessing the streetcar's value by whether it's faster than driving, as in Sunday's editorial, "Now is not the time to take streetcar ride,"  which pooh-poohs the proposed 2.2-mile extension of the streetcar's Phase I, a 1.5-mile segment due to start construction at the end of the year. The streetcar, it says, "would operate on regular streets, stopping for red lights and traffic congestion. It wouldn’t be faster than a bus. It would merely be a very expensive, but very pretty, bus. What the city is buying is an aesthetic."

But lost in that analysis, and in remarks by some that a streetcar is just a toy, is this: Development reacts to streetcars very differently from the way it reacts to bus routes.

Cities all over the country have built or are building streetcars and seeing them lure development. These are not all big places like Seattle, which has seen revitalization along its South Lake Union  streetcar. They're places like Little Rock, Ark., where North Little Rock has benefited from streetcar-induced development.

If streetcars are just silly aesthetics, then a whole lot of cities are being scammed, including Tampa, Dallas, Denver, Tucson, Philadelphia and, yes, Little Rock, all of which have streetcars operating. Cities with streetcar lines under construction include Atlanta, Cincinnati and expansions in Seattle, Tucson, New Orleans and Portland, Ore.

Cities with streetcars planned but not yet built (although in some cases already funded) include Oklahoma City, Phoenix, Sacramento, San Antonio and Fort Lauderdale.

Illogical though it may seem, people are more willing to ride public transportation on rails than city buses. I know people who'll drive 10 or 15 minutes to park and ride the Lynx light rail to uptown Charlotte, driving past multiple bus stops on the way.

And not just riders are lured. Rail transportation brings development in a way buses don't. After all, city buses ran regularly up and down South Boulevard for years, and still do, but development didn't blossom in what's South End until the nonprofit Charlotte Trolley ran a demonstration project along the rail line that today holds the Lynx.

Johnson C. Smith University president Ron Carter got it right in his piece in today's Observer,
Streetcar would bring critical development to westside.

So love it or hate it, the streetcar should be debated based on what it would do for development, not as if its only role is to convey people along a city street. We could debate the value of trying to catalyze development along Beatties Ford Road versus other city areas, such as uptown (where the city just offered up almost $8 million in public money for a baseball stadium and the county some $28 million in similar subsidies).   Others may simply think now is not the time to build a streetcar, or they may not like the way it's funded. Those are legitimate debate points.

Would Charlotte see the development other cities have? Why or why not? How would today's development climate affect things?  Is  the long-term streetcar route, planned before the death of Eastland Mall, still appropriate? For a map, click here. Is the funding City Manager Curt Walton proposed, paying for the streetcar the way the city pays for its street and road projects, appropriate? Some cities have used a combination of funding tools, such as public-private partnerships, municipal parking deck revenues and special tax districts.

Legitimate questions. Too bad so many people are focused, instead, on stoplights and speed.


Map of city single-family property valuations 2003-2011, is below:
(For a slightly larger view, click on the image.)

And click here to see my interview this morning on Fox News Rising, discussing the streetcar.


Anonymous said...

i would prefer a roller coaster

Stephen Smith said...

Face it – the car killed streetcars. During streetcars' heyday, they were the only thing on the road, but the automobile quickly made them very, very slow, hence the movement towards rapid transit (elevated trains and subways).

Now of course, subways and els are expensive, so a new technology has been pioneered: light rail! It's basically a streetcar but with a dedicated lane and signal priority at intersections. It's what they build in Europe and China where full-on rapid transit is too expensive, and frankly, it's the only kind of surface transit in already-built cities that makes sense.

The fact that you even have to downplay physical movement in a mode of transportation should give you pause.

There's a reason that streetcars have evolved into light rail and that the US – the one country that can't seem to get transit right for all the tens of billions it spends – is the only country left building them.

Light rail or BRT, as far as I'm concerned – streetcars are a losing bet.

Jarrett said...

I've been working and writing on this issue for a long time, and you're certainly oversimplifying it.

The hard question is: When we make transit investments, should we care about whether they help people get where they're going? Or only about their symbolic function in triggering development?

The problem with just deferring to the development outcome is that the streetcars=development equation is a fact about the market, and markets are emotional and temperamental. They change their minds all the time. They get tired of new things and cast them aside.

Getting people where they're going soon, on the other hand, has been valuable in urban life for centuries and will be for centuries to come. It's hard to imagine a form of life in which people would not have appointments or commitments of some time, and would never be in a situation where they just want to get there, now.

So before you decide that we no longer care about how soon people get to where they're going, think about the relative permanence of that desire, compared to how easily the streetcar fad could pass. Investments must be for the long term, no?

John Krause said...

I think you're aiming too low. You need to give the streetcar a dedicated lane, traffic signal priority, and a direct route through the heart of the neighborhood (not the median of a highway or an abandoned freight rail corridor).

This is how it's done all over Europe. They combine the lower capital cost of streetcar infrastructure with the traffic priority and operational efficiency of light rail and call it a tram.

There may be a great economic development argument for the streetcar, but don't give up on the streetcar as an affordable way to provide rapid transit without the expense of a subway.

If you choose a route with high potential ridership and give the streetcar priority, you're going to get much faster service and much higher ridership. So you're going to need longer vehicles. With a long streetcar, one driver can carry several times as many passengers as a bus, and the drivers are about 75% of the operating cost.

If you give transit priority in the street and cut the journey time in half, you only need half as many trains and half as many drivers to provide the same level of service, so there's a huge economic incentive to do this. Driving people around very slowly in lots of buses stuck in traffic is very, very expensive.

Jarrett said...

To follow up on John's comment, all of my concerns about the US streetcar revival movement are about the movement's universal willingness to sacrifice the exclusive lane.

In the case of the Portland Streetcar, one of its powerful advocates assured me at the time that once the streetcar was popular, they'd fight for the exclusive lane later. So far I see no sign that this is happening. There are plenty of advocates of the original line who wanted only the symbol and would never have given up a lane (usually one lane of a two-lane street) so that the streetcar could actually function as a transit service for people in a hurry. (Portland Streetcar's scheduled speed across downtown is under 7 mph. When I'm jogging on the treadmill, it's fun to imagine myself racing the streetcar, and winning.)

At that speed, and with reliability compromised by the many disruptions in its lane, the streetcar's function borders on being purely symbolic. (I often travel along its path but if I have a deadline, I must budget the time to walk the whole way to be assured of my travel time.)

Again, market responses change, but people will always need to get where they're going, as soon as possible.

Having said that, working as a consultant, I don't advise against streetcars in mixed-traffic. But I do ask clients to think hard about the relative importance of creating symbols that happen, right now, to trigger the market, as opposed to creating durable and attractive transit options that get lots of people where they're going. It's understandable that a city desperate for short-term redevelopment chooses the former, and I have no argument with that as long as they understand the choice they've made, and the issues this will raise in the future.

For more on the principles underlying this, see my debate with Darrin Nordahl of "My Kind of Transit" fame. See also Nordahl's new ebook, "Making Transit Fun".

Samuel said...

Charlotte is too large a city for streetcar. Modern streetcars are smaller and less expensive versions of light rail and should be treated as such: put them in smaller and less wealthy cities but treat them the same as light rail with dedicated space, stations, off-vehicle payment, etc. It is impossible to understand the reasoning behind the contemporary streetcar movement that wants and expects streetcars to be stuck in traffic, stop frequently, and move slowly. Rendered this way streetcars are far worse transit vehicles than buses but far more expensive. The ideal place for streetcar is mid-size college towns, 100,000 people or so with concentrated housing, regional shopping, a strong downtown and a large university. Among the most transit efficient cities in the US are Ann Arbor, Gainesville (FL), Bloomington, Athens (GA), and Lansing (MI). Streetcars are merely vehicles and do not need to be treated like toys.

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