10 Reasons to Love a Streetcar, Part 1

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One of our supporters sent in this list from the Austin Chronicle. It will be reproduced in two parts due to its size.  We don’t have commuter rail yet, but the recent stimulus dollars awarded to the Eastern Corridor Rail are moving us closer to making it a reality.

10 Reasons to Love a Streetcar

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.

5 thoughts on “10 Reasons to Love a Streetcar, Part 1

    Doug said:
    April 17, 2009 at 9:53 am

    Good list. I would like to add a key point which the author touched on in item #2. One of the key points many of the streetcar opponents fail to understand is that the streetcar will allow for more affordable housing in the city’s core.

    The cost of building parking spaces in many condo projects exceeds $25K per space. This expense are passed to the buyer, raising the overall cost of the unit. Residential units that could be affordable to a wider buying audience, thus increasing a city’s vibrancy & density, now becomes rather expensive. This prices young creatives out of the city. This leads me to my next point, Economic Development.

    Again the opponents are too blind to realize how important affordable housing + higher density + cost savings of not owning a car = Economic Development.

    Auto ownership cost roughly $8K per year, a tremendous burden on individuals & families so reliant on the auto. Give these persons the choice of living near fixed line transit in a safe, exciting environment & now they can put that extra $$$ back into their mortgage or the local economy. ED baby. One would think the business community / government would encourage & support this. Why doesn’t COAST?

    5chw4r7z said:
    April 20, 2009 at 11:21 am

    One of the arguements against the streetcar namely, whats it gonna cost after its built got me thinking, I wonder what a highway like say 71 costs per mile after its built. Maintaining signage, police patrols, road crews, salt, grass cutting. This can’t be cheap.
    I bet the streetcar is a bargain compared to that.

    5chw4r7z said:
    April 20, 2009 at 11:23 am

    The car ownership thing, if 100 people can dump a $300 a month car payment thats $30,000 a month right into the local economy.
    Nothing to sneeze at.

    Joanne Maly said:
    April 21, 2009 at 10:12 am

    I’m thinking that there are a lot of ‘silent’ supporters of a Streetcar for Cincinnati… who need to become more vocal quickly. The negative local forces have begun their strategic attack against this important city initiative. I’d like to challenge those folks who see the pure and simple, multi-tiered benefits of a Cincy Streetcar… to hit the streets and hit their social media networks, and ‘out-blast’, ‘out-network’, and ‘out-do’ the negative contingent. Thanks. Joanne at Lincoln Maly Marketing.

    mrred said:
    April 21, 2009 at 7:38 pm

    Love this blog I’ll be back when I have more time.

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