Why Streetcars, Why Now?

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Cincinnati may have 300 feet of rail already laid in the ground for our streetcar project, yet some continue to question, “Why not build light rail or add more buses instead?”

Shelley Poticha and Gloria Ohland of Reconnecting America researched this inquiry, offering evidence contrasting streetcars from other forms of transportation:

WHY STREETCARS, WHY NOW?

Streetcar systems are uniquely suited to serve all the high density development underway in downtowns across the United States. They’re much cheaper than light rail, are hugely successful in promoting development and street life, and fit easily into built environments with little disruption to existing business, residents, and traffic.

They can provide high-quality transit service to support compact, walkable, higher-density development in small and mid-size cities that cannot afford bigger rail systems, offering the potential to significantly increase the constituency for transit in the United States.

Demographics are changing. American households are older and smaller. Singles, not families, are becoming the new majority. Combined with the problem of traffic, these changes are having a dramatic impact on the housing market, as evidenced by the renewed popularity of loft and condo projects in urban neighborhoods, many of them early streetcar suburbs such as the Central West End in St. Louis or Midtown Sacramento.

Almost every American city once had an extensive streetcar system which extended the pedestrian environment out into neighborhoods, served as collector for intercity rail systems, and stopped at every street corner to stimulate a density and intensity of uses that made for exemplary and engaging downtowns. If the high cost of providing parking drives development today, streetcars make it possible for developers to provide less parking and put their money into high quality design, building materials, and community benefits such as affordable housing and parks. Streetcars also enable more residents to give up a car, freeing up a substantial amount of money for other household expenses.

BUT…WHY NOT A BUS?

Fixed guideway transit, such as streetcars, attract more riders and serves as a greater catalyst to development than buses. Developers need the permanence of the rail investment to help reduce risk.

Fixed rail is easier to understand because potential riders see the rails in the street and know a streetcar will come by, whereas bus riders need a schedule and route map, and routes are often changed.

Streetcars and the higher quality service they provide appeal to a wider demographic range of riders, which translates into greater support and ridership.

Streetcars signify the local government’s interest in a long-term commitment to a neighborhood, which helps stimulate and enhance development and redevelopment.

STREETCAR HIGHLIGHTS:

  • Car owners spend $9,000 a year on gas, insurance, and car maintenance.
  • Streetcars are not like buses. they are easier to enter and exit from, don’t lurch in and out of traffic because they run on fixed guideways, they are quieter, less threatening to pedestrians, and don’t smell of exhaust.
  • Streetcars are one-third the per-mile less cost to build than light rail; $12 million per mile compared to $30 million per mile for light rail.
  • The permanence of the fixed rails, developers and investors say, helps reduce the risk and the higher density and lower parking ratios typically permitted in downtowns make projects more profitable.
  • Streetcars will increase property values and stimulate business because more customers will be walking down the street. The streetcar operations will be funded by revenue raised through business-improvement districts.
  • Streetcars have been proven to increase tax revenue sand sales revenues.

 

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