By Jeffrey Bradley
Boom times or bust, streetcars continue their comeback. Literally dozens of cities have either opened lines or plan to break ground and get them operating. This reach-back to the past is not about satisfying nostalgia but enticing developers, visionaries and hipsters of urban growth to bridge old industrial areas and faded neighborhoods with posh districts via the steel rails of streetcars. The never-ending and much-needed urban renaissance makes streetcars the draw for investing in the future.
They’ve always been good—in this century and last—at connecting neighborhoods and providing an inexpensive alternative to walking and driving. Their return is not for new reasons but the same reasons. Today they commonly operate along rights-of-way connecting downtown with fashionable districts and entertainment centers, and many lines sprout condominiums as soon as the tracks go in.
Tampa recently spent $55 million on a 2-mile line that’s attracted over $1 billion in private investment. Tampa! And part of that marketing attraction is the view that streetcars are romantic yet practical—an unbeatable combination.
Public support in the face of worsening traffic congestion continues to climb. And when cities complain they can’t “afford” streetcars what they mean are light-rail systems that push beyond the urban core to attract federal dollars. These systems often require evidence they’ll save passengers time and must extend out to the suburbs—definitely expensive.
But that argument applied to Miami Beach is nonsense. Electric streetcars can cost less than 1/5 the price of light-rail because they run fewer, lighter cars on shorter tracks that share the road with cars and buses. They also evoke emotions, apart from the screechy naysayers, uniformly upbeat. Saying they have ‘sex appeal’ is an understatement, they resonate so positively with the neighborhoods along their rights-of-way. Besides, developers don’t write checks for buses.
Most urban streetcar lines operate over less than 5 miles and are so appealing that some developers—noting the influx of activity around their transit stops—help pay for the systems. Streetcars, vintage chic or ultra modern, are a cheap means of rapid transit expanding the reach of pedestrians in a community without having to build an expensive infrastructure. It can be up and running quickly, inexpensively, right in the street, and makes getting around without a car much easier. No panacea, they do seamlessly augment other forms of transit, which is the reason more cities are buying in.
Streetcars revive old neighborhoods and raise the property values of all. They attract investment, fill retail and office space, encourage housing, offset blight or cause it to give way to playgrounds, lofts, hotels, convention centers and museums, all within blocks of the line. As ridership always increases they lessen the need for that most wretched of city set-asides, parking space. Wherever they go goes an opportunity for reinvention.
In most cities forward-thinking mayors, business types and developers see them as a tremendous amenity that helps revitalize neighborhoods. It’s great transportation; more, it’s a package of urban renaissance tools.
Sadly, applying that last bit to our elected officials makes them appear as clueless to rapid transit as Charlie Rangel is to tax codes. When our mayor and commissioners speak of “transportation issues” they really mean “parking”. How provincial! <Sigh> We’ll still keep our fingers crossed that one day leadership will trump being a wardheel.