Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Streetcars: Understanding Your Planning Objective

This article was originally published to LinkedIn on October 20, 2014.

The streetcar movement in the United States currently possesses an undeniable momentum. Salt Lake City’s 2013 unveiling was followed promptly this year by the opening of a 3.9 mile line in Tucson, Arizona. Testing has begun in our nation’s capital with Atlanta not far behind. Charlotte, Dallas, and Kansas City envision 2015 openings while Cincinnati and Detroit, despite great contention, will see their lines launch in 2016. The sight of all of these developments on the horizon is not to say that there has been a lack of intense criticism, and not simply from the traditional transit-opposed factions. Stemming from these criticisms and other observations, there are steps cities can take to allow their proposal the greatest chance of success. These require an intimate understanding of the role of streetcars in urbanism.

Seattle's South Lake Union Streetcar
Photo Credit - Richard Eriksson (CC 2.0)
Seattle, where a streetcar line has been in operation since 2007, is in the process of expanding their streetcar system and planning for future connections. Currently, the entirety of the “system” is the 1.3 mile South Lake Union line. Construction is underway on the 2.5 mile First Hill Streetcar, primarily a link to Sound Transit’s light rail system which would not connect to the South Lake Union line. As Nate Berg reports, both lines are already maligned by opponents, including some respected transit consultants, who criticize the ability of streetcars running in mixed traffic to deliver mobility benefits. Officials counter that a planned Center City Connector, which would operate in exclusive lanes, will improve functionality of the entire network by joining the disparate pieces. This has done little to silence critics who maintain that the opportunity cost of capital investments and service hours elsewhere in the system is too great.

David Alpert of the Greater Greater Washington blog recently stepped up to the plate for the streetcar in a piece for the Atlantic CityLab in which he noted the ability of starter streetcar systems to spur transit expansions. By not making 'perfect' the enemy of the 'good,' regions can begin to build a transit constituency. Alpert makes the case for imperfect transit as a net benefit for cities as it has the ability to start a reinforcing cycle which ultimately lowers driving demand in much the same way that years of auto-oriented project planning has increased driving dependency. The financial arguments that money earmarked for streetcar construction can be redirected toward a better transportation outcome is rebuked by revisiting the Cincinnati Streetcar saga and incoming Mayor John Cranley's campaign promise to use streetcar funds to develop additional highway interchanges. Thus, to undermine the 'good' will almost certainly not result in the 'perfect.'

Photo Credit - MacMillan Publishing
While all salient points, advocates in transit-lacking communities are interested in factors which better predict success for an enhanced transit implementation as they attempt to inform local decision makers. Jeff Speck's latest book, Walkable City, provides extraordinary clarity on the appropriateness of a streetcar implementation as well as how to predict a more successful outcome by understanding what exactly a model streetcar can accomplish.

Speck starts by declaring the streetcar decidedly not rapid transit, but rather a "pedestrian accelerator" and a "place maker." In many cities who are undertaking streetcar studies, the primary rationale is to enliven a district, generally the downtown, and increase pedestrian activity. Speck notes that indeed the opposite condition prevails, that "it is the presence of pedestrian activity that indicates potential for streetcar success." A comparison of Portland, widely considered the gold standard, and Memphis, whose route is twice as long yet carries one-eighth the number of riders per mile, shows that connecting to a yet further enhanced mode (MAX Light Rail) is a critical factor. The other critical factor is the presence of supporting strategies that promote district walkability. Quoting Charlie Hales, Portland's streetcar was implemented in tandem with "a host of other strategies and policies, including higher density, neighborhood-based urban design, [and] elimination of minimum parking requirements..."

Understanding the history of relative success and relative failure of streetcar as a mode to deliver toward certain goals, Speck declares that in order to be effective, systems of this nature should be arranged in one of two configurations:

  • Nodal, to connect walkable districts
  • Linear, to enhance and extend a walkable corridor

In the nodal case, the efficacy of the system breaks down if there is not urbanism of equal quality found at both ends. The more likely to be implemented linear case supposes a unique condition, that a sizable area of underutilized land is found just beyond the comfortable walking distance of an already walkable downtown or urbanized district (Eg. Downtown Portland and the Hoyt Rail Yards). When this condition is met, the three goals of urban vibrancy, increased transit usage, and economic development can all be realized with a design that is not just an enhanced-transit implementation, but also a neighborhood plan. It is this inextricable link between land-use and transportation that allowed Portland to leverage $3.5 billion of new investment since 2001 from a $54.5 million project.

We've seen a number of positions taken regarding the streetcar as a transit tool, as development tool, and sometimes as both. To conclude, communities advocating for additional layers in their transportation system must understand three things to meet their objectives. First, proponents must honestly identify the qualities and shortcomings of their key districts in order to properly identify the anchor of any implementation. Secondly, a coherent real estate strategy/neighborhood plan for both the anchor and the underserved adjacent community must accompany any transportation plan. Finally and perhaps most importantly, a major real estate opportunity should exist, providing a potential benefit to private parties, who in turn can assist in the financing of the endeavor.

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