Thursday, January 26, 2017

Are streetcars viable transit?

America with its fantastic rail history still has a love affair with trains, be it high-speed HSR, Maglev, light rail, monorail or streetcar. Problem is: Most of it comes as a fashion, sweeps the country and then fades away, a victim of the American habit of short attention span, impatience, a desire for instant success and most of all the vilification of everything that government does.
New Orleans historic trolleys

In spite of all that, light rail has shown pretty good staying power and is now an integral part of the transportation system in many cities such as Portland, Denver, San Diego or Pittsburgh.

The streetcar is another story. After an incredible run many transportation planners today roll their eyes, when somebody suggest a streetcar. The streetcar seemed unstoppable after Portland's success with a streetcar that ran as a complement to the light rail system and famously brought the Pearl District a development bonanza; many cities lined up to build their streetcar line as well attracted by the promise of economic development in spite of the relatively lower price tag of streetcars compared to light rail, a convincing argument that worked across party lines. President Bush even added Small Starts to the funding portfolio of the Federal Transit Administration, specifically with streetcars in mind.

The lower cost also became the pitfall of streetcars. It is relatively easy to lay down some track somewhere and hope for the best. Poorly thought out individual, isolated streetcar lines like the one in Tacoma, Atlanta or Seattle began to give the streetcar a bad name.
Tampa Trolley (Photo: K Philipsen)

But a general conclusion isn't easy. A streetcar can still help to revitalize downtown as Kansas and Detroit have shown. A nascent system that begins with what one can only call a streetcar, can mature from there into a light rail system, as one can see in Houston. Success or failure is decided by how well a streetcar is embedded not only into an overall transportation system but also into urban comprehensive development plans. Next City in a 2014 article went as far as headlining in an article that streetcars aren't really about trannsit at all. Under the headline Why Streetcars aren't about Transit the article states:
This is the crux of the streetcar conundrum. It’s ostensibly a transit mode, and one that critics assail as a very expensive way of moving people around at low speeds. But at its essence, the streetcar is a city-building tool — and by most accounts a very successful one.
“Billions of dollars [of development] have been built adjacent to the streetcar,” [Portland Congressman] Blumenauer says. “It’s the hottest real estate market in the city. I’ve had developers tell me they would have actually invested more in the streetcar if they’d known how much money it would make them.”
Today I was guiding a streetcar tour in Tampa, Florida, another city which started with a single 2.7 mile "heritage" line, because there were some streetcar enthusiasts and a new mayor who gave them $5 million to get something started. In the end the line cost three times as much but that was still pretty cheap for a vintage trolley to begin clanking down streets along a disinvested industrial waterfront with an also pretty run down historic Ybor City as its destination. Many saw it simply as a party train of sorts making it easier to imbibe at the bars of Tampa's historic entertainment district.
Transit Oriented Development in Tampa's Channel District (Photo: K Philipsen)

But the so-called TECO streetcar, (named after Tampa's Electric Company which ran a 54 mile streetcar network until the end of WW II), is quite interesting for its many partners and funding sources which include an organization specifically created for the streetcar, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART), and the City of Tampa.

Opened in 2002, this was one of the early lines that took a hint or two from New Orleans successful vintage streetcar by restoring car chassis obtain from Milan, Italy by a small US shop in Iowa. A short 0.3 mile extension to connect to a transit center (Transportation Plaza) was added in 2010. Now a feasibility study is underway to mature the line into something more than a tourist attraction.

As a transportation system the eight historic trolleys that run down the line every 20 minutes remain insignificant compared to what HART moves by bus. Below 1000 riders on the streetcar hardly make a dent on Tampa's rush hour traffic and even when all trolleys run behind each other after events at the arena, convention center or aquarium, their capacity is low. But just as in the case of Portland's Pearl District, laying tracks in the Channel District the City of Tampa sent a signal that the City is serious about the area. The tracks were followed by masterplans, the Riverfront Walk, the creation of Community Redevelopment Areas (CRA) in which incremental tax value increases are collected in a trust fund limited to investment in the area and benefits districts. In concert all these measures resulted in pretty dramatic new development on the former port sites north of the trolley tracks (south of them the port continues to operate). NextCity had it right, streetcars really aren't as much about transit as about sending an important signal. Their effect is largely psychological.
Transit Oriented Development in Tampa's Channel District
(Photo: K Philipsen)

Baltimore has dabbled with the idea of adding streetcars to the existing mix of transit modes several times. Transit Choices' chair and convener Jimmy Rouse was actively trying to get a line going up Charles Street. A feasibility study was completed that included a very nice video simulating a realistic view of a ride up Baltimore's premier mile. Arguments were made for and against running the trolley around the Washington Monument. Ultimately what did the project in was funding. Property owners and businesses along the route didn't quite warm to the idea of an additional benefits assessment and Stephanie Rawlings Blake was lukewarm about a streetcar. Today the Charm City Circulator covers the route.

The next place where the Baltimore streetcar discussion will likely arise is on North Avenue for which MTA and City received a "North Avenue Rising" grant to study and design how the right-of-way could be organized from Hilton to Milton so North Avenue would become a complete street allowing effective transit. The transit union has proposed a center running bus-way (in the median) allowing what they consider BRT (Bus Rapid Transit). The current MTA Link plans propose intermittent bus-only lanes along parked cars or the curb. But if the grant money still comes from the feds as promised, improvements after the Link Bus implementation could still be considered.

Curbside streetcars, especially where running along parked cars got a black eye in DC where the long delayed H Street streetcar is running so tightly against the parking lane that any inaccurately parked car is stopping service. 
Parking is a big part of the problem. Streetcars are rarely seriously delayed due to actual lawbreaking double parkers, but have to slow to a crawl frequently for drivers legally pulling into or out of parking spaces.Even when every car is parked correctly within its space and nobody seems to be coming or going, there’s so little room between tracks and the parking lane that streetcar drivers have to poke along, for fear of driving into an opening door or for scraping a slightly wayward mirror. If the tracks were better separated from the parking, streetcars could move faster.(Greater Washington blog)
Streetcar at North Avenue and Charles Street 
Of interest to those who care about looks in historic districts and don't like the catenary systems on modern streetcars that by and large replaced the old single trolley wire of the past (Not in Tampa, though), there is hope: Wireless trolleys that run on batteries. Technical convergence between bus and streetcar may  one day obliterate the entire debate whether a streetcar is better than a bus. But rail buffs will never make piece with rubber tires instead of steel wheels on rails, and that may remain, indeed, the last differentiation. And it may be the deciding one. To quote the NextCity article again:
What is it about streetcars that make them such an effective development tool? To advocates, all the factors that limit streetcars’ utility from a mass-transit perspective enhance their development-boosting capacity.
Take the tracks. They’re a streetcar’s shackles, confining it to a fixed route. What happens if someone double parks or breaks down in the streetcar lane, or if a delivery truck is too wide and juts into the route? A bus would simply maneuver around the obstruction, but a streetcar must wait. How about if emergency utility repairs need to be made on the road, or if a sinkhole opens up under it, as has happened several times recently in D.C.? A bus can take a detour, but a streetcar can’t.
Yet the rigidity of a streetcar route is exactly what makes it so valuable from a development perspective.
“You see in city after city that the streetcar is a signal to the public, to the property owners, to investors and developers, that something new is going to happen and it’s going to be there for a long time,” Blumenauer says. “Tucson’s new streetcar is not going to open for eight or nine months, and if you walk, bike or drive the streetcar line, you see already it’s shaping development patterns and people are making investments. Those tracks on H Street in D.C. are a signal to property owners that the line is going to be there for 50 years.” 
Ah, and there is the "gentrification" argument, the matter of class and race and all the other baggage that decades of insitutional racism in US housing and transportation policies have accumulated.  Congressman Blumenauer, the streetcar fan puts it bluntly:
“People who wouldn’t get on a bus at gunpoint will take the Metro. And the streetcar’s even friendlier because it’s above ground.”
The HART representative in Tampa sees this different. He sees the streetcar as an entry pathway to transit. Once people rode a streetcar, they will find it easier to also use a bus.  Baltimore's Kirby Fowler even called Baltimore's Charm City Circulator "an entry drug" to transit.
H Street streetcar in DC

Whatever way the pathway to transit, ultimately transit cannot remain a mode of last resort limited to people who can't afford any other way. For a metro region to be successful, transit has to attract additional riders. A larger constituency of riders should benefit everybody because against a larger number discrimination is harder. Putting a Baltimore streetcar on North Avenue instead of Charles Street would go a long way of ensuring that such an investment wouldn't be just for a yuppie toy. But North Avenue won't be rising from a streetcar alone without investment strategies that address community development on both sides of the urban artery.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA