In Defense of Streetcars

Thanks again City Lab for providing confirmation that streetcars are a worthy area of inquiry that spurs interest outside the academy! After several project specific articles and some general critiques of streetcar projects, today features a Defense of Streetcars by David Alpert. His article is addressed to pro-transit streetcar critics which he feels are making ‘Perfect’ the enemy of ‘Good’.  Another great topic for discussion – below are some comments on the author’s critique and his five ways streetcars can benefit cities.

First, I don’t share the authors concern that streetcar critics are threatening streetcar adoption. By all measures, streetcars are moving full steam ahead in US cities (Providence and Detroit received federal money for streetcars last month). This desire for streetcars by localities is due to many reasons (downtown elites, political impact, ‘permanence of rails’, ease of operating outside the transit agency when introducing a new mode vs. expanding buses, etc.) and does not seem to be slowing down based on media or academic critics. Of course there are the anti-transit groups in every case but many people opposed to the streetcar in Kansas City and other places are pro-transit groups that want more dispersed service to transit dependent populations. This does not represent an anti-transit critique of streetcars – its a valid concern about how we spend limited transit dollars and speaks to the nature of infrastructure decision making in US cities.

(1) Imperfect transit can still be good for cities. I agree that streetcars are being proposed as a means to facilitate walkable, livable urban places and that this outcome would be good for cities. But such environments are not solely the outcome of streetcars or even transit – they are the result of land use and pedestrianization features. Communities can have walk able amenities and pedestrian features without having quality transit service, so this is not an argument in favor of streetcars (See Dan Chatman‘s “Does TOD need the T”). Indeed, downtown streetcar projects in cities without robust commuter transit systems and with available downtown parking (like Kansas City) require residents to drive downtown in order to use the streetcars anyway. Chatman argues that transit may serve as a Trojan horse, catalyzing policies that favor higher density, mixed use development, but this just means that the political will to implement preferred policy solutions is lacking, not that transit is a necessary feature of pedestrian, mixed use environments (in all contexts).

(2) An imperfect streetcar might be all your city can afford—for now. This is a much stronger point, in my opinion. There is an argument for starting small and building political support for a larger system (I think this is preferred and has worked well in the case of other public interventions such as reducing parking or creating pedestrian plazas). Many streetcars are referred to as “starter lines”, implying that expansion will come. Of course, there will only be support for expansion if residents see the value of the system, which requires it serves the needs of the population in some manner (be it transit or a tourist amenity for downtown circulation). The People Mover (Detroit) was intended to be one component of a larger system but its cost overrides, lack of functionality and distrust in competency of local government – among other things – contributed to the projects (and rail transits) demise. While streetcars may be the start of transit expansion, this is not guaranteed – and heeding the critiques of people like Eric Jaffe may be useful in making sure systems do set us in a pro-transit trajectory.

(3) Funding won’t get redirected towards a “better” transit project. Excellent point – streetcars have the local political support that helps them cobble together funding (including from federal sources) which may not be available to other modes. Lamenting that Kansas City could have spent $102 million dollars on BRT or Commuter rail instead of the Streetcar is not entirely accurate. The taxing district that raises the local match (and fund operating expenses) probably would not have passed if the investment was BRT or regular bus service. But this bring up another point – are referendum the best decision-making forum for infrastructure investment – given that the local debate is contentious and often misleading and that voting procedures tend to be gamed to produce a favorable vote rather than meet the standards of democrat decision making? And it is our duty (as citizens in a democracy) to raise questions about opportunity costs – KC is devoting considerable local funds and political resources to the streetcar…what if they did the same for their failing local schools or affordable housing? Sure the ‘political will’ might not exist because it doesn’t favor the downtown elites but that is no reason not to raise the critique and try to hold local officials responsible for how they prioritize needs. If local elected officials base their decisions solely on what can get done, then maybe we need to make other policy options easier to “get done” (either by building local capacity or changing public opinions about local resource allocation).

(4) Streetcars Can Outperform Buses, Even Without Dedicated Lanes. Dedicated lanes would be great but the author is right that they do not make streetcars useless. In fact in cities that do not have downtown congestion problems, using the traffic right of way is a perfect solution – it leverages underutilized infrastructure for potential gains. Dismissing streetcars solely because they do not have dedicated lanes is unfounded. But the benefits of streetcars – at least according to Cost-Benefit documents – are overwhelmingly from economic development not transportation impacts and this seems to be what gives them a leg up over BRT in local decision making. So how are we measuring streetcar performance? Using transit metrics or using economic development metrics? And are the later reliable measures if we do not conduct a holistic accounting of the subsidies and incentives being provided to encourage development near transit?

(5) Your city can make it better later, and may even plan to.There is path dependence to infrastructure investments but again it is not necessarily in the direction the author implies. Cities will only improve the system if there is political and financial support. In addition, streetcar systems can become a money sink in a bad way – attracting future transit dollars to the downtown core while putting bus services to transit dependent, neighborhood populations at risk. The details and trade-offs are of primary importance here.

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