Streetcar revivals to make cities more livable

Electric streetcars, often called trams outside North America, once served transit needs in scores of North American cities. Most municipal systems were dismantled in the mid-20th century. Today, only Toronto and New Orleans still operate streetcar networks that are essentially unchanged in their layout and mode of operation. In 2001, Portland, Oregon became the first city in North America in more than 50 years to open a new streetcar system served by modern vehicles, as it debuted the Portland Streetcar. North America’s second modern streetcar system opened in 2007, in Seattle.

In May 2009, about 20 cities were contemplating new streetcar lines. But in the following six months, there was an explosion of interest. By December 2009, at least 45 cities in the U.S. and Canada were seriously considering streetcars, which are distinct from light rail because they share the right-of-way with automobiles.

This July, Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announced more than $290 million in new transit funding for projects that will enhance the quality of life in communities across America. Of the 53 grants, six will fund or enhance new streetcar systems.

The nearly $300 million investment is part of the Obama Administration’s livability initiative to better coordinate transportation, housing and commercial development investments to serve the people living in those communities. It is being made through two competitive grant programs, the Urban Circulator Grant Program and the Bus and Bus Livability Grant Program.

The following 6 are the winners for streetcars:


Project: St. Louis Loop Trolley Project (Urban Circulator) Sponsor: City of St. Louis
 Amount: $24,990,000

The City of St. Louis will build a two-mile, nine-stop urban streetcar route. This catalyst project would connect a neighborhood in need of revitalization with a thriving college village and a major regional destination. The circulator route would connect University City, Forest Park and the City of St. Louis together and tie into an existing light rail line. A mix of public and private investment is envisioned.


Project: Charlotte Streetcar Starter Project (Urban Circulator) Sponsor: City of Charlotte
  Amount: $24,990,000

The City of Charlotte will build a 1.5-mile streetcar starter route with six stops and three replica trolleys, in advance of a future 10-mile streetcar route.  The project would be implemented on a reconstructed street already built with a double-track for streetcar vehicles and pedestrian and urban design enhancements along part of the alignment. The operating agency already has the streetcars and will provide the all of the vehicles required to operate the project.


Project: Cincinnati Streetcar Project (Urban Circulator) Sponsor: City of Cincinnati
  Amount: $24,990,000

The City of Cincinnati will construct a six-mile streetcar route with 18 stops and six streetcars for operation on one-way pairs of downtown Cincinnati streets.  The Cincinnati Streetcar Project will reconnect the central business district to two redeveloping neighborhoods just north of downtown: Over-the-Rhine (OTR), a low-income, minority community; and Uptown, the region’s second largest employment center. The city proposes that the streetcar would enable Cincinnati’s core to grow into a more walkable, livable and affordable community with a healthy mix of land uses, housing units and income groups.


Project: Fort Worth Streetcar Loop (Urban Circulator) Sponsor: The City of Fort Worth and the Fort Worth Transportation Authority
  Amount: $24,990,000

The City of Fort Worth and the Fort Worth Transportation Authority will construct a 2.5-mile one-way streetcar loop with 20 to 25 stops and three vehicles, to connect a Trinity Railway Express commuter rail station and Intermodal Transportation Center with the central business district. This will be the hub of a planned streetcar network connecting six designated “urban villages” targeted for redevelopment to the city’s major employment centers, such as downtown and the Near Southside Medical District. Ultimately, the streetcar system will connect residents in four economically disadvantaged areas to job opportunities in major employment centers, while stimulating the redevelopment of walkable urban neighborhoods with a variety of housing choices.

Project: Olive/St. Paul Street Loop (Urban Circulator) Sponsor: Dallas Area Rapid Transit Authority (DART)  
Amount: $4,900,000

The Dallas Area Rapid Transit Authority (DART) will build a 0.65-mile urban streetcar track extension to an existing system.  This project would link the current McKinney Trolley to the existing DART light rail St. Paul Station and to the McKinney Trolley Olive Street Extension in the heart of Downtown Dallas. The connection to the Olive Street extension would form an entire reversing loop for the trolley, making operations safer and more efficient, while connecting downtown destinations such as the Dallas Museum of Art and the Nasher Sculpture Center to Uptown Dallas.


Project: Seattle Intermodal Hub (Bus and Bus Livability) Sponsor: City of Seattle  
Amount: $2,400,000

The City of Seattle will restore the historic King Street Station and improve the Westlake Hub, creating two intermodal transportation hubs in downtown Seattle that connect rail, bus, streetcar, and pedestrian networks in Seattle’s Center City. Improvements to these two hubs are critical to implementation of Seattle’s Center City Access Strategy to revitalize 10 downtown neighborhoods, fight regional sprawl and build a sustainable economy and community.

Why Streetcars?

Streetcars are experiencing a comeback because they cost much less than higher capacity light rail systems and are a good fit for densely developed, pedestrian-oriented, urban neighborhoods and activity centers. Many cities, including Minneapolis and St. Louis, were shaped by early streetcar systems, whose remnants can be seen today in the way streets and neighborhoods are laid out.

Some of the defining characteristics of modern streetcar systems include:

Streetcars generally attract at least 15-50 percent more riders than bus routes in the same area. In Toronto, on routes where streetcar service replaced a nearly identical bus service, ridership increased 15-25 percent. A particularly dramatic example can be found in Tacoma, where ridership in the streetcar corridor increased by over 500 percent compared to the bus route that ran previously. The route charges no fares and offers free parking, conditions that were present on the previous bus route as well. San Francisco experienced a three-fold increase over bus ridership on its historic F-line corridor since beginning streetcar service in 1995.

Streetcars often attract private funding. Property owners are often willing to financially contribute to a streetcar system because they realize the value that a streetcar brings to their property and to the neighborhood. In Portland and other cities, private owners were willing to “tax themselves” either through fees, benefit districts, or other forms of exactions to receive the benefits of a fixed streetcar system. Nearly half of the operating costs of Tampa’s TECO streetcar line are paid through an endowment created by local business contributors.

Streetcars can provide needed transportation within neighborhoods. Adding streetcar service to the inner neighborhoods provides an attractive alternative that will not be overloaded with commuters from outside the city. Also, by providing additional capacity to inner neighborhoods, streetcar services can allow more buses more flexible commute operations, including skip-stop and express service, speeding transit for all riders.

Streetcars are an excellent way to provide local circulation, promoting “park once” and pedestrian and transit travel throughout a high-density activity center or multi-use corridor. Streetcars are generally focused on serving a neighborhood, not just moving through it rapidly. Streetcar stops are generally spaced closer together than light rail or bus rapid transit, because streetcar service is designed for local circulation and connections to higher capacity services.

Streetcars provide a visible and easy-to-understand routing, which attracts new users. Riders can stand at a stop and literally see where the line comes from and where it is going. Streetcar routes generally make few deviations from a straight path, giving the user more confidence. Visitors and occasional users are more inclined to use them, since there is less confusion about the streetcar than about taking one of many possible bus routes.

Streetcars attract both a visitor market and a local user market to transit. The fact that streetcars are easy to “understand” and often operate in areas with high visitor populations, helps attract visitors as well as local riders.

Streetcars catalyze and organize economic development. Throughout their history, streetcar lines have been an organizing principle behind new economic and housing development. Streetcars can help create dense pedestrian environments where access to local streetcar stops is possible by foot. Most of the modern streetcar applications in the United States have been catalyzed by the promise of new development, and in fact, have been championed by local developers who also partially funded the projects. Since the decision to build the streetcar was made, over $3 billion in new development has occurred around Portland’s streetcar line including retail, office and housing. In Memphis, 4,000 residential units have been built within a block of the streetcar in a formerly underused industrial area. And in Tampa, over $800 million in new private development has been built along the 2.4 mile TECO line. Although it is difficult to know whether development would have happened at the same pace without the streetcar investment, it appears that the streetcar line provided a “focus” which organized development and assured the transit focus of new development along and spreading out from the streetcar corridor.