When it comes to transforming downtowns into bustling, pedestrian friendly areas, many cities are turning to short stretches of streetcar lines to connect geographic areas and encourage cohesion with other forms of transportation.
What’s driving the move toward building downtown streetcars, a novel mode of transportation in the 1900s, in today’s modern age? There are several growth trends that are reversing, making streetcars a desirable addition to downtown centers. According to the study, “Bringing Back the Streetcars!” by Paul M. Weyrich and William S. Lind for the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation, “Over the past several decades, two important counter trends have developed, trends that provide a new context for bringing back streetcars. The first is the recovery and restoration of city centers. Even when people live in suburbs, they want a physical center that offers more than a shopping center can. Second, on a somewhat smaller scale, more and more Americans don’t have children. Some are empty nesters, whose children have grown up and moved. Others are opting to stay single, marrying late or marrying, but not having children. For many of these childless and young professionals, the spread-out nature of the suburb is inconvenient. In response, some are returning to urban living.”
That’s certainly the case in Los Angeles where young professionals have helped spur a “mini residential boom,” says Shiraz D. Tangri, general counsel for LA Streetcar Inc., a nonprofit set up to promote the downtown streetcar.
“Until 1999, Los Angeles was famous for not having much of a downtown. Fewer people were living downtown, there was very little nightlife and retail had been fleeing. Then the Staples Center (a multi-purpose sports arena) opened up, and you started seeing more nightlife and residential loft-style space entering the market,” he says. “We went from 10,000 downtown residents in 1999 to 50,000 this year.”
The idea of a streetcar connecting this newly vibrant downtown area is attractive. The project Tangri is promoting is a four-mile loop. The goal is to connect multiple neighborhoods in downtown. “We want to connect the courthouses with the civic institutions; the convention center with the commercial district,” says Tangri. “The streetcar will fill in the gaps in the current transit systems that allow those who come in on one mode of transportation, access to other parts of downtown. We want to encourage pedestrian action. Get folks to avoid driving their cars from one part of downtown to another.”
An Attractive Choice
At present, there are more than 45 streetcar systems either built, under construction, or planned across the United States. Streetcar lines are popular transportation options for both big cities such as Los Angeles and Columbus, Ohio, and smaller cities such as Winston-Salem, N.C., Pasadena, Calif., and Lake Oswego, Ore., says the Federal Transit Administration. According to its report, “Relationships Between Streetcars and the Built Environment,” streetcar systems have gained in popularity because of their relatively lower cost of construction than light or commuter rail, the ease of integrating streetcars into the existing urban fabric, and the convenience of frequent stops.
In addition, the tracks make it a permanent fixture, as opposed to a bus stop, which can be changed or easily eliminated. More than that, says Russ Johnson, chair of the transportation and infrastructure committee for the city of Kansas City, “it’s a mindset that is very different from other parts of the world. Not many developers come to the city and ask to be next to the bus stop, but they do want to be on the streetcar line,” he says. In Kansas City, a proposed two-mile streetcar system through the densest part of the downtown area is expected to be completed by 2015.
Let’s not forget about the appeal of a streetcar either. “When you talk about the psychology of a streetcar, it’s obvious they are appealing,” says Elizabeth Van Zandt, planning and design manager for the Downtown Development Authority of Fort Lauderdale.
“They’re attractive, the windows are big. You can see who is in there, and the entries and exits are graded so you can wheel your luggage or a bike right on,” she says. Tentatively scheduled for completion in early 2016, The Wave Streetcar in Fort Lauderdale is a proposed 2.7-mile system that will serve as a circulator in downtown.
Of course, just because a streetcar is attractive and gives off a feel-good vibe doesn’t mean it’s a smart plan for a downtown. In fact, the Federal Transit Administration’s study “concluded that the economic impact of streetcars remains largely unknown.”
Julie Gustafson, with the Portland Streetcar, begs to differ. “A 2008 report showed about $3.5 billion in development within three blocks of Portland streetcar. There are 10,000 new housing units. People are moving back into the downtown area.”
The Portland Streetcar started operating in 2001 and opened a second line about a year ago, stretching it to 14.7 miles total. “We’ve seen a ton of development along the line,” she says. However, in other areas, such as Los Angeles, Fort Lauderdale and Kansas City, there is no defined plan to encourage growth along the streetcar lines. Much of the development these cities are seeing along the line stem from a pre-streetcar, post-recession boom in downtown areas.
In Los Angeles, Tangri says, “A Target retail store is right on the proposed line, and we’re seeing an interest in residential projects that are being developed on the line or in proximity. There are opportunity spots.”
In Kansas City, Johnson says that a streetcar development is very specific. “The streetcar provides a focus for developers. People will gravitate toward different areas on the line and clearly businesses will get more activity.”
The permanent nature of the streetcar line ensures businesses that the route won’t be changed. “Community investors see a permanent line in the ground, so it allows these developers to invest confidently along the line. Along our proposed streetcar line in Ft. Lauderdale, we have 12 projects in the development review process right now. We expect 4,000 new residential units in the next five years, and we currently have 1,200 residential units under construction,” says The Wave Streetcar’s Van Zandt. “When you lay down the track, the downtown will stretch. You’ll see more residential and retail projects, more businesses and more cultural attractions.”
In Fort Lauderdale, The Wave Streetcar is part of a bigger transportation push. “We’ve got a unique partnership that makes this successful,” says Barbara Handrahan, a transportation planner for the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority and partner on The Wave Streetcar team, which includes the partners of the Downtown Development Authority of Fort Lauderdale (DDA), the City of Fort Lauderdale, the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), FDOT, Broward County, the Broward MPO, the Clean Air Cooperative, the Downtown Fort Lauderdale Transportation Management Association (TMA) and Tri-Rail. “The idea is to connect with the Tri-Rail off Broward Blvd., so it becomes a regionally connected system. Keep in mind that our goal is that all modes of transportation will be working together. It’s not about eliminating one.”
And, she says, by having the regional partnership, they’re able to work together on projects that tie into the bigger picture such as streetscapes and sidewalk improvements.
The same is happening in Los Angeles. “Right now, L.A. is having a significant transit boom. There’s construction in regional rail, light rail and a proposed subway to the sea. There are new lines opening every year to create a good rail-based transit network that hasn’t existed in L.A. since the old streetcar system was ripped out. Our new streetcar system will fill in the gaps,” says Tangri.
“Plus, it’s encouraging economic development in high-density areas putting jobs and homes together. It means living in a community without having to drive a car to go the grocery store. It means not being stuck in downtown L.A. traffic.”
And, avoiding being stuck in traffic means fewer cars on the road and a move toward reducing the country’s carbon footprint. “It will allow folks to avoid driving and parking within downtown, and it emits zero emissions. It’s an electric vehicle on rails so from an environmental aspect, it’s smart,” he says.
In the end, they’re an important piece of a vibrant city’s total transit system. “We call it a pedestrian accelerator. It’s intended to encourage more trips as well as create a pedestrian environment,” says Johnson.
Gustafson agrees. “In downtown Portland, you’re never very far from a streetcar stop, so it makes it convenient to hop on and off.” Through the success of Portland and other cities, streetcar lines can encourage economic development, jobs, homes and a more vital urban core. Never before has a streetcar been more desired.