How Streetcars are Meeting the Needs of Modern Cities

Posted on April 26, 2017 by Rhonda Bell - Also by this author

Portland Streetcar courtesy RNL Design.
Portland Streetcar courtesy RNL Design.
Perhaps one of the most misunderstood elements of modern streetcars is what they can offer a city, and in particular, what they can offer that other modes of transportation can’t.

The difference between a light rail (LRT) and streetcar is fairly easy to discern by distance served: LRT typically serves commuters and regional travelers, covering longer distances usually between 10 and 20 miles. Streetcars cover much shorter distances, typically between two and five miles, and are often seen as "first and final" mile connections or "pedestrian extenders" covering distances that may be slightly too long to walk, but inconvenient to drive. LRT (along with regional buses) has a strong peak usage, whereas streetcar and local buses have consistent, all-day ridership.  

When a streetcar is compared to a local bus, the distinction can be a little more difficult. From a service perspective, the two modes have very similar characteristics. In most cases, buses can deliver the same transit service as a streetcar with far less capital cost.

Portland Streetcar courtesy RNL Design.
Portland Streetcar courtesy RNL Design.

This sole focus on mobility, however, misses the actual distinction between the two modes: while streetcars do serve a mobility function, their true differentiator is the impact they can have on quality of life and economic development.

If the sole goal is to move people, then a bus might be the best option. If the goal is more complex and involves mobility, quality of life, revitalization, positioning and branding, and economic development — knowing that the combination of these elements is different for every city — then consider the streetcar.   

Quality of Life and Economic Development
Most modern streetcars in the U.S. have been built with economic development, not transportation, as their primary goal. The two oldest systems, Portland (2001) and Seattle (2007), offer the best snapshot of economic impact, although with six more systems built since 2014, a more comprehensive picture of benefits and challenges will begin to emerge in the next few years.

Within seven years of opening, the City of Portland valued streetcar-adjacent investment (within two blocks of streetcar alignment) at $3.5 billion.

Within seven years of opening, the City of Portland valued streetcar-adjacent investment (within two blocks of streetcar alignment) at $3.5 billion, including 10,200 new housing units, and 5.4 million square feet of new office, institutional, retail, and hotel space. The line connects downtown, two university campuses and a hospital, while also providing intermodal connection with almost all downtown bus and LRT lines. Portland added a second streetcar line in 2012, bringing new access to the Oregon Convention Center, the Central Eastside Industrial District, and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, among other destinations.

In Seattle, the South Lake Union streetcar provided a value-add in an already redeveloping area moving forward under a visionary and committed developer. As an established node of the technology and research industry, the area offered a number of large employers and a transit-friendly employment base. Prevailing economic conditions at the time provided agreeable financial leverage and boosted the streetcar’s creation. Additional public enhancements such as Lake Union Park, Mercer Corridor enhancements, and local upzoning for increased height and density (all in varying stages of planning at the time of the streetcar) have continued to contribute to the streetcar’s success. Seattle’s second line, the First Hill Streetcar, which opened in 2016, adds first and last mile mobility to the area by connections to Sound Transit’s Link Light Rail in Capital Hill, the International District Station, and commuter rail and Amtrak at King Street station.

Community Place-Making
Moving beyond economic benefits and leaning toward community branding and identity, streetcars offer opportunity to reflect and enhance unique neighborhoods and community culture. In both Kansas City and Detroit, new modern streetcars pick up the numbering of their new trains where the previous systems, decades earlier, left off — giving a nod to those cities’ past streetcar systems.

Many systems also integrate local art in various ways: Kansas City offers both temporary physical art installations as well as artistic performances along the streetcar route as part of their Art in the Loop program. In Tucson, Ariz., a panel of local residents, artists and city representatives selected eight artists — many of them local — to interpret the theme "flow" for public art at 10 stops. Transit enthusiasts who find themselves in Cincinnati, New Orleans and San Francisco (the latter two being "heritage" systems) can even charter a streetcar for special events.

Portland Streetcar courtesy RNL Design.
Portland Streetcar courtesy RNL Design.

Considering the streetcar’s place-making abilities, it is important to note that virtually all the urban-design and traffic-related improvements that often accompany streetcars — enhanced waiting areas, public art, transit shelters, enhanced streetscape, pedestrian, and bicycle facilities — can also be introduced with an enhanced bus system. The difference is that these type of patron-first amenities are typically considered optional luxuries with a bus — where the most basic requirements are a place to pull up to the curb and a bus stop sign — but are typically expected and many times functionally required when curbs and public realm must be partially or fully rebuilt to accommodate streetcar. The magical placemaking properties of streetcars, then, have less to do with the train itself and much more to do with the public and private commitment to revitalization that comes with its introduction.

Economic conditions are different in every city, but modern streetcar systems can be a key element of a larger toolbox of integrated and complementary tools that a city should consider when thinking through its infrastructure. A streetcar system should be used as part of a comprehensive and integrated strategy that includes both public and private investment, and which continues well past opening day. Destinations and connectivity are equally important, and streetcars should bring users to cultural, civic and employment destinations, as well as provide links to other transit modes.

This article is co-authored by Rhonda Bell an Urban Design and Landscape Architecture Senior Associate with RNL and Phil Klinkon, AIA, NCARB Pacific Region Transit Director at RNL (www.rnldesign.com).

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