Don't Not Do It, Just Do It Right

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In discussions about the Waterloo Region LRT, we get some links to articles about rail public transportation in other cities. Here’s a recent example that appeared in Gawker about the new streetcar projects that have appeared in American cities.

This is a complicated issue, not least because people tend to confuse “streetcars” with “LRTs” for a very good reason: there’s different parts on the same spectrum. My concern about these articles is that, in my opinion, many have an axe to grind. The author here claims “I want to love streetcars. I really do” but then proceeds to lampoon the whole concept by ignorantly saying, “Who doesn’t want to go rolling through your neighborhood, bells dinging and clanging, like you’re living in a Rice-A-Roni ad?”

Note to the Gawker writer: Rice-A-Roni was cable cars, you idiot!

Streetcars and LRTs are unfortunately heavily politicized. They’re targets from some ardent Libertarians who seem to disagree with the entire idea that we should be combatting urban sprawl at all, and they’re the target of those who think that good public transportation has to include subways or nothing at all.

The problems with articles that pursue these viewpoints is that they often take the problems of certain projects and use those problems to denigrate the concept as a whole. That’s disingenuous, and also frustrating because the truth is, these problems DO exist, as the author on Gawker highlights. The solution, though, is not to just throw up our hands and say “no more streetcars”, but to say “this is what works, and this is what doesn’t work. Design it so it works.”

Portland shows us how the new streetcar systems can work well. Other systems have also worked well, and I think they share a bunch of different criteria that other new systems should take note of. For instance:

  1. Do the streetcars actually serve useful destinations well? In Toronto, they do. They provide excellent local service through dense neighbourhoods in ways that buses simply can’t compete with (because streetcars carry more passengers per vehicle than buses do, and replacing streetcars with buses would increase congestion). You see this also in Philadelphia.

  2. Are the streetcars backed by the transit system? Portland’s streetcars work because they are feeders to the wider LRT network, acting as a downtown circulator allowing LRT passengers to access more of the downtown. Toronto and Philadelphia’s streetcars feed into their subway networks or are an integral part of public transportation downtown.

  3. Is there an opportunity to build in the streetcars inexpensively, without trading off too much? Kenosha, Wisconsin has a great and popular downtown circulator that doesn’t do much more than circle the downtown and connect to the local METRA station (although that does fulfill a bit of criteria #2). However, Kenosha benefitted from a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity by buying well-built, recently rebuilt TTC PCC streetcars for a song. They now have considerable tourism cachet for being one of the few places in America where PCCs operate, and they’ve been able to expand their system by acquiring more PCCs, again for cheap. This would not have been possible if they had to buy new.

    Similarly, Salt Lake City’s streetcar line is a two-kilometre single-track affair. It connects a gentrifying neighbourhood with the city’s LRT, so that’s good, but the bigger benefit is that the track was already there, lying abandoned, and the city saw an opportunity to revitalize an alley into a pedestrian/transit trail that was a great benefit to the community for a comparatively low price.

  4. Is there a tourism market for the streetcar to capitalize on? New Orleans is adding streetcars, but then New Orleans is New Orleans, and its original Charles Street Line is a civic institution. Tourists flock to ride it, and they’re equally willing to ride the add-ons. If the tourists aren’t there, a simple streetcar line moving around a derelict downtown core is unlikely to bring people in.

That’s just some of the criteria that I can think of, but that’s where a number of the systems this and other articles critique fail. Cincinnati’s streetcar seems set up to fail because it doesn’t go anywhere outside the downtown, and the rest of the city doesn’t have the transit/LRT network to support it. The Brooklyn-Queen’s streetcar line shockingly is being set up in isolation from the whole New York subway system, charging its own fare. If you’re not going to try to integrate such a line into the wider transportation picture, why build it?

If you can’t make any of the four criteria above work, you’re just building a toy train and, frankly, the money could probably be spent better elsewhere.

However, this isn’t to say that the concept of new streetcar lines are inherently flawed or unworkable. There are numerous places where the technology should be applied, such as in Toronto’s Port Lands, or in Ottawa in support of the LRT, or in Vancouver. It’s design that’s the key, not the concept itself.

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