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Around this time American construction of heavy rail, which began in New York and Boston in the late 19th century, effectively wound to a close with subways in San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Atlanta. (The main exception was a late-breaking underground system in Los Angeles, first brought online in 1993.) Other U.S. cities, such as Denver, Houston, Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Charlotte, addressed their transit needs with the German model.
Then, like a toilet-trained toddler who begins wetting his pants again when a new baby sibling arrives, America forgot everything it had learned from German light rail. Newer streetcars were built to operate in mixed traffic, with frequent stops, using only the front door for boarding while the driver collected fares. “The [contemporary] streetcar is like a bus on rails, but it has no advantages over a bus,” says Thompson. “An effective light rail or streetcar has to be operated like a subway,” but most modern streetcars are not.
Bay City Blues
Tampa, Florida, has followed the streetcar’s parabola almost perfectly. At its peak in 1926, the port city (which then had a population of 100,000) had a network of 190 vehicles that delivered a whopping 24 million trips that year across 53 miles of track and 11 routes. The streetcar eventually disappeared for several decades, only to return in much different form in 2003.
In 2006 Tampa’s 578,000 residents took just 520,000 trips on the new, $63 million TECO trolley, or less than one each. Ridership was down 45,000 from the previous year. With an operating speed slower than eight miles per hour, the TECO trolley is in every way a transit mode worse than a bus. But unlike in previous generations, transit is not the streetcar’s purpose.
A 2007 Wall Street Journal article titled “A Streetcar Named Aspire: Lines Aim to Revive Cities” described TECO as a “dud” but noted that the project’s proponents attributed $450 million of development to the route, which at that point ran for 2.4 miles. One skeptical Hillsborough County commissioner quoted in the story said the streetcar “goes from no place to nowhere.” He was not exactly right: The route runs from historic Ybor City to the Florida Aquarium, then Channelside Drive (where cruise ships arrive), then on to the Tampa Convention Center, terminating at the edge of downtown. So it goes places, just not where any resident needs to go.
On weekdays, TECO does not make its first trip until noon. Is that any way to run a transit system? If you believe the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), the answer is “Why not?” Here is how the FTA describes its “urban circulator” program: “Systems such as streetcars and rubber-tire trolley lines provide a transportation option that connects urban destinations and fosters the redevelopment of urban spaces into walkable mixed use, high density environments.” Note that the agency carefully omits what you might otherwise expect to be both the purpose and the most basic metric of any transit project: ridership. How can it be that the number of trips generated by a project that cost tens or even hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars is not the central consideration?
Powering the Streetcar Craze
Nostalgia is the main power source of the streetcar craze. How else do we explain the use of historical reproductions and expensive old Birney and PCC streetcars in so many systems? Still, these projects roll on a pair of rails called “downtown development” and “tourism.”
The first contemporary streetcars were laser-focused on economic development. When San Francisco began renovating its famous cable cars in 1982, the local Chamber of Commerce, worried about losing visitors, pushed for an alternative historic transit service for tourists. Muni, the municipal transit system, was happy to oblige. Using brightly colored, Art Deco PCC cars, the summer Trolley Festivals began in 1983, setting a national template. Historic streetcars popped up in tiny Galveston, Texas, in 1988 and then Dallas in 1989. The Memphis Trolley, featured in the Tom Cruise movie The Firm, joined the mix in 1993. Tampa and Little Rock opened vintage trolleys in 2003 and 2004, respectively.
While the earlier contemporary streetcars were primarily focused on tourism, the Portland, Oregon, streetcar gained fame as the first “modern” streetcar in the United States, becoming the model for downtown circulators in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Cincinnati. But Portland is a hard act to follow. To urbanists, Portland is Valhalla and Mecca combined. Freeway revolts, regional planning organizations, bike sharing, greenways, urban growth boundaries, and wildlife corridors are all urban planning concepts that were either born or incubated in Portland. The city’s Eastside MAX light rail opened in 1986. For Portland, the streetcar, which has been credited with between $2.3 billion and $4 billion of development along its route, was a victory lap by the champion of 20th-century American urbanism. But that isn’t necessarily the best model for the rest of the country.
The urban street cred of Portland notwithstanding, even there the streetcar is not really mass transit. The City of Portland owns the 3.9-mile-loop streetcar, not TriMet, the transit agency that otherwise runs buses and light rail for the Portland area. The Portland Streetcar’s raison d’être is, like the Tampa TECO line’s, downtown development and tourism, not transportation.
It has been more than 40 years since Petula Clark bayed about the joys of downtown in her 1965 hit of that name, by which time central business districts (CBDs) were already well on their way to irrelevance. Transportation was the main reason for the decline. Federally funded road projects such as the Interstate Highway System were supposed to save downtowns by providing a ready means to get people to the CBD for work, shopping, and recreation. Instead, freeways became a means to get from the CBD as shopping and recreation followed middle-class rooftops out to the suburbs. Professional jobs largely remained downtown, but central cities hollowed out at night.
In response, downtown boosters and city planners started looking for something that would bring people back to the central business districts. The streetcar is only the most recent incarnation of this effort. Beginning in the early 1970s, a number of cities closed downtown streets to automobile traffic in an attempt to create vibrant pedestrian malls where people could enjoy the urban space, easily crossing the street to destinations on the other side without fear of being run over by a car. Sheboygan, Wisconsin (Harbor Center, 1972), New London, Connecticut (Captain’s Walk, 1973), Tacoma, Washington (Broadway Plaza, 1974), and Scranton, Pennsylvania (Wyoming Avenue Plaza, 1979) were a few of the many cities that unsuccessfully pioneered this method of luring people downtown.
The pedestrian mall generally did not work out well. The exceptions include Aspen, Boulder, and Denver, Colorado; Boston, Massachusetts; Madison, Wisconsin; Charlottesville, Virginia; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Burlington, Vermont; and San Antonio, Texas. All of these cities had an already strong downtown, a university presence, or both, except for San Antonio, which turned a storm water retention canal into a spectacular, singularly attractive urban water feature (having the Alamo nearby probably didn’t hurt).