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Tampa, Florida, may be the poster child for get-’em-downtown policies. I saw the comedian Gallagher, the watermelon guy, in 1991 at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. The only line I remember from this performance was, “Tampa has the world’s largest collection of empty buildings.” It drew a laugh from audience members who well knew the many attempts to reinvigorate a downtown that remained largely underused, particularly, as locals have derisively joked for decades, after the sidewalks were rolled up at 5 p.m. And yes, Tampa also had a pedestrian mall. The brick-paved, tree-lined Franklin Street was closed to cars in 1973 and limped along with boarded storefronts for decades before reopening to automobiles in 2002.
The pedestrian mall was quickly followed by the second wave in downtown circulation. Walt Disney had pioneered the “people mover” at Disneyland in 1967. The name stuck, and soon Boeing, LTV, and Rohr were developing similar driverless systems. Tampa International Airport was the first American airport to install a people mover, and it still runs from ticketing and baggage to airside. Airports and large hospitals remain the main users of these horizontal elevators, but there were five federally funded public transportation projects built with the technology, beginning with a project to connect the campuses of the University of West Virginia in Morgantown in 1975 and concluding with the Jacksonville Skyway in 1989. Tampa, in addition to its airport people mover, got the Harbour Island People Mover in 1985.
An already strong downtown or large university presence are just as relevant to the success of a people mover as to that of a pedestrian mall. Built over valleys not conducive to moving thousands of students by automobile, the Morgantown people mover carries 15,000 passengers per day and is essential to the life of the university. It was an exorbitantly expensive project, $411 million in 2011 dollars, but had a defined, existing ridership target, has performed well for more than 30 years, and must be considered a good investment.
The Detroit People Mover is more like airport or hotel people movers, as it connects the parking decks of the Renaissance Center with stations inside downtown buildings. It was built not to promote downtown street activity but rather to serve motorists working in downtown buildings. To the Motor City’s credit, it produced a project that fit a particular need and has adequate ridership to show for it, with about 2 million annual trips (8,000 per day). At the other end of the spectrum is the Jacksonville Skyway with its puny 470,000 annual trips. The project, which has an annual operating deficit of $4 million, was built to last through 2036. Hence the Jacksonville Transportation Authority can anticipate spending $100 million during the next 25 years on just 1,900 daily trips. But tearing it down, as a city council member recently suggested, would mean repaying the FTA for its investment, a lump sum payment of $80 million.
Tampa was lucky enough to have the rare federal project that was actually destroyed. The Harbour Island People Mover connected downtown to what was effectively a suburban shopping mall built on a small spit of land just offshore, close enough that former President Gerald Ford hit a golf ball from the island to the mainland during a 1983 visit. The Ledger, a local newspaper reported in June 1985 that the Harbour Island development “is expected to be an additional economic bonanza for Tampa, a city already viewed as one of the nation’s premier growth areas.” But suburban residents already had suburban malls and did not need to go downtown for the same experience, people mover notwithstanding. By the mid-1990s Harbour Island was hemorrhaging money, and the people mover, capable of carrying 100 people per trip, was averaging just two. The developer offered to sell the people mover to Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART), the regional bus system, for only $1, but HART wisely declined. Demolition of the line, which prompted newspaper headlines like “People Mover Doesn’t” and “Nearing the End of the Line,” was completed in February 2000.
The ignominy of the Harbour Island People Mover did not end with its destruction. The Beneficial Corporation, developer of Harbour Island, had an agreement with HART to operate the people mover through 2015, and in the settlement that preceded its dismantling, Beneficial gave HART $5 million as seed money for the TECO Streetcar Line. The money from one failed downtown circulator was used to fund another.
Today HART does not know if it will be able to continue running the streetcar. In August 2011 the Tampa Port Authority board voted to end its $150,000 annual operating subsidy, rejecting a middle-ground plan to reduce the subsidy to $50,000. The new streetcar’s ridership is marginally better than the Jacksonville Skyway’s, at 501,959 trips in 2010, but HART expects a fiscal year 2013 total of just 330,000 trips, or a 50 percent drop. Perhaps those old-timey TECO cars will not be too sorely missed after all.
A New Way for Streetcars
There is nothing inherently wrong with streetcars as transit. The problem is in how they are deployed. The original streetcar systems were largely straight-line routes serving central business districts. The point was to get people to the CBD, where they would move around on foot. To this day the urban cores that lend their names to multi-county regions remain the most engaging, comfortable, and interesting places in the metro area to walk. The buildings are varied, attractive, and close to the sidewalk, street trees are common, and fenestration allows two-way communication between occupants of the buildings and the people on the street.
Proprietors need pedestrians to access their businesses; for them the money for urban circulators would be better spent bringing people to the urban core or improving the streetscape. In emerging large cities—the places now green-lighting light rail—streetcars, because of limited capacity, are not up to the task of delivering human payload. What, then, is an appropriate use for the modern streetcar?
Downtown boosterism has worked best in places like Madison, Charlottesville, Burlington, Boulder, and Morgantown. These are college towns, where young, relatively active people are accustomed to walking around universities that serve as second downtowns.
College towns are ideal for public transit because they follow the original purpose of moving people from nearby suburbs to the CBD. Students tend to live in clustered housing near the university, their primary destination. Of the 30 most transit-efficient cities in the U.S. (defined by the number of passenger trips per mile of transit service provided), 16 are college towns such as Athens, Iowa City, Chapel Hill, and Ann Arbor. The other 14 are mainly large, dense cities with excellent rail transport such as San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C. (all of which also have significant student populations, though not the 25 percent threshold I use to classify college towns).
The highest and best use for a streetcar system is to connect dense student housing, a university, a functioning downtown, and a regional shopping venue, hospital, or other large attractor in a community of around 100,000 people. Athens, Gainesville, Norman, and Bloomington are ideal for this type of alignment (as is Lansing, which has opted to build a bus rapid transit system). We already have models for how to do this. Three systems in France provide exactly this kind of service: LeMans, Orleans, and Reims carry between 35,000 and 48,000 trips daily on systems that have between 6.9 and 11.2 miles of track. These streetcars—called tramways there—not only serve universities and downtowns but also take advantage of the tram’s small footprint by wending between buildings, using rights of way that are useless to larger mass transit vehicles or automobiles.
Planners in Tampa and other streetcar cities have been betting on modal magnetism, the notion that the inherent attractiveness of rail will get people to use it even if there is not an existing demand for the service. This idea is wrong, and it has not worked. Transit projects should be built not to create demand but to serve the demonstrated needs of the public.
Not every circulator streetcar project is doomed. Two newish outdoor malls (or “lifestyle centers”) in Southern California—Americana at Brand and the Grove—have circulating fleets of garish, old-fashioned streetcars. People drive to the lifestyle centers, park in vast parking decks, and ride the trolley past fountains, high-end storefronts, pedestrians, and outdoor diners enjoying California’s glorious weather. These private streetcars fill the same role as the TECO streetcar, but without hitting up taxpayers. At Brand and the Grove the developers are entirely on the hook for the cost of the streetcars, and no one mistakes the systems for mass transit. This is a model that works: The shoppers get taken for a ride, but taxpayers do not.