Streetcars once ruled American cities but more recent projects in many cities may primarily be used by tourists:
Some new figures further strain the connection between streetcars and core city mobility. Florida State planning student Luis Enrique Ramos recently led a comparison of ridership factors on U.S. streetcars versus those on light rail. (The work, not yet published, was presented at a recent conference.) What he found was that streetcar ridership was unrelated to service frequency, bus connections, and job proximity — the very factors that make light rail attractive to everyday commuters.
In other words, streetcars serve a completely different population of travelers than light rail does. Which population is that? Ramos and collaborators can’t say for sure, but they have a theory: tourists. Just look at the hours of operation for the Tampa streetcar — beginning at noon on weekdays? — and ask yourself who rolls into work after lunch. (And please do let us know, because we want that job.)
None of this is to say that streetcars aren’t necessarily worth it. Commutes make up a fraction of total travel in metro areas. Trolleys can operate very effectively in dense cores by running along a dedicated track, and when they arrive frequently they can promote a lively pedestrian culture. When paired with mixed-use zoning, trolleys can also lead to significant economic development (though arguably less than other modes, like bus-rapid transit).
That leaves emerging streetcar cities with a mostly-tourist attraction they hope will generate business — an amenity that feels similar in spirit to a downtown sports stadium. Again, sometimes city taxpayers conclude that an arena is worth it, and many cities no doubt feel the same about trolleys, cost overruns notwithstanding. But residents who hope the streetcar will improve mobility should be careful to consider whether they’re paying for a ride, or getting taken for one.
Some interesting factors to consider. Tourism is often seen as a significant force in many cities as it is a way to increase tax revenues as well as improve a city’s image. Streetcars can often be viewed in nostalgic terms, something that often fits a community’s appeal to tourists. Yet, if the streetcars aren’t an integrated part of a larger transportation system that serves residents and tourists, is the money spent worth it?
When streetcar use exploded in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was a driver of sprawl: it opened up development in new areas because it could cover more territory than railroads by using roads. In other words, the streetcars were pioneers. Today, building new streetcar systems also requires modifying roads and the neighborhoods already exist. The article suggests buses may be a more appropriate modification to the existing streetscape because they are more cost-effective and might better serve residents. At this point in time, streetcars serve very different purposes and it requires work to implement them into a community.
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