Samuel Schieb argues that the resurgent popularity of the urban streetcar is a swindle that doesn’t live up to its promotion:
There are currently 16 streetcar lines operating as public transit in the United States, but depending on how you count there are as many as 80 cities with streetcars in the planning or development phase. Far from the dominant form of urban transport they once were, streetcars have become prestige projects celebrated for their history, beauty, and alleged ability to promote development.
But the sad secret is that streetcars of all descriptions and vintages are at best modestly successful transportation projects, at worst expensive objets d’art that very few people use. Demand for the vehicles is driven not by the public but by the dreams of land-use planners and downtown boosters who imagine that aesthetically pleasing vehicles lumbering in slow circles through walkable areas will somehow prompt a boom in economic activity. Streetcar booster Gloria Ohland has often written that streetcars should be considered “economic development projects with transportation benefits.”…
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.
Read the whole thing to get an overview of the streetcar’s history as well as its reintroduction to American cities.
I think Schieb is making a larger point: projects built for nostalgic or historic purposes may not be enough to justify their cost or to expect that they will generate more traffic and revenues by themselves. Such projects still need to be designed well and take advantage of existing patterns, not just hope for new social patterns to emerge. Related to the streetcar, Schieb also discusses the pedestrian mall, a technique tried in a number of communities across the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. (A note: this was tried in Chicago on State Street and proposed in Wheaton for Hale Street but both streets returned to roadways.) While these pedestrian malls might harken back to a day without cars (though urban streets were possibly more chaotic before cars), simply putting one in is not enough in itself to attract people. In conjunction with other helpful factors, streetcars and pedestrian malls can be successful but they are not quick fixes that can simply be plopped into places.