A Weak Platform: The streetcar as development tool, not transportationApril 16, 2012 by: Samuel Scheib
A person born in Tampa, Florida, or nearly any other significant American city in 1888, the year Frank J. Sprague produced the first successful electric streetcar in Richmond, Virginia, would live his youth knowing only the streetcar as a regular means of mechanized transport. He would marry in a church within earshot of the clang of a streetcar bell and take his own young children on trips downtown on the trolley.
By the man’s 40th birthday he would almost certainly have stopped riding the streetcar, perhaps even cursing them from behind the wheel of his motorcar for causing delay, and by the time he retired most of those old machines would have been sold for scrap. Yet if he had lived to be 100 years old, near the end of his life he would have heard the first stirrings of regret from a nation longing for those trolleys to return, and he probably missed them too.
Before the electric motor, the engine of urban transport vehicles had been the horse, which needed food, and water, and rest, and whose tailpipe emissions stood in piles between the tracks. Horses brought bad publicity when they died on en route and they were expensive. The electric streetcar pulled larger vehicles than pack animals could and for lower cost.
At its height the streetcar was ubiquitous and nothing less than a revolution, perhaps the second greatest evolution in transport: the locomotive moved people great distances, but not everyone had the means to travel; the airplane sped things up but railroads had already made transcontinental travel comfortable and ships could already get people and goods across the sea. Space flight is a curiosity; very few people have broken Earth’s bounds or know someone who has. Even the great automobile merely exaggerated the accomplishments of the streetcar.
Once Sprague broke with the horse, urban transport could carry people quickly, cleanly, and inexpensively from the crowded and polluted city center to virgin lands in the near countryside in large numbers. You would have to go all the way back to the invention of the wheel, when stone and timber could first be moved relatively long distances, to find a transport technology that made a more significant impact on the lives of regular folks. So it is not that surprising that we Americans have developed a taste for streetcars again.
There are currently 14 streetcars operating as public transit in the United States and, depending on how you count, as many as 80 cities with streetcars either in development or at least with intent in their hearts. Far from the dominant form of transportation they once were, streetcars have become prestige projects celebrated for being pieces of history (using Brill and Birney cars), for beauty (PCC cars), or for sleek design (modern Škoda cars), and touted for their ability to promote development. The dirty little secret is that at best they are modestly successful transportation projects and at worst they are expensive objets d’art that very few people use.
A Wall Street Journalarticle from 2007 titled “A Streetcar Named Aspire: Lines Aim to Revive Cities” describes the Tampa TECO streetcar line, which opened in 2003, as a $63 million “dud,” but notes that proponents of the project attribute $450 million of development to the (then) 2.4-mile route. One 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, and terminates at the edge of downtown. It goes places, just not where any resident needs to go.
Is the streetcar responsible for $450 million of development? It is impossible to say. Development did happen in conjunction with the streetcar but it is just as likely this valuable real estate in a dense area with many tourist destinations in the pre-recession years was going to grow up anyway. But that is not the point. One other note in the story: ridership was down 10% that year.
The Tampa TECO line, like all contemporary streetcars is an urban circulator (“contemporary” here meaning post-1980 implementation, to differentiate from “modern,” which describes a style of vehicle). The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) describes the purpose of its urban circulator program thusly:
Improving mobility and shaping America’s future by ensuring that the transportation system is accessible, integrated, and efficient, and offers flexibility of choices is a key strategic goal of DOT. FTA is committed to creating livable communities that improve the quality of life for all Americans. Urban circulator 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. [emphasis added]
That is an accurate summation of the goals of the contemporary streetcar movement because FTA omits what is both the purpose and the most basic metric of any transit project: Ridership. How is it possible the number of trips generated by a project costing in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars is not the central consideration?
Nice Vehicle but What is It?
Any discussion of streetcar requires establishing what the thing is. Streetcars are sometimes considered light rail transit (LRT), most notably by the FTA through its National Transportation Database (NTD) that classifies all vehicles operating on rails and mostly at-grade (i.e. on the same level as automobiles), and usually powered by overhead wires as light rail. There are, however, some subtle differences. Light rail cars are coupled, making them trains in the strict sense of the word, whereas streetcars, whether vintage (historic reproductions), heritage (antiques), or modern, are always a single car, even if modern streetcars are articulated (bend in sections) and thus are longer. LRT almost never operates in mixed traffic whereas streetcar often does, and light rail infrastructure is far heavier and more expensive to construct; compare two recently completed Seattle projects, the 1.3-mile South Lake Union Streetcar at $39 million per mile and the 14-mile Link light rail at $193 million per mile.
These differences between light rail and streetcar can be nearly impossible to quantify. Thirty years ago the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) in Philadelphia ordered a group of vehicles from Kawasaki Railcars for use in its subway-to-surface lines. The vehicles are boxy and modern looking, a single car in length, powered by overhead wires, and often used in mixed-traffic. They sound like streetcars but are called light rail vehicles, LRV. When asked why that name was used, a representative from the company said, “In the request for proposals, SEPTA asked for an LRV.” At the end of the day, precision is elusive. If asked to identify a streetcar, sometimes the best we can do is to resort to Justice Potter Stewart’s Pornography Axiom and say, “I know it when I see it.”
Cradle to Grave and Back
The Tampa of the late 19th century is remembered for hand-rolled cigars made in Ybor City, for the eastern-influenced onion domes of the Henry B. Plant Hotel where Plant’s Savannah, Florida, and Western Railway ended, and for Theodore Roosevelt’s departure with the Rough Riders for Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Tampa’s is a singular history, but it was a typical city in its extensive streetcar network that peaked at 190 vehicles running eleven routes on 53 miles of track.
By 1910 American cities had emptied into the surrounding countryside. Urban areas were segmented into warehouse and factory districts around rail yards, the fashionable central business district for shopping and professional work, and suburbs which were homogeneous enclaves of class and ethnicity, all of them connected by networks of streetcar routes. For a nickel people could commute into the city for work, shopping, or entertainment on vehicles that traveled as fast as 30 miles per hour but averaged about 12. The glory days of the streetcar lasted a quarter of a century.
Despite our rosy recollections of the streetcar era, the so-called traction trusts that owned the systems were widely considered corrupt and greedy by the public and riders were open to new ways to get around. The costs of labor and materials more than doubled during World War I while fares, written into charters in the 1890s, were locked at a nickel. Tracks and rolling stock entering the fourth decade of use in many cities needed upgrades and repairs at a time when the traction trusts were broke. Meanwhile automobile registrations were increasing rapidly, and federal and state governments, to use the current political argot, picked a winner with the auto industry by funding road building while the private transit systems were on the hook for track, rolling stock, and operating expenses.
In 1910, GM, Firestone, Standard Oil, Philips Petroleum and others pooled their resources to form National City Lines, which purchased more than a hundred streetcar systems and replaced them with bus routes. The streetcar systems were a bargain because they were failing already and buying them was simply a good business decision. By the mid-1920s developers were no longer concerned with getting rail extended to their subdivisions and after World War II, transit use just fell off a cliff.
Back on the Continent something else happened, and here is where street-level rail transit was transformed. While Americans were abandoning their cities for suburbs the Germans were reconstructing war torn urban cores and took the opportunity to restructure their mass transit systems. Looking for a less expensive alternative to the underground metro, planners in German cities cast an eye to the very thing Americans were then discarding but with some clever adaptations.
The result was called stadtbahn, city rail, which combined the best parts of strassenbahn and U-bahn, streetcar and underground. “Three features of light rail became apparent to North American LRT proponents after the reconstruction of Germany,” says Dr. Gregory Thompson, professor of transportation planning at Florida State University and the chair of the Transportation Research Board’s Light Rail Committee. “The vehicle must be separated from traffic through medians or running on the other side of the sidewalk from automobiles. Stops, as with an underground, should be at intermediate distances, not as frequent as bus stops.” Rapid entry and exit of the vehicles was paramount. “You have to use all available doors and take the driver out of the [payment] loop.”
In the late 1970s North American cities began importing the German adaptation of the American streetcar first by Canada in Edmonton (1978) and then Calgary (1981). San Diego (1981) was the first American city to have rail with the new light rail transit designation.
Stadtbahn ran at street grade but was isolated from other traffic, had multiple cars each with one or two double-width doors that would all open together at platforms for passengers to board and alight, and fares were paid off the vehicle, checked by roving inspectors. Stops—stations really—were spaced between a half mile and a mile apart. It was fast, efficient, relatively inexpensive and entirely new to the transit world. “These were truly vehicles of mass transportation,” Thompson says.
The American construction of heavy rail that began in the 19th century in New York and Boston and continued through other major cities of the Northeast and Midwest in the early 20th effectively ended in the 1970s with subways in San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Atlanta, despite one last flirtation with LA’s Red Line, completed in 1993. As other American cities like Denver, Houston, Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Charlotte have matured and sought a premium transit mode they have gone with the German model . Then, like a toilet-trained toddler who begins wetting his pants again when the new baby arrives, America forgot everything it had learned from light rail. For the most part, the contemporary American streetcar is built to operate in mixed traffic, with frequent stops, uses only the front door for boarding and the driver collects 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,” he concludes, and the contemporary streetcar does exactly the opposite.
In Tampa, a city that followed the parabola of 20th century urbanism perfectly, the Plant Hotel—now the University of Tampa—remains the most widely recognized landmark. Cruise ships dock along Channelside Drive where war ships once departed, and Ybor City, absent cigar factories, has found other ways to thrive. The streetcar is there too, and like these other parts of old Tampa it has been repurposed. In 1926, the streetcar peak, fewer than 100,000 Tampa residents took 24 million trips on streetcars. In 2006, 578,000 residents took 520,000 trips on the TECO trolley, fewer than one per person and a decrease of 45,000 from the previous year. With an operating speed slower than 8 miles per hour, the TECO trolley is in every way a transit mode worse than a bus. But transit is not its purpose anyway.
Putting the Moves Downtown
Nostalgia is the power supply to the streetcar craze—how else do we explain the use of reproduction and historic Birney and PCC streetcars in so many systems?—but these projects roll on a pair of rails called Downtown Development and Tourism.
The first contemporary streetcars were laser-focused on tourism and economic development. When the San Francisco cable car renovation began in 1982 Muni, the San Francisco municipal transit system, wanted an alternative historic transit service for tourists. Using brightly colored, Art Deco PCC cars, the summer Trolley Festivals began in 1983 and that set the template. Historic streetcars popped up in tiny Galveston, Texas in 1988 and then Dallas in 1989. The Memphis Trolley joined the mix in 1993 and was featured in the Tom Cruise movie The Firm. Tampa and Little Rock opened vintage trolleys in 2003 and 2004 respectively.
While the earlier contemporary streetcars were primarily focused on tourism the Portland Streetcar gained fame as the first “modern” streetcar in the United States and became the model for the downtown circulator now being emulated by Atlanta, Los Angeles, 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 either born or incubated in Portland, which was even an early adopter of light rail, the Eastside MAX light rail having opened in 1986. For Portland, the streetcar, which has been credited with between $2.3 and $4 billion of development along its route, was a victory lap by the champion of 20th century American urbanism, which is not necessarily the best model for the rest of the country.
The urban street cred of Portland notwithstanding it is important to note that 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, 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 were already well on their way to near irrelevance. Transportation was the main reason for the decline; federally funded road projects like the Eisenhower interstate highway system were supposed to save downtown by providing a ready means to get people to the CBD for work, shopping, and recreation. Instead it became a means for people to get from the CBD as the shopping and recreation followed middleclass rooftops out to the suburbs. Professional jobs largely remained in the CBD for decades but downtown became a daytime destination.
In response downtown boosters and city planners started looking for The Thing that would bring people back to the CBD and 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 downtown pedestrian malls where people could enjoy an urban space, easily crossing the street to destinations on the other side without fear of being run over by a car. Sheboygan, WI (Harbor Center, 1972) New London, CT (Captain’s Walk, 1973), Tacoma, WA (Broadway Plaza, 1974), and Scranton, PA (Wyoming Ave Plaza, 1979) were a few of the many cities that unsuccessfully pioneered this way of attracting people to the downtown.
The pedestrian mall did not work out well and few remain, but among those that have thrived are in Aspen, Boulder, and Denver, Colorado; Boston, Massachusetts; Madison, Wisconsin; Charlottesville, Virginia; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Burlington, Vermont; and San Antonio, Texas. All of these had either an already strong downtown, a university presence, or both, with the lone exception being San Antonio which turned a storm water retention canal into a spectacular, singularly attractive urban water feature; having the Alamo nearby did not hurt.
Tampa, Florida, as we will soon see, is the Get-‘Em-Downtown poster child. 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 an audience who well knew the many attempts to reinvigorate a downtown that remained largely underused particularly after the sidewalks were rolled up at 5pm. And yes, Tampa too had a pedestrian mall. The brick-paved and tree-lined Franklin Street was closed to cars in 1973 and limped along with boarded storefronts for decades before reopening to cars in 2002.
The second wave in downtown circulation followed on the heels of the pedestrian mall. Walt Disney had pioneered the “people mover” at Disneyland in 1967. The name stuck and soon Boeing, LTV, and Rohr were developing driverless systems. Tampa International Airport was the first American airport to install a people mover and it runs from ticketing and baggage to airside to this day. Airports and large hospitals remain the main users of these horizontal elevators but five federally funded public transportation projects were built, 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 got another one outside of the airport too, the Harbour Island People mover in 1985 (Miami and Detroit got the other two).
An already strong downtown or large university presence are just as relevant to the success of a people mover as to a pedestrian mall. Built over valleys with no hope of 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 over 30 years now, and must be considered a good investment.
The Detroit People Mover is more of a type with airport and hotel people movers as it connects the parking decks of the Renaissance Center with other stations inside downtown buildings. It was not built to promote downtown street activity but rather to service motorists working in downtown buildings. To Detroit’s credit, they produced a project that fit a particular need and has adequate ridership to show for it with about 2 million annual trips (8,000 trips per day). At the other end of the spectrum is the Jacksonville Skyway with its puny 470,000 annual trips. Built to last through 2036, and currently with an annual operating deficit of $4 million, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority can anticipate spending $100 million over the next 25 years on 1,900 daily trips. But tearing it down would mean repaying the FTA for its investment, a lump sum payment of $80 million.
Tampa on the other hand was lucky enough to have the rare federal project that was actually destroyed. The Harbour Island People Mover connected the downtown to what was effectively a suburban shopping mall built on a small spit of land just offshore, close enough that former President Ford hit a golf ball from the island to the mainland during a 1983 visit. The Ledger noted 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 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, averaged just 2. The developer offered to sell the people mover to HART, the regional bus system, for only $1, but HART wisely declined. Demolition of the line, which had invited 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 does not end with its mere 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 dollars that would be the seed money for an operating fund for the TECO Streetcar Line. That is, the money from one failed downtown circulator was used to fund another. Today HART does not know if it will even be able to continue running the streetcar. In August 2011 the Tampa Port Authority board voted to end its $150,000 annual operating subsidy, including voting down a proposal to reduce the subsidy to only $50,000. Its ridership is marginally better than the Jacksonville Skyway, 501,959 trips in 2010. Perhaps those old-timey TECO cars will not be too sorely missed afterall.
Trolley with a target on its back
“The reason I find myself opposing rail is because it is done so poorly,” Wendell Cox, principal of the Public Purpose, told me. The Public Purpose works to oppose what Cox views as excessive government spending, and not surprisingly he finds a lot of that in rail systems. “The record,” he says, “shows that whatever street cars or light rail can do, buses can do less expensively.” Cox says he is not anti-transit and he has the bona fides to back that up: he served three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission and helped get Proposition A passed in 1980 that got L.A.’s Blue Line and most of the Red Line built.
Cox supported Prop A because he thought transit would help relieve L.A.’s infamous traffic congestion, his primary interest in transportation projects. This is a problematic position because while transportation projects—transit or road—increase capacity, they do not relieve congestion. Transit systems can be credited with modestly reducing automobile vehicle miles traveled (VMT) when drivers shift to transit, but in spite of some very serious efforts to quantify congestion—notably by the Texas Transportation Institute’s Urban Mobility Report—congestion is simply a matter of perception: a Tallahasseean’s gridlock is an Angeleno’s free flow traffic.
Cox can be disingenuous. He writes that Portland’s traffic congestion went up almost as much as Atlanta’s even though Portland spent heavily on light rail while ignoring Atlanta’s increasing congestion despite building more highways. But transit as an industry has repeatedly walked into the congestion relief trap by touting this as a benefit of a project. A 2011 FTA press release, for example, announced the Atlanta streetcar would “reduce congestion downtown.” In a 28-county metro area with massive roadways leading to a downtown full of parking and a subway barely serving three of those counties, suggesting congestion relief is spouting the party line more than touting a serious benefit of the project.
Here is where the contemporary streetcar movement produces common ground between light rail expert Thompson and anti-rail crusader Cox: both would prefer to see projects carry a lot more people. The new crop of streetcars, however, only hands transit critics powerful arguments against all rail projects. The proposed Los Angeles streetcar will cost more than $100 million and duplicate service provided by dozens of frequent bus routes and the billion dollar Regional Connector LRT. Atlanta’s streetcar is expected to cost $72 million and serve a downtown that is immune to street activity. The Tampa streetcar comes in for special criticism because while it appears to be a transit project, it serves an exclusively development and tourism role: on weekdays the TECO streetcar does not make its first trip until noon. That is not public transportation, but to any casual observer it looks like transit and to opponents of rail these streetcars are white elephants to be slaughtered.
Another way for streetcar
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 otherwise get 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 spent on an urban circulator would be better spent bringing people to the urban core, not in moving them past their enterprises. In emerging large cities—the places getting light rail—streetcars, because of limited capacity, are not up to that task. What then is an appropriate use for the modern streetcar?
The observant reader may have noticed a trend among the downtown pedestrian malls and people movers noted above. Madison, Charlottesville, Burlington, Boulder, and Morgantown are places where these efforts have been successful and they are, of course, college towns where young, relatively active people are accustomed to walking around their universities, which are effectively second downtowns composed of tall buildings, multistory residences, and dense land uses.
College towns are ideal for public transit because they follow the original model for mass transit 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 as the number of passenger trips per mile of transit service provided), 16 are college towns like Athens, Iowa City, Chapel Hill, and Ann Arbor. The other 14 were mainly large, dense, cities with excellent rail transport like San Francisco, Boston, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and New York (all of which also have significant student populations but not the 25% threshold I used 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 along just such an alignment) and we already have models for how to do it. Three systems in France provide exactly this kind of service: LeMans, Orleans, and Reims are carrying from 35,000 to 48,000 trips daily on systems with 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 right-of-way that is useless to larger transit vehicles or automobiles.
What planners in Tampa and other streetcar cities have been betting on is what I call modal magnetism, a belief that the attractiveness of rail will get people to use it even if there is not an existing demand. This is wrong and it has not worked. Transit projects should not be built to create demand but to serve the needs of the public.
Pedestrian malls, people movers, and streetcars are the expressions of urbanists in Tampa and other similarly situated cities trying to find that one thing that makes a truly great urban environment. But the one thing that makes a great urban space is many things. Cities need housing for multiple income levels, good schools to attract young families, social services to minimize homelessness and assist the elderly, great parks and other public spaces, a reliable, approachable, police force, broad-based retail (from locally-owned secondhand stores to chains like Old Navy or Nordstrom), and of course reliable and frequent transit service. While the TECO streetcar has lost ridership and public support, Tampa has, ironically, made great strides in these other areas and the city itself, not the metro area, had an almost 11% increase in population between 2000 and 2010.
Is there a place for projects like the Tampa TECO streetcar? Americana at Brand and the Grove are two “lifestyle centers,” basically outdoor malls, in California that have fleets of garish, old-fashioned streetcars that circulate these developments. People drive to the lifestyle centers and park in vast parking decks then 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 does but the American taxpayer, through the FTA, paid for much of the Tampa
system. At Brand and the Grove the developers are entirely on the hook for the cost of the streetcars and no one is under the impression this is mass transit. It is a good model because this way the shoppers get taken for a ride but the public does not.