Streetcar the Savior?

Streetcars are increasingly seen as boons to local economies. And with a $130 million federal fund aimed at streetcar projects, some are expecting more systems to develop, according to this article. Others, though, still question the investment.

But whether streetcars are city saviors is up for debate.

"[T]here's nothing streetcars can do that buses can't do better, faster, safer and for far less money, said CATO Institute senior fellow Randal O'Toole. 'Even though a single light-rail train can hold more passengers than a bus, a bus route can move more passengers per hour than any light-rail line.'

Portland's streetcar system attracts about 12,000 daily riders at an average ticket cost of $1.47. Its creators credit it with $3.5 billion in surrounding development, including shops, restaurants and 10,000 new housing units."

Full Story: Can streetcars save America's cities?



Don't confuse streetcars with LRT

First of all, I'll apologise for playing at semantics here, but streetcars and LRT play are fundamentally different tools that play very different roles even though they look very similar, and the same vehicle can function as both a streetcar and a line-haul LRT.

Streetcars operate at a slower speed and are made for local access. This is why you generally see them operating as downtown circulators and along dense corridors with lots of retail and restaurant activity. LRT is primarily for longer-haul commuting, and is designed to move large numbers of people quickly over long distances between a limited number of stations. The line between streetcars and LRT is too-easily muddied, and the LRT vs. BRT debate (which I admit is not part of this article) is about whether rail or buses are better suited to the longer-haul inter-zone commute trips. This unfortunately can devolve into streetcars vs. buses in downtown areas, which isn't necessarily a fair comparison, depending on the reasons for wanting to implement streetcars to begin with.

Streetcars can really shine as economic development and revitalization tools for urban centres. Although they do a good job of moving people around a given area or along a corridor, their primary role is better thought of as economic development, and also the promotion of "park-once-and-walk" in busy retail areas.

This is not to say there are not exceptions to what I have just said, but I think distinguishing between the different roles that streetcars and LRT play is useful when evaluating these types of projects. If your goal is to move people over longer distances for commuter/inter-zone travel, then the debate should be BRT vs. LRT vs. express buses. If your goal is to boost an urban neighbourhood and facilitate local travel downtown, then streetcars are definitely an option to consider.

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