Building a 'Slow' Streetcar to 'Speed' Development

A common criticism of streetcars are their relative slow speed combined with high capital and operating costs. Still, streetcars are being constructed in both large in small cities to help incentivize development.

2 minute read

July 6, 2012, 9:00 AM PDT

By Andrew Gorden

Streetcars run at street-level, therefore, running directly along with the flow of traffic, and even stopping at stoplights. As Mary Newsom of The Naked City describes, many critics of streetcars "seem to be assessing the streetcar's value by whether it's faster than driving...," and as in one Charlotte Observal editorial writes, the streetcar "would operate on regular streets, stopping for red lights and traffic congestion. It wouldn't be faster than a bus. It would merely be a very expensive, but very pretty, bus. What the city is buying is an aesthetic."

Instead, as Newsom argues, is the true success of the streetcar, and why so many cities, big and small, around the U.S. are building high-priced, short-length routes; the streetcar provides a powerful incentive to development. She argues, "lost in that analysis, and in remarks by some that a streetcar is just a toy, is this: Development reacts to streetcars very differently from the way it reacts to bus routes." So even while the streetcar may not effectively increase speeds for those who switch to it over driving or using the bus, the gains from new development outweigh the transportation issues the streetcar fails to solve.

But yet, is it still worth it? Newsom cites, indeed, the millions of dollars cities and counties spend in other development incentives, such as building sports stadiums. What types of investments, as well as what kinds of funding mechanisms for such large projects, will certainly need to be the source for more research in the future.

Monday, June 25, 2012 in The Naked City

Chicago Intercity Rail

Amtrak Ramping Up Infrastructure Projects

Thanks to federal funding from the 2021 infrastructure act, the agency plans to triple its investment in infrastructure improvements and new routes in the next two years.

September 25, 2023 - Smart Cities Dive

Google maps street view of San Francisco alleyway.

Ending Downtown San Francisco’s ‘Doom Loop’

A new public space project offers an ambitious vision—so why is the city implementing it at such a small scale?

September 26, 2023 - Fast Company

Google street view of yellow "End Freeway 1/4 mile" sign on 90 freeway in Los Angeles, California.

Proposal Would Transform L.A.’s ‘Freeway to Nowhere’ Into Park, Housing

A never-completed freeway segment could see new life as a mixed-use development with housing, commercial space, and one of the county’s largest parks.

September 26, 2023 - Los Angeles Times

View of downtown Seattle with Space Needle and mountains in background

Seattle Passes Downtown Zoning Reforms

The changes, part of the mayor’s Downtown Activation Plan, make way for more residential development in the city’s downtown core.

48 minutes ago - The Urbanist

Close-up of 'bike lane' road sign with bike logo

Report: U.S. Biking Boom Slows

The pandemic bike boom is petering out, but more Americans are biking than ever before, signaling a need for cities to keep improving bike infrastructure and make roads safer for cyclists.

1 hour ago - Streetsblog USA

Newly constructed houses in Tempe, Arizona.

Tempe Historic Preservation Proposal Could Make it Harder to Build New Homes

Proposed changes to the city’s preservation ordinance would make two-thirds of the city’s housing stock eligible for preservation.

2 hours ago - The State Press