Op-Ed: Streetcars Should Actually Serve Locals

While they're currently in vogue, streetcars are only worthwhile if they can be a viable option for local residents. Unfortunately, this is rarely how the systems are designed.

June 29, 2015, 6:00 AM PDT

By Philip Rojc @PhilipRojc

Seattle Streetcar

Richard Eriksson / Flickr

Streetcars, once a common feature in American cities, are on their way back. "The recent efforts of cities across the United States to build streetcar lines running through their downtowns have been heralded by some as an ideal amalgam—an investment in improved transportation that also leads to adjacent private development."

In a piece for Urban Land Magazine, Yonah Freemark criticizes existing streetcar systems for appealing to tourists rather than local residents. According to Freemark, there is no clear indication that installing sluggish streetcars actually drives economic growth.

From the article: "The focus on streetcars is reminiscent of the economic development strategies urban planners previously used in attempting to spruce up their downtowns, like pedestrian malls in the 1960s, festival marketplaces in the 1970s, and convention centers in the 1980s, none of which was particularly successful in reviving any downtown."

Freemark argues that a good streetcar system serves local needs, and does not serve as a downtown take on the Disneyland monorail. "The biggest problem is that they are typically too slow to be useful for most people [...] In the illustrative case of the recently opened Atlanta Streetcar, these conditions mean that the vehicles roll down the street at a measly six miles per hour (9.7 kmph). And that's once passengers have made it on board."

Wednesday, June 10, 2015 in ULI Urban Land Magazine

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