October 12 2012

A Streetcar Not Named Desire?

Vicki E. Alger

The results of a new analysis in this month’s Reason magazine finds however nostalgic folks might get over trolleys, there’s not a whole lot of demand for actually riding them:

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. …

Yet the fantasy that people will travel or move to a particular location purely for the pleasure of tootling around in a trolley has consistently failed to materialize. Because the urban circulator is not tailored to the needs of modern city dwellers who use mass transit to get around, there is no natural constituency to ride them. The result: Many communities get stuck with an eternal loop of empty, expensive white elephants.

A better model is the privatized streetcar:

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. …

Not every circulator streetcar project is doomed. Two newish outdoor malls (or “lifestyle centers”) in Southern California—Americana at Brand and the Grove—have circulating fleets of garish, old-fashioned streetcars. People drive to the lifestyle centers, park in vast parking decks, and 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 [Tampa] TECO streetcar, but without hitting up taxpayers. At Brand and the Grove the developers are entirely on the hook for the cost of the streetcars, and no one mistakes the systems for mass transit. This is a model that works: The shoppers get taken for a ride, but taxpayers do not. 

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