The Siren Call of Streetcars

(Photo: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

A DC streetcar travels along H Street NE in Washington, D.C., on January 27, 2015.

The long-awaited D.C. streetcars recently started trundling down Washington’s H Street NE, near the U.S. Capitol. Yet the $200 million line, which had been in the works for a full decade, has mostly been greeted with the sound of one hand clapping. Residents have complained about the slow speed of the system, the short span of the line, and the paucity of new jobs or better transit connections for the area’s African American poor.

When it comes to streetcars, New York is no Washington, insists Gotham Mayor Bill de Blasio. The Big Apple, he says, would have a “different” approach to the $2.5 billion Brooklyn Queens Connector, a cross-borough waterfront streetcar plan. Still, a streetcar is a curious choice for New York, a city that epitomizes a “the quick and the dead” attitude toward urban commuting—getting to a final destination by the shortest, fastest route possible.

Streetcars are all the rage today in areas that would be otherwise ideal for a speedier and less expensive option, such as bus rapid transit. But the streetcar renaissance in cities like Washington and New York reflects a short-sighted prioritization of real-estate development projects served by boutique transit, rather than more well-thought-out, cost-effective transit options that provide demonstrable benefits for the greatest number of residents.

The primary such option is bus rapid transit, which provides bus-exclusive travel through a separate right of way (such as a tunnel) or a dedicated lane that excludes other vehicles, preferably with traffic lights timed to speed the vehicles through, especially during rush hours.

In a tax-averse era, buses have other virtues. They are less expensive to purchase and operate. Two years ago, an Arlington, Virginia, streetcar proposal got the axe as its estimated costs crept over the $500 million mark. This month, Cincinnati taxpayers found out a nearly $150 million city streetcar line will cost an additional $1.2 million more.

With their subway-like appearance and dedicated tracks built at a fraction of a subway’s cost, modern streetcars provide the illusion of the type of system that most riders want but that no city can afford. However, streetcars have few of the benefits of rail or buses. Unlike bus rapid transit, they travel at a leisurely pace, make frequent stops, and get held up in the same traffic that buses, cars, and trucks do.

“There is always a bus solution to doing what a streetcar does,” says Jarrett Walker, an international transit planning and policy consultant who blogs at “The expense of a streetcar is specifically associated with improving the look and feel without improving how soon you get anywhere.”

But streetcars have a major public relations advantage: They aren’t buses, which are arguably the most maligned mode of transportation on the planet. Modern streetcars have more cachet, they are both sleek and retro in an age when an old-school vibe is a positive attribute. (Why else would young men favor beards commonly associated late-19th-century U.S. presidents?) Buses can be scruffy and are in sore need of a phalanx of public relations gurus.

So when it comes to stoking big-ticket real-estate opportunities, a bus simply will not do. “What the real-estate industry wants out of [streetcars] is to raise land values to stimulate higher density development,” says Walker.

In its 2015 analysis of American streetcars projects, the Metropolitan Council, a regional policymaking organization formulating a framework for streetcars in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area found that “streetcar projects are expected to promote economic development.” However, the report also said that the economic impact of a streetcar project is “elusive, and debatable.”

Nevertheless, a 2012 Washington streetcar land use study noted, “The primary benefit the streetcar offers … is its visible permanence, which can serve as a powerful attraction to private real-estate investment.” The report had this to say about buses: “Although highly visible shelters and stations can raise the profile of bus service, the very flexibility of routes and service levels that represents its biggest advantage also dilutes its ability to spur real estate investment.”

In the case of Washington, “visible permanence” can also signal that a long-depressed area like Washington’s H Street Corridor, a predominately black neighborhood where whites have largely feared to tread or live until very recently, is ripe for gentrification. An exhaustive 2015 Mineta Transportation Institute/San José State University report on streetcars observed, “The streetcar’s symbolic role appeared to be particularly important as its presence, and status as a public investment, reassured developers and business owners that it was now ‘safe’ for them to make their own private economic investments in the same area.”

That conclusion might sum up the H Street streetcar for some. Area resident Ester Hardesty told The Washington Post that the streetcar was “for more affluent people … to get them off the bus,” Hardesty said. “I don’t care if they’re black or white, but it wasn’t put there for us.”

The Brooklyn-Queens streetcar proposal is coming under similar criticism as a real estate sector-oriented boondoggle. Streetsblog editor-in-chief Ben Fried outlines a number of reasons that a streetcar is a poor fit for an area that does not have a subway stop. Under the current proposal, the streetcar would not provide a direct connection to the subway system and would operate independently of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the city’s public transportation network. That means riders would have to pay another fare when they transfer to an MTA bus or subway. Or that riders could travel for free and the operating funds would have to come from some other pot of city monies.

One of Fried’s solutions to New York’s $2.5 billion conundrum is bus rapid transit. Or as a Curbed New York commenter put it: “It is amazing what people will come up with when just running more damn buses would be 1000x cheaper and 1000x better.”

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