Cato senior fellow Randal O’Toole, who calls streetcars “the latest urban planning fad” using “19th century technology,” says the costs are too great, the inefficiency too high and, contrary to other reports, streetcars do not single-handedly provide economic revitalization of blighted areas.
Nonetheless, with an increased availability of federal funding for streetcar initiatives under the Obama administration, more than 45 cities are in some stage of planning for this transportation option. Active projects are in place in more than two dozen cities, including Los Angeles, Dallas, Portland and Washington D.C. and its suburbs.
Portland, which is often considered a success story and where riders are still anxious for more lines to open, did not have its downtown area revitalized because of the streetcar system, says O’Toole, but rather because of the city’s microbrewery revolution and independent megabookstore Powell’s.
But that’s not unique to Portland.
“What streetcar advocates rarely if ever mention is that the city also gave developers hundreds of millions of dollars of infrastructure subsidies, tax breaks, and other incentives to build in the streetcar corridor,” writes O’Toole. “Almost no new development took place on portions of the streetcar route where developers received no additional subsidies.”
And even if one could justify the business development subsidies, O’Toole argues that streetcars cost approximately double that of buses.
“Streetcars are no more energy efficient than buses and, at least in regions that get most electricity from burning fossil fuels, the electricity powering streetcars produces as much or more greenhouse gases and other air emissions as buses,” wrote O’Toole.
O’Toole couldn’t find any redeeming qualities of streetcars, but what about you?