There is a cautionary tale for the expansion of the District’s streetcar system in a recent think-tank report: Don’t expect that streetcars alone will bring renewed prosperity to the neighborhoods they serve.
The District has a plan to extend streetcar service, which has already begun on H Street east of Union Station, in several directions, including into areas east of the Anacostia River. Although that will provide transportation to those areas, a report comparing two pioneer cities in the revival of streetcar service says that simply laying down trolley tracks to replace buses won’t bring development to those places unless other incentives are in place.
The study, by San Jose State University and the Mineta Transportation Institute, compares Portland, Ore., which began the streetcar car revival in 2001, and Seattle, which has had the service for more than a decade, to see whether real estate and commercial investment soon followed.
Trolleys once provided the backbone for transit systems everywhere. Before cars, buses and urban rail lines, streetcars ruled the streets in U.S. cities. In the 19th century they were horse-drawn, but as that century neared its close some cities began cable-drawn systems (think San Francisco, where they still exist) and others, like Washington, began stringing overhead wires to electrify the cars.
But by the mid-20th century, urban areas began tearing up the tracks. Buses were deemed more suitable because they could be routed around a fire scene, a stopped ambulance or a construction site, and were maneuverable in general.
Fast forward to the 21st century, the streetcar has made a comeback in cities across the country, with many studying the examples of Portland and Seattle to guide their way.
Against the backdrop of the Portland and Seattle systems, the San Jose State/Mineta Institute study wades deep into the debate between streetcar advocates and their critics. In addition to providing basic transportation, the study uses the issuance of permits for commercial and residential development as one measure of whether a streetcar line succeeds or falls short of success.
It also compared Portland’s older, more extensive and integrated system with Seattle’s, which was built more than six years later and still lacks a connection between two streetcar corridors, which may or may not be constructed.
“In most cities, streetcars are not being pursued primarily for the transportation benefits they might provide, but instead are being sought for the benefits they might provide with respect to development,” study authors Jeffrey Brown and Joel Mendez wrote.
They concluded: “Many streetcar advocates hope to use streetcars to revitalize their downtowns and/or nearby neighborhoods . . . into economically dynamic, attractive, walkable places that are desirable locations for developers, businesses, and residents.”
At best, they said, comparison of streetcar lines in the two cities show mixed results. The authors concluded that:
●The presence of a streetcar line does not guarantee additional development opportunities.
●Even when development occurs in the immediate area of a streetcar line, the result may differ from the mix of commercial and residential balance that the policymakers envisioned.
●Although a streetcar may help stimulate development, there often need to be additional incentives that might include zoning changes, streetscape improvements, investment in public spaces, and tax and financing help.
●Integrating a streetcar line into an existing transit network is critical to the line’s success.
●Although streetcars may help urban neighborhoods to develop, they also should provide viable transportation options for commuters.
“The importance of treating the streetcar as a transportation alternative, not just as a development stimulant, is a major lesson highlighted within this study,” the authors wrote. “The more effective a streetcar is as a transportation service, and the more it is used by patrons, the more likely it is to have development effects.”
They also add a cautionary note.
“Cities such as Cincinnati, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Atlanta have projected the development impact of a streetcar system to be in the billions of dollars, far exceeding anticipated costs,” they wrote. “This presentation can lead to the eventual securing of public support, as they are presented as sound public investments, even when the forecast effects are highly speculative and the promise of development outcomes somewhat questionable.”