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Review of Street Smart: Streetcars and Cities In the Twenty-First Century

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Review of Street Smart: Streetcars and Cities In the Twenty-First Century

The South Lake Union Streetcar lays over at the Westlake Terminus Station. A future streetcar line is planned to head east from here, up onto First Hill.

Christopher MacKechnie

Review of Street Smart: Streetcars and Cities In the Twenty-First Century

If you were to think that the fact that Street Smart: Streetcars and Cities In the Twenty-First Century (Ohland, G and Poticha, S, ed, 2009) is self-published means that the book does not necessarily offer an objective assessment of the benefits and drawbacks of building a streetcar system in your city, you would be correct. However, this pro-streetcar book does a good job of reviewing the pros and how-tos of constructing a streetcar line in your town even as it ignores very basic questions (How many people are going to ride my new line? How will I pay to operate my new line?).

The heart of the book is made up of case studies of four heritage streetcar systems in the United States (San Francisco; Kenosha, WI; Little Rock, AR; and Tampa, FL). The Portland (OR) and Seattle streetcars - probably the two most successful new-streetcar starts - are also discussed throughout the book. The "F" line in San Francisco is by far the most successful line in terms of ridership of any "new" streetcar line operated in the United States, although "new" is a relative term since streetcars had previously operated along Market Street and continue to operate in a subway below the street even as the "F" line operates. Of course, San Francisco is unique in terms of transit demand and tourist demand (which the authors acknowledge) so let us consider the other systems. Two glaring omissions stand out: ridership and the operating cost, both the amount of the cost and how it is paid for.

If streetcars are smart for the country, which is inferred from the title, then they must attract a large ridership, correct? Well, the only ridership numbers we learn from the book is that the "F" line carries in excess of 20,000 riders per day while the Portland streetcar carries 9,000 people weekdays and 6,650 people Saturdays. How many people are riding in Kenosha, Little Rock, Tampa, or Savannah (GA) (another system discussed in the book)? Probably not that many; otherwise the authors would have mentioned the number. While it's opening was after the publication of the book, the extension of the Portland Streetcar to the east side of the Willamette River has proven to be disappointing in terms of ridership.

If there were no operating cost issues, then it would not matter how many people were enjoying a ride on the streetcar. Unfortunately, streetcars are very expensive to operate, a point not really brought up in this book. For example, in Portland the streetcar costs $218.36 per hour to operate while light rail costs $175.18 and the bus costs $136.19. In Seattle, the streetcar costs $208.26 versus $148.75 for the bus (all of the above numbers are from the NTD website). What is worse is that while the Seattle South Lake Union streetcar charges a fare, the Portland streetcar is free - which means that while lower income passengers on Portland buses must pay a fare of $2.50 per boarding the gentrified residents of the Pearl District and South Waterfront can ride transit gratis. Arguably, such a difference in fares could be considered a violation of the Title VI act.

Who is paying the $218.36 per hour to operate the Portland streetcar? Since its opening caused the property values of landowners adjacent to the route to skyrocket, it seems fair that they should help pay for it. While to the credit of streetcar proponents local property owners usually pay for at least some of the capital costs, the vast majority of operating costs are paid for by the transit agency. For example, property owners pay nothing to support the Seattle streetcar while the transit agency has to spend $1.5 million it found itself with when the opening of Link light rail made some bus service "redundant". At least Seattle found "redundant" money; Portland has been chipping away at its "frequent" routes for years, arriving at a point in 2009 where fifteen minute service (which it called frequent) was only guaranteed during peak periods. Would Portland still be able to operate its former excellent bus service if the streetcar was not in existence?

Overall, Street Smart is a really nice-looking glossy book full of nice pictures. In some cases, streetcar lines can cause development (which could be transit-oriented ) - development that might have taken place anyway in the region. Before cities rush out to build a line, however, they should carefully consider how to pay for the line operation on an on-going basis and how many people will ride the line. Otherwise, they risk having to cut bus services used by the transit-dependent in order to operate lines which, in the case of at least Tampa, are used primarily by tourists. For further reading, check out my page on transit follies .

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