Lately there has been a fervent debate in Madison Wisconsin over whether streetcars would be good for the urban environment there. In the Capital Times, Op-Eds for each side have been flying back and forth but most of the opposition is using the misinformation of Randal O'Toole and Wendell Cox (What great names for villains). The most recent one written by Ward Lyles of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin rebuffs the arguments made by local folks who don't know all the facts with data from the National Transit Database and professional anti-rail propaganda as stated by Randal O'Toole.
As a circulator system, streetcars are a great idea. They combine the stop spacing of buses with the economic development potential and ridership bump of semi-metro type light rail to which streetcars are related. They are not meant to go fast but rather act as pedestrian accelerators and meld with the urban environment. In Portland, the streetcar carries almost 9,000 folks a day and has helped to spur $2.8 billion in development. This development was not just because of the streetcar but as a part of the total planning package, the Pearl District and South Waterfront areas are becoming the most European like neighborhoods in the West.
In Madison like their sister city Austin, streetcars should only be part of the transportation solution as circulators connecting major destinations in the downtown. Cities such as Denver, Salt Lake City and Seattle are already way ahead of the game in thinking about transportation in bigger terms than just a single mode. All of them are building light rail, thinking about streetcars, and operate many different types of buses.
In some corridors streetcars work, in others light rail is more apt and in freeways with HOV lanes there might be an opportunity for express bus service but all of the modes are needed to beat dependence on the single occupancy automobile. This is something Madison, Austin and other towns need to be talking about if they want to have a transportation sea change like the previously mentioned members of the transit space race.