Sunday, April 6, 2008

Streetcars: Getting Out of Our Silos

This began as a response to some comments on a thread over at the Seattle Transit Blog. Almost everyone over there on that thread is supportive of streetcars, just not how they are implemented. Some want fixed guideways, some think buses are better and others believe that streetcars are worthless.

When we look at streetcars from a purely transportation standpoint, we are missing the point. We are creating silos in which to put different aspects of the city. Transportation here, land use here, city fiscal responsibility here, and the environment here.

If we are to look at the overall benefits and needs, we see that there is a great benefit to streetcars when they are appropriate which I believe they were in Portland and Seattle given the goals of these lines. The goals implicitly or explicitly were to tie downtown to a new neighborhood that would boost walkability and livability in the city for more people. There is an important lesson for how cities benefit from transportation such as the streetcar.

1. The Corridor vs. Node

Streetcars are not meant to be rapid transit but rather pedestrian accelerators within districts and areas just outside of town. If you think that streetcars are the solution to everything, you are wrong. A system is needed but how the technology influences land use is important to the decision. Given that the streetcar is pedestrian scaled, it creates a corridor of pedestrian oriented development. This is why many of the first ring suburbs have commercial strips that were once served by streetcars. It's also why many of the former interurban lines formed small towns around the station, just like light rail creates a node of development today. Two different transit modes, two different purposes.

2. Streetcar Corridors Create More Density/Value

More density means more rooftops means more close retail means more walking. This is important because when we build new neighborhoods we want people not to do the same things they do in sprawl. The key to the streetcar is increasing the envelope for density on a corridor. In fact the streetcar in Portland pushed developers to get closer to their density maximums closer to the line. 90% of the envelope was filled one block from the line. 75% two blocks and further down. Seattle is doing the same thing. Building at higher densities that would usually be built because of developer confidence in the future of the streetcar.

But why is this important? Well it means that over the long term, that piece of land will create more tax revenue than whatever dreck was built next to the bus line. So when we look at the streetcar funding issue versus the bus, how much more value was created for the community? What is the tax creation of a 10 story building over 100 years versus a 5 story building? So in the whole scheme of things, the bus is a cheap alternative that in the end costs the city more. We need to get out of that silo.

3. It Creates the Pedestrian Experience

Part of the reason for building the streetcar and creating the density is creating a good pedestrian and street environment. Who wants a bus running by your dinner? Your coffee?


But also, the creation of a pedestrian environment and pedestrian accelerators increased the area folks are willing to walk. And the creation of more of these neighborhoods on a corridor by streetcars is important because this increased walking has been shown to reduce VMT. In fact the 7,200 housing units along the Portland Streetcar line have been estimated to reduce VMT by 53 million miles a year. Thats nothing to sneeze at and will be something that decreases greenhouse gases. But all of this is not attributable to the streetcar, but to the creation of a walkable environment from the densities and streetscapes. Developers are more willing to create these densities and places with the streetcar instead of a bus.

As I have said before, its not always about speed. Creating an environment for pedestrians means also a slower environment, a safer environment. While 43,000 a year die on the highways, I heard this weekend from Rick Gustafson of Portland Streetcar Inc that the Streetcar has had accidents, but no one has been seriously injured.

So while a bus might be more flexible, as a circulator and distributer the streetcar serves a community organizing purpose. It is not for every corridor and in fact it might animate less used streets such as the North-South streets chosen for Portland's streetcar. That does not mean that the route should travel away from the preferred corridor such as Guadalupe street in Austin and Guadalupe should have a dedicated lane due to its traffic volumes. But these are decisions that should be made based on the location and with the whole vision in mind. We need to stop thinking in our silos and think about and articulate all the benefits of certain investments from all standpoints, not just transportation and moving people. After all, thats all the highway engineers do and look what it gets us, big roads that move cars faster while killing street life.


arcady said...

What I think you're trying to get at here is that we need more systems-level thinking: it doesn't make sense to look at transportation or housing or pollution in isolation, since they're all so inter-related. Rather, you have to look at them as part of a single system, which, if you perturb one component, will create some kind of reaction in all the others, with feedbacks and so on.

A good example is the case for the efficiency of public transportation: even if transit uses the same amount of energy per passenger-mile as a car, it is still more efficient, because a city designed around transit is denser, making trip lengths and therefore total passenger-miles shorter, thus reducing total energy use, something you can't see if you assume that the parts of the system are independent. The reductionist way of thinking starts with "All other things being equal...", while the systems thinking approach recognizes the fact that this is rarely an accurate assumption to make.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

Agreed. I think systems thinking needs to be a part of the equation when looking at these expenditures.

M1EK said...

The best streetcars in the world run in some reserved guideway - if we're learning lessons from them, we could at least try to learn the RIGHT lessons.

"extending the pedestrian zone" works just as well with buses. Yes, really. Tourists prefer streetcars - but daily commuters will notice the time and reliability penalties (even worse than with the bus).

We only have a few dollars to spend on rail. Spending them on something which is objectively worse for its users than the bus is just a fundamentally dumb idea.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

No M1ek, with buses it does not work just as well. Did you even read my post??? You are still talking in the transportation silo. You can't seem to get your head around the development differences that produce more places to walk to. In Portland without the streetcar and other provisions it would still be 15 units an acre versus 130. And worse than bus is an overstatement from your problem with the few times that there is an obstruction. This just does not happen as often as you or the newspapers would like you to think it does.

The numbers in Portland are proving you wrong. With a particularly bad headway, they still get 12,000 people a day. That is the same as Charlotte's light rail line.

M1EK said...

Jeff, the last five or six times I took a bus down Congress, there was an obstruction in the right lane 3 or 4 of those times. It actually was the rule more than the exception.

The ONE thing I've given shared-lane streetcar credit for was density promotion. Fine. But if we're using it for that, we could at least design in some reserved guideway at that time so it's not such an awful solution for transportation.

The jury's still out on Seattle. The novelty is starting to wear off when people like Seattle Transit Blog post that message (a very transit-positive customer beginning to become disgusted). Wait and see.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

Who's ever going to put the streetcar down the right side of congress? They should improve traffic on that street by putting it in the center and restricting left turns. That is what happens here on Market Street and on Congress you're going to have to basically redo the street if you put it in the right lane because of the crown. I'd like to see the engineering on it at least.

In any event, the problem I have with in street running on the J Church by my house is not a dedicated lane issue. It's a stop sign issue. Cars just don't cause problems that often but having to stop every other block is one think I wish designers would change.

M1EK said...

The streetcars are going to go down the right lane because you can't really run in shared traffic anywhere else. Not feasibly, anyways - not if you want there to be stops. Remember, this is "cheap streetcar" a la Seattle - no massive road redesign budget.

M1EK said...

Rather than "will run" in the right lane, I should have said "would have run" because I don't believe McCracken's group will tolerate that, but that's essentially what Capital Metro would have done if they had been allowed to continue with their plan.

Nickin206 said...

Just for the record I wasn't disgusted with Seattle Streetcar. My post came off wrong I think, but by the time I posted and re-read the post it was already 50 comments deep. I think that the Seattle Streetcar is going to be a very good part of our transit system. It already is. I ride it everyday and have since it came on line. I think that there are bugs that we have to work through. People have to get used to the idea of driving (and in our case) parking where there is a rail line. I think that streetcars are excellent people circulators. Especially in Seattle where South Lake Union is exploding in population, and will be with all the condos being finished up as well as businesses. My post had a slight negative tone, and that wasn't my intention.

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