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Driving Purpose: U.S. Research: Streetcars Leverage Development, City Identity, Public Transit

This article summarizes a 2015 Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) report, “The Purpose, Function and Performance of Streetcar Transit in the Modern U.S. City: A Multiple-Case-Study Investigation” (MTI Report 12-39). Summarized with permission.

The streetcar has made a remarkable resurgence in the U.S. in recent years. However, despite the proliferation of streetcar projects, there is remarkably little analysis of the streetcar’s role as a transportation service.

This study examines modern-era streetcars in Little Rock (AR), Memphis (TN), Portland (OR), Seattle (WA) and Tampa (FL) as of 2012, as well as trends over time for the years immediately preceding 2012. The study team used in-depth interviews with developers, business leaders, transit planners, land use planners, streetcar advocates and other key participants in streetcar development in each city to better understand their communities’ goals for streetcar development and interviewees’ assessment of goal attainment.

The authors learned that interview participants largely viewed the streetcar systems in these cities as catalysts for development that stood as symbols of permanent public commitment to an area, icons of the community and important ways of denoting a city’s identity in efforts to attract visitors.

However, transportation objectives were largely afterthoughts with the notable exception of Portland (which the authors called “a clear standout performer” in terms of ridership and ­service) and, to a lesser degree, Seattle.

The cities’ different conceptions of streetcar goals led to different decisions about alignment locations, riders to be targeted and the degree of service coordination with other local public transit services, all of which affected how the streetcars serve the community.

The report highlights several themes that arose in the interviews:

* Local business leaders and streetcar advocates often play a key role in promoting streetcar development and then forging partnerships with the public sector to pursue financing for building and operating streetcar services.

* The primary objective of modern streetcar implementation in these cities has been development and urban revitalization of underused or declining urban cores, with ­public transit as a secondary goal “at best,” the authors say.

* Streetcars are regarded as icons that play a role in promoting the city to tourists. “The streetcar’s image as a symbol of a bygone age—the nostalgia factor—also emerged in numerous interviews,” the report states.

* Strong support for streetcars remains, but proponents recognize such ongoing challenges as financing and ridership.

* The authors discovered a “disconnect” between enthusiasm for the streetcar and its transportation performance. In most of the studied cities, streetcar ridership is low compared to bus ridership on routes operating in the same general area. Still, report authors say, “poor transportation performance tended to be downplayed because the streetcar was not seen as primarily a transportation investment but instead as something else.”


What should other cities take away from this study? The authors suggest a few lessons.

Focus on Purpose.
The authors urge planners and policymakers to carefully consider the fundamental purpose of any proposed streetcar initiative and to make all decisions with that purpose clearly in mind.The authors strongly believe that a transportation investment should be primarily about providing public transit service and suggest first evaluating streetcars versus other transportation services on transportation criteria. ­However, even if the planners and policymakers have another approach in mind, “they should proceed carefully, clearly and cautiously,” the authors stated.

Concentrate on Local Issues.
The authors urge other city leaders to consider replicating the Portland model with caution.Portland’s streetcar experience is the result of a unique combination of external factors (local population, employment patterns and the health of the real estate market, to cite a few) and local decisions regarding land development policy, finances and other public investments, streetcar alignment location and length, operations and fares, among other considerations. Consequently, the Portland model might not be easily transferred to other locations.

Think Long-Term.
The authors also encourage planners and advocates to be aware of unintended consequences. They advise community leaders to “think much more carefully about the wisdom of a streetcar investment given the state of their local transit finances,” especially when budgets tighten, potentially requiring service cutbacks in other modes, thus defeating the “transportation rationale” for such investments in the first place.Additionally, decisions made early on about seemingly trivial things, such as the type of vehicle to operate (modern, replica or vintage), can have significant consequences for operations and finances later on.

The full 400-page report features profiles of the streetcar lines in each city included in the study, interview materials and an extensive bibliography. Find the report here.

About the Report Authors
Jeffrey Brown is associate professor and department chair, Department of Urban and Regional Planning, Florida State University (FSU); ­Hilary Nixon is professor, Department of Urban and Regional Planning, SJSU; and Luis Enrique Ramos is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, FSU.
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