Reminder: Just Laying Track Is No Guarantee Riders Will Come

Atlanta's streetcar route is still surrounded by parking lots. Photo: Streetcarviews/Tumblr
Atlanta’s streetcar route is still surrounded by parking lots. Photo: Streetcarviews/Tumblr

Laying track isn’t enough to build a successful transit system — as some cities are learning the hard way.

A slate of new rail projects — mostly mixed-traffic streetcars, but that’s not the only way to mess up — are attracting embarrassingly few passengers. Some of these projects may be salvageable to some extent, but for now, they don’t provide the speed, frequency, and access to walkable destinations that make transit useful for people. Here are four cautionary tales about the inadequacy of just putting down rails and praying things work out.

Dallas

Dallas’s streetcar line opened last April and is attracting just 150 to 300 riders a day, Robert Wilonsky of the Dallas Morning News reports. The 1.6-mile streetcar connects downtown Dallas to the neighborhood of Oak Cliff. It cost $50 million, and the city hopes to expand it.

Before it opened, Peter Simak, writing for D Magazine, said the line was simply too short, and Dallas simply not walkable enough, for it to have much of an impact. The entire line covers ground formerly served by four bus stops. Still, some advocates maintain that ridership will climb once new development fills in and planned expansions are built.

Atlanta

Ridership on Atlanta’s 2.7-mile streetcar has been underwhelming as well. The project has been roundly panned by the local media, who have pointed out it’s barely faster than walking.

When service began on the $98 million project, rides were free. Ridership plunged once the streetcar started charging a dollar per ride, and it now carries fewer than 1,000 passengers per day, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. As a result, the city of Atlanta has had to scramble to find money to keep it operating. The streetcar costs $5 million a year to run and is on track to generate just $270,000 in fare revenue this year, according to Curbed.

The city argues that the streetcar has generated $1.5 billion in real estate investment. But an Atlanta Journal Constitution analysis found much of that was planned before the streetcar route was even announced.

In addition to operating in mixed traffic, a big problem for the Atlanta streetcar is that it’s surrounded by parking lots. Local advocate Darin Givens started a Tumblr to highlight some of the underused areas around the line.

This map shows how much land around the Atlanta Streetcar is still dedicated to parking. Image: Streetcarviews
This map shows how much land around the Atlanta Streetcar is still dedicated to parking. Image: Streetcarviews

Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City’s Sugar House Streetcar has been off to a rocky start as well. The $37 million line debuted in 2014 and was attracting a little more than 1,000 riders per day as of late last year, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, far below the 3,000 originally projected. Like other streetcar projects, it is short, slow, and not very frequent. It takes 12 minutes to travel the two-mile route, reports the Tribune, and only runs about every 20 minutes.

Cleveland

Just to be clear that not only mixed-traffic streetcars can go wrong, here’s a Cleveland project with exclusive right-of-way. The 2.2-mile extension of Cleveland’s Blue and Green Line to serve attractions by the lakefront — like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the “Flats” nightlife area — was a hit when it opened 20 years ago. But afterward, the Flats declined and with it the Waterfront Line. Media dubbed it the “ghost train.” It was shut down during a budget crunch in 2010 and only operated during Browns games.

But the Waterfront Line was reopened in 2013 amid some excitement about redevelopment in the Flats. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be having the desired effect. The line is carrying an astonishing two riders per train at regular hours and six riders per train at peak hours, RTA officials report. The agency is considering eliminating service on the line — except during sporting events — as a result of a budget crunch.

From the start, this $74 million project was poorly planned, designed to serve relatively isolated tourist areas around the lakefront. Land use around the stations is terrible. For example, one of the stations is called “The Muni Lot” — because the only thing around it is free parking for city employees. It also closely parallels routes served by the city’s free downtown trolley buses.

More successful streetcars?

Tucson’s new streetcar is at least out-performing the rest. The $200 million project runs on a four-mile route between the University of Arizona (where 40,000 students live nearby) and downtown. It runs at relatively high frequencies — every 10 minutes during peak hours. Last year it had about 4,000 daily passengers, many of them university students, according to the city [PDF]. City officials attribute a downtown economic development boom to the streetcar, and nearby Scottsdale is looking into following Tucson’s example.

Meanwhile, Kansas City just opened its 2.2-mile streetcar last week to a great deal of excitement. There were 32,000 trips on opening weekend, according to the Kansas City Star, but it will be a while before we can get a fair read on ridership. The project is expected to average 2,700 daily riders once things settle down. The Kansas City project is also an anomaly because it doesn’t charge a fare (a special assessment on downtown residents pays for operations) and is supposed to remain free in perpetuity.

  • bolwerk

    I think Portland actually hairsplits between its light rail (MAX?) and its (lone?) street-running streetcar line. It also has a hybrid commuter rail service. To add to the confusion, yes, the light rail has some street-running segments.

    Maybe or maybe not for good reason, some people are Morally Outraged by the streetcar. Though I’ve mostly seen that from the BRT-or-ban-it crowd, so take that with a grain of salt.

  • SouthIslander

    Interesting that there is no mention in here that many of these streetcar lines were sold by Charlie Hales, outgoing mayor of Portland. He made a ten or 15 year career out of this, but it’s not clear how much of the original Portland line was his idea, more like Shiels and Obletz, the private planning firm that then got hired to build and run it.

  • FlamingoFresh
  • Yes, Portland’s LRT is MAX, but Portland Streetcar has two lines: the 3.9-mile (6.3 km) NS Line that opened in 2001 and the 3.3 -Loop Service, which opened in September 2012. The two-route system serves some 20,000 daily riders.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portland_Streetcar

  • bolwerk

    Well, 20k riders doesn’t seem so bad on ~8 miles of track.

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