Planning a Streetcar? Better Get Your Zoning Right

Streetcars aren’t necessarily the fastest or cheapest way to get people from point A to point B, compared to, say, light rail or additional bus service. But cities around the country are racing to install new lines because streetcars can be a powerful tool for promoting urban development, of the walkable, transit-oriented, mixed-use, high-tax-revenue generating kind.

Portland is rolling out the red carpet for new, walkable development along its streetcar extension. St. Louis not so much. Photo: ##http://www.cooltownstudios.com/2008/08/21/40-us-cities-looking-to-embrace-streetcars## Cool Town Studios##

But there’s one way to really screw up a streetcar project, says Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic, and that’s investing all that public money while maintaining a zoning code that outlaws exactly the kind of development the investment was predicated on.

Freemark looks at one city, Portland, that got the formula right, and another, St. Louis, that might be poised to make a big mistake.

In the City of St. Louis, the blocks directly facing the streetcar route are mostly zoned for neighborhood commercial, commercial district, and multiple family dwelling areas. In these districts, buildings cannot exceed three stories or 45 to 50 feet. Non-residential buildings are limited to a floor area ratio (FAR) of just 1.5. Meanwhile, non-pedestrian-oriented uses, such as drive-through restaurants, are allowed to be constructed. For residential buildings, developers are required to provide parking for one car per unit, and commercial structures over a size limit must provide parking as well.

Portland’s project offers far more opportunity for new development around the line than the St. Louis program. Very high densities are allowed in the blocks directly surrounding the new streetcar extension, and very little has been built there so far, so there are many opportunities for growth.

Portland has demonstrated that a fixed-route streetcar can encourage development around stops quite effectively, and thus if it is the goal of a city to increase the density of its core areas, streetcars can be a useful tool. Without appropriate zoning, however, the value of a streetcar project declines tremendously.

Elsewhere on the Network today:  Mobilizing the Region shares a new report outlining how states can save money with transit-oriented development. Seattle Transit Blog wonders why more Democrats don’t rally around the idea of a carbon tax. And Cap’n Transit explores how New York City became an enabler for “parking moochers.”

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Transit-Oriented America, Part 3: Three More Cities

|
Part 3 in a series on rail and transit-only travel across the United States focuses on the final three cities of our journey. Part 2 looked at the first three and Part 1 presented an overview of our travel.  San Francisco Fully restored streetcars, cable cars, buses with and without pantographs, submerged and at-grade light rail, a […]

Reminder: Just Laying Track Is No Guarantee Riders Will Come

|
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 […]

Streetfilms: Take a Ride on the Seattle Streetcar

|
Seattle’s South Lake Union Streetcar is a 1.3-mile line that opened in December 2007, the first leg in the city’s commitment to new transit and light rail. It passed the half million passenger milestone in its first year, surpassing ridership projections. The streetcar features many top-of-the-line tech amenities, including real time arrival message boards, solar-powered […]

Portland Elects Cyclist Mayor; Obama Draws 8,000 on Bikes

|
 On Tuesday, voters in Portland, Oregon elected Sam Adams as their next mayor. A former Congressional staffer and current Portland city commissioner, Adams — who is a cyclist — ran on a platform that emphasized environmental and progressive growth initiatives, including, in the words of the Oregonian, "use [of] the Portland Streetcar and better planning […]