The Problem With America’s New Streetcars

Detroit's 3.3-mile QLINE streetcar, funded in part by a $25 million federal grant, saw ridership drop 40 percent after introducing a $1 fare. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Detroit's 3.3-mile QLINE streetcar, funded in part by a $25 million federal grant, saw ridership drop 40 percent after introducing a $1 fare. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

One of the hallmarks of federal transportation funding during the Obama administration was a new willingness to support streetcar projects. With the first wave of these projects now in service, their shortcomings are becoming more apparent.

A report published earlier this year in the Journal of Transport Geography sheds light on the limits of these streetcars: They were always intended mainly to spur real estate investment, not to address urban mobility needs. As authors David King and Lauren Fischer explain, streetcar backers were often more concerned about land development than the transportation system.

The new streetcar segments typically run a short distance — a few miles at most — in mixed traffic, and they aren’t well-integrated into existing transit networks. So it should come as no surprise that ridership is often underwhelming.

On Detroit’s QLINE streetcar, for example, ridership dropped 40 percent after M-1 Rail, the company that operates the 3.3-mile route, started charging a $1 fare last month. Passengers now take about 3,000 QLINE trips each day. A spokesperson for M-1 Rail told NextCity he “fully expected ridership to dip a little bit” once the fare took effect.

The primary benefits of streetcar projects were always intended to be related to development. King examined the official cost-benefit analyses that streetcar sponsors submitted to the Federal Transit Administration. About three-quarters of estimated benefits derived from economic development, not transportation-related improvements, he found.

Graph: Journal of Transport Geography
Table: Journal of Transport Geography

King identified 12 new streetcars in operation and a few dozen more in various stages of development. All told, local and federal government spent $866 million on streetcars between 2009 and 2013, he reports, with 32 percent coming from the White House’s TIGER grants. Several of the projects were subsidized with local tax incentives or special sales taxes.

The new wave of streetcars have a regressive effect, King writes, because the costs are widely distributed while the benefits are concentrated in the form of higher land values. Ironically, he says, that helped boost political support for streetcar projects, many of which are backed by business associations and downtown property owners.

Cities may have valid reasons for seeking more downtown investment, but these streetcars should be recognized for what they are: economic development projects, not solutions to the transit and transportation problems cities face today.

  • Rudolf Kolaja

    In general it is a wrong approach starting with the modern street cars in the downtown areas, because everybody else is doing it. The most effective transit would create pedestrian malls in downtown, free of traffic. Maybe in Kansas City it serves well in your perception and by a chance, while there may by more important needs than this street car: I do not know, I have not been there. I sure have a good background to evaluate such a situation if having the opportunity to do so. The transit systems needs to be designed based on the entire metropolitan area approach. All of this is a very complex issue, which you would understand only after you would obtain good training in design and operation of transit systems in the real world; if not, just stay out of it ! Only then you will not ask a question “So what?” again.

  • kclo3

    The residents have the right because the city gives them the right to do it. Since parking is one of the core issues that constituencies really care about, City Council would never dare try to fine cars for blocking the right-of-way. And if people really wanted it back, there might have been like one episode of public discussion instead of zero now.

  • Frank Kotter

    KC is does not charge ridership and has been voted on and funded only in the area immediately surrounding the service area. This seems like a winning combination as property owners invest in a system which adds value to own property.

    Do you know if the further expansion down Main has been approved?

  • Wells

    Me thinks thou protests too much. I live on Portland’s streetcar line and carefully measure its ridership as more than adequate. This tells me it’s a popular system that works well for most people. The Tacoma Streetcar is a nearly straight line running both directions on the same streets with the same Chech cars proven reliable on most new streetcar lines. Portland operates 17 cars on about 8 miles of double track while Tacoma operates 4 cars on about 2 miles of double track adequately but serving fewer destinations than Portland Streetcar. Seattle’s Lake Union Streetcar ridership is dismal. Their new line serving Capitol Hill is likewise unimpressive. And their plan to connect these separate lines via 1st Ave looks more problematic than promising.

  • Wells

    Talk about zig-zags, the Capitol Hill line makes a long switchback to climb the hill from Jackson Street to Broadway. I couldn’t see any way around that circuitous route. And I don’t agree that the so-called streetcar Connector on 1st Ave should run in the left lane with median stations. It’d be better there with curbside track and stops, but Seattler bicyclists cry foul even though 1st Ave isn’t at all a good street for bicycling. My preference is a connector for the separate streetcar lines on a 4th/5th Aves Couplet. And, I’d extend the Jackson Street terminus to Alaskan Way and the Waterfront.

  • dpballard

    This is not precisely true. The Worcester main line has been where it is today (crossing the Back Bay, Lower Allston, Brighton, and the northern swath of Newton) for nearly 200 years, predating the land-filling of the Back Bay as well as any sort of population density in those places or in any part of Brookline.

    The D Line, a.k.a. the Brookline/Highlands Branch, was begun in 1847, but continued south after Newton Highlands to Newton Upper Falls, and then connected in Needham to a New York-bound right-of-way at what are now the three outermost stations of the Commuter Rail’s Needham Line. Only in 1886 was a further westbound branch to Waban and Riverside built, thus reconnecting the Brookline spur back to the Worcester main line.

    Nonetheless, the Riverside branch was rarely (if ever) used for trains coming all the way from Framingham or Worcester; it was very much about shorter-haul commuter trips between Newton, Brookline, and Boston, then and through the rest of its pre-MBTA service life.

    Anyway, as I said above, the late-1920s planning and construction of Kenmore station predated by decades the idea to punch out the side of the C Line tunnel in order to convert the D into part of the Green Line. This helps to explain why converting the B Line to heavy rail seemed an obvious ideal, as it was by far the streetcar-subway’s branch with the highest use. (Whereas today B and D usage are equally heavy, though they serve very different purposes.)

  • Rudolf Kolaja

    The light rail travel capacity is also about 5 times higher than the capacity of a bus route. You do not chose one over the other on the basis of the capital cost, if anyone does understands the principles of transit operations.

  • newtonmarunner

    Regional Rail — meaning through-running trains, urban infills (e.g., Corona), frequent service without skip-stopping, etc. — that would basically form super-express subway lines and relieve crowded lines like Flushing and Queens Boulevard Express would do more for Eastern Queens than streetcars. Also, Triboro and a Northern Blvd subway (which would require another trunk line into Manhattan) would do more.

    As for Manhattan, again, regional rail would relieve the 8th Ave, Broadway/7th, Lexington Ave, 42nd & 53rd St lines more than streetcars. So would regional rail to Union Sq., W 4th St., Fulton St., Barclays, etc. and a complete 2nd Ave/125th St subway.

    For eastern Brooklyn, extending the subway down Utica and Nostrand Aves would relieve the B6/B35/B41/B44/B46 the most.

    Streetcars are nice, but they do an order of magnitude less than pruning branches, regional rail, and the other rail projects I’ve mentioned, etc. and should be considered a lower priority.

  • JJAudubon

    Your account omits the U.S. race riots of the ’60s in which substantial areas in some cites were torched; soaring crime rates in the 70’s and crack cocaine wars in the 80’s — all in central cities. Combine that with declining public school performance or fear thereof by the middle class. Many whites may be racists — but the black lower class gave them plenty of good reasons to flee the cities. Not politically correct — but true. Crime went down in the 90’s and 00’s — you got a back-to-the-city movement. Re: your slogan “make downtowns white again”, I say embrace the diversity.

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