Streetcars and Development: It’s Complicated

Photo:  Seattle Streetcar
Photo: Seattle Streetcar

Critics of modern streetcars say they are more a development tool than a practical mobility service. But are streetcars even good at spurring residential construction? Not so much.

A new study [PDF] of the Portland and Seattle streetcar systems — which are among the nation’s oldest of the current crop of light rail networks — found that the development impacts were ultimately were mixed as a development booster.

The first phase of the Portland streetcar — a 3.9-mile line which was completed in 2001 — increased residential and commercial building permits 45 percent compared to similar areas of the city, the study found. But the second phase — which extended the system to seven miles in 2012 — had no significant effect on development, authors Jeffrey Brown and Joel Mendez wrote in the San Jose State University and Mineta Transportation Institute study.

In Seattle, the effects were also uneven. The authors found that in the areas surrounding Seattle’s two separate, disconnected streetcar lines, commercial building permits increased 50 percent. Residential building permits, however, were 59 percent lower than the rest of the city.

The lesson for cities is that there are better incentives to spur development than simply using the “If we build a streetcar, they will come” approach, said Brown and Mendez.

Above all, the success of the streetcar as a form of transportation will affect development outcomes. They note, for example, that Portland’s 7.2-mile system is well integrated into the larger transit network and has strong ridership. By contrast, Seattle’s system — like many of the new generation streetcar systems — has had trouble attracting riders. Short modern systems — often operating without their own rights of ways —may not offer any obvious benefit over the bus, and indeed might be worse because of their limited reach.

“The lesson from Portland’s experience seems to be that the more effective a streetcar is as a transportation service, and the more it is used by patrons, the more likely it is to have development effects,” Brown and Mendez wrote. “Simultaneously, a streetcar alone is not a guarantee of positive outcomes, as other factors such as a healthy real estate market, land availability, development-supportive zoning and other policies also need to be present.”

By contrast, Seattle’s “two disconnected lines” “do not seem to be attracting very many regular users because of their inherent limitations with respect to speed, reliability, and geographic reach,” they wrote.

Seattle is poised to begin a new phase of streetcar construction that will connect the two lines into a much more functional system. Authors say that bodes well for development prospects around the line.

“Attracting residents to development along the streetcar is easier when the system can meet their transportation needs,” they wrote.

The study comes at a time when there has been a surge in interest in building modern streetcar systems. More than a dozen — in Kansas City, Cincinnati and, most recently, St. Louis — operate today, with more on the way. Some of the systems, like Atlanta‘s, have been disappointing from both a ridership and development perspective, while others, like Kansas City’s, seem to be performing better.

In New York City, Mayor de Blasio is keen on developing a $3-billion streetcar along the waterfront in two boroughs across the river from Manhattan. Those areas are already in the midst of intense residential and office development, so in this case, the mayor is seeking additional transportation to handle the quickly rising population in western Brooklyn and Queens.

But critics say his BQX streetcar would be no better than express buses on dedicated lanes.

  • Michael

    Although I am of the opinion that our top 20 cities by weighted-density should be always digging a subway tunnel, I do think that streetcars have place in the transit tool box. They seem to work well in European cities in core areas that are semi or fully-pedestrianized. Here in the US, we have some great main streets, but we’re way behind the rest of the world in terms of vibrant plazas, squares, quality urban areas.

    https://www.google.com/maps/@37.3867455,-5.9941752,3a,75y,327.17h,93.42t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1slsuyvFEUbAt9m9AINkL1UA!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

    I predict some of these streetcars routes will move toward that environment, while others will evolve toward a Light Rail format. I doubt anywhere is going to be regretting their decision to build them in 20 years.

  • iSkyscraper

    It’s true these things are complex and should not be reduced to either railfan or Randall O’Toole soundbites, but the fact remains that if you go to any city in North America, and say “show me the most desirable residential neighborhood with a great walkable retail strip”, you will inevitably be taken to a part of town that either has a streetcar or once had a streetcar. It works every time in any city built out before 1950. Why? Because the bones that went with streetcar-led development are the same bones that go with attractive residential and retail areas, with good but not too much density, with low parking ratios, neighborhood services, leafy tree canopies, etc.

    Modern streetcars have to be careful to emulate the aspects of prior systems that made them useful for both transportation and development – they are not toy trolleys that on their own can make magic happen. But used properly, the results are terrific, just as they were 100 years ago.

  • Anthony

    According to the report, the 2nd phase of the Portland Streetcar did not affect development. This is a dubious finding, as anyone familiar with Portland’s Eastside can attest to in 2018. MLK/Grand, the couplet on which the streetcar line was built, hadn’t attracted any urban mixed-use development since the 1920s (guess what ran on the street then). Streetcar opens in 2012, development boom begins in 2016 along these streets (see “Burnside Bridgehead” as one example). Of course, some would likely have happened without the streetcar, but the two events are certainly correlated, and the intensity of development would likely be much less.

  • Kieran

    To me, a modern streetcar line should have as much of its own right of way as possible and the traffic signals should always give it the priority over autos/pedestrians. It should also have a route that makes sense to locals/tourists, connects important neighborhoods together, connects with bus lines/train/light rail lines, etc

    I’ve ridden Portland’s streetcars but not on its east side. They work real well and I’m not surprised that Portland hasn’t reconverted the Burnside bus line to streetcar service. Not only was it originally a streetcar line but with the good ridership it has it’d be well worth it.

  • Steve Lax

    “the fact remains that if you go to any city in North America, and say “show me the most desirable residential neighborhood with a great walkable retail strip”, you will inevitably be taken to a part of town that either has a streetcar or once had a streetcar.” And the fact also remains that if one goes to any city with a pre-World War II streetcar network, that some of the poorest neighborhoods also had streetcar service (and in some places still do).

    Streetcar networks were ubiquitous in pre-WWII cities. They served both rich and poor neighborhoods. It wasn’t the streetcar (or lack thereof) that defined the economic standing of the neighborhood then, or today.

  • iSkyscraper

    Try my test out before your discredit it.

    I’m not talking about neighborhoods that went downhill (let’s use Brush Park as an example) as there were other factors involved that had nothing to do with streetcars. I’m saying that if you want to build great cities, go back to the golden age of citybuilding, and that means going back to streetcar-led development. Not all neighborhoods that had streetcars may have been great, but all great neighborhoods had streetcars.

  • Danny

    Streetcars are trains right up against your apartment. I fail to see how any resident will see it as an advantage if they want a good night sleep. They are slower than light rail with dedicated lanes. They are not better than buses in convenience. Increase density around light or heavy rail.

  • George Joseph Lane

    All terrible neighbourhoods had streetcars too, because all neighbourhoods had streetcars.

  • iSkyscraper

    No, many many terrible newer neighborhoods were car suburbs.

  • Bernard Finucane

    They carry more passengers than buses, and are quieter and more comfortable to ride in, as well as to get in and out of. They are also faster, depending on traffic.

    I once lived right next to a streetcar stop, and it was a fast, convenient comfortable way to get to work.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/e78e47d2359959861209a84553bc988add9a597ac4f25acd332541eb16cd61ab.png

  • com63

    They are pretty quiet. It is not like the Chicago El or the NY Subway.

  • neroden

    Nearly worthless, junk study.

    You can’t study two systems and come to a conclusion. The sample size is too small.

    Particularly when one of the two — the Seattle streetcar — was roundly panned by every single transit advocate as incompetently designed. AND Seattle was having a business boom anyway, which was limited entirely by zoning restrictions on building height. So yeah, business boom…

    As for Portland, the first streetcar apparently brought about the development it was supposed to. And the streetcar extension wasn’t actually sold as being for “development” but for “mobility”. It seems to have done what it was supposed to by increasing mobility. And others are pointing out that it seems to have increased development too, and they don’t know what the study authors are smoking.

  • neroden

    Streetcars are pretty much slient, since they’re electric. This is unlike gasoline cars or diesel trucks, which most people in cities have driving right up next to their apartments, and which are really loud. (I really want all those cars and trucks to be replaced with electric vehicles)

  • neroden

    OK, more reason to consider this a worthless “junk study”.

  • neroden

    Noooo, you’re actually wrong about this. I can dig out late-19th-century streetcar maps of smaller cities… the areas which had streetcars then are *still* the higher-rent districts now. The areas which didn’t have streetcars then were really low-rent then, and still are.

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