How the modern version reinvigorates urban corridors

Streetcars have surged back into demand thanks to their ability to enhance urban mobility, their proven power to stimulate economic development, and their cool look, which attracts people and jobs. Implementing best practices ensures the smoothest possible ride toward those goals.


The glue of urban environments
Communities across the country are recognizing streetcars as the glue that bonds housing, higher-density development, entertainment venues and pedestrian or other scalable transportation systems together to create livable downtowns. That cohesiveness boosts the economy by attracting businesses, residents and visitors.

Already on board
Modern streetcars loaded with passengers already are whooshing quietly through Tucson, Arizona, Salt Lake City and Portland, Oregon. Some 30 other cities also are planning or have built streetcar lines, including:

  • Kansas City, Missouri, and its 2-mile starter line
  • Dallas and the Oak Cliff starter route
  • New Orleans and its phased approach to expanding the existing streetcar network by adding lines with adjacent bike lanes
  • Detroit and its 3.3-mile M-1 RAIL circulating route
  • Charlotte, North Carolina, and its CityLYNX Gold Line
  • Fort Lauderdale and its 2.7-mile Wave Streetcar
  • Milwaukee and its 2.1-mile line
  • Cincinnati and its 3.6-mile route

Development follows streetcars
It’s difficult to name a moderately sized metropolitan area that isn’t considering a streetcar system. In part, that’s because modern streetcars:

  • Add a new dimension of “cool” to downtowns. Far from great-grandfather’s clickety-clacking trolley, these sleek, futuristic vehicles look like light-rail cars.
  • Feature a narrower width and approximately 8-foot-wide guideway. Compared with light rail, they are an easier fit on downtown streets.
  • Are typically less expensive to build than light-rail systems.

More importantly, streetcars revive downtowns, and cities love the proven link between fixed-rail transit and economic growth. Downtowns described as "declining" before streetcars now bustle with shops and cafes bordering the fixed-rail lines. Plus, it’s clear that streetcar lines connect pockets of activity. Over time, empty areas fill with jobs and development, rejuvenating sluggish or depressed districts.Developers love the permanence of streetcar lines, and people love the connectivity. According to an HNTB America THINKS survey, 90 percent of Americans say that the availability of good public transportation would greatly influence their decision to relocate to another city.

Return on investment
What return on investment can cities expect? Consider these results:

  • Portland’s streetcar line delivered millions of dollars in new economic development adjacent to the route.
  • Kansas City already has attracted 11 commercial and 21 residential developments along its starter line.
  • Detroit’s 3.3-mile circulating line is expected to prompt millions in development. It already has attracted 70 private and public investments, including a new hockey arena, and a mixed-use commercial and institutional development.
  • Salt Lake City’s program is part of a planned greenway of parks, bike paths and trails designed to ultimately attract 4,000 new households and 7,700 new jobs.In addition, some people living in areas where transit is available become one-car or no-car households. They redirect the savings to housing costs or discretionary spending. That boosts the general municipal economy and tax-revenue recovery, and helps to provide municipal seed money for additional community investments.

Best practices for transit-oriented economic development
Best practices for nurturing transit-oriented development are emerging as more streetcar systems go live:

  • Policies and incentives. Cities that have experienced success couple streetcar solutions with transit-supportive land-use and zoning policies that create a ripe environment for development. They also provide financial incentives to encourage private developers.
  • Both developed and undeveloped land. Cities must have sufficient employment and residential density to support a streetcar investment but also enough available infill so the new line can attract development. Station-area plans and transit development zones help create an environment conducive to investment.
  • Mix of land uses. Transit-oriented development should span the “live, work, play” spectrum, so experts in transportation and land-use planning must work hand-in-hand from day one.
  • Developer involvement. Cities should engage developers early in the project. Milwaukee, for example, has developed a beneficial relationship with developers and investors as its streetcar project matures. In Detroit, developers drive the project, and a private consortium provides funding. As a result, Detroit attracted Federal Transit Administration approval of a multimillion-dollar Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant.
  • Support for existing businesses. Cities with successful streetcar lines work with existing businesses along the proposed route to set expectations and make the construction process as painless as possible. Milwaukee, for example, took its lead from the Portland program, and is funding initiatives to promote businesses along the construction corridor through its “support for business” approach.
  • Hybrid systems. Part of Detroit’s streetcar line will be on-wire and part will be off-wire, with no overhead contact system. The off-wire corridor accommodates the unique Campus Martius Park, the Thanksgiving parade and other special events that would not be possible with wires overhead. Dallas and Seattle also have chosen off-wire technology.
  • Integration with other modes of transit. Cities must integrate streetcars with high-capacity rail, bus routes and other transit:
  • Providing single passes that customers can use for all transit lines supports system integration and seamless transfers.
  • Making real-time information about arrival and departure times for rail and buses readily available promotes streetcar use and is crucial to a coordinated transit network.

Streetcars or bus rapid transit: Making the right choice
“Could we achieve the same mobility and economic-development goals with a bus rapid transit system?” It’s a question city officials often ask as they explore options:

  • Minneapolis approved studying a streetcar starter line rather than enhancing bus service — although the streetcar line was more expensive. City council members were convinced that permanent construction associated with streetcars would be a stronger catalyst for development than movable bus routes.
  • Other cities combine bus rapid transit and streetcars. Kansas City introduced BRT lines in 2005 and now has a 2.1-mile streetcar starter line under construction with revenue service expected in 2016.Understanding the differences between streetcars and BRT is a best practice in itself. Below are more facts about streetcars and BRT that can help cities make informed decisions:
  • Purpose is key. Streetcars are urban circulators with more frequent stops. BRT tends to travel at higher speeds with fewer stops.
  • Route length matters. BRT can be more effective for commutes of 5 miles or longer. Streetcars and other fixed-rail modes can be cost-prohibitive for longer routes.
  • Capital costs differ. Streetcar lines typically are more expensive than BRT routes. Streetcar vehicles also are more expensive than buses but have more capacity and a longer shelf life (up to twice as long).
  • Implementation time varies. Streetcar lines generally take longer to implement than BRT routes.