A Desire for More Streetcars

More than half a century after the streetcar's heyday, this transportation mode is poised to make a comeback.
July 2010
Seattle streetcar
SDOT/Flickr CC
Tod Newcombe
By Tod Newcombe  |  Managing Editor

It may lack the romance and history of the St. Charles streetcars in New Orleans, but Seattle's modest streetcar line in the South Lake Union district has given a once downtrodden city neighborhood instant credibility as a place to live and work. The new line links South Lake Union to the city's growing light-rail system, which in turn connects to downtown Seattle shopping areas, commuter rail and the airport. The 2.6-mile loop with single cars trundling along at city traffic speeds might just be the future of streetcars in America.

While many single streetcar lines play to the tourist crowds and trolley fans, numerous cities seriously are considering and planning legitimate streetcar systems as part of their mass transit network. In addition to Seattle, which plans to add a second line, Cincinnati, Denver, Houston, Salt Lake City and Charlotte, N.C., are exploring adding streetcar lines to existing transit systems. Tacoma, Wash., operates a short modern line; Portland, Ore., has a popular service in its downtown; and Washington, D.C., is constructing a streetcar line in its Anacostia neighborhood.

Streetcars differ from their light-rail cousins in several ways. They operate in city traffic rather than on their own right of way. They typically are a single car that's powered by overhead electric lines, runs at local speed limits, makes frequent stops and travels for short distances--often just 1 to 3 miles. Light-rail systems, however, run multi-car train sets, travel at higher speeds, stop less frequently and often are on lines that extend well into the suburbs.

Critics contend that cities would get far more bang for their buck by investing in bus systems. But streetcar advocates emphasize their ability to connect neighborhoods, increase accessibility and spur economic development, as Seattle is discovering. Most of all, though, they stress their low cost: approximately $25 million per mile to build versus anywhere from $50 million to $75 million per mile for light rail, depending on whether the track is elevated or on the surface.

Speaking at an American Public Transportation Association (APTA) conference, Transportation Planner Lyndon Henry of the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority in Austin, Texas, said streetcars "seem to offer a substantial array of potential benefits which, combined with lower costs and an ability to attract significant ridership, suggests that appropriate projects may be cost-effective." While ridership was down on all major forms of public transit in 2009--from an all-time high in 2008--streetcars were the one mode of transportation to gain riders, according to the APTA.

For now, most people are likely to ride a streetcar that is part of a downtown loop, often running vintage trolleys that suggest transit from a bygone era. San Francisco's use of classic streetcars from around the world on its Embarcadero loop is probably the best-known example. But even tourist systems in places like Memphis, Tenn.; Tampa, Fla.; and Little Rock, Ark., are looking for ways to expand from a novelty act into something more cohesive in terms of transportation. Whether streetcars are the new form of cost-effective transit to emerge from the recession remains to be seen, just don't be surprised by the sound of a streetcar bell the next time you're downtown.