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Everything you need to know about the streetcar craze

What is a streetcar?

The streetcar is a mode of public transportation that is having a major comeback. It involves running short electric trains along tracks in the roadway. Some operate by connecting to an electric cable overhead. While popular in the early 1900s in the US, streetcars' popularity faded by midcentury. However, after 2000, the streetcar experienced a resurgence in the US, with dozens of cities building and planning new streetcar systems.

The exact definition of streetcar can be a little fuzzy, especially when compared with light rail. In fact, the American Public Transportation Association (an international industry trade group) calls streetcars a type of light rail, though it's not always that simple. Cities can even mix up which one they're building.

But generally speaking, a streetcar is a train that runs along rails set into streets, meaning it drives alongside automobiles for much of its journey. This is a photo of a streetcar in Portland's system.

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This makes streetcars different from light rail trains, which tend to have their own tracks, set aside from the road. Below is a shot of the Minneapolis light rail, which for the most part runs on tracks set apart from the roadway.

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However, some light rail systems combine on-road tracks and tracks that are separated from cars.

Streetcars also make more stops and tend to cover less distance altogether, with more frequent stops. In addition, streetcars tend to be shorter, single-vehicle trains. Other light rail trains, meanwhile, are often multiple cars long and cover more ground with fewer stops.

The goals of streetcar systems and light rail tends to differ. Light rail routes are generally longer, carrying people in from the suburbs; streetcars tend to be shorter, shuttling people through busy areas of a city.

Light rail, incidentally, is not light as opposed to dark; it's light as opposed to heavy. Heavy rail systems have a higher passenger capacity than light rail systems and tend to be the subways that many urban commuters are familiar with. Here is an example: one of New York City's subway trains.

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How long have streetcars been around?

In the mid-1800s, horse-drawn streetcars were popular in many cities. New York City claims the first horse-drawn car that ran along rails in the road, with its line opening in 1832. South Bend, Indiana, claims the first electric streetcar in the United States, with a line that opened in 1882. Streetcars were widely popular in the US in the early 1900s, according to the Smithsonian Institution, covering 45,000 miles and carrying millions by 1917.

However, that popularity waned, and the reason for that decline is a subject of some dispute.

Some have argued that auto companies systematically destroyed electric mass public transit. In 1974, the Senate held hearings on this, and Senate counsel Bradford Snell testified that GM had caused the destruction of electric transit in 45 cities. This storyline is often referred to as the "streetcar conspiracy."

That conspiracy is said to have inspired a plot line in the 1988 film "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" The villain of that film, imaginatively named Judge Doom (played by Christopher Lloyd), buys the Los Angeles streetcar system in order to take it apart and allow cars to take over. The conspiracy story has been repeated in many news articles, as well as in a 1996 PBS documentary.

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But many dispute that take, arguing that cities merely chose buses because they were more economical. In an in-depth look at the story in 2003, the Los Angeles Times wrote that "most historians agree that GM and the other mega-companies only helped to speed the end of the railway, which already was deep into red ink."

But today, decades after streetcars dwindled, there has been a renaissance. Memphis launched a trolley line in 1993, and Portland, Oregon, in 2001 launched the first streetcar line with modern vehicles in the US. After that, streetcars proliferated. Seattle, Tampa, Denver, and Savannah are just a few of the roughly two dozen cities with streetcar systems, and as of 2015 dozens more had streetcars in either in the planning or construction phases.

How big is the current streetcar boom?

The American Public Transportation Association counts 23 existing and operational systems in the US. It also counts 12 projects under construction, though that list includes new lines being added to existing systems. Four streetcar lines are expected to open in 2014: in Atlanta, Tucson, Seattle, and Washington, DC. In Seattle, the new line will be an addition to the city's existing system, while the other cities will be opening entirely new streetcar systems.

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The Seattle streetcar system. (jjukebox/Flickr)

In addition, plenty of other cities are considering starting or growing their streetcar systems. APTA lists 89 US cities in the "active planning" phase, a broad umbrella that includes everything from cities just talking about it to those that have secured funding. While APTA admits its list may not be up to date and may include some plans that have gone inactive, it is nevertheless telling that around 100 cities have seriously considered installing streetcar systems in recent years, and that more than a few are fully operational.

How expensive are streetcars?

Streetcars require large initial capital investments — namely, laying down rails and buying the cars. Cincinnati's line, proposed in 2007, has been estimated to cost somewhere between $133 million and $148 million for a 3.6-mile track. Milwaukee's streetcar will cost $64.6 million for around 2 miles of track. Tucson's streetcar has an estimated cost of $196 million for 3.9 miles.

This is the biggest complaint of streetcar opponents: that systems are simply too expensive for systems that just shuttle people back and forth.

Indeed, they tend to cost a lot more than a bus, another public transit option often compared with streetcars. And buses can largely cover the same routes as streetcars, at comparable speeds to streetcars.

In 2012 and 2013, the average city bus cost a little less than $487,000, according to the American Public Transportation Association. The cost of a streetcar vehicle, meanwhile, can run in the millions. For example, in 2009, the city of Portland paid $20 million for six streetcar vehicles. Even an expensive electric bus is cheaper. Seattle in 2014 reported that these buses could cost the city around $1 million each.

"I tend to approach this — and my bias is I look at this from a transportation point of view, not a quality of life or economic point of view, but from a simple transportation point of view — that a bus service is much more cost-effective," says Jeffrey Brown, a professor of urban planning at Florida State University.

In other words, buses are usually cheaper if the question is simply about moving people from point A to B.

This fight over cost came to a head in Cincinnati late in 2013, when Mayor John Cranley tried to stop the city's new streetcar system. Though the city council later overruled him, he still insisted that the system was too expensive.

"I personally don't have strong passion about the streetcar one way or another," Cranley told the New York Times. "But I've got an $800 million pension liability."

Streetcars may simply represent a middle way between cheaper buses and much more expensive systems, particularly for cities that are strapped for cash.

"My sense is there's not a whole lot of money for light rail investments, which are in the order of hundred of millions of dollars to build systems, just because there's just not a lot of federal money available," says Brown.

So when a city wants a transit upgrade but doesn't have the money for a hefty investment like more commuter rail, subway extensions, or light rails that run separate from the road, the streetcar could look like a good compromise ... meaning trading away some benefits of those faster systems.

How do streetcar advocates justify the cost of streetcars?

Some advocates say the operating costs of streetcars are lower than buses over time, after the capital costs of putting down tracks. The office of Portland Mayor Charlie Hales, for example, has said the streetcar in that city would cost $1.50 per ride, compared with $2.82 for a bus line. Those longer-term operating costs can be lower in part because streetcars tend to carry far more people than one bus can, and streetcars also don't require gasoline.

That said, for lower operating costs to offset the high upfront costs could take a very long time given the high price of streetcar construction.

In addition, advocates argue that streetcar vehicles don't usually have to be replaced as often as buses. A 2007 study from the Federal Transit Administration found that large buses have a minimum useful life of 12 years, noting that many city transit authorities move to retire these buses after that period, rather than stretching out the buses' lives. United Streetcar, an Oregon company that builds the vehicles, says the cars last 30 years. And if a streetcar is given its own dedicated lane, it can go faster than traffic (though it still has to deal with streetlights ...€” and a bus in a dedicated lane would go just about as fast).

Advocates also say that streetcars confer all sorts of other benefits, like being environmentally friendly, giving cities a "sense of place," and boosting economic development.

How are streetcars funded?

Cities have a few ways of funding streetcars. One is government. They can get money from local, state, or federal government, as well as local businesses or other sources (though state funding is rare). Local funding can come from a variety of places: raising taxes, selling bonds, or adding surcharges on to things like car registrations. Federal funding often comes from competitive grants, with cities applying to the Department of Transportation and vying with each other for precious funds.

The mix of funding varies widely from city to city. Milwaukee's streetcar, for example, will rely primarily upon federal grants, according to the streetcar's website —€” nearly $55 million of the nearly $65 million initial route will come from the federal government.

Meanwhile, of the estimated $148 million in funding for Cincinnati's streetcar, only around 30 percent will come from Washington. The rest will come from a variety of sources, including local taxes, private sources, and selling land.

The bulk of one Seattle streetcar line, meanwhile, came from a business improvement district — a group of businesses that pay higher taxes in order to raise money for particular projects (like streetcars).

The fact that streetcars are typically financed in part through special revenue measures that may not have been available for bus projects helps explain why this more expensive option is sometimes preferred over a thriftier bus.

Why do cities want streetcars?

Advocates have a whole list of arguments for why cities should build streetcar lines. Here are a few of them.

Tourists like them

"The ride quality and accessibility of a streetcar is an advantage over buses," says Ethan Mellone, rail transit manager of Seattle's streetcar. He adds that tourists prefer streetcars to buses because streetcars tend to be less intimidating and more understandable for a newcomer.

"[On a streetcar], riders are not going to wind up where they didn't expect to be. They attract more riders than a comparable bus line," he says.

Portland is one example of this: Bus lines near the streetcar line saw ridership drop by 20 percent, and the streetcar's ridership more than made up for it, Politifact reports.

Developers like them

It's hard to find hard evidence on this, as the Atlantic Cities noted last year, but advocates argue that putting in a streetcar draws economic development because streetcars are more permanent than a new bus line: Once the track is laid, it's not going anywhere.

"When you have that route in place, and it's going to stop here for a long time because they spent some time putting that infrastructure in and putting that station in, [entrepreneurs say], 'Here's a good place to build our business or our restaurant,'" says Art Guzzetti, vice president for policy at the American Public Transportation Association.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution recently reported that more than $700 million in development was either underway or would be completed by the end of 2014. And one 2008 study found the Portland streetcar would spur $778 million in development. Tucson has reported similarly booming development.

The environment

Streetcars are electric, and many buses still operate on diesel or gasoline. For cities trying to go green, this can make a streetcar line look attractive. Then again, the question is what you're comparing streetcars to. After all, buses are already a green alternative to cars (think one bus carrying 20 people versus 20 cars carrying 20 people).

The Obama administration likes them

The Department of Transportation under President Obama changed the formula for how funds for different projects are allocated. Rather than focus purely on cost-effectiveness, says a department spokesperson, the DOT has been focusing on other factors, like boosting economic development.

Though the new DOT focus has given a boost to streetcars, it's important to recognize that this money never funds a streetcar fully, says one expert.

"[The streetcar] has been an emphasis of the current administration in their policy view, and yes they have directed funds to degrees toward these projects," says Guzzetti. "But the regions themselves are putting forth the bulk of the investment."

Cities appreciate the investments and say that Washington has seen the light when it comes to transit.

"The feds realize that if they want to rebuild cities ... that as a kick-start or jump-start, federal funds are the way to go," says Tim Borchers, executive director of the Atlanta streetcar.

Jobs

Buying a regular city bus means, well, just buying a regular city bus and putting it into service. Starting a streetcar line means all sorts of building, like tracks and stations. Yes, it's expensive, but those expenses can create local jobs, not to mention earn political support from labor groups and contracting firms.

Je ne sais quoi

One other common argument is that streetcars just add a special something to a neighborhood.

"What makes an urban lifestyle attractive is there's a sense of place, a sense of activity, and you can see it. And that's part of what streetcars are," says Guzzetti.

Are streetcars just a fad?

While there's no way of really knowing, one thing that bodes well for streetcars is the overall growth in public transit usage. In 2013, US public transit had its highest ridership since 1956, according to the American Public Transportation Association. But since then, public transit ridership has climbed considerably, meaning a growing potential customer base for streetcars.

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In addition, streetcars are built specifically to not be fads. Putting rails in roadways takes time and effort and money, and they're hard to get out. This is one of the streetcar's advantages relative to a bus, advocates say, as it signals to businesses that they'll want to build along a transit line that will be around for years to come.

However, given some of streetcars' weaknesses as a transportation method — they're not terribly fast, they have to navigate traffic — and the growth in the use of public transit, it's possible that cities that build the systems will one day wish they had gone for either costlier grade-separated light rail or cheaper and more practical buses.

What else should I be reading?

The American Public Transportation Association has a site where it keeps all sorts of information on modern streetcars and heritage trolleys. There are also many good public transit-focused blogs out there. Human Transit and the Transport Politic are two good ones.

In addition, the Atlantic Cities — while covering all sorts of urban planning-related news — often writes thoughtful articles on transportation policy.

Many cities that have a streetcar under consideration or under construction also have blogs or sites dedicated to those streetcars where progress updates are posted. A few examples are Washington, DC's site, Milwaukee's, and Seattle's.

How have these cards changed?

This is a running list of substantive updates, corrections, and additions to this card stack. These cards were last updated on April 22, 2014.

  • April 22: Card 8 was corrected to reflect that transit reached its highest ridership in 2013 since 1956.
  • April 23: Card 1 was corrected to better define heavy rail.
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