Streetcars Aren’t Good Economics or Transit
Back in October 2013, Kansas City Councilman Russ Johnson said that the whole point of streetcars was to spur economic development, not transportation. He was quoted by the Kansas City Business Journal:
“The stated goal of this project is economic development. That’s the dominant goal,” [Russ] Johnson said. “The dominant goal is not to have a lot of people ride it. The dominant goal is to develop the city.”
The Show-Me Institute has argued repeatedly, and apparently successfully, that streetcars do not contribute to economic development or provide reliable transit. More people are waking up to this fact.
CityLab, formerly The Atlantic Cities, just published a column titled, “Overall, U.S. Streetcars Just Aren’t Meeting the Standards of Good Transit,” and it is worth the read. The author offers the following:
- The most commonly cited problem with new streetcars—Matt Yglesias calls it the “original sin“—is that they tend to run in mixed traffic alongside cars. The resulting slow speeds, combined with the relatively short length of the lines (often just a mile or two), means many potential riders could sooner reach their destination by foot.
- Very few next-generation streetcar lines run with the sort of frequency that might counterbalance slow speeds or short distances.
- As streetcar skepticism grows louder, even among traditional transit advocates, there’s some confusion about its source. Some mistake it for an anti-rail sentiment (a misperception perpetuated when critical pieces quote actual rail opponents, as the Economist recently did). In fact, the true spirit of the concern is not anti-rail or anti-transit but anti-bad rail transit.
These three items appeared in the most recent campaigns for a streetcar: they ran along commercial thoroughfares; they were to run slowly and infrequently; and opponents were accused of just being anti-transit. The CityLab piece saves the best part for last. The author concludes that the reason streetcars fail to meet standards of good transit is because of boosters like Johnson:
“[The problem is] the way too many new streetcars are being deployed—as economic engines first and mobility tools second (if at all), even after being constructed with painfully limited transportation funding—that’s inspiring much of the criticism.”
Not only were Johnson and others who promoted economic development wrong on the facts, but transit supporters also are beginning to realize that streetcars don’t even provide worthwhile transportation.