The Streetcars Strike Back
Despite their inefficiency and high cost, local planners are attempting to revive the streetcar system in Saint Louis based on questionable promises of local development.
Streetcars once operated throughout Saint Louis, but the combined competition of car travel and more efficient buses made their operation uneconomical. As a tool of public transportation, or moving people around the city, streetcars are not optimal. Compared to buses, they are inflexible, require expensive infrastructure, and are relatively slow. However, local planners are attempting to bring these relics back to the streets of Saint Louis, starting with the Loop trolley and a plan for a streetcar downtown.
Planners do not propose that streetcars are primarily superior people movers. Instead, they claim that streetcars raise property values, promote economic development, and attract “choice” travelers. Planners point to examples in Portland and other cities where streetcars supposedly attracted huge investment because they are a fixed infrastructure system upon which developers can depend. However, even the friendliest studies of streetcars state that large tax subsidies were integral to the development in places such as Portland, Seattle, and Kenosha. If streetcars do attract housing or retail development, it is likely because they are coupled with, or signal the arrival of, government largess. Those payouts will ultimately cost the taxpayer or reduce funds for other needed services.
Planners also claim that streetcars attract “choice users,” or those who could drive but choose transit if the level of service is high. These riders, according to streetcar advocates, will not ride buses, as they provide low-quality service. However, a U.S. Department of Transportation study found that the low opinion of buses versus other forms of transit stems largely from their image of serving low-income passengers and economically depressed areas. These opinions change when buses are re-branded and built to serve more affluent customers. Hence, it is more likely that trolleys through disadvantaged neighborhoods will lower residents’ opinions of streetcar service instead of transforming local neighborhoods.
In most American cities, including Saint Louis, buses carry the majority of travelers and the vast majority of low-income transit users. If Saint Louis plans to subsidize public transportation, it should aim to improve the system that provides the greatest public service. Building an expensive toy to attract affluent riders is a lower priority. With the Loop trolley in danger of losing its $22 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration, it is time to revisit both the costs and benefits of streetcar service in Saint Louis.