The Unscientific Claims of Streetcar Boosters
Let’s play a game. It’s called “Pick the scientist,” and here’s how you play: I’ll provide two quotes, and you try to guess which is from a scientist and which is not.
Quote 1: “Trolleys are a proven catalyst for residential, commercial and recreational development in cities like Memphis, Little Rock, Tampa and Portland.”
Quote 2: “The evidence for the streetcar’s development effects is limited, controversial, and yet widely believed among many streetcar proponents.”
. . . Well?
If you guessed Quote 2, you’re right. It’s from a recent report by the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University. Quote 1 is from rail proponents on the Delmar Loop Trolleys’ website.
Despite the lack of empirical evidence, boosters of the Trolley—a 2.2-mile vintage streetcar line slated to begin service this spring—claim it will spur economic development. But as the authors of the Mineta report (and this one) explain, there is no solid link between streetcars and development.
And the development prospects look especially grim for the Loop Trolley.
Research shows that of all kinds of mass transit, ‘vintage’ or ‘heritage’ streetcar lines like the Loop Trolley are the least likely to generate development. That’s because of their low ridership and limited service. If the trolley doesn’t effectively serve as a transit amenity—for example, by getting people to work or school—it won’t attract economic activity. But the trolley is only projected to carry a paltry 800-1,200 passengers a day and won’t even start running until the lunch hour! To put that in perspective, a busy Metro bus route can carry anywhere from 5,000-9,000 passengers a day, and operates nearly 24 hours a day.
Trolley boosters might respond that the streetcar has already spurred development, including a new residential tower. But this response ignores the point driven home in the scientific literature: subsidies, relaxed zoning, and other perks do more of the spurring than the rail does. (In the case of the new East Delmar residential tower, the project received a 16-year tax abatement.) As a recent paper in the Journal of Public Transportation states, “The real explanation for Portland’s apparent redevelopment success is most likely a combination of these factors [namely, financial incentives and regulatory inducements], combined with a desirable location and a vibrant local real estate market” (p. 44).
The truth is, the Loop real estate market is doing just fine. Delmar is not blighted, and didn’t need a $51 million vanity streetcar to grow. And if our community wants to drive development east of Skinker, it will have the most success by lowering tax and regulatory burdens, not because it has a vintage trolley creeping by.