Monday, July 02, 2007

Streetcars: Terrible Investment for Transport, Great Investment for Development

Here in Philadelphia, the metropolitan transit company, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (Septa), is extensive and fairly popular, but it's not the nicest system in America. For starters, the buses and trains come less frequently than is probably optimal, and even those times at which they do come are not entirely predictable, despite published timetables. It's also quite dirty, both on trains and in stations, compared to newer systems like Washington's or the Bay Area's and also older systems like the New York subway. But perhaps the biggest problem is that, if you leave out buses, which are not very speedy, and the regional trains, which are only good for going to suburban areas, and scrape beneath the surface to look at the heart of the system—the subway—it's not very extensive at all.

Septa has only two proper subway lines, each following a straight shot down the city's east-west and north-south divider streets (the Market Street route also continues as an elevated train into the more suburban, near northeastern part of the city, while the Broad Street line has one short spur that provides some variation to get to another part of Center City). There is a third line, operated by the port authority, that provides a few central stops and heads across the Delaware into New Jersey. And there are five trolley routes that run on above-ground tracks through West Philly before diving into a tunnel and running as small subways under Center City. But that's it: if you're going through the center of town in one of the cardinal directions, or if you are going to New Jersey or West Philly, you are set. If you are going anywhere else, it's going to be a schlep.

It would be nice to have more nonbus public transit routes. Tourist or occasional ridership—coveted because it alleviates the effect of inefficient peak rush-hour periods—would probably increase if visitors and consumers could get on the subway in Old City and get off at, say, the Art Museum, South Street, or the Italian Market. But it's hard to find the money for such projects in part because, evaluated in and of themselves, they are not cost effective at all.

No transit system in the country makes money. Even the New York system, which transports about half of the entire nation's journey-to-work riders, makes between seventy and eighty cents for every dollar it spends in operation. And that's not even counting capital outlays. It's expensive to build, say, a street-level trolley line, and fares alone will never make up for the cost. Fares won't even cover the cost of running the trolley that day.

So why do cities continue to invest in public vehicles that run on rails? The Wall Street Journal argues that their benefits to commercial landowners in dense urban centers, in particular those from streetcars, might justify the expense:
Like stadiums, convention centers and aquariums, streetcars have emerged as a popular tool in the effort to revitalize downtowns in the U.S. About a dozen cities, from Madison, Wis., to Miami, are planning lines. But while research shows that big-ticket projects such as ballparks largely fail to spawn economic development, evidence is mounting that streetcars are indeed a magnet.

Streetcar systems are slower, less expensive and smaller than light rail, with cars that carry a maximum of 125 people and the average line 2-3 miles long. The cars are powered by electricity and run on tracks, which developers tend to favor because they suggest a sense of permanence, unlike bus routes, which can be changed overnight.

In Kenosha, Wis., city officials say a two-mile line helped generate 400 new residential units and the redevelopment of a 69-acre industrial site into a waterfront park. The streetcar line in Little Rock, Ark., has sparked revitalization of the city's River Market and warehouse district. In Seattle, a new $52 million streetcar line is scheduled to open in December that will shuttle riders between downtown and South Lake Union, a formerly industrial area that is being redeveloped by Microsoft Corp. billionaire Paul Allen.

And in Portland, Ore., the poster child for such development, officials say the streetcar system has helped bring $2.7 billion in investment within two blocks of its 3.6 mile line, much of it in the 24-hour hub known as the Pearl District. "It's one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in the city," says Richard Brandman, deputy planning director for Metro, the Portland area's regional government.
Link. Philadelphia has considered plans to expand the New Jersey line further into the city and to build a light rail down Market Street. But Market is already the corridor most served by nonbus transit. If the city's willing to pay $350 million for a stadium surrounded by parking lots and other stadiums—in other words, with approximately zero chance of effect on neighborhood development—it should be willing to shoot a trolley line down one of the numbered streets into eastern South Philly or down the Ben Franklin Parkway to the Art Museum for a fifth of that price. Even if it never pays for itself at the fare box.

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Image credits: "Decay6," photosapience, courtesy Flickr, borrowed for news-reporting and comment purposes.


Blogger Richard Layman said...

No road system makes money either. In fact 50% of the cost of roads is subsidized by non-automobile derived funds. See

7:23 AM  
Blogger Richard Layman said...

re your q why do cities invest in public transit? 1 is equity. Another is efficiency. In a city proper, fewer than 1,400 vehicles can move in one hour on one lane of road. A bus can move over 6,000 people in that lane in one hour. Light rail 10-15,000 people in that same lane/hour. And with heavy rail the numbers range from 20-60,000 (60K is NYC, about 25,000 in DC).

7:25 AM  
Blogger KBAB said...

City officials (i.e. here in Portland) often do praise their pet projects, but that doesn't mean the people who live here love it or wouldn't want their money spent on more worthwhile projects.
I really don't care about the streetcar one way or the other, and I've never been on it, but maybe city officials aren't the most objective critics.

2:22 PM  
Blogger The Good Reverend said...

I think the real problem is that people don't want to ride public transit. By and large, people would prefer to drive a car--even most of those on the subway or bus would likely drive a car if they felt it was feasible. But my point is, whether or not city residents actually use the transit system in large numbers, it could still be beneficial.

8:48 PM  
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