The mistake of streetcars in America

Minneapolis is considering a streetcar line on Nicollet Avenue from Lake Street to Fifth Street NE. St. Paul is noodling on a streetcar line on Seventh Street between Randolph Avenue and Arcade Street.

These might be bad ideas, CityLabs’ Eric Jaffe suggests today, indicating that where streetcars have been put back in service in America, they fail to meet the standards of good transportation.

They tend not to run often enough, he says.

Few U.S. streetcars run every 15 minutes, or four times an hour, which is generally considered the minimum standard for true show-up-and-go transit service that eliminates the need to check a schedule. Three systems (Little Rock, Salt Lake City, and Tampa) never hit that mark. Two others (Dallas and Portland, Oregon) only hit it at one of the three travel periods. The one (Seattle) that does meet the every-fifteen-minutes threshold at each period never exceeds it.

And again, that’s the minimum standard. Good public transportation requires trains or buses to run every 10 or 12 minutes, five or six times an hour. Only two streetcars (Tacoma and Tucson) hit this mark. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the brand new Tucson line also met its early ridership projections, even after ending a brief free-ride campaign and even before University of Arizona students were back on campus.

Compare these services to the high standard set by the historic and very functional system in New Orleans, where the St. Charles line runs every 9 minutes during morning peak, every 8 minutes at midday, and every 10 minutes at night. Frequency matters.

Jaffe says growing skepticism over streetcars is being mistaken for anti-rail sentiment. It’s not, he says. It’s anti bad-rail transit.

And he indicates that streetcars are being deployed as economic development engines first and mobility tools second. That’s backwards.