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.

  • Gary F

    But that doesn’t mean the Utopian types in city government won’t continue with this fiasco. It’s only money. And the lure of “federal money” or “state money” makes them drool. Like it’s someone else’s money. Right.

    I was at a neighborhood meeting with Coleman a month or so ago. It was interesting how both the left and the right at this meeting were against it and Coleman wasn’t phased.

    There are so many other things we need in Saint Paul besides streetcars.

  • Veronica

    YES! The New Orleans streetcars would be the model. I’m not opposed to streetcar transit if it’s done the RIGHT way. (Although I’m not sure why anyone has to point out the obvious that if any project is not done well the first time, it’s a waste of money. That’s Life 101.)

  • Kassie

    The bus that runs on the proposed street car line in St. Paul only runs every 20 minutes now. Putting a street car in wouldn’t make that less frequent, so it wouldn’t be a problem on that route. Maybe it would be more frequent?

    And as a person who takes East 7th every day, I welcome the street cars. Street cars and one lane of traffic each way, plus a bike lane each way and better sidewalks would do wonders for the road. I hate biking on it because it feels so dangerous. I hate driving on it because it is ugly and some people want to go VERY fast and some want to go very slow. I hate walking on it because it is loud and very poorly designed for pedestrians.

  • NewHopeGuy

    It is seen as economic development first because that is the largest advantage of street cars over buses. Bus Rapid Transit could be implemented at far lower cost, at equal service levels (and in some cases, greater service levels) and be more flexible. But the flexibility is the issue with the economic development portion of the equation. Bus lines can change, Street car lines, not so much. So the risk of a change in public transportation access is greater, and makes developers nervous and less likely to spend money. That’s the theory at least. In practice, development will still be hard in the toughest areas (i.e. Cedar/Riverside on the Blue Line) and prosper in areas that are already above average on the neighborhood scale.

    • cecc0011

      The vast majority of our bus lines mimic the exact route of the streetcars that preceded them. Most bus routes make extremely minor changes (to the point that real estate and users would be marginally affected to not at all) to no changes whatsoever (other than schedule shifts). For

      What makes people (or these supposed developers) think that an aBRT line, with raised curb stations, full heated shelters, fixed signage, etc would up and change on a whim (or even in 50 years’ time)? Do people not understand that transit follows the market as much as the market follows transit?

  • tboom

    “They tend not to run often enough, he says.”
    “Frequency matters.”

    The exact problem our bus system has had for as long as I’ve been a resident of the Twin Cities (Hint: a heck of a lot of years).

  • kevinfromminneapolis

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

    Um…that’s what light rail is and it costs a bleep of a lot more.