Study Examines the Purpose, Function and Performance of Streetcars

By Benita Dodd

study by the Mineta Transportation Institute should make policymakers, lawmakers and taxpayers question why streetcar projects are being funded through transportation agencies and grants. The institute examined streetcars in Little Rock, Ark., Memphis, Tenn., Portland, Ore., Seattle, Wash., and Tampa, Fla.

“[T]here does seem to be a real disconnect between enthusiasm for the streetcar and its transportation performance,” the authors found. “In most cities, streetcar ridership is very low and compares quite unfavorably with the ridership on a local bus route operating in the same general area. A strict transportation assessment would tend to regard a streetcar that had lower ridership than a typical bus route as a misuse of scarce transportation resources.

“But few of the informants tended to think in such terms. Instead, poor transportation performance tended to be downplayed because the streetcar was not seen as primarily a transportation investment but instead as something else.”

In the cities the authors studied, the found, “the primary purpose of the streetcar was to serve as a development tool (all cities), a second objective was to serve as a tourism-promoting amenity (Little Rock, Tampa), and transportation objectives were largely afterthoughts with the notable exception of Portland, and to a lesser degree, Seattle.

“Key informant interviews revealed that in most cities, private sector actors from the local development and downtown business communities as well as streetcar advocacy groups were the key forces behind streetcar implementation and that these actors did so in order to use the streetcar primarily to achieve development goals. These informants viewed the streetcar as a catalyst for development that stood as a symbol of a permanent public commitment to an area. Despite the lack of serious assessments of the streetcar’s development effects, most informants believed the streetcar to be an important contributor to any development effects that had occurred. Many informants also regarded the streetcar as an icon or symbol of the community and an important way of denoting the city’s identity in efforts to attract visitors to the community.”

The study and conclusions are worth a read, especially in light of Atlanta’s plans to expand its Streetcar line and proponents’ lofty claims of the Streetcar’s impact on development along the existing route. 

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Benita Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.