Re-post: Streetcars for New Haven?

This piece originally ran in the New Haven Independent, under the title “All Aboard? Define ‘Streetcar’ First” on 1/17/2014. Crossposted here with permission. Original link here.

(News analysis) Streetcars, innocent as they may seem, are in fact one of the most controversial topics among 21st-century planners—and among people who care about New Haven, as witnessed by passionate debate over a plan that the Harp Administration revived this week.

This seemingly never-ending discussion is of interest to me both as a New Haven expat and as a planner-in-training, since it directly reflects some of the loudest debates in the planning and transportation professions.

New Haven’s nostalgia for streetcars as a mode of transportation is certainly understandable. The city was once home to a comprehensive streetcar system, the last remains of which can be seen at the Shoreline Trolley Museum in East Haven. Though the last trolleys operated in 1948, and despite the damage done by the misguided urban renewal efforts of the 1960s, the city still has “good bones” that make it transit-friendly—a logical street grid, densely built neighborhoods, a system of mixed-use arterial roads, and a compactness conducive to getting across town quickly even on a local bus.

It is crucial, therefore, to understand that the recent proposals for bringing a “streetcar” back to New Haven mean something entirely different from what existed in the city before 1948. The 21st-century urban streetcar, often built as a downtown circulator (as is proposed in New Haven), has only limited value as a technology for mobility. Streetcars that run in traffic lanes together with cars move no faster, and often more slowly (you can’t dodge obstacles if you’re on rails!) than bus service on an equivalent route.

Indeed, most advocates and planners point to the primary purpose of the modern streetcar as being not urban mobility, but economic development. Streetcars are supposed to appeal to a Millennial generation that craves the urban experience and living with few or no cars, and their “permanence” (it’s much harder to move rails embedded in a street than a bus stop) is supposed to indicate to developers a city’s commitment to dense and transit-friendly (and therefore profitable) development.

The logic of streetcars as propelling development, too, has been challenged, on the general premise that correlation does not equal causation. If a city is compelling enough to create demand for new development, that development will happen with or without a streetcar, and there is no way to know how the existence of a streetcar or plans for one has influenced development. New Haven’s experience, too, give some credence to that critique, with several new large downtown developments open or in the planning or construction process.

If streetcars are less than useful as a mode for moving people around, and their development benefits are questionable, should New Haven bring one to town? The answer would seem to be a clear no. But there are ways that the process of building a modern streetcar can actually be made to benefit the city.

First of all, the city and its contractors should clarify what they mean by “streetcar.” As noted above, in general the modern streetcar runs in the same traffic lanes as cars, leading to slow travel times. When given dedicated lanes of its own, an electrically powered railcar system is generally referred to as “light rail,” but in reality there is little difference between a light rail vehicle and a streetcar. If New Haven has the political gumption to dedicate lanes to transit vehicles (always a fight), then a downtown streetcar/light rail system begins to make sense.

The second key element of a successful rail system (or really, any public transit service) is frequency. Trains should come at close enough intervals (“low headways,” in transit-speak) that the rider has an incentive to choose that mode over another. In the case of a downtown circulator, the alternative mode is generally walking or a cab. Even when given dedicated lanes or right of way, running a streetcar with low frequency can be a ridership disaster, as the Utah Transit Authority has experienced with its newly opened S Line streetcar.

Finally, the routing of the line must be straight and uncomplicated, and to the greatest extent possible avoid splitting service in different directions on different streets. Unfortunately, past plans for the New Haven streetcar have shown all of these problems.

So a properly built and operated streetcar—one that blurs the arbitrary lines between “Streetcar” and “Light Rail”—can be a useful transit service. Is it right for New Haven?

Past proposals have been (not unreasonably) criticized as Yale-centric and not useful to the city as a whole. Critics have argued that the city of New Haven should not subsidize a service that will not be useful to the majority of city residents, a completely understandable position. However, with the proper understanding of the mission of a downtown streetcar system, and with the implementation of best practices as noted above, a streetcar system might, indeed, not be a bad contribution to the revitalization of downtown New Haven.

So under what conditions should New Haven build a streetcar? Most importantly, the streetcar should have limited impact on the city budget and encourage rather than discourage, a revamping of the rest of New Haven’s transit system. The city should pitch in money and resources to the streetcar project only on the condition that the system runs frequently in dedicated lanes along a simple route, thus serving a real transit purpose. The bulk or all of the operating costs in perpetuity should be born primarily by primary beneficiaries of the new service and its consequent development, rather than the city or state. Most prominently, Yale and Yale-New Haven (technically two separate corporations) should pay a yearly percentage of cost, with rest borne by a special taxing district for downtown businesses, with new developments paying a higher percentage. The idea that civic institutions and corporations which are the primary beneficiaries and proponents of downtown streetcar schemes should be largely responsible for funding it is currently in the process of bringing a streetcar to Detroit, and was recently responsible for saving Cincinnati’s streetcar from a hostile mayor.

What the streetcar won’t, and can’t, do is make job-access easier for New Haven residents, fewer of whom (particularly among the less affluent) have been able to find jobs in the city, even as overall employment in the city has grown.

Nor will it likely increase transit ridership in the city’s outer neighborhoods, though hopefully getting some momentum behind transit expansion in the city will spur CT Transit to give the city’s bus routes a much-needed revamp along with expanded service.

However, if the streetcar could be built with federal funds (no sure thing, given that federal budgets for such projects are generally unstable, and Providence was just denied funding for a similar project), and the majority to all of the operating costs could be covered by the project’s primary beneficiaries, then it could bring several benefits to New Haven.

The city could support the project with zoning for dense, mixed-use, transit-oriented, development along the route, allowing the city to add enough housing (ideally both upmarket and affordable) to bring down New Haven’s rental costs, which are exceptionally high for a city of its size and overall poverty. New residential development downtown, for which there seems to be significant demand, could finally begin to reverse some of the decay caused by the lasting damage from urban renewal, and support the city’s revitalization efforts in the Route 34 corridor. The streetcar could also be a key cog in the city’s attempt to turn downtown into a more walkable, pedestrian-friendly, and human-scaled area. Developments along the route could be allowed to build without the parking minimums generally required by American zoning laws, making apartments cheaper and encouraging walking and biking among downtown residents. And, of course, the city would get the high-frequency, fast downtown circulation service many seem to want.

Bringing a streetcar to downtown New Haven is far from a sure success, even if the line does eventually get built. It is clear, though, that the idea is reluctant to die. And while city residents may rightfully resent Yale and downtown developers getting a luxury amenity on the public dime, there are ways to make such a project work for New Haven as a whole. Yes, tens of millions of federal dollars would be better spent on enhancing the city’s primary bus network. Unfortunately, given federal funding priorities that favor new projects over improving existing networks, that is not the choice that urban advocates are presented with. If the streetcar project ultimately achieves the political consensus and momentum it needs to be built, it is in the best interest of urbanist advocates, and of the city itself, to try to shape the project to be the best it can be.

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