A Streetcar Named Revival

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Streetcars, once a common sight in cities across the US, vanished in the post-WWII automobile boom. But with a renewed interested in sustainable transportation and the availability of federal grants, many communities are bringing the streetcar back. Cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta and Houston will see gleaming new systems within the next few years, promising more transit options for residents.

Why do streetcars and other rail projects make sense? Portland, Oregon built its modern streetcar system in 2001 and has seen $3.5 billion in new downtown development, most of it within one block of the streetcar line. The system has also spawned a homegrown manufacturing sector and reduced vehicle miles travelled by an estimated 70 million per year. That’s because an average streetcar is capable of taking over 145 cars off the road.

Washington, DC’s new streetcar system, set to open one line at the end of 2013 promises to connect neighborhoods currently underserved by the bus or Metro (subway) system. It’s also expected to spur the local economy well beyond the project’s cost.

And Tucson AZ’s new Sun Link system, also opening in the coming months, has already created 500 construction jobs and inspired scores of small businesses to locate to the area.

These are just a few of the roughly 50 streetcar/light rail projects planned or under construction in cities across the US.

Patrick Condon, author of Sustainable Communities: Design Strategies for the Post-Carbon World says that streetcar-friendly cities reduce per-capita energy use and enhance the well-being of their residents. This was true of Vancouver in 1922 and Strasbourg, France today. Streetcars are both time-tested and modern.

Streetcars function well with other low-carbon transportation options too. In Vancouver, cyclists can bring their bikes on board and can connect to bus and bike routes when they leave the system.

In many ways, streetcars are similar to city buses: they ride in the street with cars and make frequent stops (unlike other rail systems which have limited, predetermined stations). How do communities decide whether to prioritize buses or streetcars in their transportation plans?

David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington says that “one mode is not better than another in all contexts”. In other words, it depends.

In many Central and South American cities planners have decided to prioritize buses and the approach has been wildly successful. “Bus rapid transit” (BRT) buses allows commuters to pay for tickets before they board and have designated lanes separate from car traffic. Mexico City, for example, has committed serious resources to BRT, enough to earn it a sustainable transportation award from EarthShare member Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP).

Want to bring rail, BRT, bikes, and other sustainable transportation options to your region? Visit Natural Resources Defense Council’s Transportation Issues page or ITDP for information you can share with decision-makers in your community.


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