Sunday, April 15, 2018
The new reason for new streetcars
The revival of American cities over the last 20-25 years has also coincided with the revival of a relic of the earlier urban heyday -- the streetcar. But don't mistake the streetcar revival for a newfound affinity for mass transit. Today's streetcars -- indeed, streetcars throughout American history -- are about stimulating development and rising property values, and not about improving job or neighborhood access.
Curiously, this is happening just as transit ridership seems to be on the decline nationally.
It's been done before. Streetcars were initially developed in the late 19th century to open up new areas for urban -- and suburban -- development. Streetcars enabled the development of areas beyond the edges of old, crowded cities, and led to a new, more dispersed development pattern.
As for today's iteration of streetcar development, however, I'm ambivalent. Streetcar development is happening now for two reasons: 1) there is a new and growing demand for city living, and 2) the demand for city living currently outpaces the supply. Streetcars systems are being built as a recognition of those factors, and an attempt to spark similar development in areas where it hasn't yet taken off. Just as parks and highways have been used as economic development tools in the past, streetcar systems are being utilized in the same manner. Their use comes into question as we consider the broader impacts of streetcar development. Do they improve access for the region? Are they playing a role in reducing the rapidly growing levels of inequality we see in our cities? Or are the new systems simply being constructed to serve a select group of favored urban newcomers?