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Clang, Clang, Crunch: The Truth About Streetcars

Clang, Clang, Crunch: The Truth About Streetcars
Current Photo By Alex Scott/Historic Photo �Dallas Historical Society

We are about to spend $40 million to build less than two miles of modern streetcar line linking downtown Dallas to Oak Cliff. A few things to keep in mind:

•According to the experts, modern streetcars are no better at carrying people around than other transit methods, maybe a little worse.

•Streetcars never pay for themselves.

•Streetcars are less green than buses.

•Other than that, they're great.

People love them. Something about a sleek new streetcar—the soft whir of electric technology, the aura of Euro-cool—draws people powerfully. Advocates in Portland, Oregon, claim their streetcar line has spurred billions of dollars in redevelopment because people want to live near streetcars.

That's what streetcar lovers here are hoping for, but for many Dallasites, the most important question is still "What is a streetcar, exactly?"

Dallas already has an antique streetcar line operating as a tourist attraction in the Uptown entertainment district. Think of the magic trolley on the erstwhile children's TV show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, the one that transported people to the "Neighborhood of Make-Believe."

Modern streetcars are one-car electric-powered trains that run on tracks in the street. In this world there are three sizes of rail transit. The big kind is called heavy rail: trains running on separate tracks from city to city pulled or pushed by diesel engines.

In the middle is light rail, a hybrid. In Dallas the DART train is light rail: electric-powered, sort of a trolley but with multiple cars hooked together in a train, sometimes off by itself on its own tracks, sometimes running down tracks in the street.

The third version of rail is the modern streetcar, kind of like a mini-DART train but only one car at a time, running on tracks in the streets, shoulder-to-shoulder with traffic.

And that's the thing: Unlike heavy rail, which can go fast, or light rail, which can go fast sometimes, streetcars are always in the street and almost never fast. Because they're big and heavy and harder to stop than a car, they have to move extra cautiously. A double-parker, someone pushing a baby stroller while texting or a snoozing homeless person stops a streetcar dead in its streetcar tracks.

Dallas' modern mini-line, slated to begin construction in March 2012 and begin service in December 2013, will run between Reunion Station at the west end of downtown and Methodist Hospital in North Oak Cliff, a distance of 1.6 miles. The city will operate two cars at a time. Passengers will be able to get on a car every 15 minutes each way during peak hours and every half hour off-peak, for 16 hours each day. (In other words, the average healthy adult could walk the distance in less time than it will take to catch and ride the trolley.)

But streetcar lovers, a passionate tribe, say the important thing isn't getting on. It's getting off. They vow that Dallas' streetcar system will foster a warm and fuzzy Mister Rogers'-style neighborhood on the Oak Cliff end of the line, meanwhile hooking up downtown with a new supply of office workers.

Some serious transit experts agree. They think streetcars are magic beans that can sprout into new sustainable Seinfeld neighborhoods—a kind of anti-transit transit, a means of travel so slow that you might as well just stay put. And they see that as a good thing.

But if being slow and inconvenient is the upside, what's the down? In recent years streetcars have made enough of a comeback to have earned themselves a well-rehearsed choir of critics, some of whom are every bit as passionate as the advocates.

Some of the critics are curmudgeons generally offended by what they think is a silly-minded nostalgia fad. But the skeptical ranks also include academic experts who call into question basic underlying assumptions of streetcar lovers.


Lisa Schweitzer, a professor of environmental justice and sustainable transportation at the University of Southern California, dismisses streetcars as "urban decoration." She says they accomplish little toward the goal of replacing automobiles, and she accuses streetcar lovers of an elitist and cavalier attitude toward most people who need some kind of public transit to live.

"For all of us who actually have to work for a living and use public transit to get to work," she says, "the attitude is that we should go jump in the lake."

She says she could accept the role of streetcars as an amenity whose purpose is to add cachet to urban design if that were all anybody claimed for them, but she rejects the idea that short streetcar lines within cool little enclaves can contribute in any meaningful way to real change in overall transit habits.

"If you are actually arguing that this is going to keep people out of their cars, quote unquote, then the streetcar line has to go somewhere," she says. "If we want these environmental benefits, we have to come up with a service that actually does compete with the car."

 

People who believe in rail transit, everything from heavy rail to streetcars, tend to assume that rail is easier on the environment than internal-combustion hydro-carbon-burning rubber-tired transit, otherwise known as cars and buses. When the comparison is based strictly on what comes out of the tailpipe, obviously, electric-powered rail wins, because it doesn't have a tailpipe.

But environmental science has come a long way in the 41 years since the first Earth Day, and scientists have developed more comprehensive methods of measuring energy and pollution costs.

In 2008, the University of California at Berkeley Center for Future Urban Transit published a study measuring modes of transit according to what we might call a whole-shmear comparison: They looked at the energy and environmental costs that go into manufacturing trains, cars and buses, the costs of producing fuel for them, building roads, rail lines and all other infrastructure.

Light rail, like our DART system in Dallas, beats automobiles by wide margins in common pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide, according to the study. Light rail beats cars by much narrower margins in energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

The more stunning result was in the comparison of light rail, which would include most streetcar systems, with buses. Buses came out substantially cleaner than light rail in basic pollution, and they beat the socks off light rail in energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, doing almost twice as well in the UC-Berkely whole-shmear comparison.

What's more, another argument for buses is that they just work better, especially in heavy traffic, especially if they are new and efficient. John Charles, transportation analyst for the Cascade Policy Institute, a free-market think tank in Portland, claims that resident Portlanders never use their own city's streetcars, even though the Portland streetcars are immensely popular with visitors.

"The thing is so slow, the seats are so uncomfortable, the headways are so far apart, basically one car every 15 minutes, that everybody in Portland who lives here knows that you are generally better off walking."

Charles says good modern buses are better than any kind of rail—streetcar or light rail. He grew up in the Northeast where he was accustomed to using trains and subways. After moving to Portland as an adult he continued to use local rail there from habit.

Charles vividly remembers the day a friend finally persuaded him to get off light rail and try a high-end bus instead for his daily commute. He was blown away the instant he boarded.

"It has tinted windows, incredible air conditioning, nicer seats, actually a more professional class of people. It's quiet. I sit down. I'm not stopping every few minutes with pre-recorded announcements in two different languages telling me that, 'The doors are opening, the doors are closing.'

"I say to myself, 'You are experiencing a paradigm shift here.' It was so much better!"

International transit consultant Jarrett Walker of Vancouver, Canada, is a streetcar agnostic, neither fan nor skeptic, who has examined specific claims made for specific lines around the world. For example, the F-Market streetcar in San Francisco, which replaced buses running from Fisherman's Wharf at the northern tip of the San Francisco peninsula to the Castro District inland, has been touted by officials there for its faster speeds and greater passenger loads.

But Walker argues that the F-Market streetcar is only faster than the bus it replaced because it runs on the "inside" lane, at the center-line of the roadway and away from parked cars. If the bus had been able to run there, instead of getting stopped all the time in the curbside lane by errant pedestrians and double-parkers, Walker says the bus would have been at least as fast as the streetcar.

The streetcar does have a bigger passenger capacity than the buses it replaced, Walkers says, but it runs far less frequently, which zeroes out that advantage.

Walker says his F-Market analysis tends to work when he looks at streetcar/bus comparisons all over the world. Wherever a streetcar gets credit for being faster or more efficient than the bus it replaced, it's because other improvements have been made that would have allowed the bus to run faster too.

In a blog post titled, "Streetcars: An Inconvenient Truth," Walker winds up saying that streetcars offer no intrinsic transit value over buses and may not even serve quite as well. He concedes that there are solid reasons to consider a streetcar system based on the positive effect it may have on surrounding real estate development.

"But if you want a streetcar because it's intrinsically faster and more reliable than a bus, well, that's just not true," Walker says.


 

So if a streetcar offers no intrinsic transit advantage over buses and may even be a bit more of a fuel-hogging greenhouse-gas emitting pain in the seat, what is it about them that people love? The best answer seems to be that they just do.

Well, certain kinds of people do. Even Walker concedes as much. "Streetcars do attract more ridership than the buses they replace," he says, "though it's not always clear why."

One doesn't have to look far for corroboration. Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt, an early champion of streetcars for Dallas, says she will ride a streetcar but not a bus.

"I know a lot of people, myself included, who are not going to ride on a bus," Hunt says. "I understand that that may be perceived as elitist or that may be perceived as anti-public transportation."

But in the next breath Hunt offers another possible explanation for her bus-a-phobia: "One of the primary reasons I don't jump on buses is that I can never figure out where the hell they're going."

Schweitzer, the USC environmental professor, is very sorely tempted to take Hunt up on the first suggestion, the one about elitism. She says bus-a-phobia "makes my head explode." She wants to tell anti-bus people to just get over it.

"Come on," she says. "How many billions do I have to spend to get your daisy fanny out of a car before you do the right thing? How much of a spoiled brat are you?"

But Schweitzer winds up going with Hunt's second answer, that it's not as much elitism that keeps people off buses as it is the generally perplexing nature of most bus service in America, especially the inscrutability of schedules and routes.

In order to provide a bus system that works well and competes on a level playing field with rail and cars in attracting riders, a city like Dallas would need way more buses. The goal, she says, is a system in which buses come all the time, go everywhere and are easy to understand.

"London is a primary example of this," Schweitzer says. "You can get off any bus anywhere in London and its inner ring suburbs, and there will be another bus there in five minutes or three minutes.

"The thing in the United States is that bus service is not like that. Bus service here has 20-minute headways, sometimes even longer than that."

Get on the wrong bus, and it may take you hours to get yourself righted. Counting the time you wait for a bus to show up, even the right bus trip can be absurdly time-consuming. "All of a sudden you're on an hour-long bus trip, when it's a seven-minute car trip," Schweitzer says, "and why in God's name would anybody do that?"

A quick look at DART's bus timetables shows that weekday local route bus schedules outside of downtown Dallas offer 20 minute headways at best, more often 40 to 45 minutes, but one-hour headways are not unusual. Even DART's best-case scenario for traveling by bus from the corner of Maple and Oak Lawn avenues to NorthPark Center at 5 p.m. on a weekday puts the trip at an hour, with one transfer and a walk of a third of a mile. That's for a five-mile trip that shouldn't take more than 20 minutes by car at rush-hour.

DART spokesman Morgan Lyons said DART looks better in comparison to Schweitzer's London example if you look only at DART downtown rather than out in the neighborhoods: "It's a function of density," he says. "You just have more options downtown if all you're trying to do is get from one part of downtown to another."

Whatever the trip times, streetcars seem to have a magical ability to attract riders who are not attracted to buses. The reason is beyond the analytical skills of the experts and academics, maybe because it's more romantic than rational, but it may have to do with the rail itself.

Over a glass of water at Oddfellows, a smart new Bishop Arts District restaurant of which he is part-owner, North Oak Cliff community activist Jason Roberts takes a stab at it:

"There is something about that permanence in the ground," he says, "about that rail being fixed in the ground and being able to look down the street and see the directions it can go.

"My wife won't ride a bus. She will ride rail. I think there is something psychological there. I know this: When I go to New Orleans and I have an option to ride the bus or the streetcar, even though the streetcar is much slower and rickety and old, I default to it over the bus."

Roberts, a former punk rocker and artist, was one of a handful of North Oak Cliff activists who wrote the original grant application that eventually won federal funding for Dallas' new starter streetcar system.

 

Two years ago when the Obama administration was about to launch a new series of transportation grants under the Recovery Act, Roberts and his friends looked around at their surroundings in North Oak Cliff, an aging, time-battered residential area just across the river from downtown, and came to a stunning conclusion.

The layout of streets, land-use and building styles in their neighborhood all reflected a community that had been developed in the early 20th century for streetcars, not automobiles. It was done according to a certain formula.

In a 2010 book called Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities, Patrick Condon, a professor of urban planning at the University of British Columbia, explains how streetcar development worked. In the golden age of streetcars, from 1880 to 1945, developers built their own streetcar lines to extend beyond settled city limits out into the raw land they intended to develop.

The streetcar's first important function was to bring potential home buyers out to the site, but the lines also served as a kind of pledge of sound planning.

In order to be financially viable, streetcar lines had to be built at a maximum five-minute walk from every house sold. A fascinating 1905 black and white film of a streetcar line in operation San Francisco, viewable on YouTube, shows a lot of very fit-looking pedestrians in the background, people who look like they get in more five-minute walks in a day than most Americans do now in a year.

As Condon explains, streetcar neighborhoods were laid out on grids reflecting those five-minute walks. "The streetcar city principle is not about the streetcar itself," he writes. "It is about the system of which that the streetcar is a part. It is about the sustainable relationship between land use, walking, and transportation that streetcar cities embody."

What Roberts and his fellow North Oak Cliff streetcar partisans saw when they looked at their own streets was precisely the pattern Condon describes in his book, buried beneath a detritus of weed-choked parking lots and other clumsy accommodations to the car.

They knew that a grant application for streetcar money was going to be in trouble if it didn't involve some kind of connection to downtown. They were told that no one could afford to pay for a new bridge capable of carrying heavy streetcars across the Trinity River.

But Roberts and longtime civil engineer Louis Salcedo suspected the century-old Houston Street Viaduct at the southwest corner of downtown was built as a trolley bridge. Salcedo led Roberts to a city archive called "The Vault" in a gloomy basement, where they found cracked and faded 100-year-old blueprints for the Houston Street Viaduct.

The blueprints showed extra support for heavy trolley cars, rails in the roadway and pillars overhead to carry the catenary system that supplies electricity to the cars. "This bridge was meant to be a streetcar bridge," Roberts says.

Their grant application to the federal government proposed using a starter streetcar line to bring the bridge, the original streetscape and the neighborhood itself back to life as a streetcar community.

"It's very idealistic, I'll be honest with you," he says. "My parents come from small towns, and I grew up in Garland, so it was classic suburbia. Growing up all I ever heard about was my dad being frustrated about the fact that, 'When we were kids, we all knew the butcher. We had our own Main Street parade.'

"So maybe I grew up with very much a Mayberry image in my mind—the old guys playing chess outside and kids riding their bikes."

The image of an ideal community conjured by Roberts and his friends, then, is of a world they never knew, a pastiche of their parents' romantic reminiscences and scenes from a popular television serial. But it rang a bell with the feds.

Federal transportation officials responded by awarding Dallas a $23 million federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant, to be administered by the North Central Texas Council of Governments, a regional agency. That money and $15.8 million more in other regional transportation funding will make up the entire amount needed to build the starter line. The city, which will own the line, is investing no money to build it.

The community growing up along the eventual route of the streetcar line is already a resounding success in terms of real estate values alone. Developers complain there is no longer cheap commercial space left in the low-slung early 20th century brick buildings of the Bishop Arts District. Smart-looking crowds throng the streets on weekend nights, a stark contrast to some parts of downtown where expensive new developments are dead as Red Square in January.

 

Two years ago Roberts was an information technology consultant and bike shop owner. Now he's a serial entrepreneur, active in the city at many levels. Another of his peers just unseated an incumbent city council member. North Oak Cliff is a ferment of activity and leadership.

Roberts knows the North Oak Cliff vision is soft and blurry, a bricks and mortar rendering of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood of Make-Believe. "I'm in the arts world. I'm leaning toward that image of it. But here's the thing," he says, "with Bishop Arts, we kind of have created it."

He turns and gestures out the broad windows of the restaurant toward the busy sidewalk on Seventh Street. "My son will roll up here any minute now, when he gets out of school. He's 10. He rides his bike. He'll hop off, and while he's walking all the shop owners will say, 'Hey, Asher, how's it going?' 'Hey, Asher, give me a hand and grab me that extension cord, will you?' He's got people watching over him."

Roberts sees the streetcar as enabling that good green life. "It's that whole Jane Jacobs idea of the neighborhood and the village. It's all about character, about creating ownership and a sense of belonging." (Jacobs, who died in 2006, was the author of the seminal Death and Life of Great American Cities, a 1961 revisionist critique of modern urban planning.)

Other streetcar enthusiasts see a different kind of green, based on the success of streetcar neighborhoods that already are well established in other cities. A bible for believers in streetcar-driven development is a study carried by the city of Portland after the first seven years of operation of its streetcar system, which opened 10 years ago.

The Portland study found that $3.5 billion in development took place within two blocks of the streetcar line in seven years after it opened. It found more than 10,000 new housing units had been created and 5.4 million square feet of commercial and institutional space built in seven years. More than half of all development in the city's central business district had taken place within one block of the streetcar lines.

Walker, the Vancouver street car agnostic, is one of many transit experts who have expressed skepticism about the claims of streetcar partisans for their role in Portland's celebrated grooviness. Generally the skeptics have pointed out that the Portland study fails to establish a causal link between streetcars and the growth around them. Walker says Portland is a place that offers lots of other possible explanations:

"Don't let anyone tell you that the streetcar made Portland a great livable city. Portland is a great livable city because of decades of hard work in comprehensive planning and consensus building, leading to many different actions, and many different technologies that all served the goals that people really shared. The streetcar is just one such technology. It is a result, not a cause, of Portland's success."

The Cascade Policy Institute's Charles scoffs at the idea that streetcars are what made Portland groovy. "Anyone who thinks the streetcar is groovy is living a really boring life," he says.

Charles has done studies monitoring how people travel in and out of the so-called transit-oriented developments near streetcar lines in Portland's grooviest districts, and he says 90 percent of them travel by car. "You will find rail consistently has the lowest market share, consistently less than 10 percent," he says.

Schweitzer, the USC professor and streetcar skeptic, agrees with Charles. She thinks in most cases even people in kitschy streetcar neighborhoods still depend heavily on their cars. The streetcars, she says, merely give them one more way to run around.

"I think there are many nice things about walkability and the other things people are always slobbering about," she says. "It gives people lots of things to do.

"I think the assumption, and this is by people who aren't very good at math, is that, 'Oh, well, somebody has walked with their family to the neighborhood cafe, and that's a driving trip they didn't take, because they walked.' But the facts are that they just might have stayed at home.

"There's nothing wrong with it. They have something new to do they didn't have before. But if they're still driving two hours every day to go to work, I've still got a problem, because I'm an environmental professor."

If the boon of streetcars is the Portland effect, a shot in the arm for urban redevelopment, then Schweitzer wonders why the developers don't pay for it. As an example, she points to plans by Anshutz Entertainment Group (AEG) to build a new football stadium next to the Staples Center basketball arena in downtown Los Angeles.

AEG chief Tim Lieweke at one point suggested it would be nice of the city of Los Angeles to extend its streetcar line into his stadium site as a sort of park-and-ride system. Schweitzer thinks it would be nice for Lieweke to pay for it himself.

 

"That makes perfect sense to somebody like me," she says. "It's a primary local benefit. I don't think for five minutes this is going to create any sort of real emissions reductions or climate change or any of those things.

"But it will get people in and out of the stadium. People will make a lot of money on it. I have no problems with people making money. It will be nice. The property owners along Broadway here will redevelop some of these beautiful old theaters, and there will be more money made there. And I just don't see any reason why federal taxpayers have to be doing that."

Dallas Assistant City Manager A.C. Gonzalez, who oversees the streetcar effort here, says there is an even more important point to be made about government money for streetcars. "Government doesn't have any money," he says.

The cost of running the Oak Cliff line has been estimated at $1.5 million per year, to be paid out of fares and special taxing district funds. But DART also has shifted money out of a people-mover plan for Love Field Airport and into the streetcar, guaranteeing operations at least until DART changes its mind.

With his back to a wall of glass that opens on the vast central atrium of Dallas City Hall, Gonzalez pauses for emphasis, then points meaningfully to the screen of his laptop on a conference room table. A PowerPoint slide shows that the amount the city can promise for operation, maintenance and expansion of the trolley system is zero. From the state, zero. Federal government, another goose egg.

This is a point Gonzalez, a champion of streetcars, wants to get across clearly. "We recognize that it's going to be expensive," Gonzalez says. "There's a recognition, which we are stating in public, that government doesn't have any money. We've got to make this happen with the private sector taking the lead financial role."

Private sector streetcars? Did any private company ever make money off streetcars, even 100 years ago, before people had their own cars?

Not really, Gonzalez says. Private companies made money by using streetcars to sell houses. "The model of all of this that happened before did not include government. It was all about the private sector, and it was not about fares being paid into that system. It was land play."

Gonzalez says Dallas will have to look at some mix of public support from DART, the regional transit agency, and from the private sector. DART has already committed enough money to assure operations of the mini-line for the foreseeable future, but it's the next step that will bring challenges.

He estimates the price for extending the line to a reach where it can begin to serve significant numbers of riders at about $800 million. Gonzalez says whoever comes up with that money will have much to say about the future of the line.

"When people start coming to us and saying, 'Well, it needs to come here first,' or, 'It needs to go there second,' or whatever, I say, 'Look, it's going to go where that $800 million says it needs to go and when it says to go.'

"My speech to those guys is, 'If you want to have that part of the system as part of your community, then you need to start lining up your landowners to start getting sensitized to the notion that future profits that might be gained from having this kind of stuff are going to have to be shared."

That's already happening.

Jason Roberts says the North Oak Cliff streetcar aficionados are already on board with the idea of going to developers in their area for subsidy.

"This idea of privatization would enable us to continue the build-out of the streetcar system," he says. "I think after looking at streetcars and how they developed over time throughout areas, it's pretty compelling. It could quickly develop streetcars in areas that really could utilize them."

For now, given the largesse of the federal government, the starter streetcar is reality. The Phase II streetcar, however, will involve finding streetcar lovers with $800 million to spend.

If we look at Portland 10 years ago and North Oak Cliff today, maybe the Phase II streetcar line is not totally in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. It only starts there.

The Elm Street streetcar in the 1920s, on the right, carried patrons to and from dozens of movie and vaudeville theaters. A second set of tracks coming back in the other direction may still be buried beneath modern pavement shown on the left.
Current Photo By Alex Scott/Historic Photo ©Dallas Historical Society

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