Clang, Clang, Crunch: The Truth About Streetcars

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."

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze