Do Streetcars Promote Economic Development?

As Bill notes, the Metropolitan Council argues that Streetcars are more for Economic Development than for Transportation, and so should be seeking a different pot of money.

We have evidence in many historical cases of the co-evolution of transport and land use (e.g. London, New York, Twin Cities). In those cases the transport mode developed was faster than alternatives, and therefore increased accessibility, making land more valuable.


We have no evidence that streetcars, of themselves, promote economic development in the context of present-day US cities. That is, there is no case where modern streetcars were built, nothing else was done by the public sector (no road reconstruction, no public subsidies for development, no change in development regulations), and the level of private sector economic development changed measurably, and more than in an otherwise comparable control case.

We have hypotheses as to why there should be no effect, and that is the maturity of the system (streetcars are not connecting places that are presently unconnected) and the lack of positive changes to accessibility (or even negative changes to accessibility) that comes with adding a slow mode to a network which is already faster.

It is often said that “Absence of Evidence is not Evidence of Absence”, but this is wrong. This is especially wrong in a context were we have motivated people searching for evidence. Consider the example of Bigfoot. Bigfoot is a supposedly big humanoid / primate living in very small numbers (and presumably hiding from humans). There was a fad in my youth for blurry pictures of Bigfoot to appear in weekly tabloids sold at supermarket checkout stands. However, as XKCD points out, cameras are everywhere now, on billions of phones, and yet we have no more evidence of Bigfoot than before.

Does this constitute “proof” of the non-existence of Bigfoot? No, because one can never prove a negative (See Popper on Falsifiability). It does however cause the rational among us to become increasing skeptical about our hirsute friend’s likelihood of being real.

The very logical Less Wrong blog discusses this issue: Absence of Evidence Is Evidence of Absence :

“But in probability theory, absence of evidence is always evidence of absence. If E is a binary event and P(H|E) > P(H), “seeing E increases the probability of H”; then P(H|~E) [Probability of H given Not E] is less than P(H), “failure to observe E decreases the probability of H”. P(H) is a weighted mix of P(H|E) and P(H|~E), and necessarily lies between the two.”


We need to think in “but for” way when evaluating economic development claims.

Would the development not occur “but for” this particular investment? Would it occur with streetcars and BRT, with only streetcars, with only BRT, with neither?

We can’t fully know this without running 4 experiments in 4 parallel universes. We can estimate this statistically by looking carefully at multiple cases that have already opened, under multiple conditions, and get likelihoods that effects are as estimated by the model. There are some examples of modern transit lines increasing property values, there are some examples of no effect, and there are even some examples of transit lines destroying wealth (sometimes all found in the same study, e.g. Rail Transit Investments, Real Estate Values, and Land Use Change: A Comparative Analysis of Five California Rail Transit Systems by Landis et al.). Once lots of these studies are done, we can do a meta-analysis, and try to put the complexity of findings into some order. The meta-analysis is much more robust, in that it essentially has the combined sample size of all of the studies it takes in. For instance, see The Impact of Railway Stations on Residential and Commercial Property Value: A Meta-analysis . These studies unfortunately do not generally apply to modern streetcars, which have very different characteristics than high capacity services.

There have been a few attempts to summarize the results of the Streetcar and economic development debate:

None of the reports about economic development effects have survived a rigorous peer review process. So in the end, we equivocate. If the new transportation infrastructure notably increases the relative accessibility of a place (compared to other places), it might attract some development that would otherwise go elsewhere. If it signals to developers to coordinate actions, and develop here, rather than there, it might also concentrate development. If we concentrate development, and create more accessibility, we might have some economies of agglomeration further driving growth. If, If, If.

The evidence we do have is that employment in the core cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul is very stable, independent of most of the vagaries of the economy, shifts from low rise to skyscrapers, construction of freeways and skyways, the expansion of the University, the rise of the dual worker household, and so on.

The table below shows employment in Minneapolis and St. Paul from 1970 – 2010.


St. Paul Minneapolis
1970 170490 265090
1980 176900 268600
1990 172578 278438
2000 188124 308127
2010 175933 281732

Do we really believe a small investment in infrastructure serving a thousand additional people per day will move this? That would be the equivalent of urban homeopathy.


An anonymous source nicely summarized some publicly available information (Nicollet Alternatives Analysis and Met Transit’s Arterial BRT study) of the costs and ridership of all alternatives.

Line Length(miles) 2030 Avg Weekday Project Boardings 2030 Avg Weekday New Riders Capital Cost (million $) Operating Cost (million $) Capital Cost / Weekday Rider
Enhanced bus 9.2 13,400 -1,700 94 13.6 $7,015
Streetcar 9.2 19,900 900 393 20.1 $19,749
Streetcar starter line 3.4 7,200 1,200 200 10.6 $27,778
Met Transit aBRT 21.8 34,700 6,700 110.7 9.06 $3,190

And if you prefer your denominator to be riders per mile of construction rather than riders:

Cost / Rider / Mile

Upzoning and development would be factored into all alternatives, especially since a number are already being developed without a streetcar or other improvement. These ridership projections also include the AA’s assumption that streetcar riders perceive a 25-minute travel time savings (implicitly making their travel time negative in some cases), and thus more choose streetcar.

We need to consider that the Met Council would likely ask Minneapolis to cover most if not all operating costs. That means Minneapolis alone is responsible for $10 – 20 million per year, without a legislature or whole large transit apparatus to back the City up. And that’s only one line.

Advocates will advocate, that is their nature. If no one believes their small estimates of economic impact, the estimates will just grow and grow, just so they can get attention. But don’t confuse their advocacy with scientific knowledge, about which we have very little.

Streetcars are an amenity, like stadiums, festival marketplaces, Entertainment blocks, and new convention centers.

Are they the best amenity? Are they the best transportation service possible? Or do they drain resources that would otherwise be spent on something else, like maintaining and improving existing transit systems or serving many more passengers with Arterial BRT?

34 thoughts on “Do Streetcars Promote Economic Development?

  1. helsinki

    It’s rather artful to declare: ” . . . don’t confuse [the pro-streetcar advocate’s] advocacy with scientific knowledge . . . ” and then to compare streetcars to Block E and point to a study by Randall O’Toole. That is also advocacy, just of the contary position.

    It’s not entirely clear what would satisfy your ‘but for’ definition. Must a developer state unequivocally: “I would not have developed this parcel but for the streetcar.” That doesn’t make sense. Developers take many factors into consideration when deciding whether to develop. Streetcars would be one of these factors. They needn’t be THE reason, as though only one existed, in order to influence the outcome.

    Likening streetcar-supporters to Bigfoot-believers is more indicative of your personal antipathy towards streetcars than of streetcars efficacy at promoting development.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      Maybe the question should be asked not with respect to one line for economic development.. It is probably true that a streetcar line with identical frequency and speed to an enhanced bus/aBRT might promote more residential and business development along the line. But if Minneapolis or St Paul were able to spend the entire streetcar budget on multiple lines of aBRT, what would the total economic development be in that case? Are there “soft” factors at play that cannot be so quantitatively evaluated such as number of neighborhoods served, how soon the benefits reach these people, etc?

      I agree that the discussion bringing in Bigfoot is over the top. We need to recognize the benefits rail brings (ridership bias, some of the difficult-to-quantify things like ride quality, etc) and really try to understand where these benefits may outweigh the additional/opportunity costs. I tend to think the long-term goal should be streetcar in a dedicated ROW, but only when the built form around it has high-enough value to cover the capital and operating costs for the line along with ridership supportive of single or multiple cars. That’s just my take, though.

  2. Almin

    Street cars became thing of the past 60 years ago, to more advanced, more route flexible, AC and comfort driven bus transportation. Only belief and nostalgia should not be enough to make that capital investment/burden up on Minneapolis/ Hennepin county residents. Street cars can’t compete with greener busses or with pcs. Maybe met council should consider trolleybus prior to even imagining street cars.

    1. Nathanael

      Not actually true. Studies in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Boston, and elsewhere, show that replacing streetcars with buses reduced ridership massively, and replacing buses with streetcars… brings the ridership back.

      It is worth noting that most of those streetcars had at least some sections of lane to themselves, climbed hills faster than buses, et cetera.

  3. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Two points that come to mind.

    1) David, you write: “We have hypotheses as to why there should be no effect, and that is the maturity of the system (streetcars are not connecting places that are presently unconnected) and the lack of positive changes to accessibility (or even negative changes to accessibility) that comes with adding a slow mode to a network which is already faster.”

    I think streetcars do connect places that are presently unconnected. I think about Saint Paul, and one of the key problems is lack of connectivity between downtown and surrounding neighborhoods (particularly East Side, West Side, and North End). Connecting these remote-seeming neighborhoods is what a streetcar would do elegantly in ways that the current bus system simply cannot accomplish. Accessibility needs to be considered a larger sense beyond simple time calculations, including things like the ride experience and how something “feels” to an average person walking around. A place can be theoretically accessible without really being accessible. I.e. I can theoretically walk from Central and Hennepin up Central Avenue, but because I have to cross a horrible stretch of auto-dominated no-man’s land, nobody does this.

    2) Streetcars are useful transportation technology because they change the street & surrounding area in a dramatic way that buses cannot. A street with a streetcar on it is almost always far more walkable than one with a bus. A comment on your Facebook page nicely states this, so I thought I’d just post that here:

    “The economic development resulting from any type of surface mass transportation system probably has more to do with the complementary road-modifications in the corridor. Give more space to people (wider sidewalks, better cycling infrastructure, less on-street parking, etc.) and you should get more people frequenting the local commerces. Such treatments can be done in conjunction with any kind of corridor project (and even without any additional public transport services), but the question is will they be? The idea behind investing more in rail is that it is a more ‘serious’ investment and will thus spur more serious thinking about the proximate street environment. Not saying that I necessarily agree with this logic, but introducing bike-share systems certainly has ‘forced’ cities into investing more in their bike infrastructure.”

    A streetcar line is quite literally a game changer. Nicollet and Central will not feel the same afterward: they will be oriented to pedestrians, and cars will have to drive slowly and carefully along these streets. Extreme cases aside, buses cannot accomplish this.

    1. Ian Bicking

      “Such treatments can be done in conjunction with any kind of corridor project (and even without any additional public transport services), but the question is will they be?”

      A lot of the arguments for streetcars seem to come down to this kind of argument: the streetcar is incidental, but other political and planning changes the streetcar requires and/or inspires will cause benefits.

      Obviously these advocates could just ask for these treatments without the big commitment of a streetcar – and maybe using the specter of the streetcar would even help advance more modest requests.

      But this all comes down to attention, and the sense that a streetcar will draw attention to… something. To a region, to certain development and planning principles, to pedestrians, to… something. But there can be an opportunity cost to this attention as well. These big projects draw a lot of attention to a small number of areas, and to a couple niche modes of transportation. All this heat and noise about streetcars and LRT, and not much about our overall bus network (which is and will be larger than any combinations of streetcars and LRT proposed), not much attention to city-wide mobility (and almost nothing about mobility WITHIN Minneapolis and St. Paul), not much direct attention to our overall city streetscape, and not much creative attention to cars.

      It seems to me the lever of overall policy change has a great deal more potential than these one-off projects.

  4. Nick MagrinoNick Magrino

    I’m pretty agnostic/maybe leaning against the streetcar proposal…but it is funny that we’re proposing a $200 million dollar streetcar more or less for the economic development it would bring, but we’re funding it with the increased taxbase from recent development that’s already happened in the corridor. Maybe the status quo is fine?

    Why don’t we take the $200 million here, the $50 million needed for the Nicollet Mall renovation, and the $xx million we’ll spend on the reconstruction of the Hennepin/Lyndale bottleneck in the next couple years, and tunnel the Southwest LRT down Nicollet Mall, over to Hennepin and out of the city. Kills lots of birds with one stone.

    1. Alex

      “…it is funny that we’re proposing a $200 million dollar streetcar more or less for the economic development it would bring, but we’re funding it with the increased taxbase from recent development that’s already happened in the corridor.”

      Totally. It’s debatable whether streetcars bring economic development, but Minneapolis seems intent on proving that streetcars bring ironic development.

      1. helsinki

        It would be ironic if the Value Capture District prevented development, yes. But it isn’t.

        The Council is diverting revenue into a project that it thinks will further its goals (dense infill development in the core, kick-starting the creation of a citywide streetcar network). That’s what elected leaders do – they make judgment calls about how to use the means available to them to further what they think are the best interests of their constituents. It’s easy to say ‘tax revenue should always go to X first before going to Y’; but when the budget becomes entirely non-discretionary, well, structures will ossify and systems become impossible to change.

        The Nicollet/Central streetcar is a prime example of the concetration of resources into an area highly susceptible to becoming walkable and dense. Spending the same amount on Excelsior Boulevard wouldn’t achieve like results , nor would dispersing the resources equitably throughout the bus system. Jeff Speck gives a great explanation of the benefits of concetration vs dispersion (one reasource if this argument holds any appeal).

        1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

          This is a great response, but if we have the political will to actually build an ‘enhanced bus’ with the same amenities the a streetcar would have (beyond the benefits that streetcars bring that buses don’t in ride quality and ‘sexy-ness’), won’t the result for riders who do choose to take highly-enhanced transit be the same? Off-board station amenities (shelters, heat, space, benches), speedy boarding, stop spacings, frequency of service, etc. These are the things that matter to people when getting to and from their job/daycare/friends/Twins game on time and comfortably.

          For the sake of argument, if a streetcar provides a 25% better experience than enhanced bus (and thus development and ridership), does that justify the 400% up-front capital cost and 50% higher operational cost? Obviously there are other things to consider (operation/capital costs down the line as the system needs upgrading/expansion). Your argument of concentration definitely holds weight and I agree, I just feel that this same amount of money can be concentrated on 4 fully-loaded enhanced bus lines as an intermediate step to increase city-wide access.

        2. Alex

          I meant ironic development in the same linguistic cart-before-the-horse as economic development, i.e., that the irony is getting developed, not that the development is ironic. Thank heaven I wasn’t an English major, but I think that funding a project whose primary goal is to spur development using tax increment from development that is already occurring on the project-less corridor meets the definition of irony (as opposed to, say, a black fly in your chardonnay).

  5. Cole Hiniker

    If streetscape design and improvements are what make a street more attractive for transit riders by making them more walkable, then there are ways to do that without streetcar. There are certainly funding sources or tools to do that and generally, those are more tied to the benefits to the local community implementing them. If increased development (i.e. tax base) are an end goal, then shouldn’t the tax base pay for the improvements to get there? If we spend $200 million in transportation dollars to get there, where does the increased tax base in Minneapolis go? I’m not sure the City has answered those questions.

    There are certainly many arguments to be made about why streetcars are an intriguing investment and absent of funding limitations, streetcar are an intriguing investment that appears (although not proven) to support high density development. I do question the ability of streetcars to spur economic development that is otherwise not in demand, but it may make 5-story development more likely to be 10-story development. That being said, the City and neighborhoods should be on board with that because the market may already be ready for 5-story developments in many locations where streetcars are proposed.

    Do people ride streetcars more than bus? Again, the evidence is not definitive. It’s fair to say they probably will, but to what extent? Would more people ride transit if better accessibility were provided throughout the region or just different vehicles?

    I think the point is, a lot of these questions aren’t answered and it is difficult to point at one or two other regions and say “See, there’s your proof” because the conditions are unique. I’m not a supporter or opponent to streetcar in MSP, I’m just concerned about the story that is being told for why they are important. If the story is “they create economic development” then what is to stop Bloomington from proposing a streetcar project along American Blvd and seeking transportation funds? There simply isn’t enough money to do all of these projects. And if the projects, or more specifically the money, becomes increasingly focused on one area of the region (even if it is a solid investment), then all of a sudden the money shrinks because the political support falls at the state level. That’s not stopping a local government from doing it on their own, but there is a risk to how regional funding is prioritized.

    1. Morgan

      Why would we want to stop Bloomington from investing in public transit? Why can’t they compete to be the best and therefore funded project?

      And as far as I know, I could be wrong, the City of Minneapolis is not going to ask for State money for streetcar. It needs federal money and to issue its own bonds using the revenue from the currently under construction projects.

      I am basically a fan of the Mpls streetcar proposal. I do think that it will help to !densify! the urban core of the city between Lake Street & Broadway Avenue and the Lakes and the River. Sure, our region needs job growth first and foremost to generate more housing development but the streetcar will be a significant amenity to help to drive it in core neighborhoods.

  6. Peter Waldt

    I’m surprised at the claim of absence of evidence that street cars stimulate economic activity in US cities (modern or otherwise). There is 130 years of evidence: 65 years of street cars prior to 1945 and 65 year of relative lack of street cars 1945 to 2010. When there were street cars in urban areas (like Detroit) there was investment in real estate (which can be found in assessment data). When the street cars went away, so did the real estate investment. I would love to see Professor Levinson have students in one of his classes quantify the link between street cars and economic activity.

  7. Phil Hayward

    Here is the simple reality. Concentration of economic activity is not the same as creation of new economic activity. The theory of the relationship between the transportation system and economic land rents (Haig, Alonso, Wingo) desperately needs to be better understood. The more flexible the transport system, the more economic land rents are “diluted”. Automobile based development with true competition, minimises the “gain” over and above rural land values, hence lot prices in affordable US cities are anchored in the cost of rural land plus cost of development plus a modest profit. (Urban growth containment planning destroys this benefit).

    Anthony Downs is one who has pointed out that “planned concentration” gives “monopoly powers of rent extraction” to property owners at those locations unless the property is compulsorily acquired (or targeted by taxes to discourage the owners from “holding out”).

    It is obviously quite wrong to assume that land rent is a proxy for “value created”. It might well be “value transferred”, i.e. as zero sum economic rent. Cheshire and Mills estimated from 1984 data that land at the centre of a UK city was 325 times more expensive than that in a comparable US city. Cheshire and Hilber more recently have pointed out that virtually all cities in the UK have office rents higher than Manhattan. Obviously land rents can be completely unmoored from actual production and income.

    The impact on different sectors of urban economies will vary according to the sector’s requirement for space, and ability to generate income. Planning for compactness and “transit” will be a good match for a city with “global” finance and so on; capital cities and their bureaucracies are another good match. London has both. But the UK economy as a whole is a working illustration of what happens to the nation’s higher-land-requirement, lower-income sectors when land rents are inflated. If they didn’t have London, they would have had to get real about the effects of their urban planning system; and they still do need to get real about it, because the level of extraction of land rent out of production and incomes in the economy is not inconsequential. Socio-economic outcomes are dire.

    Streetcar systems seem to require subsidies of 50 cents or more per passenger mile traveled; commuter rail still seems to require 20 cents or so; buses a bit less. But private car drivers “subsidy” via roads is about 2 cents per person mile traveled. Drivers willingly pay for most of their own costs; the car, the petrol, the insurance, the repairs.

    So in which system is there evidence of value or “consumer surplus”? Oh, I know, the anti-car activists will hunt like Bigfoot theorists for “externalities” that drivers don’t pay for; but are drivers and passengers in cars not pretty much synonymous with the society that bears the cost of externalities? And are there not “positive externalities” for which automobility is responsible, too?

    Colin Clark pointed out in his last book “Regional and Urban Location”, that subsidies to rail and subway systems are subsidies to the owners of certain types of property, for which there are no social justification. For some reason, levies on the property owners, especially in CBD’s that are the focus of transit routes, never seems to get on the political agenda as a means of funding this “infrastructure”. Of course the owners of the property do not mind capturing 80 cents of every dollar of benefit and paying in 20 cents of the several dollars of cost, the balance of which is paid out of taxes on incomes and petrol and non-benefiting property owners.

    So yes, I love the “Bigfoot” analogy, for “looking for economic benefits of streetcars”. We might as well be “looking for economic benefits of muggings”. Of course the muggers “benefit”. But their benefit is theft of someone else’s benefit. Streetcar systems work in much the same way.

  8. Zack Ellsworth

    The author describes streetcars as “adding a slow mode to a network which is already faster.” But I see no reason why streetcars must be slower. If platforms allowing passengers to buy tickets ahead of time and board at grade, stops limited to about a quarter mile apart, dedicated ROWs, and traffic signal preemption are employed, a streetcar would be faster than the current buses and the statistics provided on the aBRT site bear that out. This bring up another issue with the author’s favored mode of aBRT.

    According to that same metro transit link, dedicated ROW is not being considered for any of the lines, meaning buses would be fighting traffic the whole way, making them necessarily slower than any car traveling along the same route because of course the buses make many more stops.

    Mass transit should be given at least the deference of cars, if not more so because their usage requires no parking lots, no highways, and far less lanes than car infrastructure, allowing the reduced demand for that space to spur infill development. But because aBRT does not include the dedicated ROWs, it is doomed to the role of the car’s ugly stepsister.

    As far as the table of statistics goes: it is not really fair to compare the proposed streetcar line to the much longer aBRT network because of course the daily ridership and added riders will be less along a shorter route. And obviously the minimal change in infrastructure make aBRT cheaper, but if it is much less effective, so what? Also, I don’t know where the figure of 21.8 miles for the aBRT comes from, because the Central Avenue and Nicollet lines alone are longer than that. I added up all the proposed corridors and got a figure of 97.3 miles.

    I then question that 34,000 daily ridership number for aBRT, because that figure seems to be for the entire 97.3 mile system.

    Then there’s the issue that both the City of Minneapolis and the author’s table were projecting ridership for 17 years from now, which seems rather silly. What if gas is over $10 a gallon by then?

    If the author had suggested that streetcars have no greater ability to induce development than BRT with the same permanent features as raised station platforms and dedicated ROWs, he might have had a stronger argument, for it is these permanent features that signal a long term investment. Young adults are increasingly more likely to not even get drivers licences and want to live in urban areas, a trend I don’t see changing, especially if the expected economic recovery continues to not come. Smart cities will recognize this and plan accordingly with meaningful investments in mass transit systems that are on par with car infrastructure, rather than the second class system that is the aBRT proposal.

    The final point I will make is streetcar enthusiasts are often discounted as nostalgic or as romanticizing the streetcar. But aren’t those selling points as well? Buses have the stigma of being industrial, polluting, and only for the lower class and business commuters. Might not the elegance and class of a streetcar, as well as its lower pollution, both locally and overall, make it more inviting to people who can afford to drive and those who might want to go places other than work?

    1. Stephen Smith

      If platforms allowing passengers to buy tickets ahead of time and board at grade, stops limited to about a quarter mile apart, dedicated ROWs, and traffic signal preemption are employed…

      I believe that’s called “light rail.”

    2. Allen

      Zack, the whole point of trolleys is that they don’t have a dedicated right of way. As Mr. Smith pointed out, when they do we call it light rail. Trolleys skip having the dedicated right of way to largely reduce capital costs. Every project is different but the rough difference is that you’re looking at $10 to $20 million per mile for a street car and 2 to 4 times that for light rail.

      You are correct to point out that they can operate more quickly. The question is,, at what cost.

      1. Zack Ellsworth

        Fair points, but there are many definitions of light rail vs streetcar and are often used interchangeably(as you, Allen, are using trolley and streetcar interchangeably). Sections of the New Orleans and San Francisco streetcar systems run on dedicated ROWs, Sacramento’s light rail does not have station platforms at grade, etc. The distinction I tend to follow is function more-so than form; light rail being primarily for bringing suburban commuters in and out of a city center, streetcars being primarily for intra-urban travel, though again, the first suburbs, the streetcar suburbs, linked the exurbs with the big city. Regardless, the form I always favor, weather bus or rail, includes the elements I described and for buses it is the only way to signal long term investment and have the chance to spur development.

        As to the cost: I turn it back on you and ask what costs we are now bearing to subsidize car travel as the dominant form? All that prime land along arterial roads devoted to parking lots, the massive highways plunging through the hearts of prime real estate, the wildly expensive parking garages, the ever widening stroads sacrificing boulevards and other softening features of the street, all of this in the name of keeping the car on top, and, by extension, legitimizing and subsidizing the suburban commuter.

        Then there’s the private cost, according to the Strongtowns Curbside Chat companion booket, the average car costs $7,500 a year to maintain and operate. With less people driving, a portion of that could go more directly into the local economy.

        Anyway, the LRT Green Line basically serves the form and function I prefer, so we shall see how much it costs or does not and how much it does or not induce development.

        We once had a world class transit system and any plan that does not call for dedicated ROWs will keep our current system, with the exception of the light rail, in subservient status, both physically and in the minds of potential riders, to the car. The other elements are important, but I believe this is key.

      2. Nathanael

        Streetcar costs are the same as light rail costs because there is no difference between the two.

        And there’s no reason not to have a dedicated right of way.

        This is just false: “Trolleys skip having the dedicated right of way to largely reduce capital costs.”

        It is, in reality, cheaper to have a dedicated right of way than to have shared running!

        Streetcars can and should have dedicated rights of way (aka exclusive lanes) in most places. To keep costs down, they should go over cross-streets at grade (no grand bridges like the ones on the Blue Line over Hiawatha Avenue or Lake Street).

        They can have more frequent stops or less frequent stops; whatever. They can have shorter trains than the Hiawatha Line; ones which can go around tighter curves. That also saves money.

  9. Allen

    Mr. Levinson,

    How can anyone question the need for a form of transportation that’s even slower than walking? Soon you’ll be pointing out that it may not be wise to resurrect another piece of old technology, the horse-drawn omnibus.

  10. Todd Graham


    I was really surprised by the premise of this article — that Metropolitan Council believes streetcars are principally an economic development tool. Really??

    I don’t believe that Susan Haigh letter takes this position. Susan Haigh uses the term “development outcomes,” and it seems to me intends by that a definition of development as transformation of the built environment, neighborhood improvements, etc… “Development” is a slippery term.

    It seems unfair to attribute this “streetcars as economic development” position to Susan Haigh and Metropolitan Council. That’s not what the letter was saying.


      1. David LevinsonDavid Levinson Post author

        Another way to think of this, if the Met Council thought Streetcars were a good *transportation* option, they would be studying them themselves, it is not like streetcars are a recent invention. Instead the MetCouncil is studying arterial BRT, as it should.

        1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

          Another another way to think of this, is that Met Council is structurally bound to think about regional transit and balancing investment throughout Mpls, St Paul and the suburbs. Not only may its investments not be best for Minneapolis itself, but the need / desire to spread around transit investment through the entire metro (despite the lack of land uses and densities that support it) may not be best for transit overall either.

          In other words, the Met Council will not likely promote transit that only benefits Minneapolis or Saint Paul proper. Streetcars inherently are not modes that can extend all the way to the city boundary, let alone past them.

  11. The Overhead Wire

    I’ve been eying this and other posts from Jarrett Walker for a while but haven’t responded because I didn’t want to get into a land war in Asia. But it’s getting tiring watching only one side of the debate go on without a serious look at another. Transportation is always built for economic development purposes. It just manifests itself in different patterns when completed. The purpose of a road or a train are the same, to create access or the perception of access to property such that more people can take advantage of it.

    Second (and a quick aside), give me an example of an arterial BRT line that isn’t bled down to Rapid Bus or something that isn’t as useful for the people riding it by the end of the process. Let’s name some recent cut your BRT to Rapid Bus offenders, Los Angeles, Oakland, Montgomery County Maryland… so how is this not another opposition towards the lowest common denominator? And while the BRT line will serve a purpose when built CORRECTLY, it is unlikely with the autocentricity of the twin cities that you’ll actually get an arterial BRT line after the NIMBYs get a hold of it. And when it becomes a glorified skip stop express bus colored red, it doesn’t shape any development or create any physical connection that people can feel.

    So now the streetcar argument. I don’t like that streetcars have been pushed into sharing lanes. This was done in Portland and Seattle because dedicating lanes was somewhat untenable just like the BRT will be when the politics get a hold of it. But what the streetcars did do is change the conversation about what to do with existing large scale vacant and underutilized land redevelopment.

    Now you may not want to believe there is an access benefit to building a fixed guideway line in traffic but let’s look at cities around the country with streetcars and light rail lines to see what happened in terms of development and TOD. This post’s argument is that access is what causes changes in economic development absent government intervention and that streetcars aren’t creating more of that beneficial access. But a point on the land use side that many are missing which is that of the development market. Just having access and transit doesn’t create a market. I also don’t believe any economic development or just development happens in a vacuum, different subsidies work towards the goals that people are setting for the region.

    The development market is like a fire, it can either spread through connectivity of fuel or be contained by digging a trench or fire break. In places such as Minneapolis and Charlotte, Seattle and Portland those fire breaks were in the forms of either noose like freeways around downtowns or major impediments such as dilapidated warehouses and streetscapes that signaled the fire ended at that very point.

    So what happens with the streetcar is that you create a physical connection beyond these fire breaks to spread the fire (market). But depending on the real estate market you are in, that fire will only spread so far from its origin. The origins of fires are major employment centers such as downtowns or office clusters that people want access to, since 59% of transit trips are for work.

    For example:

    Charlotte: Back in 1998 a sales tax was passed for transit. The big ticket item was the light rail line, but most people don’t know that most of it went to buses and ridership has increased by over 100% since then. But some folks got the idea of using the railroad tracks that went from downtown into the South End which was an old textile warehouse district for a dinky little streetcar before the light rail line was to come in. The streetcar made the physical connection from the hot downtown market to an area with good bones that developers could redevelop. A bus had been going there before but the streetcar line flipped the switch. This development accelerated with the light rail line but hit a distance limit. You can see that on page 62 of this report – where the development is located after the line was built. Even with the great access created by the light rail line, the flame went out after a certain distance from the white hot center market.

    But what about to the east of downtown? Did this area take off as much as the South End in the same market? It has the same distance from downtown and similar good bones as well as a medical center. There are also buses that go out the western corridor. But it didn’t develop the same way. Why? No direct physical connection to the fire. It stopped at the freeway noose.

    The same thing happened in Minneapolis with the Hiawatha Line. The line created great access but there was a distance limit to how far the market fire would spread in clustered development. (page 25) You also see in Denver where development is proximate to the Tech Center along the light rail line, so its not necessarily downtowns that create the market fire, but major employment centers.

    Now the streetcar lines in Portland and Seattle are similar. During the market boom of the early 2000’s the streetcar lines created that physical access point between the market fire of downtown center to the periphery that was cut off by vacant and underutilized land and inhospitable streets. Connections to downtown from the South Waterfront and Pearl District were only a short distance. The line might be in traffic but both lines are pushing the market fire out from the center.

    Of course this was also led by some public subsidies and planning but to me all of that is just tinder, and if the market wasn’t so depressed by autocentricity and bad zoning we wouldn’t have to fix it. Now the development is of a different kind with the streetcar than the light rail lines. GB Arrington likes to call this the ribbons vs wedding cake affect. But basically the light rail lines have a goal of reaching further places and starting the fire where people get off at the station which then tapers off. With the streetcar in both Portland and Seattle, you saw them organize development such that the fire spread from the corridor itself instead of just at the stops. This is immortalized in the Hovee Report, which I guess wasn’t peer reviewed so it doesn’t count as “academic enough” evidence, even though the TCRP report was written by folks who had never worked on a streetcar project before, and apparently didn’t really ask anyone who did for studies and further citations from work on the ground (it doesn’t always have to be academic). But I’m not bitter.

    Hovee Report:

    But let’s look at areas that weren’t organized by transit but had the same real estate boom. On one hand there’s Jack London Square in Oakland, which developed in a piecemeal fashion with development all over the place and with no cohesive center or organizing principle. It happened because it was close to the fire, but the fire wasn’t lead in any direction, leading to a sprinkling of development projects wherever developers felt like building. If you go there now, it doesn’t feel like a neighborhood like the Pearl District. It just feels like a bunch of buildings.

    The streetcar promotes economic development insofar as it creates a physical connection and access to an existing center of market gravity. This might not be the ultimate access result that people focused on transit outcomes alone are thinking about, but there are several different travel markets that are needing to be served by transportation and streetcars open up one of them. I’m a firm believer that multiple modes of transit along a corridor create different levels of access for different people. Streetcars are just a part of that. And all of these arguments around access and speed are mostly just feelings related to a one size fits all approach. Tell that to the 13,000 people riding the Portland Streetcar daily.

    Market Street in San Francisco is a perfect example. You have regional rail in BART, you have Muni Metro, you have buses and streetcars on the surface, all serving different markets, and all getting tons of riders. I have no doubt that if you put a streetcar line on the surface and a subway line under the same street, people would ride both, and access would be improved to both of those places.

    So you can build a streetcar to spread the market fire or dedicated lane BRT line, but be sure you actually get BRT lanes, or there will be no physical connection for the fire to follow. There are other aspects including ride quality and comfort and capacity that have been mentioned above, but I feel like the spreading and limits of the market through access are not discussed enough. Hopefully it will at least push at a different angle.

    1. Nathanael

      In Portland it is worth noting that Portland Streetcar has *some* shared lanes but also has *some* areas with exclusive lanes.

      If you can do that, that’s OK.

      If you can’t get exclusive lanes anywhere, your political situation is borked and you probably should start over.

  12. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    What must be emphasized in this discussion is “in what kind of a city do we want to live?” I live near the 38th Street station because light rail existed. Sure, I chose to live near bus service prior to that, but I moved for light rail. I believe rail transit is a critical part of what makes a good city and I was willing to invest in that nine years ago. I’m far from the only person who has done this.

    Currently I’m on the fence about someday moving to the Loring Park or near northeast neighborhood (by Surdyk’s and Lund’s), but if a Nicollet streetcar is added, that could well tip the scale in a way that current high-frequency bus service does not. Fixed-rail transit of various forms has a permanence and ride that I prefer. Elected officials generally get this – hundreds or thousands of people who choose where to live based on the existence of rail is difficult to precisely measure but is certainly worth millions.

    Roads and rail both cost exceptional amounts of money. So in what kind of a city do I want to live? I like a city with more rail transit better. I like a city with more and wider roads less. Pretty simple, but again, I’m just one guy.

  13. Jonathan P

    Good post, even if the Bigfoot reference is somewhat inflammatory and the O’Toole reference questionable.

    The biggest issue I have with streetcar advocates is the lack of focus on transportation goals and an almost single-minded focus on economic development, rather than bringing these goals more into balance. There’s no reason that streetcars couldn’t be built with dedicated lanes and signal priority so that actual mobility gains could be realized over an articulated bus system, but it seems this rarely comes up in streetcar debates. Achieving dedicated lanes might be politically difficult but if transportation is abandoned as a raison d’etre from the beginning, then there’s zero chance of it happening.

    It’s interesting that streetcar advocates use the BRT-creep argument for reasons we shouldn’t invest in that mode while seeing no issue with building streetcars in mixed traffic. Is there a different pass/fail standard for streetcars only because they seem to have a large ED impact? Sort of an ‘ends justify the means’ argument? That seems to be the case. Well, as this post points out, it’s hard to prove whether streetcars indeed cause this development to occur or whether ED might have occurred at least partially due to the presence of financial incentives, supportive zoning changes, public realm improvements, high quality bus service, and the like.

    Sure, streetcars facilitate ED, but it’s also true that there are many other factors that help, and transit planners who propose streetcar projects would be wise to consider transport goals as well as ED.

    1. Nathanael

      The way I’d put it is “why are you letting cars get in the way of the streetcars?”

      If there’s some really compelling reason such as local access, fine. If you’ve got five or six lanes, seriously, the cars can spare a couple.

  14. Wanderer

    There was a group of streetcar projects, including Tucson, that received federal funding a couple of years ago. The applications for all of those projects used economic development as their main justification. It’s really hard to make a credible, analytically supported argument that an on-street streetcar running in mixed traffic is a more cost effective way to transport passengers than a bus. Streetcar advocates therefore don’t make that argument. Most transit agencies, meanwhile, would like transportation dollars to spent for useful transportation purposes. Thus transit agencies are rarely the advocates of streetcars.

    The Pearl District in Portland is quite different from Jack London Square in Oakland. The Pearl District was the focus of a long term planning and funding strategy by the city of Portland, starting with the decision that the Pearl was an industrial district that could be changed to housing (while the nearby Central Eastside would stay industrial). Large numbers of housing units had already been built in the Pearl by the time the streetcar arrived. The Pearl would have been a great urban success story if a single unit hadn’t been built post-streetcar.

    There never was (and still isn’t) a cohesive development plan for Jack London Square. Much of it is now housing, some of it is commercial, some is still industrial, but it doesn’t follow any coherent pattern. The area is loaded with transit resources–an Amtrak station, a ferry terminal, two BART stations about 10 minutes’ walk away, a rapid/trunk bus line. Yett the neighborhood association always argues for more parking in development projects.

    Oakland has always had an opportunistic approach to development, almost always simply being grateful that anybody wants to build anything in the city. When Oakland had redevelopment funds (the state has now seized them) it focused its efforts on the 19th St./Uptown area. The growth in that area has been strong, but Jack London has been much slower. There’s been little effort to create amenities away from the water’s edge.

    Market St. in San Francisco is a unique case, one of the highest density transit corridors in the country, one which has been developing for a century and a half. There are few places that have the density of workers, visitors, and, increasingly residents. There are very few places in the country where something like Market St. is replicable, perhaps Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles. San Francisco had longstanding trolley tracks when the BART/light rail tunnel was built, avoiding many of the physical problems that come up with us. But it doesn’t stand as an invitation for other cities to try to build streetcars on top of subway tracks.

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