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All Aboard: Cities Bringing Back Streetcars


August 26, 2007

Streetcars need to be reintroduced in Connecticut, and not just for nostalgia's sake or touristy window-dressing.

Recent revivals of cutesy, historic trolley lines, where antique streetcars rumble down pedestrian malls and past historic Main Street architecture, have been successful far beyond what their supporters imagined. Cities around the world, but increasingly in North America, are rediscovering streetcars - the smaller railcars that often share streets with cars and buses - to be cheap, efficient and highly practical people movers.

Experts say that density of population and structures is the greatest predictor of mass transit success. So, why is it that Connecticut, the fourth-densest state in the Union and, if it were its own country, the 42nd most densely populated nation on earth (ahead of the UK, Germany and the Philippines), has no worthy mass transit systems beyond commuter rail into New York City?

The state at its peak had over 1,000 miles of trolley tracks on its rights-of-way. Their removal in the 1940s represents an astonishing disinvestment in infrastructure that, with our modern traffic crisis, we have come to rue.

How many billions of dollars will soon be spent on I-84? On I-95? The installation of just a hundred miles of trolley track in our urban centers would cost a fraction of these lane and bridge expansions, and position the cities for the non-auto-based growth their street layouts and built environments crave.

Nearly everyone in New England is familiar with Boston's T, but Nutmeggers are probably less aware of the fantastic success Memphis, Tenn., has experienced with its trolley line. What began as essentially a two-mile gimmick to revitalize the downtown is now touted as having directly stimulated billions of dollars in new construction. The trolley lines themselves boast riderships approaching a million people a year. This in a city with a population density nearly a third of Hartford's!

San Diego is another example of a city with a population density nearly half that of New Haven's, roughly equivalent to that of Waterbury's, which has invested in trolley routes and experienced success. Charlotte is another, and Charleston might yet be another. The viability of an inter-urban streetcar system in both New Haven and Fairfield counties is simply no joke.

Studies irrefutably prove that track-based transit far outperforms bus routes for ridership. Some of the transportation experts' explanations for this sound, as good advice often does, just like common sense: Buses make for smelly, noisy, uncomfortable, jolting rides (you can't read on a bus without severe risk of motion sickness, but you can do your taxes riding down a trolley track).

Bus routes are also wholly illegible to people just passing through a town - the confusing scheduling and non-fixed routes have at the very least the perception of unreliability to non-veteran riders. Seasoned bus riders might keep abreast of schedule and route changes, and dutifully suck up the many inconveniences in good stride. However, the somber truth is that buses are stigmatized in our society and will never have the cachet with commuters that rail transit enjoys (think Molly Ringwald in "Sixteen Candles" saying, "I loathe the bus"). Many people take the bus because they're forced to, but on the other hand, many more will take trolleys because they want to.

People all across the continent have voted with their feet, and trolleys consistently come out ahead. For instance, a bus route in Tacoma was replaced with a streetcar that made the same stops with the same frequency, and ridership rose 500 percent. If Connecticut were to replace bus routes with streetcars, it could be taken as a given that ridership on these routes would increase, and very likely do so astronomically.

The small city of Kenosha, Wis., (pop. 90,000) built a small heritage trolley line after its American Motors plant left, and the results in new, primarily residential mixed-use developments near the line have been astounding. What begun as a cutesy dress-up of a downtown has become a rediscovery of a lifestyle, where people look to the streetcar as a connection to commuter rail into Chicago - how many similarly sized Connecticut cities would like their industrial brownfields redeveloped as mixed-use, transit-oriented communities?

Streetcars are a necessary catalyst. When you research it, the whole history and context of Connecticut's core cities yearns for this kind of transportation system. Most of the urban areas have never done quite as well without them, and this is no coincidence.

Developers and investors recognize the invigorating power of streetcars to make downtown and neighborhood centers more livable, and retail that is not based on parking lots more competitive. When you look around at the scores of new streetcar systems being proposed around the country, from Miami to Minneapolis and from Dallas to Cincinnati, you will read about private developers and mayors spearheading streetcars not as solutions to climate change (although they're useful on this front as well) but for reasons of economic redevelopment.

For example, Portland, Ore., installed a downtown streetcar system six years ago, which has spurred the investment of $2.1 billion worth of projects within two blocks of the trolley line. Many cities have revived older "heritage" trolley lines; Portland's is brand new.

Connecticut is moving beyond its manufacturing past to the "creative economy" of arts, education and the sciences. So far, it is losing ground to Sunbelt cities such as Phoenix and Raleigh. Our state has been doing its best impersonation of upstate New York when it comes to retaining talented, young professionals - which is to say not very good. An investment in transit helps create vibrant and fashionable places where young, educated people can afford to live, by reducing their need to pay for a car.

Providence now has streetcars set in its sights for the future. Shouldn't places like New Haven and Hartford be thinking about them as well?

William R. Ellis is a graduate student in regional planning at Cornell University. He was an intern this summer in the New Haven office of Robert Orr & Associates Architecture & Town Planning.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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