This article is part of a three-part series on streetcars and economic development. Read the articles by David Levinson and Yonah Freemark The opinion expressed here is that of the author and does not represent the Urban Land Institute nor its membership as a whole.

In early 2009, when President Obama took office and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood came to Washington, a sea change was in progress in transportation policy and priorities. The focus during the previous administration had been less on urban needs and more on suburban and exurban priorities, road and bridge building, and “level of service” of the nation’s roadways.

I started as director of the Washington, D.C., Department of Transportation on the Monday after the inauguration. So, also being new, it took me a few months to grasp the significance of the shift. I knew that cities had been battling states for control over their transportation destinies, that urban priorities were often at odds with suburban and rural interests, and that the country had an antiquated one-size-fits-all design standard for streets, whether in cities or suburbs.

What I learned, though, is that other than those living in a few dense cities, Americans had all but forgotten the historical importance and economic significance of rail systems. This is part of a larger flaw in the nation’s psychology and the resulting American thinking about transportation: we tend to only focus on what we know—what we have seen in our lifetimes, typically post–World War II. The median age in the United States is 37, putting birth at 1977, during the energy crisis.

More on StreetCars and America: Freemark: Transportation First, then Economic Development | Levinson: Beneficiaries, Not Taxpayers, Should Fund Modern Streetcars

Adding to the average American’s lack of knowledge of high-quality rail is the fact that while the number of people holding a passport is rising, they still account for less than half the population. In Middle America, the number of passport holders is far lower than that in states with larger urban populations, where foreign travel is much more prevalent. In a nutshell: many Americans misunderstand how the U.S. transportation system ended up the way it is today or know about the massive, rapid changes brought about by the U.S. government in favor of the automobile—in direct contrast with the way many European cities never lost their link to their rail heritage.

Americans have also been conditioned to think that large roads and highways are such a transportation priority that they are considered a sunk cost, along with the automobile itself. Therefore, the debt payments on capital expenditures as well as the cost for operations and maintenance of both roadways and the cars that drive on them are foregone conclusions (never mind the massive amount of storage in the form of parking). This has led to a mind-set that “driving is free” and “transit is subsidized,” which can lead to feelings that transit is unnecessarily expensive and a waste of money.

Adding fuel to this argument has been the embattled nature of the typical transit agency and the technocratic organizational hierarchies that create rigid and inefficient management cultures. Instead of being focused on marketing and customer service, multimodal linkage, and connection to and profit from land development, transit agencies dedicate the bulk of their time to securing funding, operating the transit services (in many cases) rather than outsourcing operations, and negotiating labor agreements.

It is against this historical backdrop that Americans should look at the American streetcar experience, as well as the struggle with investment in freight rail, light rail, subways, Amtrak and passenger rail, and high-speed service, because I believe that they are connected.

Portland, Oregon—as it should be—is always talked about as the progenitor of the American streetcar renaissance. Seattle’s system is also cited, as is San Francisco’s—with its heritage PCC cars on the Market Street line and the historic F Street line from Fisherman’s Wharf to the city center—which has been so important in connecting the dots to the past for Americans. It is worth noting that all these systems operate substantially in mixed traffic.

In the mid-2000s, many cities started to explore more seriously bringing streetcar systems back to their urban cores—linking nodes being redeveloped as part of the new century’s urban renaissance with areas offering abundant opportunity for growth but stymied by a lack of connectivity and a lack of funds for subway service, if that were even an option being considered.

The typical arguments ensued: Is this the right use of our limited funds? Why not just add bus service and speed it up? Can we move people fast enough? Today, people argue whether they should invest in bus rapid transit rather than streetcar or light-rail lines, or whether they should just wait for self-driving cars to get everyone where they need to go.

What people fail to realize—or remember—is threefold.

First, this has all been done before: the original streetcar lines were primarily built by developers before the construction of a neighborhood in order that people moving to the “suburbs” of the downtown knew they had connectivity to the urban core and to other neighborhoods.

Second, movement in dense urban areas has never been primarily about speed, but instead about comprehensible, reliable, and consistent service provided in a reasonable timeframe. Streetcar service in the urban context will not be, nor should it be, like BRT or subway service, which traditionally is designed to have more widely spaced stops or be underground to avoid the complexities of city streets—at least until the line crosses from urban density to lower-density areas.

Third, marketing and psychology are important. People have a love affair with streetcars, and the visual connectivity they provide is crucial. Streetcars provide the nodal development benefits of a subway stop, but with the eyes of streetcar riders above ground along the entire corridor viewing public spaces and retail corridors—literally creating business in their tracks.

Will cities ever go back to the hundreds of miles of streetcar lines that once served places like Washington, D.C.? Perhaps not, because of rapidly emerging new technologies that provide last-mile connectivity, such as bikeshare and autonomous pods. But major corridors are still ripe for the high-quality, premium place making and people movement that streetcars can provide.

The big argument in Washington, D.C., and other cities involves whether streetcars should have dedicated lanes. The answer is ideally yes, or, like the new Minneapolis line I visited a few weeks ago, they should have a raised, dedicated roadbed for the light rail—which in Minneapolis’s case is also used somewhat precariously by buses—and a lowered roadbed for bikes and cars. Streetcar systems that run in the center, or median, of roadways, lend themselves more easily to conversion to dedicated streetcar lanes.

The decision to dedicate a lane to streetcar use is primarily a political one that will get easier to make over time as new technologies emerge reducing car ownership and congestion and increasing the efficiency of existing vehicle lanes, thereby reducing the competition for space on city streets. New shared service models like Lyft Line, as well as the rapid evolution of self-driving vehicles, will provide this efficiency and make it easier for dedicated lanes for transit service to take hold. In a world dominated by pedestrians, bikes, robocars, and automated buses and trains, as well as eschewing car parking on streets, whether to run streetcars in mixed traffic will hopefully be a minor issue.

The main question that should be asked regarding all rail projects, particularly streetcar systems, is what the return on investment will be. To answer this question, the quantitative and qualitative effects of the investment need to be examined (and the qualitative effects captured in dollars on the quantitative side). What will be the effect of the system on real estate and development investment along a corridor? What will be the effect on the quality of life of residents and the impact on general livability, connectivity, and equity in the neighborhoods? What will be the cost savings in overall operations—labor, fuel, maintenance of rubber parts, etc.—compared with those of the bus service that will be reduced?

People often ask me, “How much is too much to spend on a transit project?” I respond that I don’t care how much something costs. It could be a $100,000 bike lane or a $1 billion streetcar or light-rail line. I only care about these questions: What will be the return for the taxpayer in the long term—over a ten- to 30-year period—versus the capital investment and operations and maintenance amortized over that period? How many cars will be removed from the road and how much in associated emissions will be eliminated? How many $65,000 parking spaces will no longer be needed, and how much more affordable housing can be created instead as a result?

These are the questions to ask and answer, and the results are invariably positive on all fronts in cities that reinvest in high-quality transit, regardless of mode. But with these results, combined with the psychology outlined above, in the right context, no argument can be made against investment in streetcars, trams, light rail, and other rail passenger systems in the 21st century.

Gabe Klein is an adviser to a portfolio of startups in mobility and technology, a special venture partner at Fontinalis Partners, and author of the upcoming book Start-Up City: Inspiring Private and Public Entrepreneurship, Getting Projects Done, and Having Fun, published by Island Press.

This article is part of a three-part series on streetcars and economic development. Read the articles by David Levinson and Yonah Freemark The opinion expressed here is that of the author and does not represent the Urban Land Institute nor its membership as a whole.