Paris’s T3a line, for example, travels an average of more than 11 miles per hour (17.7 kmph) and arrives at stops at least every six minutes during the day. That line attracts more than 130,000 daily users—more than any single bus, streetcar, or light rail route in the United States. (Wikimedia)

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

The recent efforts of cities across the United States to build streetcar lines running through their downtowns have been heralded by some as an ideal amalgam—an investment in improved transportation that also leads to adjacent private development. Streetcar proponents from coast to coast have welcomed federal aid for the construction of new systems, arguing that the projects will bring vitality to center cities that need a boost.

In this way, the focus on streetcars is reminiscent of the economic development strategies urban planners previously used in attempting to spruce up their downtowns, like pedestrian malls in the 1960s, festival marketplaces in the 1970s, and convention centers in the 1980s, none of which was particularly successful in reviving any downtown. Indeed, the phrases used to describe the value of streetcar systems—that they “drive development,” “revive downtowns,” and appeal to “the hearts and souls” of the youth—are little different from those rolled out for past efforts to spur economic growth. And unlike most other transportation investments, but like those earlier downtown strategies, streetcars are frequently promoted to boost tourism.

More on StreetCars and America: Levinson: Beneficiaries Should Fund Streetcars | Klein: Streetcars and the American Commitment to Rail

How can cities ensure that streetcars are not just another gimmick, another public subsidy for a few out-of-towners?

The answer is clear: make the streetcar system work as transportation for locals; make it effective enough to convince people who drive to get out of their cars.

A streetcar line should be designed to provide a transportation option affordable for users that complements the existing transit network. It should connect popular destinations, office districts, and dense residential neighborhoods and improve peoples’ lives by speeding their commutes, or at least making them more comfortable.

When done right, this kind of streetcar line will provide essential transportation for the people who live, work, and play near it. In doing so, it will naturally bring economic development to the areas near its stops. Just as highway interchanges sprout automobile-dependent big-box stores, streetcar stops can produce effective urban centers by encouraging foot traffic, which in turn brings coffee drinkers and clothing buyers to local retailers.

Unfortunately, this is rarely how streetcar lines are designed. In fact, streetcars are too frequently not thought of with local riders in mind.

The biggest problem is that they are typically too slow to be useful for most people. Because they usually share driving lanes with cars—a result of the political difficulty of removing lanes of traffic used by drivers—streetcars get stuck in traffic. They are held up by turning vehicles; they are caught up in traffic congestion; they are delayed by red lights. Even worse, they are made significantly slower by the fact that streetcar, of course, have to stop to pick up passengers. And, moreover, they cannot change lanes because they are required to follow their tracks, even when there is a broken-down vehicle right ahead of them.

In the illustrative case of the recently opened Atlanta Streetcar, these conditions mean that the vehicles roll down the street at a measly six miles per hour (9.7 kmph). And that’s once passengers have made it on board. Many of the new American urban train lines, both streetcar and light rail, only provide service every 20 to 30 minutes during midday and evening periods. Because the vehicles are so slow and arrive so infrequently, and many of the services cover such a short distance, riders who miss a train might as well walk.

In cities where streetcars are designed for commuters, they are faster and arrive much more frequently. Paris’s T3a line, for example, travels an average of more than 11 miles per hour (17.7 kmph) and arrives at stops at least every six minutes during the day. That is possible because trains operate in dedicated lanes separated from cars and are designed to turn traffic lights in front of them green to ensure faster speeds through intersections. That line attracts more than 130,000 daily users—more than any single bus, streetcar, or light rail route in the United States.

On the other hand, even in gridlocked Atlanta, it is hard to envision many people getting out of their cars or off their bikes to ride such a slow train. Indeed, it is no surprise that few people—only about 2,000 a day—are riding the route so far. It simply is not useful enough.

Certain supporters, confronted with the challenge of defending streetcar lines that are too slow and attract few riders, suggest that those factors do not matter because the importance of streetcars lies more in economic development than transportation. Over time, as construction along the line catches up, ridership will increase, they argue. That argument boils down to the claim that because streetcars include “tracks in the ground,” they will continue to attract investment in a way that a bus line would not, even if the bus offers faster service.

Yet that line of argument went off the rails by the 1950s when American cities ripped up thousands of miles of streetcar tracks from Baltimore to Los Angeles; whatever lifetime guarantee tracks were supposed to provide about public investment attracting economic development had been lost. How can people be sure that today’s streetcars will last more than a few decades? And if the streetcar’s primary purpose is not to transport people, then why not invest in something else, like improved parks, streetscapes, or even direct incentives for business?

The evidence that streetcars are especially good at encouraging economic development is mostly based on the experience of the renewal of Portland’s Pearl District after the introduction of streetcar service there. However, comparative evidence in that city suggests that the real motivator for change was government support and investment, not the streetcar itself.

Urban development is a capricious creature. No individual project—whether festival marketplace, convention center, or streetcar—is guaranteed to restore a downtown or reinvigorate a dying city. In some cases, streetcars seem to be bringing prosperity to what had been declining neighborhoods. For example, Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine community, which may have seemed lost 15 years ago, has seen an explosion in development along its streetcar construction route.

But it is downright difficult to parse whether development along streetcar routes is occurring because of the streetcar or because of the general national trend toward central-city growth. The downtowns of Raleigh, Indianapolis, and San Antonio, for example, are each sprouting thousands of new residential units—and none of these cities offers streetcar lines or, in fact, any urban passenger rail lines at all. On the other hand, Portland’s recent Central Loop streetcar project, which opened in 2012, has hitherto attracted very little development to the east side of downtown.

Streetcars are often worth the investment: just look at the success of Paris’s line. It is just that we cannot definitively ascribe economic development to their completion. Given that fact, there is no choice but to consider streetcars from another perspective—their ability to provide an effective transportation option. Wherever they are planned, streetcars must be designed to carry their passengers quickly and fluidly through the city—not get stuck behind traffic traveling at sloth-like speeds. If they are able to do so, streetcars will be able to ensure improved mobility for their users, whether they produce economic development or not. That is the least we can ask of our transportation investments.

Yonah Freemark is manager at Chicago’s 80-year-old nonprofit urban affairs group Metropolitan Planning Council and creator of The Transport Politic, a website dedicated to urban transportation.