Sunday, January 29, 2006

In Love With Trolleys

From Otis White's Urban Notebook:

What is the deal with trolleys? Every city, it seems, is suddenly crazy about streetcars. On the surface, this makes no sense. They’re an antiquated form of transportation (most cities ripped up their streetcar lines by the 1950s), they’re slow (top speed: 5 miles an hour), stop at nearly every corner and run along lines that average only two and a half miles in length. So who wants to go for a short, slow ride?

Before we answer that, some definitions: Actually, the proper name is streetcar, although most people prefer calling them trolleys. These short, squat rail cars run on electricity, usually from overhead wires. (The poles connecting the cars to the wires are trolley poles, which is where the more popular name comes from.) Streetcars are different from light rail in a number of ways: They’re slower, shorter (both in length of vehicle and route) and almost always run on streets, unlike light rail which sometimes runs on dedicated rights of way. Oh, and there are no stations. If you want to board a streetcar, you stand next to the streetcar sign or just wave at the conductor, although many streetcars are so slow you can just hop aboard as it passes.

In the early 20th century, nearly every city, large and small, had streetcar lines. Starting in the 1930s and continuing through the 1950s, cities shut them down in favor of the more flexible, more seemingly modern diesel buses. (General Motors played a role in this, buying up streetcar systems in some cities. But even had GM not given its push, streetcars were dying out after World War II.)

And now they’re back. It’s hard to make an exact count, since the difference between light rail and streetcar systems can be fuzzy, but there are at least 20 cities with streetcar lines and double that number with systems on the drawing boards. (Notable places with new streetcar lines: Tampa, Memphis and Charlotte) Big cities, too, are fascinated by streetcars. There are serious proposals to bring streetcars back to Atlanta and Seattle.

Why? There seem to be three motivations: the belief that cute, clanging trolleys will help with tourism, the idea that they’re a great form of “circulator transit” (where people move from one side of a business district or college campus to another), and the notion that they allow for greater residential density in in-town neighborhoods as people hop on the streetcar for a short ride downtown. There’s a fourth motivation: People just plain like them, in the same way they like Art Deco architecture or antique automobiles — as nostalgia.

But are any of these motivations good, rational reasons for spending millions to lay track, string overhead wires and buy antique streetcars? Yes, but only if the streetcar line is built as part of a larger plan of development (which, come to think of it, is how all transportation should be built).

Portland, Ore., showed how to do this when it built a streetcar line to connect two nearby neighborhoods with downtown. Part of the deal: Developers in these areas had to build much greater densely than they had planned. (On one tract, the city boosted zoning from 15 units per acre to 125.) The density and the streetcar worked hand in hand: More people on the street meant more riders; the streetcar line, in turn, meant less parking was needed, so more housing could be built. Important side benefit: The streetcar and the resulting density helped create one of Portland’s liveliest downtown neighborhoods.

Tampa, alas, showed how not to do it. The 2.5-mile line from downtown to historic Ybor City couldn’t make up its mind whether it was a tourist attraction or a serious way to get to work. (Must be a tourist attraction: The Tampa streetcar starts running only at 11 a.m. and costs $2 to ride.) Result: a scary operating deficit and no easy way of turning things around.

Footnote: So who doesn’t like trolleys? Transit systems, which are run by people who measure effectiveness by efficiency (number of people moved from point A to point B every X minutes). As a result, most streetcar systems today are sponsored, at least initially, by city governments, developers, business associations or nonprofits. Every interest, that is, but the transit system.


sherman said...

The problem with Memphis transportation is not with the trolleys but with a complete lack of vision at the tip-top of MATA and, unfortunately, flowing down from there.

Larry said...

So true Sherman!!!

BTW, someone should tell Otis White that a trolley is a form of light rail.

turnerarch said...

Reference to the 385 post. Yes MATA is mismanaged, but no to the degree that some would attempt to claim. MATA is trapped in a pattern that reinforces its own condition. It is forced to provide a certain degree of service to the region, yet its funding comes only by way of approval by the county and city government bodies. There is no dedicated funding source (such as a portion of the gas tax or sales tax). MATA has plans to reinvent its antiquated system based on a central transfer facility downtown in order to create one with a dozen or more transfer centers located in neighborhoods and towns throughout the county. This will cost money, and since MATA can only beg for just so much, its is forced to take a very long term track to completing this new system.

Smart City Consulting said...

Our criticism of MATA is based on inferior service delivered in a customer-adverse way. What is most symptomatic to us is the fact that if you want information about when a bus will arrive, it promises an answer within 48 hours. In other cities, there is real time tracking of buses. Unfortunately, MATA sees itself as transit for domestic workers, and the lack of quality in its service reflects a diminished view of itself. And all of this is said by people here who love to ride the bus.

Smart City Consulting said...

Larry: If we believe that trolleys are light rail, that's a serious symptom of the problem. SC

turnerarch said...

I agree in full. The system is suited for those who are already familiar with the intricacies of its day to day operation. It is hardly customer friendly and seems to show little interest in redefining itself in such a way. Heaven help those who are first time riders as I discovered on my first journey to the University of Memphis by bus proved years ago.

mike said...

Speaking as a regular user of MATA, it is decidedly user-unfriendly. Go to my blog and read the post "Adventures with MATA" near the top. The current system will never convince people with other transporation options to switch.

MATA is also too susceptible to political whims. The North Terminal is where it is solely to support the Pyramid, and the downtown nexus. A smarter option would have been a multi-hub system. There was no need for the Madison Trolley, as it duplicates Route 2 which still runs alongside it, and doesn't reach far enough into Midtown housing areas. The Airport Trolley is an answer to a question no one's asking. Where are the shuttle busses from Midtown, Southwest and North Memphis to the shopping complexes around Wolfchase? If offered, I'd ride 'em. (Note: not regular routes, which would take two hours from Midtown to Wolfchase, but shuttles from several stops via Interstate.)

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