Streetcars are en vogue, but study urges use beyond tourists

As Oklahoma City prepares to break ground on its first streetcar line in seven decades, and as other cities adjust to having them again, authors of a federally backed study suggest their routes move people with a purpose — not just target the tourist trade.

In a recent analysis covering five cities, researchers at the Mineta Transportation Institute in San Jose, Calif., found streetcar systems fare best when used to haul people — not just tourists — from Point A to Point B. Routes in Little Rock and Tampa, Fla., which cater primarily to tourists, fared worse than lines in Memphis, Tenn.; Portland, Ore., and Seattle.

“They’re not really going into this thinking of transportation as the primary objective,” said Jeffery Brown, a co-author of the study who directs the master’s program at Florida State University’s Urban and Regional Planning Department. “The streetcar is playing a role for something else, like nostalgia.”

Streetcars were a common sight decades ago, but the automobile age led most communities to scrap their lines. Of the five cities studied, researchers found that all wanted to boost economic development, with Little Rock and Tampa also desiring streetcars for tourism.

But those two systems are practically impractical for commuters: The study found that Tampa’s “TECO” line passes through high-density areas but doesn’t operate during the morning rush hour, and Little Rock’s 12-year-old streetcar system operates on two tight loops in Little Rock and North Little Rock, with a spur to the Clinton Library, but doesn’t run to where many people live.

Oklahoma City intends to break ground this fall on a system that will also operate on two loops — one covering the central business district and the other in the Bricktown entertainment area. In between is the Chesapeake Arena, home to the NBA’s Thunder.

“It’s a lot like Little Rock’s,” Brown said. “Now you really have to start asking, ‘Who would really ride this thing?’”

Nathaniel Harding, who chaired an Oklahoma City subcommittee that studied potential streetcar use, says the panel believes the system will appeal to downtown workers and out-of-towners.

“You can go to lunch in midtown, or go to Bricktown or to a Thunder game and not have to find a place to park again,” he said.

Ridership for the Little Rock and Tampa systems dropped by about a third from 2005 to 2012, according to data from the Federal Transit Administration. While the economic downturn can be blamed for part of the drop, Brown said, the study panel noted that neither city’s lines are important parts of an overall transportation system.

In Little Rock on Saturday, visitors to the city’s annual Riverfest noted that the streetcar line was mainly a novelty.

“I think it would make more sense if it went more places,” said Mike Hinshaw of Cabot, suggesting a line tying in entertainment areas available only by foot, bus or car.

The manager of the Little Rock system said the lines were built to link entertainment venues, restaurants, museums and parks as a public service rather than being a major commuter line.

“We are currently a vintage line running at low speeds and strive to provide the best experience possible for visitors, tourists, and locals alike,” Virginia Johnson said.

Since the study was published last year, Kansas City and Washington have opened streetcar lines, while Cincinnati plans to do so in September.

In the St. Louis area, a 2.2-mile trolley line between University City and Forest Park is set to open early next year. Paul Scott is the newly hired general manager of the Loop Trolley Co., the nonprofit group that will operate the Loop Trolley. He said the line would be a “lean operation.”

Detroit also has a line opening this year, while Providence, R.I., this year scrapped its plans, saying improved bus service was more cost-effective.

In the places where streetcars are used more broadly, Portland and Seattle have fared better in ridership and revenues, the study found. “The objective is to carry riders and do it as cost-effectively as possible,” Brown said.

Memphis was also one of the successful cities, but their streetcars haven’t run since two vintage cars caught fire in 2013 and 2014; the city is refurbishing the lines.

Oklahoma City’s downtown is already vibrant without a streetcar, but is considerably spread out. Opposite corners of the $129 million system are 2 miles part, or about a 40-minute walk with traffic. Harding said he is hopeful the streetcar line can bring people together.

“Cities are for people and for people connecting with one another,” Harding said. “This is going to be transformative for the city. I want to be a part of it.” 

St. Louis Post Dispatch © June 2016

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