While America lost much of its love for streetcars as public transportation during the 1960s, a few cities have kept the romance burning. The heart of San Francisco includes its nearly 140-year-old electric cable car system. In New Orleans, the location for Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” many tourists are drawn by the picturesque St. Charles Avenue Line.
The Obama administration recently offered some U.S. cities a piece of a $130 million federal fund for streetcar projects aimed at reducing traffic congestion, cutting pollution and reliance on foreign oil, and creating jobs.
Transit systems in Dallas, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Charlotte, North Carolina, are slated to share grants from the Federal Transit Administration’s Urban Circulator program.
In my old home town of Portland, Oregon the city paid incentives to businesses to build along the streetcar line. Streetcars transformed a “blighted warehouse district into a vibrant area of shops, grocery stores, restaurants and apartments that provide entertainment and employment. I love the feel of downtown Portland.
Some believe that there’s nothing streetcars can do that buses can’t do better, faster, safer and for far less money even though a single light-rail train can hold more passengers than a bus, a bus route can move more passengers per hour than any light-rail line.
Portland’s system attracts about 12,000 daily riders at an average ticket cost of $1.47. Its creators credit it with $3.5 billion in surrounding development, including shops, restaurants and 10,000 new housing units.
Also, streetcars that run on either hydro or coal-generated electricity spit out less greenhouse gases per passenger mile than diesel buses.
Riding public transportation in Portland is quick, easy and enjoyable. It’s absolutely easier than driving, and streetcar operators go out of their way to be helpful.
But is it faster than driving? If you count the time from point A to B, it is slower to ride the streetcar but if you factor in time to find a place to park and the cost of parking, it is more convenient and cheaper to ride the streetcar.