Saturday, January 24, 2009

Do streetcars make sense for New Haven?

The city of New Haven has been making noise and plans for the past couple of years about the possibility of building a streetcar line downtown. Mayor DeStefano went so far this past week to visit Washington DC, looking for a cool $20 million for the project. Do trams make sense for a city the size of New Haven?

In fact, it might make sense, although it is not all that clear. The Greater New Haven area has a population just over half a million; slightly smaller, but not by much, to metro areas like Burdeaux, and bigger than places like Montepellier or Alicante. Mid-sized cities can host successful light rail / trolley systems, specially if they are well planned and designed. Far from being a fancy project, a good network can be a great addition to the strenght and attractiveness of a metro area.

For starters, the city becomes much more walkable, as residents are less likely to need a car. This allows building with less focus on having massive amounts of parking space, as well as allowing denser zoning and more pedestrian-friendly streets. In addition, easier transportation tends to raise property values where it is installed, specially when the infrastructure is fixed and stable. Buses and bus stops are easy to move, making routes more confusing and planning around them less likely; a fixed tram line, in contrast, offers a solid path that will remain there.

Of course, all these benefits need a certain kind of city. First, it has to be somewhat dense; trams have a lot of capacity compared to buses, after all. Second, the distribution of the city needs to have at least a few "dense" destinations that generate traffic; areas with lots of activity that will benefit from being connected. Third, it is an investment that requires a strong commitment; as happens with rail, if the network is not extensive enough or the frequencies are too low, the system will be pretty useless.

New Haven has the density and the layout (potentially) to host an effective tram system. I am not sure if it has the money to make it work from day one; it will definetely need a lot of Federal or State (one can dream) help.

A different question would be if a tram should be the first in the list of city priorities, of course; if a transportation project that will only bring substantial development in the medium term should go before improving schools (one of the factors keeping many people out in the suburbs). To solve this we need to talk about property taxes and smart growth; and about that we will talk tomorrow.


  1. Much of the streetcar/bus debate boils down to who you want to serve and what your goals are.

    Streetcars are much more effective than buses at getting middle and upper middle class residents out of their cars and using transit. They also spur development to a much greater degree because, as the post's author points out, they offer a sense of permanence and signify that the government is firmly invested in a given area.

    The downside of street cars and trams of course is their cost. Trams/Trolleys, etc. are not massed-produced in the same way buses are so the cars have often have to be special ordered. Additionally, the infrastructure for the bus, roads, already exists, while streetcar tracks must be installed anew - again at a significant cost.

    The difference is in who these modes serve. Trams and streetcars are attractive alternative to visitors to the city as well as middle and upper middle class residents who may want to leave their car at home sometimes. They are often used by poorer residents, but to a lesser degree than buses because stops tend to be more limited.

    Buses in this country are usually ridden by people who don't have many other transportation options: the working poor, the disabled, the young, the elderly. In planning terms, this population is referred to as the "transit captive". When people have other options they tend not to ride the bus.

    Those who do ride the bus usually depend on it and would benefit immensely from improved bus service with additional routes and stops, and decreased waiting time between buses. Dollar for dollar we can make enormous improvements in bus service and have a top-notch bus system for what it would cost for even the most basic streetcar line.

    This is where goals come in. If your primarily goal in transit investment is to spur economic development along a particular coordinator, or shift some drivers onto transit, then a streetcar system is a great investment. If on the other hand you want to improve transit service for the existing riders and those who lack other transportation options, then your best bet is to invest in more buses.

    Obviously in a perfect world we'd invest heavily in both streetcars and buses, but we all know that government money is finite and that tough choices must often be made. This is why we need to be clear in assessing what our goals are, and how each potential investment can move us closer to realizing those goals.

  2. The thing is, government money is indeed finite, but plenty of it is invested in pretty useless road infrastructure that it is at capacity already. Plenty of money is also left on the table in places that don´t make sense; the gas tax, that could be used to fund a transportation this, is very low.

    Of course the government needs to make choices. The choice should not be between bus and light rail, however; it should be between transit and everything else.