But they are making a comeback in several American cities, and more have plans in the wings, projects largely development-driven to revitalize sagging urban areas, and to serve a population segment, often baby boomers, choosing to move back to the cities and to simplify their lives when they do.
The streetcar Renaissance stems from planners who see them not only as people-movers but as engines of urban development dealing with, and encouraging, a gradual demographic shift back to cities by people, often older, who like the convenience, miss interaction absent in the suburbs and want to rely less on cars.
Charles Hales, senior vice president of the engineering firm HDR, which works on many streetcar projects, says as many as 60 American cities are in some stage of streetcar planning or development, “depending on how you count it.”
Portland ridership, initially projected to be 3,500 a day, now tops 9,800 and is growing at about 17 percent a year. The city is putting together about $75 million to match federal money to expand the lines from Downtown to the city’s east side, on the other side of the Willamette River.
The new lines no longer are the commuter systems they once were. They are designed to lure people back into cities, keep them there, and perk up decaying, underused and undertaxed, former industrial sites and similar areas. And it seems to be working.
Portland has seen about $2.5 billion in new construction, including 7,248 new housing units within three blocks of the line since the plan was announced in 1997.
In Little Rock, the figure is between $300 million and $400 million.
“It is not the only reason (for the construction) but most developers admit the streetcar is one of the reasons,” said Keith Jones, who helped design the system there.
“The line defines areas where things in the city are happening.” It extends to North Little Rock, which was suffering downtown decay. “It is having a higher impact there than in Little Rock, where things were happening anyway,” he said.
“We got 80 percent federal funding, something that’s virtually impossible to do now with the federal government generally limiting funding to 50 percent,” he said.
The 2.5 mile-line has carried about 400,000 passengers, beyond projections, since it opened in late 2004, and an extension is planned to the Clinton Library.
“Developers see streetcars as an indication of permanence when they make investments,” said Len Brandrup, director of transportation in Kenosha, outside Chicago. That’s not the case with buses, he said.
He said the past century has seen an “unhooking” of land-use decisions and transportation planning.
“Portland is ahead of the country in trying to rehook them,” he said, reducing auto use and parking space demands.
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