The Real Reason For the Resurgence of Streetcars in America (Spoiler: It’s Not for Transport)

In this six-minute-long video, Vox makes the argument that the primary reason behind the recent resurgence of streetcar systems—or proposals for streetcars, at least—in the USA is not because of their contributions to urban mobility, but instead because of the fact that they drive and sustain economic development. As it uncovers the causes for the popular failure of the streetcar systems in cities such as Washington DC, Atlanta, and Salt Lake City (low speed and limited connectivity, mostly) it asks why an increasing number of American city governments are pushing for streetcars in spite of their dismal record at improving transit. Is it solely due to their positively modern aesthetic? Are streetcars destined to function as mere “attractions” in a city’s urban landscape? Or is the real objective something more complex?

The video cites the case of Portland, explaining how developmental concerns are strongly tied to transit systems. The city’s hugely successful streetcar system—it currently boasts 16,000 passengers a day—emerged out of a development-focused agenda. “Having the rail on the ground is significantly important for them [developers]. To see the commitment from the city for them to make catalytic investments is important… There’s a little bit of quid pro quo there,” explains Dan Bower, Executive Director at Portland Streetcar Inc. The video also alludes to the proposed Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX) streetcar in New York and observes how upcoming waterfront developments in the area are providing a major push to the project.

Next, Vox quotes author and urban planner Yonah Freemark as he notes that development benefits accrue from any governmental expenditure intended for the public benefit—improvement of neighborhood retail or sidewalks, for instance. And here, as it concludes, the video asks an important question: if attracting investments is the chief goal, are streetcar systems the ideal means to that end?

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