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The Right Mode For The Right Trip

Charlotte Streetcar Route

Today’s guest post is by Scott Adams, AICP:

I came across two articles today that highlight a debate going on in lots of cities: Should metropolitan regions focus limited transit money on city-centric streetcars, or regional commuter rail?

Cincinnati and Charlotte are both facing this question, which should ideally be answered with “Both.” As in, both modes should be built at some scale.  Still, a larger issue is one of leverage.  What benefits will a streetcar leverage?  What benefits will light-rail or a commuter rail line leverage?  Baltimore’s got its own questions, with different camps vying for heavy rail, light rail and streetcars for different area of the region.

Urban streetcar lines/systems have a greater and more immediate ability to leverage transportation and land-use/economic development benefits by the simple fact that streetcar settings have better “bones” (well connected streets, smaller blocks, mix of land uses) than most suburban settings.  Two basic tenets of transportation are proximity and accessibility, which urban streetcars again win on over regional systems, as urban settings generally have higher population densities in proximity to streetcar lines.

Regional systems, be they light-rail or commuter rail, can leverage land-use/economic development benefits, yet are too often sold as pure transportation, i.e. “this commuter rail line will remove X amount of vehicles from I-71 per day.”  Evolving thinking on suburban rail stations is moving toward, “this line will remove X amount of vehicles and provide mixed-use centers near the stations.”  The real challenge behind this though, is getting suburban areas to change/update their land-use plans and zoning to support station area plans.  Without that, you’re simply plopping a rail line and station amidst standard suburban development.

Cincinatti Streetcar Route

And that comes back to the original question/issue.  Will streetcar systems in Cincinnati and Charlotte improve transportation options in these cities? Would funds be better spent on commuter rail?

To me, the best answer to these questions is, again, both modes/systems have their time and place.  An efficient transportation system is one that allows you to match a tool to a purpose. Going down the block? Walk.  Is your destination too far to walk, yet close enough that parking’s a hassle? Bike.  Got several errands to run and a load of groceries to pick up? Zipcar.  Going across a few neighborhoods to see a friend? Streetcar.  Going to the far suburbs to see a friend? Light-rail. The beauty of cities lies in their options.

These are simplifications, but again, shouldn’t we match our tools to our purposes?  “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” – Abraham Maslov

UPDATE: I originally created this post a few months ago.  Since then, Cincinnati’s streetcar has been denied $52 million in state funding.  Still, Cincinnati is moving forward, silly governors aside.  The area’s plans for commuter rail can be found here, although I honestly can’t get a yes/no read on its status.

Charlotte’s prospects for streetcars have had an interesting boost by the Urban Land Institute (ULI), with their recommendations for streetcar(s) on Central Ave. and/or Monroe Rd., while Independence Blvd. would serve as more of a regional downtown-to-suburb route served by bus rapid transit (BRT).  As for commuter rail, Charlotte has its own Red Line, but its future is still fuzzy at this time.