Streetcars in America: Rebounding and on a roll

NewOrleansHUDRedStreetcarRiverfrontCanal[1]Baltimore, Maryland – birthplace of American common carrier railroading – is considering incorporating streetcars into its transportation mix, apparently. Baltimore is not alone.

To say interest in American streetcars is building is, in my opinion, understating things some. In fact, an American streetcar builder – United Streetcar of Clackamas, Oregon – has set up shop.

Streetcars gaining traction

In OnEarth magazine, articles editor Jeff Turrentine in “A Desire Named Streetcar,” wrote, “Suddenly streetcars — those clanging, clattering, spark-emitting icons of public transit’s past — are among the hottest and most coveted components of public transit’s future. Right now the list of cities looking to introduce new streetcar lines or extend existing ones reads like a back-of-the-envelope tally by members of the NBA’s expansion-team task force, circa 1978: in addition to Charlotte, there’s Dallas, Kansas City, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, Fort Lauderdale, Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Tucson, among others.”

But, what is it about these systems that make them attractive to cities?

On this, Turrentine remarked, “As different as those streetcar-crazy cities are from one another, they have at least three things in common. First is their desire to breathe new life into somewhat moribund downtowns or other neighborhoods where the potential for economic activity is somewhat greater than the actual level of economic activity. Second is their desire to attract and retain the well-educated millennials who make up the tech-savvy ‘creative class,’ but who have largely abandoned or foregone their cities in favor of those in California, the Northeast, and the Pacific Northwest. And third is their belief that streetcars, somehow, are absolutely key to the fulfillment of both these desires.”


In “Coming to a Neighborhood Near You: Streetcars,” Charles Hales, at one time a Portland (Oregon) City Commissioner, provides a laundry list of streetcar pluses, such as:

  • A catalyst for economic development in downtowns and other districts.
  • A strong symbol of transportation progress – one that can be implemented quickly and economically to demonstrate progress.
  • An urban circulator for residents, employees and visitors offering an attractive option for short, non-commuting trips such as lunch engagements and museum visits.
  • A link to existing transit (bus and rail) systems, making a transit commute more practical for many people and expanding the effective service area of each transit station.
  • A compelling image-maker that will enhance an area’s identity.
  • An amenity for tourists and convention attendees, making accessibility to attractions and destinations easier and more convenient.

(Source: “Coming to a Neighborhood Near You: Streetcars,” Charles Hales, RAIL, Summer 2004).

Environmental benefit

One thing I believe streetcars – also known as “trams” or “trolleys” – are especially good at doing is helping curb air pollution, provided, of course, that passenger counts are high enough to make a difference in this area.

Related to this, I did find the following on CincyStreetcar Blog, though. From the article: “Streetcars Benefit the Environment” in reference to the Cincinnati, Ohio streetcar project, the lead-in reads as follows: “According to the City of Cincinnati Climate Protection Plan, building the Cincinnati Streetcar will reduce pollution and CO2 emissions. The environmental benefits of the streetcar are numerous. People riding the streetcar rather [than] taking private automobiles or taxis will prevent 4,321 tons of CO2 from being released into the atmosphere each year.”

The CincyStreetcar Blog also pointed out that “Even if the Streetcar is run on conventional electricity, generation would only result in 2,248 tons of CO2, resulting in a net reduction of 28,068 tons of CO2.”

– Alan Kandel