With renewed interest in transit-focused urbanism, an age-old form of public transportation is being revived in cities across the US. By 2015, no less than 30 American cities will have streetcar networks, more than doubling the number in existence just fifteen years prior. Washington, DC and Salt Lake City launched trams last week. Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Cincinatti have streetcar plans in various stages of development. Five other cities — San Antonio, Kansas City, Fort Lauderdale, St. Louis and Detroit — have secured funding for tram projects but have yet to break ground.
The streetcar renaissance is being driven by federal policy. From Salon:
This sudden expansion owes much to the revival of transit-friendly urbanism, where population and property values have risen dramatically since the turn of the century. But the streetcar boom may be more directly traced to the provisions of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and particularly to the TIGER grant program, which has since doled out some $3.5 billion to several hundred transit and infrastructure projects. In total, the Department of Transportation has distributed about a half billion dollars to downtown streetcar projects over the last five years.
Meanwhile the Department of Transportation has also revised guidelines for grant programs like New Starts and Small Starts to favor streetcar projects. But while the Obama administration views tram projects as an important urban design legacy, streetcar development comes with plenty of opposition. There is the anti-urban conservative camp, of course, but there is also much dispute within the urban planning community about the relevance of streetcars in the 21st century city.
"Transit planner Jarrett Walker has said we are building streetcars for people who can’t understand bus maps," writes Henry Grabar at Salon. "David A. King, a professor of urban planning, has speculated that the boom stems purely from federal spending priorities, rather than organic needs."
What do you think? Are streetcars a smart transportation solution in the 21st century? Read Henry Grabar's Salon article and let us know your thoughts.