Why Streetcars Aren’t About Transit

The Economic Development Argument for Trams

Story by Aaron Wiener

Illustration by Steven Howard

Published on Jan 12, 2014

Delayed again and again since its initial scheduled opening in 2009, the Washington, D.C. streetcar will finally begin rolling later this year. The eventual 37-mile system will serve many parts of the city, but its earliest route will be of particular interest to business and development types on H Street NE, D.C.’s latest corridor to enjoy a nightlife boom. Indeed, to hear proponents speak of it, the streetcar seems like it’s more about attracting investment to H Street than it is about moving people from one end of the corridor to the other. Modern streetcars, now enjoying a moment in the spotlight — in the next 12 months alone, new lines in five different cities are scheduled to open — have captured the imaginations of local officials everywhere, who look at Portland’s example and see the investment opportunity. (A whopping $3.5 billion worth of development occurred within two blocks of that city’s streetcar route between 1997 and 2008.) But they are not without their critics. Many doubt, with good reason, that streetcars are faster or more efficient than buses. Others cite the high costs of implementation. Still others point to the intentions behind building streetcars — are they legitimate ways of transporting a city’s people, or novelty items meant to deliver gentrification to voguish neighborhoods? D.C.-based writer Aaron Weiner checks in on the H Street streetcar to see what this 21st-century transit mode will mean for cities in the future.

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