The most commonly cited argument for the development of new streetcar lines is that their implementation will result in the construction of new housing and commercial buildings in surrounding areas. Unfortunately, according to a new report by the Transportation Research Board, that link has yet to be substantiated by empirical evidence in most places where these new rail systems have been built.
This does not mean that streetcars don’t work as development tools, merely that their value has not been demonstrated conclusively. The federal government currently has placed a major emphasis on funding such projects and dozens of U.S. cities have shown significant interest in investing local resources on them. That movement towards this new transportation mode, however, should be slowed until more research is undertaken.
The report, written by Ron Golem and Janet Smith-Heimer, evaluates the thirteen “new” streetcar systems in the United States (it excludes New Orleans and San Francisco, which never took their historic lines out of operation). Five projects — in Kenosha, WI, Savannah, GA, Portland, OR, Memphis, TN, and Seattle, WA — are specifically described.
With the exception of the Portland system, the report argues that “no analysis of the value premiums associated specifically with streetcars could be found in the literature.” Portland, which has a four-mile line through downtown, has been tracking development along the corridor since it opened in 2001.
Representatives of the other systems “believed that the streetcar had positively affected the physical built environment” but also “noted the critical lack of data and analysis to demonstrate this perception of positive benefit.” This represents a critical failure in the way cities have gone about developing these lines, since they have failed to show apart from in anecdote specific ways in which their projects have contributed to environmental improvements.
The study notes that even in Portland, there has been no effort to show systematically how development around the streetcar differs from that in the rest of downtown. How can we be sure that there is a difference between “normal” growth in a city and that spurred on by a transportation tool? There has not been enough research to answer that question.
All that said, in spite of the lack of existing information about the value of streetcars on producing development, there is a high likelihood that they do actually have an effect. Around the new light rail line in Charlotte, North Carolina, there has been $288.2 million in new housing and office space; a further $522 million of development is now under construction, even in face of the recession. This makes sense: Public investment in transportation is often the conduit for private investment in development.
Nonetheless, as the report notes, “the need to systematize the study of streetcar impacts is dramatic.” Cities have a responsibility to show how development patterns around these systems have changed as a result of the new lines. They must undertake statistical analysis to show how ridership has expanded. And they need to be clear about how well their motivations for the construction of new lines match up with empirical reality.
Yonah Freemark is a senior research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, where he is the research director of the Land Use Lab at Urban. His research focuses on the intersection of land use, affordable housing, transportation, and governance.