In the United States, streetcars have assumed a dramatic new prominence, in part because of increasing federal support. In dozens of cities, new lines are under construction, funded, or in planning thanks to local political leadership that recognizes the benefits of such investments in relatively cheap new rail lines. While streetcars are typically not the most efficient mobility providers — compared to light rail lines and often even buses, they are slower and more likely to be caught in traffic — they are promoted as development tools. Streetcars, it is said, will bring new construction and the densification of districts that are served by the new rail lines.
But streetcars alone aren’t enough to spur construction of residential and commercial buildings in neighborhoods with transit service. Just as important are the municipal regulations guiding new development. If zoning prevents large buildings around streetcar corridors, how exactly will streetcars lead to new construction?
A comparison of two streetcar projects — one soon to enter construction in St. Louis and the other about to open for service in Portland — shows that there are very different rules guiding what can be built in the two cities. The result may be that one city sees significant new growth along its corridor and the other sees very little, despite both projects being new streetcar lines. Other cities looking to extract value from their transportation investments should consider how their land use regulations may affect new construction.
Unlike most cities building new streetcar lines, St. Louis’ federally funded project will be constructed outside of downtown, in the Loop District four miles from the city center. The Loop Trolley will extend two miles from the Missouri History Museum at Forest Park, along DeBaliviere Avenue, and west along Delmar Boulevard into the independent municipality of University City. The route, which will be partially double tracked, will serve ten stops and is expected to attract about 800 riders per weekday (and 2,000 per weekend day) in the opening year, rising eventually to 2,600 riders a day by 2025.
The project suffers from many of the flaws of other streetcar lines throughout the country — it will have limited frequencies, a non-exclusive right-of-way, and a route that doesn’t directly serve the biggest destination in the area: Washington University.
More important, however, is the fact that zoning in both St. Louis and University City is not adequate to produce “urban infill and transit-oriented development along the route,” as project proponents claim the Trolley will encourage.
In the City of St. Louis, the blocks directly facing the streetcar route are mostly zoned for neighborhood commercial, commercial district, and multiple family dwelling areas. In these districts, buildings cannot exceed three stories or 45 to 50 feet. Non-residential buildings are limited to a floor area ratio (FAR) of just 1.5*. Meanwhile, non-pedestrian-oriented uses, such as drive-through restaurants, are allowed to be constructed. For residential buildings, developers are required to provide parking for one car per unit, and commercial structures over a size limit must provide parking as well.
In University City on the western section of the route, zoning is similarly restrictive. Half a block off the Delmar Loop, where the line runs, “core commercial” zoning is used. In these areas, residential units, bars, hotels, and more are allowed, but they require a conditional use permit from city hall to be installed — a needless complication for uses that are more than appropriate for this kind of area. Buildings are limited to just 35 feet in height, with the exception of certain buildings with large setbacks. But in a walkable area like this, it is more than appropriate to build taller structures right up to the sidewalk line. North of the streetcar corridor, high density residential zoning is in effect, but there no mixing of uses is allowed at all, and FAR is limited to 1 unless buildings are built on one acre or larger lots.
Zoning around the St. Louis streetcar.
Just a block or two south of the route, in both St. Louis and University City, surrounding land is mostly zoned for single-family homes in “neighborhood preservation areas” that make a mix of land uses and increased building sizes almost impossible to construct.
In sum, even if developers are intrigued by the idea of building along the streetcar corridor, St. Louis’ project is likely to attract little actual construction because of city regulations that limit new construction. Developers wanting to build large structures will be limited by low height limits and requirements to get special permits to provide a mix of land uses. That should put a big question mark over how valuable the project will be from a land use perspective.
Portland’s streetcar, which has been in operation since 2001, has been the national model for such projects; combined with the city’s large MAX light rail network, it has offered this region a transit-friendly image. Thanks to an infusion of $75 million in federal funds, the city has built a $148 million, 3.3-mile extension that will open for service on September 22. The project is expected to roughly double existing ridership (now about 12,000 on a weekday) and attract 2.4 million square feet of development by serving the Lloyd District and Central Eastside neighborhoods, which are across the Willamette river from downtown. In these areas, there is currently a paucity of urban development and plenty of space for new construction. The project connects to the north end of the existing streetcar, runs across the river, runs south on Grand Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard to the Oregon Museum of Science and Indutry, and will eventually form a loop around the city center when it is connected with the south end of the existing streetcar in 2015.
Like St. Louis’ line, Portland’s also has some transportation deficiencies. Rather than offering direct access into downtown, the route requires riders to take a circuitous journey to get there. Trains will run in a right-of-way shared with automobiles. Based on the schedule, trains will run through the area at just 7 mph, an absurdly slow pace even for a streetcar. Compounding the problem is that the service will only be provided into the Eastside at headways of 18 minutes (which is far worse than the 12-minute headways promised in 2008 for the project). If you miss a train, there is little point in waiting for the next one at those frequencies.
The streetcar map in Portland.
Nevertheless, Portland’s project offers far more opportunity for new development around the line than the St. Louis program. As shown in the images below, very high densities — up to an FAR of 12 in the Lloyd District but at least 5 everywhere — are allowed in the blocks directly surrounding the new streetcar extension, and very little has been built there so far, so there are many opportunities for growth. The top image should make us question whether some areas along the existing streetcar loop, such as the Pearl District, deserve to see a serious up-zoning to allow for increasing new development.
With the densities allowed in Portland, significant new construction in the Eastside areas will be possible. Based on previous trends in the city, such development seems likely. In downtown Census tracts (on the west side of the river), the total population has increased massively since 1980, going from 8,671 then to 17,789 in 2010; about half of that increase was between 2000 and 2010 alone. That kind of growth would have been impossible without the increase in transportation options made possible through the construction of the city’s streetcar and light rail systems.
Meanwhile, though the percentage of people living in those areas using private cars to get to work has increased since 1980, when just 26 percent did (following the national trend), it has declined from 38.3 percent in 1990 to 36.9 percent in 2010, indicating that the new development is attracting people who want to live without cars on a daily basis. That’s a success that seems likely to be continued with the streetcar extension.
Transportation engineers are loath to support new streetcar lines because they cannot understand why it makes sense to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in a rail line when a far cheaper bus service would provide similar, or even more, mobility benefits. From the pure perspective of moving people from one place to another, streetcars are irrational investments.
Some Portland residents have expressed concerns that the streetcar has been excessively subsidized even as bus routes have faced service cuts and increasing fares because of declining revenue. If transportation spending were simply about helping people move around, these would be entirely legitimate claims.
But we can overlook the technical deficiencies of these two streetcar projects by emphasizing their development impacts. The point of the St. Louis and Portland projects is not necessarily to attract many users (though the latter line likely will), but rather to develop a culture of transit use in dense neighborhoods where dependence upon the automobile is not a necessity. Portland has demonstrated that a fixed-route streetcar can encourage development around stops quite effectively, and thus if it is the goal of a city to increase the density of its core areas, streetcars can be a useful tool.
Without appropriate zoning, however, the value of a streetcar project declines tremendously. In places where regulations make building large, mixed-use buildings difficult, transportation projects that will not do much to improve mobility will be incapable of encouraging much construction either.
- A FAR of 2, for example, means if you have a lot of 10,000 square feet, you can build 20,000 square feet of building on site. In an urban district, a building with a FAR of 2 might have 3 to 4 stories, depending on setbacks and surrounding yard areas.
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.