The Mayor of New York City has proposed building a 16 mile long streetcar line in Brooklyn, and Yonah Freemark, a transportation expert who has often been quoted in these pages, weighs in on the subject in an op-ed in the New York Times. Living as I do in a city , Toronto, that has played political football with streetcars for well over a hundred years, I can attest that he nails the critical points. The first and most crucial is that they should be in dedicated rights of way.
In most American cities with streetcars, success has been limited by faulty design. Forced to share lanes with automobiles, the streetcars get held up in traffic. Unable to maneuver out of their tracks, unlike nimbler buses, they get stuck behind stopped cars or delivery trucks.
In Toronto, the controversial St. Clair streetcar line was built as a dedicated right of way in 1913, rebuilt as a shared road in 1928 and restored to a dedicated lane in 2006. It is now dependable and fast. Meanwhile, on King Street downtown, the incredibly crowded streetcar can't move.
Freemark notes also that the stations should be properly spaced and in the right place. "It is just as vital to get the streetcar’s route right."
Here is where the work of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy is so important, getting the mix of walking, cycling and different modes of transport working together instead of in isolation. It all has to be thought of as a network where all the different modes of getting around feed into each other. More on transport oriented development here.
Another point he makes that is that the zoning should be appropriate.
Development policies should support the use of the streetcar. In many neighborhoods along the planned route, zoning law severely restricts the scale of buildings allowed (and therefore potential riders) and requires developments to include a significant number of parking spaces (which in turn encourages driving).
This is critical, and is the great benefit of building surface transit like streetcars; if you get it right, they can lead to an explosion of development at mid densities. On St. Clair in Toronto, six to eight story midrise condos are popping up in every block. Stores are constantly being upgraded. They have a special transfer that's good for two hours so you can see a shop, get off and patronize it, get back on and keep going. Try that on a subway where you are underground or in a car where you have to find a place to park. It doesn't take long for the streetcar line to pretty much pay for itself through increased property values. (see Streetcars save cities: A look at 100 years of a Toronto streetcar line)
Streetcars, done properly, are fantastic at moving lots of people, encouraging development, improving streets and neighborhoods. Done badly and they are a huge waste of money. I hope that they listen to Yonah and get this one right.
In related links below: posts quoting Yonah Freemark.