An intriguing example can be found in Houston, Texas. Houston is the prototypical Sunbelt city – sprawling growth and no zoning, heavy use of the automobile and less reliance on transit. However, over the next 20 years some two million new residents will call Houston home, and transit is seen as an important feature of Houston’s future mobility network. The innovative Metro Solutions transit system plan, underscored by extensive public involvement and voter approval, offers an integrated light rail, commuter rail and bus rapid transit system to improve regional mobility. It also provides broader travel choices, serves diverse neighborhoods and reduces dependence on the automobile.
While the initial light rail line receives attention as one of the most heavily used LRT lines in the country, the bus network is the backbone of the Metro Solutions plan. This is actually common to most successful rail systems, since the bus expands the total service area. For Houston, the approach is to make its initial fixed-guideway BRT lines convertible to LRT as ridership grows. Metro Solutions’ goal is to have more rapid transit at a lower cost, sooner rather than later.
With the 2001 opening of its Central City streetcar, Portland, Ore., initiated a new era for this traditionally reliable urban transportation mode. In the past six years some 100 communities from coast to coast have became part of the streetcar movement. An important aspect of this movement is that the cities attracted to the streetcar are small- to mid-size places. These are communities whose transit systems are underdeveloped or virtually non-existent. For them, the streetcar offers residents, businesses and visitors a unique means of accessing in-town districts.
Streetcars, whether modern, replica or vintage, bear some common characteristics:
- They are run by overhead electric power using a single string wire.
- They are one third the cost of light rail on a per mile basis with 65 percent of the vehicle capacity.
- Cars hold from 45 to 110 passengers, depending on type.
- The “starter line” is in the 2 to 3 mile range with an initial fleet of five vehicles.
- Future extensions are easier due to the success of the initial line.
- Track construction is simplified and fast compared to other modes.
The streetcar’s twin goals are connecting people and shaping places. In this capacity, it is serious urban transportation, not a “toy” to satisfy tourists only. As an urban circulator, the streetcar helps:
- Complete the “last mile of the trip” by linking to the regional transit system;
- Serve as pedestrian accelerators (pedestrians are the first class riders);
- Reduce traffic congestion during peak afternoon periods;
- Improve the carbon footprint of less-sustainable transit modes;
- Provide affordable transportation to jobs; and
- Promote economic development and urban infill.
From a development perspective, streetcars demonstrate a high to very high effect on land use. They act as an economic development catalyst. Development tends to follow the streetcar line, with the principal impact area three blocks on each side of the line. It creates compact, walkable mixed land uses and enhances the pedestrian environment.
The Pearl District in Portland is the quintessential example of the streetcar’s positive effect in helping create “America’s No. 1 exciting new urban neighborhood.” The Pearl’s sustainability benefits include its:
- Reclamation of an abandoned, brownfield rail yard as a mixed use neighborhood;
- Density and intensity offset by parks and open space;
- Introduction of affordable housing to add socio-economic diversity;
- Orientation as a place for singles and families;
- Virtually free public transportation and lowered parking requirements;
- Contribution to the city’s tax base; and
- Ability to leverage the initial public investment of $56 million into $1.5 billion in private investment.
With nearly 20 streetcar projects in various stages of development, this old mode of travel becomes new again and, in the process, is changing the face of cities across North America.
Transit’s Bright Future
The era of environmental stewardship and sustainability is here, and transit is an important part of the sustainable transportation formula. Transit in all its forms can help shape the way we move, work and live. With transit as part of a coordinated mobility and settlement strategy, energy can be conserved, greenhouse gas emissions lowered, congestion relieved, open space preserved and the benefits of healthy, livable cities realized.
David Taylor is the National Director of Sustainability for Transportation with HDR Engineering Inc.