All Aboard: Streetcars a good fit for New Urbanism

Streetcars aren’t means of moving people as much as they’re tools to leverage good urbanism and help preserve the city’s existing urban form.

Properly planned and built, they help cities manage and direct high-density growth into corridors connecting neighborhoods to downtown and other central districts. They give people a choice beyond cars – a critical option in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by cutting vehicle miles traveled – and attract riders who would ordinarily eschew buses.

And that was just the first hour of “Streetcars as a New Urbanist Tool,” one of nine New Urbanism 202 sessions that helped kick off CNU XVI: New Urbanism and the Booming Metropolis, in Austin, Texas, Thursday.

Streetcars and transit-oriented development remain on the CNU XVI agenda Friday, with the concurrent sessions Getting on Track: Streetcars in the Boomtown and Smart Transit, Smart Streets, Smart TOD; and Saturday’s session Right-Sizing Parking for TODs and Mixed-Use.

“Streetcars are really about urban solutions,” and work best for new urbanist projects at the district and corridor scales, said GB Arrington, a principal practice leader at PB PlaceMaking. But they produce a different transit-oriented development pattern than the quarter- to half-mile circles associated with regional commuter rail, he added.

Instead, they influence 400- to 600-foot “ribbons” along their routes, where higher density, mixed-use buildings can take advantage of the connectivity streetcars provide, Arrington said.

Gloria Ohland, vice president for communications at Reconnecting America, noted that kind of development is why streetcars are so financially and environmentally successful – they leverage good urbanism in all cities of all sizes, she said.

Ohland cited Portland, Ore., where local and suburban streetcar lines prompted $3.5 billion worth of development within 750 feet of their routes.

In Kenosha, Wis., $150 million in downtown development has been invested since 2000, when the city opened a 2-mile streetcar loop between a redeveloped brownfield site on Lake Michigan and the Metra commuter rail station which connect s the city to Chicago. The line’s price tag: $6.2 million.

“It’s really about building communities where people don’t have to get in their car very often,” she said.

Presenters also included Rick Gustafson, CEO of Portland Streetcar Inc.;
John Carroll, principal of Carroll Investments; Michael W. English, vice president and corporate leader of regional and community investment at Wilson Miller; Charlie Hales, planner and project manager at HDR Inc.; and Shelley Poticha, executive director of Reconnecting America’s Center for Transit-Oriented Development.


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