Thursday, July 29, 2010

Bring on the Streetcar

No progress ever occurred without having to overcome the skeptics.

Via FortWorthology, there is a great OpEd at the Star-Telegram in favor of, well accepting the Federal money for a streetcar. Duh.

To many, before this discussion started, a return of the streetcar sounded more like a tourism gimmick than a game-changing modern transit system. Two years into the discussion, however, most of us actively working to revitalize our central city would never call the proposed modern streetcar a gimmick. We have seen how the competitive advantages of walkable, transit-oriented urbanism have returned and how modern streetcar systems are transforming central cities into sustainable economic engines.

Companies are locating along modern streetcar lines, and developers are building thousands of housing units along existing city streets instead of along new and expensive roads at the edge of town. Highly skilled workers with choices are shopping for cities that offer a full range of transportation options.

Fort Worth needs to enhance its appeal to new businesses and residents. We can't ignore the negative effects of sprawl-related problems -- congestion, unhealthy air and far too many generic developments that aren't sustaining their value. Those issues have deep roots and won't go away soon, making it clear that we must promote a vibrant, distinctive and prosperous central city to stay competitive with our peers and that we must act quickly.

Let's recap. In both Dallas and Fort Worth, we have several "neighborhoods" ripe for reinvestment. They were originally created by streetcar as outward pressure and a new technology "unlocked" the value of the land a mile or a few outside of the City Center. For a variety of reasons, the lines failed, mostly through a lack of density.

Skeptics of streetcars generally fall into two-camps: those that have their interests against such things as freedom of mobility, ie controlling interests in a monopoly of transportation and those that hide behind some religion of "free market" willfully ignoring that no transportation in this country is designed or created by the "free market." This represents a letting go of the reigns of inertia that will ultimately grind our cities into some failed state while praying to that same religion to guide us into a happy afterlife of rainbows and unicorns. Fortunately, we have the power to steer that inertia towards a positive outcome, albeit not easily.

Cities need residential density. Streetcar needs density. These downtown-adjacent neighborhoods are the perfect spot, less burdened by the more intense activity of downtown business districts, while being close enough to those centers of gravity to walk, bike, or say streetcar to the amenities therein,

In order to deliver supply to match the demand for urban housing, these areas need transportation alternatives. Otherwise, the development will be engineered by and respond to car-oriented design. Meaning roads will be too overscaled and unwalkable. Parking facilities will be too big and therefore too expensive. And it all becomes a barrier to investment and you end up with a drive-thru McDonald's, which might generate 1/20th of the tax base. More potential residents move to a mind-numbing garden apartment in [insert suburb here so as to not offend one] built of sticks and paper and will last about twenty years before it becomes a slum and is then razed. Thumbs up.

Somewhat changing subjects...

There is a medium-sized town somewhere in this country I once suggested should look into unearthing their buried streetcar tracks as one component of a downtown revitalization plan. Shot down, too expensive. Of course it was. But, we're also talking about 30- or 50-year visions and available federal match. Another key strategy I proposed was to recapture excessive right-of-way in overly-scaled one-way streets through downtown.

The idea was two-fold. First, to calm traffic and "road diet" (verb) the streets so that they were more context-sensitive to a downtown location, and second, to roll that land into private development projects as an incentive to (re)develop into more intense, walkable and mixed uses and get some much needed residential back downtown. I've been seeing that idea pop up more and more across the country these days now that more budgets have burst.

Now? Streetcar porn:



http://cincystreetcar.files.wordpress.com/2009/02/modern-streetcar1.jpg