Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Blast from the Past, On Streetcars

With Fort Worth literally lighting money on fire to the west (I can see the smoke signals from my new high-rise window), preferring to live in and defend their medieval castle (Stop the Trinity Plan! Oh no, it means competition!), I thought I would dig up this old comment I made on FortWorthology from back when Kevin was still optimistic and hadn't yet locked himself in a fetal position in the basement:

(it is responding to a naysayer supporting buses over streetcar)

Empiricism suggests otherwise once all of the auxiliary, correlated, and causal effects are effectively weighed which are either too inconvenient or too complicated for the anti-streetcar crowd. Fortunately, if this is what their final stand has come down to, streetcar vs. buses, then we (and our cities/economies) are in good shape for the future.

First, streetcars being on fixed alignments provide greater predictability for the real estate development market to properly associate price/value potential of a site given its proximity to the line. It instills a hierarchy, an awareness for what works rather than trial and error urbanism. While real estate development is guided by an “invisible hand,” that hand is always tied to an invisible arm, that being government and public investment. Do we want a smart, efficient, guided real estate delivery system or a dumb one that stumbles around the edges trying to either create real estate value from scratch or hoodwink people? See the housing bubble.

History has proven streetcars to be a far more effective tool in catalyzing development (particularly the high quality urban development the Mayor has stressed) whereas buses and their “greater mobility” aka greater inefficiency effectively doom themselves by their own inefficiency and sparse building patterns.

Second, modern streetcars are more accessible for the disabled, handicapped, elderly with the flat loading and along with their increased predictability for real estate the public awareness of the line is greater. The simplicity of alignments allows the linkage of important place to important place not only physically but in the collective consciousness of the community. They know where to catch it and where it will take them. So if people can’t get on a bus or don’t know where to catch it or how many transfers they have to take, all deter from the mobility you are claiming that comes from some antiquated or outright false theology.

Third, buses must be replaced every 3 to 5 years and are a maintenance nightmare due to their construction and internal combustion engines whereas Dallas and other cities have streetcars running that are a century old.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the modern streetcars are slick, sleek, and represent progress. Much of the engine of the private market place is psychological and often irrational, driven by consumer/investor confidence. Initiating that confidence in the 21st century sustainable city, with positive symbols of which all cities who have them are inherently proud, is one of those steps to pulling a recessionary economy out of the doldrums.

Lastly, buses will still be part of the equation, but as circulators for the less dense areas of cities at the edges linking with other rungs of the hierarchy such as DART, TRE, AND streetcar. There has to be a multiplicity of solutions, an ecology of sustainable modes of transportation including more walkable/bikable development with associated improved public infrastructure. The effective load of buses will be lessened. Streetcars will serve and drive the physical form of areas 1 to 3 miles from the primary hub or job center being downtowns.

The empirical history of city evolution is the best lesson and will provide a far better guidebook than the misguided theology of the 20th century that so misguided us such as the theory of mobility (much of which was driven by the car/oil/gas industries successfully seeking monopolies) but rather real mobility through actual and differentiated choice, fundamental to any real marketplace of which the City is the ultimate one.