New streetcar lines are extremely popular these days among urban planners, with New York the latest city to consider the idea. A proposed streetcar line along the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront would cost an estimated $2.5 billion if it happens. That’s big money, to be sure, but far less expensive than comparable subway construction.
Modern streetcars are like moustache wax and pretentious coffee — we’re seeing a lot more of them because of Portland, OR. Its streetcar system has been a monster hit, credited with sparking economic development and popular with riders. Portland’s success and the availability of federal transportation funds have many other cities trying to match its success.
For New York, a streetcar is seen as a way to help fast-growing communities in outer boroughs that aren’t well connected now. “This is where the jobs, the manufacturing, the housing is all being built,” said Wiley Norvell, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s deputy press secretary. “Yet it is a part of the city that wasn’t really mapped well with the transportation system of the 20th Century.”
Portland-style streetcar success has proven challenging for many cities that have launched streetcars in recent years. A report from the Mineta Transportation Institute found that apart from Portland, many streetcar systems lagged behind local bus lines in ridership and cost effectiveness.
The report also found that the primary goal of a typical modern streetcar projects is development, that “transportation objectives were largely afterthoughts.” Downtown alliances and real estate developers tend to be heavy backers of streetcars. They believe streetcars signal to potential buyers and tenants that an area is up and coming.