NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Streetcar Swindle

October 5, 2012

Americans are becoming nostalgic for streetcars, a popular form of mechanized transport in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, says Samuel L. Scheib, the editor of Trip Planner Magazine.

  • The streetcar was created in 1888 by Frank J. Sprague.
  • Slowly, streetcars began fading to the popular automobile that many families started to purchase.
  • However, the trolley has begun to reappear in many cities around the United States.
  • Currently, there are 16 streetcar lines operating as public transit.
  • But there is little demand for them in many places. For example, in 2006, Tampa's 578,000 residents took only 520,000 trips on the city's new $63 million trolley.

The fantasy of many is that streetcars will operate in modern cities by offering people ways to get around without walking long distances or getting caught in traffic. However the reality is that many people prefer to drive their vehicles to many areas instead of relying on slow streetcars.

But ridership is not the primary purpose for spending taxpayer dollars on large streetcar projects; tourism and economic development are. 

  • City planners have looked for ways to create more circulation in downtown areas for business reasons.
  • Cities with central business districts were on their way to irrelevance as no one ever entered them for recreational reasons.
  • Portland, for example, credits the streetcar for bringing between $2.3 billion to $4 billion of development along its streetcar route.

One other method that cities have turned to is the "people mover." Originally coined by Walt Disney, these driverless systems connect people in airports, large hospitals and college campuses. However, these people movers don't connect people to varied, distant places like streetcars try to do.

There is nothing inherently wrong with streetcars as transit. The problem is in how they are deployed. Ideally, planners would put streetcars in places like booming college towns. There are several reasons why this would make most sense:

  • First, streetcars can connect a large population from the suburbs to central business districts.
  • Second, students tend to live in clustered housing near the university.
  • Finally, streetcars can connect young, active students that tend to walk to most places to downtowns, shopping venues, hospitals and other large attractions in a city.

Source: Samuel L. Scheib, "The Streetcar Swindle," Reason Magazine, October 2012.


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