Desire for Streetcars: cities seeing green

A growing number of US cities are exploring streetcars as a way to revitalize local economies and reduce pollution. According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), twenty-three cities have active streetcar systems, and more than half of them are planning extensions. As many as 70 others have considered streetcars of their own. Once considered quaint and out-dated, streetcars are popular again, thanks in part to rising gas prices, growing congestion and the systems’ potential environmental benefits.

On these pages, we track future ideas and innovations for enhancing sustainable lifestyles. In this post, we consider how the old streetcar- in its new 21st century form- might enable simple, sustainable change.

As Saqib Rahim writes for EarthNews, “these lines were sent into oblivion by buses and America’s car culture. But as America’s energy woes and climate problems mount, what goes around comes around. Rising gas prices are driving many motorists out of their cars.”

New Orleans, with a tram system made famous by Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, is restoring service to its system after it was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. “Denver, Houston, Salt Lake City and Charlotte, N.C., have introduced or are planning to introduce streetcars,” writtes Bob Driehaus in his recent piece in the NY Times.

According to APTA, Americans took more than 2.6 billion trips on public transportation in the first three months of 2008, almost 88 million more trips than last year for the same time period.

“There’s no doubt that the high gas prices are motivating people to change their travel behavior,” said APTA president William W. Millar.  “More and more people have decided that taking public transportation is the quickest way to beat the high gas prices.”

Cities See Green Opportunities

Advocates for the streetcar system point to environmental benefits, such as the long lifetime of the cars and that they run “clean” with electricity. Rahim explains,

New Orleans, for example, generates about 39 percent of its electricity from cleaner-burning natural gas, compared to 17 percent for the country. In Portland, which boasts the country’s most successful streetcar system, half of electricity comes from hydropower sources.

Transportation experts argue that public transportation in the United States saves approximately 1.4 billion gallons of gasoline and about 1.5 million tons of carbon dioxide annually. Yet only 14 million Americans use public transportation daily while 88 percent of all trips in the United States are made by car—and many of those cars carry only one person.

Cities are also seeing financial benefits, with streetcar systems contributing to community revitalization efforts. One such city is Little Rock, Arkansas, which saw its $5 million investment in  a 3.5 mile lightrail system spur $300 million of new growth for the city. Another example, says Driehaus, is Portland, OR.

Since Portland announced plans for the system, more than 10,000 residential units have been built and $3.5 billion has been invested in property within two blocks of the line, according to Portland Streetcar Inc., which operates the system.

With those types of success stories, Blanche and Stanley won’t be the only ones riding a streetcar.


P.S. For an interesting read, checkout Larry West’s piece about how GM, Standard Oil and other players in the car industry conspired to dismantle the streetcar system in the US in the 1940s.

  • Tags: Misc., Simple Change, Technology
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