As every schoolchild knows, Los Angeles has a long history of streetcar service, dating all the way back to the early 2000s* when a young entrepreneur named Rick Caruso put one in his outdoor Euro-mall now known as the Grove. Since then, L.A. has been woefully bereft of new streetcars (Glendale doesn't count). It has long been a top priority of City Councilman José Huizar to bring a streetcar to downtown L.A., a neighborhood he's represented since the redistricting commission ceded it to him in 2012.
Later that year, downtown L.A. property owners voted to tax themselves in order to raise $85 million for the streetcar. The plan was to get the rest of the project's construction costs paid for by the federal government, but that never happened. Measure M, the sales tax hike to fund public transportation construction, approved by L.A. County voters last year, allocated $200 million to the streetcar — a lot of money to you and me but a drop in the bucket of the initiative's $120 billion budget. Unfortunately, the streetcar's Measure M funds aren't scheduled to arrive until 2053, by which time Councilman Huizar likely will no longer be in office.
Los Angeles Streetcar Inc., the 501(c)3 nonprofit (really just a collection of downtown business interests and real estate developers) that's the main force behind the streetcar plan, is trying to get that timeline moved up a bit, possibly to 2021 or so. The organization hopes to either secure federal funding (yeah, right), convince Metro to let the streetcar cut in line and get its money earlier, or work some sort of financial hoodoo and borrow money against either future Measure M funds or private investment. Huizar, too, is hoping to fast-track his pet project.
“Streetcars were once the pillar of Los Angeles' transportation system,” Huizar said in a written statement. “I talk to Angelenos all the time who are really excited to see a piece of our history and culture resurrected through our L.A. Streetcar project. Beyond the nostalgia factor, the L.A. Streetcar will be a boost to tourism and a major economic driver for businesses along the route, as well as a critical first-last mile transportation connector for multiple rail and bus lines in downtown.”
But even some transit boosters are a bit lukewarm on the whole streetcar thing.
“Most of the streetcars in the recent history of this country have been very poor investments,” says David Bragdon, executive director of the Transit Center, a pro-transit research and advocacy group. “Most of them fail to serve many riders.”
“Does it have to be a streetcar?” asks Alissa Walker, the Urbanism editor at Curbed. “That’s the big hangup I have. I think it would be awesome to already have that piece of infrastructure now. Will it be as relevant by the time it’s finished? I’m not sure. Maybe there are better options, better ways to use our money.”
Downtown, of course, is spoiled for choice when it comes to public transportation. There's already a subway (the Red and the Purple lines, which share a track downtown) and light rail (the Expo and Blue lines, which also share a track downtown). The light-rail lines will be extended once the downtown regional connector is finished in 2021. Downtown needs another transit line why, exactly?
“For downtown, it can’t be an either/or situation,” says Shiraz Tangri, Los Angeles Streetcar Inc.'s general counsel. “Downtown is a robust working environment, a residential neighborhood and a tourist attraction — we need every mode of transportation we can add.”
Given a world with infinite money and infinite space, of course, we'd love to have a streetcar — and a monorail, a hyperloop, a hyper-tunnel-loop, Rollerball and anything else that Elon Musk can conceive of. But L.A. voters, generous though they may be, have approved a finite amount of money to build out our burgeoning transit network. The question isn't whether the streetcar is any good. The question is: Is it the best use of the public's $200 million?
In heavy traffic, the streetcar will move as slowly as 3.5 mph — about the pace of a brisk walk. It will be using city streets, so it will get stuck behind traffic and stop at traffic lights. Kind of like … a bus. A $200 million bus.
Yes, it will look cool. It will run on electricity, and maybe it will get signal preemption, and maybe it will get its own dedicated lane, at least on Broadway. But buses can get all those things, too! The city already builds a ton of electric buses. And Metro could build special buses for downtown, with a hip new design – a double-decker bus! A triple-decker bus! Give them a dedicated lane, signal preemption, televisions, a live band … all for a fraction of what this streetcar is gonna cost. As an added bonus, these buses could go in different directions!
The current plan is for the streetcar to run clockwise in a loop, in the shape of an upside-down P, from First and Broadway down to 11th Street (the Fashion District), then west to Figueroa (South Park), then north up to Seventh, then back east to Hill, and then back up to First. That's great if you want to get down Broadway from First to 11th. It's not so great if you want to get back up to First.
As public transit consultant Jarrett Walker has succinctly written: “Very few people actually want to travel in circles.”
Tangri likes to use Portland as an example of a city with a streetcar that a lot of people ride and that helped spur economic investment. But Portland's streetcar system is much larger than L.A.'s would be, and it isn't a one-way system. The Portland streetcar, in fact, is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to streetcars in the United States.
“If you look at Atlanta and Cincinnati, two of the recent ones, they are performing very poorly,” says the Transit Center's Bragdon. “They just don’t provide speed and reliability. And that's what the public wants: speed, reliability and frequency.”
If the point of the streetcar is to help people get around easier, then Metro could just build a bus lane. Hell, it could build three bus lanes. But that's not the point — or at least that's not the whole point. Some say the streetcar has always been, first and foremost, about economic development.
“The 'why' question really goes back to that economic development point,” Tangri says. “Fixed rail is a major capital investment that incentivizes economic development. When you have that public-sector investment, that encourages people to build other types of urban projects. Putting a bus stop in some urban location — it is not the same capital investment. Buses are cheap, relative to rail. But they do not bring the same economic development.”
In other words: Streetcars are good for business. Or so the business community and the real estate developers think. Patrick Spillane, a developer and the treasurer of L.A. Streetcar Inc., says that a number of apartment buildings have been sold based largely on the expectation that they'll someday be served by the streetcar.
“I just received two offerings, both within a block of the streetcar,” Spillane says. “A full page of the prospectus was: 'Your property is a block from the streetcar.' The development community recognizes that the permanence of fixed rail assures that your investment will have a good payoff, that it’s an amenity that won’t disappear.”
Bus lines can be moved at the drop of a hat. Rail is forever — or at least for a really long time. That's the pitch, anyway.
Now, one could argue that downtown is already one of L.A.'s most booming neighborhoods, with new restaurants opening every day and rental prices comparable to those in Beverly Hills. Why, then, would we use public money to juice things up even more?
“Downtown is doing great at the moment,” Tangri says. “But there is room to grow. On Broadway, for example, something like a million square feet sits vacant. The streetcar does bring economic development to Broadway and other parts of downtown that are lagging behind.”
But others aren't so sure that streetcars are automatic boons to neighborhoods.
“Numerous studies have suggested that streetcars are no more effective in building economic development than other types of public investments, like streetscape improvements or bus rapid transit,” urban planning and transit writer Yonah Freemark says via email. “The question for cities like L.A. is whether streetcars are most beneficial from the perspective of improving transportation. I would argue they won't provide much improvement, particularly given L.A.'s already existing rail and bus lines downtown.”
*Editor's note: There may have been a few before this as well.