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Of all the challenges facing Louisville in the 21st century, few are more important than the issue of mass transportation—or, rather, the lack of it. According to the 2012 American Community Survey, 81.7 percent of Metro Louisville’s workforce commuted by automobile, while only 2.7 percent took public transit. As little as twenty years ago, many would have taken this lopsided mode share as a sign that Louisville was a forward-thinking city with a modern transportation network. But in an era of rising gas prices, shifting tastes, and renewed interest in urban living, the city’s reliance on an auto-oriented transportation network is presenting challenges to growth and building a future that’s equitable to all residents.

If Louisville wants to remain competitive in attracting new companies and residents (who are often attracted to urban living), it needs to get serious about making major investments in mass transportation. There are many choices for such an effort: Bus Rapid Transit, Light Rail, Commuter Rail, among others. Whichever mode is most appropriate depends on the characteristics of the surrounding environment—factors like street size and population density. For the unique qualities in Louisville’s urban core, there is one mode that immediately comes to mind: a modern streetcar.

Route of a proposed streetcar line along the Fourth Street corridor. (Courtesy An Old Way Forward)
Route of a proposed streetcar line along the Fourth Street corridor. (Courtesy An Old Way Forward)

Across the United States—including in Louisville—extensive streetcar networks were unceremoniously removed from city streets in the 1950s and 1960s. In the decades that followed, cities invested in vast highway networks that allowed development to stretch farther into the surrounding countryside. The beginning of the 21st century, however, has witnessed a renewed interest in streetcar systems in cities from Phoenix to St. Louis and Cincinnati to Atlanta. This year alone, seven new streetcar systems are under construction, and 21 are in the planning stages. What was once considered old and outdated has been reborn as a convenient and cutting edge way of getting around.

Why are so many cities building new transit systems based on those that were condemned to the scrap heap half a century ago? The municipalities that were first to install modern streetcar systems are discovering that streetcars are not just transportation systems—they’re economic development engines.

New development along a streetcar line in Portland, Oregon. (Courtesy An Old Way Forward)
New development along a streetcar line in Portland, Oregon. (Courtesy An Old Way Forward)

Streetcars are proving themselves to be magnets for new development. For example, in Portland, Oregon the $55.2 million invested in the city’s streetcar system has yielded more than one billion dollars in new development and economic activity. As the table below shows, other cities that have built streetcar systems have also enjoyed considerable positive returns on their initial investments. Additionally, much of this new real estate investment occurred in older urban neighborhoods and downtowns, attracting new businesses and residents to areas that had been economically dormant for decades. The success of streetcars in other cities should warrant a serious look at building a modern system in Louisville.

Return on investment for five American streetcar systems. (Source: American Public Transportation Association)
Return on investment for five American streetcar systems. (Source: American Public Transportation Association)

Many questions remain when considering such a system in Louisville. What would a streetcar line in Louisville look like? What streets should it run on? What areas or neighborhoods should be connected? The answer should be shaped by two pieces of streetcar wisdom:

  1. Streetcars don’t transform urban areas by themselves. There is no inherent “magic” that attracts new urban development. Instead, the successful streetcar systems are those that build on positive momentum instead of trying to create it out of a void. In other words, the best systems are those that connect two or more areas already experiencing economic growth and new development. In this context, the streetcar becomes a valuable amenity—a means to travel to and around those growing areas. New development (built by developers wanting to take advantage of that amenity) and investment can then spread to other, more disinvested neighborhoods along the route. Any new streetcar in Louisville must be built with this idea in mind.
  2. Almost every modern streetcar line that been built in the U.S., from Portland to Cincinnati to Albuquerque, follows a similar pattern: connect the Central Business District (CBD) to the main campus of the local university. The idea behind this makes sense: a university campus in most cities has a high population that is car-free or car-light  (i.e. freshmen who are not allowed to bring a car with them). Similarly,  a 21st century downtown is rapidly becoming the place with the highest concentrations of restaurants, shops, and bars and others seeking out a more urban lifestyle. Giving car-free students access to such amenities with a high quality, high capacity streetcar line is an excellent way to reintroduce the local population to mass transportation.
A mixed-use development including student apartments near the University of Louisville. (Courtesy An Old Way Forward)
A mixed-use development including student apartments near the University of Louisville. (Courtesy An Old Way Forward)
(Rob Jaques)
(Rob Jaques)

Applying these concepts to Louisville, a streetcar route almost draws itself. The Belknap Campus of the University of Louisville (UL) and Louisville’s CBD are ideally situated to benefit from a high-quality transit connection. Additionally, both areas are experiencing significant economic growth and new development. Numerous mixed-use housing developments oriented toward students have been built in the neighborhoods around the Belknap Campus as the university works to increase the percentage of the student body that lives on campus. Downtown Louisville, already the site of most of the city’s major museums and cultural attractions, is host to an increasing number of shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues—chief among them the center of Louisville’s basketball universe, the KFC Yum! Center. The CBD is also experiencing a small explosion of post-recession building projects, including hotels, apartments, retail space, and even a proposed downtown grocery.

The features of the corridor between UL and downtown—centered on Louisville’s historic Fourth Street spine—also make a convincing case for locating a streetcar route there. As can be seen in the graphic shown at right, the Fourth Street corridor contains a number of valuable assets: great historic resources like St. James Court and Central Park; educational institutions like UL, Spalding University, Simmons College, and Jefferson Community & Technical College; and lots of opportunity for new development in areas like SoBro, South Downs, and Downtown. A streetcar—proposed here to run along Fourth, Third, and Fifth streets—has the potential to link all of these elements together, and create a high-growth, high-impact urban corridor that Louisville desperately needs to be competitive in the 21st century.

To be fair, there is no automatic guarantee that building a streetcar between UL and downtown would bring new investment and development. Just because it has worked in other cities does not mean it will work here. But the undeniable positive impact that streetcars have had in other U.S. cities warrants that the idea should be formally studied—studied thoroughly and carefully, but studied nonetheless.

This is why a group has been formed to explore, discuss, and ultimately advocate for the idea of a UL to Downtown streetcar line. Called “An Old Way Forward,” the group has created a website summarizing their proposal, which can be accessed here. An Old Way Forward is currently in the process of reaching out to private and public stakeholders, and trying to generate public support. If you like the idea of a Fourth Street corridor streetcar, and would like to help the group in their effort, do not hesitate to contact them via the form on their website. They also have an active group on Facebook.

Louisville is a city that is in a state of change, and that change can generally be described as positive. Despite all of the challenges it faces, the urban core is slowly coming back to life—new apartments and hotels are getting built, new galleries, shops, and restaurants are opening.  Building a new, high-quality streetcar system is an excellent way to build on that progress, provide a real alternative transportation system for the city, and help Louisville become the beautiful, livable city that we all know it has the potential to become. The road to building a streetcar in Louisville will be long, arduous, and full of institutional, political, and logistical roadblocks, but if we can make it to the end of that road, the River City may finally get the boost it needs to truly thrive in the 21st century. That’s a pretty strong motivation to try, don’t you think?

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Porter Stevens

Porter Stevens

Contributing Editor at Broken Sidewalk
Porter Stevens is a born and raised Louisvillian, and a graduate from the University of Louisville’s Masters in Urban Planning program. Though he recently had to move away from Louisville for a job, he still maintains a strong interest in urban issues in his hometown and in learning about ways to revitalize its urban core.
Porter Stevens

7 COMMENTS

  1. Small urban core development projects featuring light rail systems are popping up all over the United States because of grants received from the federal government. Even bankrupt Detroit is working on a three mile rail line. Just last week 72 recipients received funding for transportation revitalization from the USDOT’s TIGER grant program. TIGER (Transportation Incentives For Economic Recovery) has awarded millions of dollars over the past five years to development projects all across the United States and even Puerto Rico. I did some research and found that the City of Louisville has yet to receive a TIGER grant from the USDOT for a development project . I also failed to find any development projects that the city has proposed to the USDOT to be eligible to receive a TIGER grant.
    Louisville needs a streetcar development project to get behind and to support. While I do fully support this streetcar proposition I do not believe that it will be enough to award us a TIGER grant. Streetcars have a history of attracting tourists and shoppers as their main riders. The proposed route along the 4th street corridor (south of Broadway anyways) does not cater to either of those demographics. Allowing college students easy access to the urban core and the CBD will not be enough to outweigh the cost of the project. A streetcar in Louisville will no doubt spur urban development in areas that have for years been dilapidated and abandoned, but to get the most return on investment you must first cater to those who will actually be using the streetcar: Tourists and shoppers.

  2. I’m not doubting the impact streetcars had in other cities, but I’m just caught up with the questions of how and why do they bring this massive impact? Without a dedicated lane, they are (in theory) no better than a dedicated bus system in regards to getting people from point A to point B. Is it the novelty of the system? Is it the negative view of the public buses? If it’s the negative view of the bus system, would the money for laying streetcar tracks be better spent on a public campaign and bus/toonerville trolley upgrades?

    I’m just trying to figure out why streetcars are bringing such an impact and whether or not it’s a sustainable impact- what happens when the streetcars aren’t shiny, new, and clean?

    That said, it would be pretty freaking cool…

  3. Originally Posted By John McCullochI’m not doubting the impact streetcars had in other cities, but I’m just caught up with the questions of how and why do they bring this massive impact? Without a dedicated lane, they are (in theory) no better than a dedicated bus system in regards to getting people from point A to point B. Is it the novelty of the system? Is it the negative view of the public buses? If it’s the negative view of the bus system, would the money for laying streetcar tracks be better spent on a public campaign and bus/toonerville trolley upgrades?

    It’s more about the quantity of people you can get in a streetcar. Most of the modern streetcar systems are the equivalent of 4 average buses in size. The other thing that is important in the more successful builds for this system is that both ends need to be anchored with some sort of transportation hub/interchange. Downtown isn’t a problem with this since all major bus lines intersect. If this were to succeed I think it would need to go a bit further to the Churchill Downs area (for the tourists and the students, plus to serve the new campus area U of L is building near the stadium). But that Churchill Downs area could also be upgraded to a transportation hub that would link buses coming from anywhere between the airport and dixie highway to downtown. Plus during large conventions a shuttle bus would be up and running from this hub over to the fairgrounds.

  4. Street car advocates have been in the position of begging the ruling elite to build a sustainable low energy low emissions transit system since FORD and TOYOTA made Louisville and Kentucky a single occupant vehicle system. We are building a $ 10 billion concrete bridge system to move Indiana commuters back and forth to Louisville jobs. But the fossil fuel emissions contributing to asthma and global warming aren’t discussed by your writer as a factor lending urgency to Louisville future transportation planning. People posing as advocates for sustainable, livable walkable urban centers must eventually confront the fact that the rubber tire- fossil fuel vehicle interests have successfully insured the future growth and dominance of single occupant vehicle by spending millions per year to buy local KIPDA politicians. The fundamental flaw in transportation planning under the federal rules is it puts transportation choices in the hands of local political careerists. They are easily bought up by auto dealers and gasoline distributors. Thus, we breath pollution while they go to the bank.

  5. I always laugh when I read economic information like that presented in this article. Showing that building the streetcar line generated X$s of economic development. To start with there’s no way to prove how much of that development would’ve occurred if the streetcar line hadn’t been built. In addition, how much of the $s spent on the development actually returned to the cities coffers to offset the cost of the streetcar line? These voodoo economic projections of course are used in many other cases also such a showing how much a sports venue (YUM center is a good example) will bring into a city’s economy as well as in many other cases.

    Taxpayers are beginning to wise up and ask questions when their money is spent for Feel-Good projects like these that show no return on investment nor do they ever really return what the original projections were! I know many government projects are done for the “GOOD OF THE PEOPLE” but unfortunately in many cases they are only done for the good of a few that pocket huge profits from the project.

  6. While Porter idea is interesting it is presented using the same theory that killed T 2 New Track, New Cars Dallas Mc Kinney Avenue was done on the cheap reusing old tracks, reconditioning Vintage Streetcars and it works it has sparked investment and at a fraction of the cost

  7. Having recently moved from Louisville to an actual city that wants young people to live in it, I can tell you that the bridge project(downtown portion) is a huge mistake for Louisville. Do you think retirees are going to be the ones making this city tick in 20 years? All this does is allow more traffic to bypass downtown more quickly on the way to an east or south end job. Step up your game, Louisville, 4th Street streetcars, and also a Bardstown/Frankfort Ave toward Mall St Matthews(with additional ped and bike infrastructure) are the next step to bringing intelligent young people and economic growth to an aging city. One line should run from St. Matthews all the way out to Portland and back(via Nulu, Main St and Market St -and then Broadway on the West end(terminate near Sherman Minton.) The other line should run from the airport via U Of L and Churchill and connect with the Market St. Line. This would cost like 1/8th of the bridge we don’t even need. All this is doing is enabling more people to live farther away from the urban core(and take their income with them to Indiana). Essentially this bridge and massive eyesore interchange are investing in the future of the personal vehicle. Can’t you see the writing on the wall?

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