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.
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 What was once considered old and outdated has been reborn as a convenient and cutting edge way of getting around.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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
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?