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Possible Modern Streetcar Routes for St. Louis

It is no secret I want modern streetcars in St. Louis. For those not familiar with the concept of modern streetcars, they are new high-tech vehicles quite similar to light rail vehicles. They have a low-floor design which allows for easy entry/exit from a curb. Unlike light rail systems, the modern streetcar runs in “mixed-traffic” with cars. Where vintage trolley/streetcar systems are more nostalgic than functional, the modern streetcar is highly function for local transit while The only example in North America is in Portland although a number of cities, such as Tucson, are considering such a system.

I’ve been reading up on Porland’s system, now a few years old, and they’ve had an amazing amount of development around their line. This is largely due to development being the initial goal, the line was designed to connect two vacant (or nearly vacant) industrial brownfield sites. Zoning was changed to require minimum density. Developers have been able to get a good return on their investment. From the Development Report dated January 2006:

The Portland Development Commission (PDC) negotiated a Master Development Agreement with Hoyt Street Properties, owners of a 40-acre brownfield in the heart of the River District. The Agreement tied development densities to public improvements with the minimum required housing density increased incrementally from 15 to 87 units per acre when the Lovejoy Viaduct was deconstructed, to 109 units/acre when the streetcar construction commenced and 131 units/acre when the first neighborhood park was built. The developer has stated that without the Streetcar and the accessibility it provides, these densities would not have been possible. The agreement was a unique and essential piece of the public/private partnership that catalyzed development of the River District and serves as a model for the agreement established for in South Waterfront.

Those are some serious densities. The kind of density that makes a neighborhood vibrant and a transit system that is highly viable. With the idea of placing transit where it could be coupled with new development I have prepared a few possible modern streetcar routes. I have intentionally placed the routes so they intersect or come close to the existing MetroLink line.

Basic Assumptions for all Concepts:

  • Streetcar line would be modeled on the Portland Streetcar with modern low-floor vehicles (not “vintage” or “heritage” vehicles). Streetcars would operate in mixed-traffic but would be given signal preference over cross-street traffic. Lines would run in the outside travel lane (not center) and would stop at curb bulb outs every 1/5 of a mile or so.
  • Eminent domain (or even threat) should not be used to assemble land for development within streetcar zone.
  • Form-bsaed zoning overlay should be enacted for the area served by the streetcar (three city blocks on each side of line). Zoning overlay should set out minimum units per acre (gradually increasing at certain benchmarks) and maximum parking spaces.
  • Care should be given to ensure the streetcar zone offers a wide mix of housing options
  • Federal funding is not likely so local support is needed.
  • As with Portland, the City of St. Louis will likely need to own the system and hire out the management from Metro or another organization.
  • Route Concept A – North Grand

    Starting at the Grand Blvd. MetroLink stop (map), proceed northbound on Grand to the old white water tower at 20th street. Loop around tower (if vehicle can turn that tight) and return to Grand MetroLink.

  • Roughly 7 mile loop
  • Substantial vacant land in vicinity of the water tower and along route has great potential for new development.
  • Line could serve those using MetroLink to visit SLU & Grand Center (Symphony, Fox, Grandel, Sheldon, museums, etc…).
  • Line would need to make a loop south of the MetroLink stop (Chouteau, Theresa & Papin) to change directions.
  • Future expansion would be along South Grand to Carondelet Park, fully replacing the #70 Grand Bus line.
  • Route Concept B – Grand & The Ville

    Starting at the Grand Blvd. MetroLink stop (map), proceed northbound on Grand to MLK Blvd. Go west on MLK to Kingshighway, turn south to Page. Take Page eastbound back to Grand. Take Grand back south to MetroLink stop.

  • Roughly 8 mile loop
  • Line could serve those using MetroLink to visit SLU & Grand Center (Symphony, Fox, Grandel, Sheldon, museums, etc…).
  • Line would need to make a loop south of the MetroLink stop (Chouteau, Theresa & Papin) to change directions.
  • Future expansion would be to continue west along MLK Blvd. to the St. Charles Rock Road MetroLink Station. This would connect those persons along MLK with MetroLink stations at either end of the streetcar line.
  • Route Concept C – Downtown Circulator & Pruitt-Igoe Brownfield Site

    Starting at Market Street in front of Union Station (map) proceed eastbound to 7th Street, north on 7th to Locust, west on Locust to 20th, north on 20th to Cass, west on Cass to (reintroduced) 22nd Street, south on 22rd to Carr, west to 23rd, south on 23rd one block to MLK, east to 22nd, south on 22nd to Market.

  • Roughly 4.25 mile loop
  • Assumes redevelopment of Pruitt-Igoe site into a high-density mixed use development with the old street grid reintroduced (in particular 22nd street).
  • Assumes Missouri Dept. of Transportation rebuilds the 22nd Street Interchange from I-64, freeing up land for development and reintroducing street grid (in particular 22nd Street).
  • Ideally it would continue south on 22nd between Cass and Market but warehouses have messed up the grid — occupying the three blocks between 20th and 23rd.

  • Future expansion of route could include 1) continuing north on 20th to St. Louis Avenue 2) going further west on Cass to Grand (possibly connecting with system described in in “B” above.
  • This route has high potential of maximizing the west downtown loft area as well as the former Pruitt-Igoe site.
  • This route would bring people near several downtown MetroLink stops including Union Station, Civic Center, 8th & Pine, and Convention Center. This would increase transit options for those living in the west downtown lofts as well as those in the renovated neighborhood near 20th & Cass.
  • Four short blocks between Market & Locust would greatly benefit from
  • Route Concept D – The Grove & The Ville

    Starting Manchester & Kingshighway (map): eastbound on Manchester to northbound on Vandeventer. Take Vandeventer northbound to MLK, west on MLK to Kingshighway, south on Kingshighway to Page, Page east to Sarah, Sarah south to Manchester, Manchester west to Kingshighway.

  • Roughly 12 mile loop
  • Ties in three areas having increased interest: The Ville, proposed Cortex development area and The Grove (formerly known as Forest Park Southeast.
  • Would be able to connect with a new MetroLink station as part of the Cortex project. Ideally this stop would be located between Vandeventer and Sarah along Clayton Road.
  • Serves Cortex, eastern edge of CWE, SLU, Grand Center, the re-emerging commercial district on Manchester as well as The Ville.
  • Numerous sites along the route offer possibilities for high-density, mixed-use development. The strip centers at Lindell & Sarah come to mind.
  • Route Concept E – Jefferson North & South

    Starting at Jefferson & Gravois (map): northbound on Jefferson to Cass & loop back to Gravois.

  • Roughly 6 mile loop.
  • Would benefit from a new station where Jefferson crosses the existing MetroLink Line.
  • Serves numerous neighborhoods both south & north.
  • Route is easily expandable south along Jefferson (perhaps with a loop through Cherokee west of Jefferson). Also expandable to the north along Jefferson or Cass.
  • The modern streetcar is the ideal form of inter-city mass transit. We’ve locally funded many major projects in the past, none of which can bring development & residents to our city the way in-street rail transit can.

    – Steve


    Currently there are "17 comments" on this Article:

    1. jefferson says:

      Steve, I like your analysis, very in depth. I think the best way to go about it is to follow Portland’s model as you suggest. The Pruitt-Igoe site would be a major sight I would look to for this kind of a project, as well as the Lemp Brewery (perhaps with the Jefferson line?). A streetcar could be just the incentive a developer needs to take on these difficult sites.

      I would think to be viable, a modern day streetcar project would either have to include redevelopment of a major brownfield site, or connect major tourist areas, preferably both. This is where I see the “Grand & the Ville” line as possibly being the weakest of the 5. The other ones seem like strong candidates though.

    2. jefferson says:

      Also, Old North St. Louis (around Crown Candy) and Chouteau’s Landing/Lake, are two other areas I’d like to see served by this type of project. I like your basic premise of a few circular type loops with some straight line routes cutting through.

    3. Craig says:

      I understand that you are only conceptualizing in this post, but I’ll chime in with a concern you can feel free to ignore if too off-topic. The concern? Cost. How much to get these street cars up and running? What sort of financial impact would they make?

      [REPLY – Read the Portland development report linked above to look at costs and the resulting development. To me the cost is minimal compared to the benefit. – SLP]

    4. Brad Mello says:

      Steve — I’m quite certain Memphis and Baltimore have fairly modern street car systems, though probably not as modern as Portland’s, which are wonderful. They are reason enough to move there! I like your ideas — and although I’m sure not cheap, we need to develop public will to start building things of this sort or we’ll be in grid lock haven sooner than we think, followed shortly by an inability to get anywhere because we’ve run out of gas. Brad.

      [REPLY – Memphis has a streetcar line using vintage/heritage vehicles, not modern ones. It can have some of the same benefits but these are typically geared more as tourist movers than resident movers. The modern systems offer ADA compliance which is a must in my view. – SLP]

    5. Mill204 says:

      I must say that I’m not a fan of loop concepts that do not have 2-way circulation around the entire loop – that is clockwise and counter-clockwise train circulation. I refer to concepts B,C,D. Unless the two direction run parallel really close to each other (1 small block away) or have a very small loop, loops would seem to decrease the area they can effectively serve.

      Planners always emphasize 1/4 mile walking area around a station stop: 1/4 mile north, south, east, west. However, if a line is separated by a 1/4 mile, particularly if it has some lengthy straight runs as in Page/MLK, then you restrict the walking area to the area between the two directions only. Example: someone could be a 1/4 mile from a westbound station on MLK but 1/2 mile from their intended eastbound station on Page.

      My opinion, pick a street and stick to it for both directions. Anyways, aren’t you always emphasizing that we should change one-way streets to two-ways? Why not streetcars?

      [REPLY – Good observation, I didn’t talk much about this. I did suggest the routes create a loop in places, based on the Portland model. The distance apart is less than a 1/4 mile in my examples but possibly still too far apart. The area where I’ve got it on MLK one direction and Page the other is only two blocks apart — not far. The idea is that the benefit of the transit is spread across a wider swath of land. – SLP]

    6. birdman says:

      When another bird has made a mess for the rest of us, why shouldn’t eminent domain be used to clean up the place? And have I’ve seen some fouled nests…

      Saying “no use of eminent domain” gives bad actors a pass.

      Fortunately, city leaders were part of a statewide coalition to convince state legislators to preserve eminent domain as a key redevelopment tool.

      [REPLY – I’ve heard that many remaining residents in North St. Louis have a real fear of new development — that it will force them out. How about no eminent domain (or threat) for occupied homes/businesses but that vacant buildings or land is OK? – SLP]

    7. Nik says:


      Although I am a strong proponent of public transportation, I am really surprised you didn’t point out a major drawback, and one of my main concerns – how this effects bicycle transportation. Rail lines in the street or along the curb would be a safety concern, and a nightmare for cyclists trying to integrate with traffic in an urban environment.

      Can these things be rubber-tired, as opposed to track-oriented?

      [REPLY – Rubber tired? Those are called buses. Electrified bus lines are an option like they have in Seattle. I don’t feel these attract the ridership and development that a fixed rail line does. Portland has rail lines all over their street system and a large cycling population — I plan to contact some of them to see what they think. Remember, in street rails for a streetcar is not the same as a train track. – SLP]

    8. jefferson says:

      Portland is consistently ranked as one of most bike-friendly cities in the country, so I guess streetcars aren’t hurting the cyclists too much.

    9. Jeff says:

      I like the streetcar idea… but metrobuses have the bike racks. Do modern streetcars as well?

      Keep Cycling!

    10. Jeff says:

      I regularly ride over two railroad crossings to get to my work. You just have to be more carefull especially when it is wet.

      Keep Cycling,

    11. B.J. says:

      I have always wondered if a municipality can add a gasoline tax? If so, perhaps this would be one way for the city to fund more rapid transit.

    12. Jim Zavist says:

      One, it’s Grand Boulevard, not Grand Avenue.

      Two, on a bicycle, it’s one thing to deal with perpendicular railroad crossings, but it’s a whole lot more challnging to deal with parallel steel grooves.

      Three, Concept A is probably the most viable.

      Four, Concepts B & D have potential if they have two-way circulation on all streets, otherwise you’ll lose a lot of riders if you expect them to walk several “extra” blocks each day and/or expect them to put up with riding the “long way around” to get to where they want to go. If you can’t or won’t do two-way routes, you’re gonna have to pick one.

      Five, Concept C is way too convoluted, making it no more attractive than a direct bus ride is today. It’s essentially what Tampa tried unsuccessfully, a tourist attraction.

      Six, Concept E doesn’t really connect much, either existing or proposed. Metro has no money to pay for another station at Jefferson, although there may be a (very slim) possibility that a trolley could use their maintenance facility there.

      Seven, St. Louis is not Portland. Portland has strong urban growth boundaries that encourage higher densities. St. Louis is surrounded by multiple cities and counties in two states who will sell their souls for few more sales tax dollars, thus we have ever-increasing sprawl.

      Eight, yes, the vehicles can be rubber-tired. Look up trolley buses. They’re all electric and get their power from overhead electric lines. I think Vancouver and San Francisco still use them.

      Nine, cost cannot be ignored. Metro cannot afford to run what they have on the streets now, and they’re considering major (20% – 25%) cutbacks in service over the coming few years. Until the citizens of the St. Louis region embrace transit financially (think a dedicated 1% sales tax) these ideas will remain “pie in the sky” dreams. The only other alternative may be a special taxing district where property taxes get higher the closer you get to any new trolley line(s).

      Ten, as I’ve said several times before, it’s less about the technology and more about the frequency. If a bus/trolley/light rail car/donkey cart comes by every 5-7 minutes, you may think about using it, especially if you know you’ll need to transfer. Double that time to every 15 minutes and you probably lose 30% – 40% of your potential, discretionary riders. Double that again, to every 30 minutes or more, you need a pretty damn good reason to be standing out there (very poor, DUI, car in the shop, etc.) For the same money it would cost to put in one trolley line, you could probably fund 6, 8 or 10 high-frequency bus routes that would better-serve the needs of the potential development areas that you outlined above:



      [REPLY – Thanks for the catch on Blvd vs. Ave, not sure why I keep doing that. I guess it just doesn’t seem much like a boulevard to me.

      I’ve got some inquiries in to the cycling folks in Portland to get feedback on their lines. Remember, they have in-street light rail, modern streetcar and vintage streetcar.

      The routes where I’ve shown a one-way system with the other direction a block or two away could easily go on just one of the streets. I was trying to spread out the benefit and actually get people to walk. A single block is not a big deal in my view. More than that and you are correct that enough riders would be lost to offset any potential development gains.

      You are correct that frequency makes a huge difference. The higher the frequency the more riders you will likely have. But frequency isn’t the only factor. Example: MLK has 30 minute bus intervals now. Suppose that was cut to 10 minutes but still serviced by bus. Would developers flock to the area to build high-density housing & retail? Nope! Technology plays just as much of a role as frequency. But, a streetcar with the same 30 minute frequency as the current bus will also have limited success.

      I think we can build more densly in the city if we try. Make it incentive driven. The higher the density the longer the tax abatement. Density can be accomplished without urban growth boundaries. – SLP]

    13. Nathan Sprehe says:

      Man, those trolley busses look like they suck. They look pretty much just like regular busses. Wikipedia says:

      1. “As trolleybuses do not follow a track, it is possible for them to come off the route and hence off the electric powerlines above, and then get stuck.”

      and more importantly:

      2.In more general terms, trolleybuses suffer from being “neither fish nor fowl” in current transportation planning. Except in the cases mentioned above where they have special advantages, they have difficulty competing with the efficiencies of light rail on the one hand, or the flexibility and low start-up costs of conventional buses on the other. Also, from a public perception point of view, they are viewed little different to conventional buses, unlike trams or “light rapid transit”, which are often viewed more like trains.”

      No one is going to see a bus with wires overhead and get excited. I will be interested to see how Portland successfully manages large amounts of bike traffic and in-street light rail.

    14. jefferson says:

      I like the trolley bus option for lines that may not quite be ready for a streetcar. To me, a trolley bus heading up grand offers many of the same benefits of a streetcar (fixed route, pollution free, virtually noise free) with a fraction of the startup costs. If it proves worth the cost, a streetcar may follow.

      Also I don’t see streetcars as being run by Metro, but as steve has pointed out, by a non-profit run by the city, and funded on a line by line basis through public-private partnerships. Thus I don’t agree with the argument that it’s not viable because Metro can’t afford it. Special assessments along the line, increased rates at city-owned parking facilities, sponsoring of the cars and stations, fundraising and increased ridership can all play a part.

      [REPLY – I just can’t see electric buses doing anything for development. They are quiet buses. They look nearly identical to a bus and they have the same stigma attached to them. I also don’t know that the electric bus lines would save much money. Operating costs would likely be as high if not higher (gotta replace those tires). Electric buses use two wires for power rather than just one so that part is more complicated. Any sort of GPS and notification system at stops would be the same. It really comes back to the track. No track equals no major development. Without the associated development we’ve gained nothing except perhaps cleaner air at the street level. – SLP]

    15. Nik says:

      From the Portland Streetcar website:


      Automobile, Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Tips
      • Follow the Streetcar at a safe distance.
      • Do not make a turn from the center lane in front of the Streetcar.
      • Streetcars run in the same travel lane as cars – keep alert.
      • Park your vehicle or truck within the solid white line.
      • Check for approaching Streetcar when opening vehicle doors.
      • Double parking is illegal.
      • Bicyclists need to take care when cycling on Streetcar tracks.
      • Caution for Streetcar operations in heavily used pedestrian areas.

      Bicyclists need to “take care”?

      There has to be a gap between the rail line and the pavement, otherwise, the trolley couldn’t function. The fact that the rails are parallel to the curb, and most likely close to the curb near stops will be problematic. Us skinny-tired freaks will be screwed.

      This also from “Better Transit without Trolleys”


      “Hazard to Bicyclists
      Trolley tracks cause bicyclists to fall. If a bicyclist ever lets the front wheel ride alongside a rail, he or she will be unable to prevent the bicycle from falling. This type of fall can occur with any parallel ridge (such as the seam between the gutter and the asphalt roadway in areas that use gutters). The only way to move across the rails safely is to deliberately steer across the rails. This can be done, but it is tricky, especially when the tracks are wet. The tracks also hamper safe traffic operation of bicyclists, since they cannot easily move across the road to prepare a left turn, to overtake slow or stopped traffic, or to avoid a driver pulling out from a side street or parking spot. In addition, the poor surface quality due to the presence of tracks in a cold climate can create further hazards.”

      [REPLY – OK, some interesting points. Obviously my fat tire bike is going to have less issues with the track than narrow tires. Ideally our street grid would be complete enough that a cyclist could easily get from a to b without having to deal with lots of track.

      But how do you feel about having lanes dedicated for light rail down the center of streets with crossings only every half mile or so? That is the safety solution — make a big barrier in the middle of streets. This, in my view, would make cycling around town far more of a challenge than the track. – SLP]

    16. Mill204 says:

      In reply to those concerned about hazards to bicyclists, that bicyclist need to “take care” is all that can really be done – you just need to be careful to not cross the tracks at too shallow of an angle.

      Below are urls to 2 pictures from Karlsruhe, Germany which has an incredible tram/streetcar system. Nine different lines run down the main shopping street, a 2km pedestrian zone. There are no curbs except where trams stop. Sometimes, its difficult to cross the street due to tram traffic: i’ve had to wait for 4 different trams to pass before i could cross the street once, and three were headed in the same direction!


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