Regular readers know I’m a supporter of public transit, and an advocate for modern streetcars, in particular. When I received an email from a planning student asking about publishing her paper on her evaluation, I was curious. Here’s how Jill Mead described herself to me in that email:
I’m a Masters in Public Health and Masters of City Planning student at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. I also work for the Pedestrian & Bike Info Center at UNC’s Highway Safety Research Center. If that weren’t enough, I’m very much a St. Louisan. I grew up in Forest Park Southeast (in the 80s!) and am a K-12 graduate of the SLPS. I went to UMSL for one year and Wash U for the rest of my college degree.
Though I don’t agree with her analysis and conclusions in the paper, I thought it would spur some good discussion. Here is a brief summary of her paper:
Spurred by the availability of federal funds and inspired by the success of streetcar projects in other cities, the non-profit Partnership for Downtown St. Louis released a feasibility study for a downtown St. Louis streetcar project in March 2013. The feasibility study recommended the project based on its likelihood of achieving its two main objectives: (1) enhancing the region’s transit system and (2) catalyzing economic growth throughout the streetcar corridor. While the St. Louis Streetcar Feasibility Study is optimistic about the achievement of these two objectives, reviewing the study calls some of their claims into question. Ridership estimates seem inflated given the slow travel speeds of the streetcar and methodology used. The choice of alignment fails to prioritize the city’s densest areas and is out of sync with plans being made at the regional level. In terms of the streetcar’s ability to catalyze economic development in St. Louis, the study inadequately addresses the wide variety of contextual factors, such as land use policy and the existence of strong public-private partnerships and market demand that were characteristic of other cities’ success in attracting development to streetcar corridors. The paper concludes that strategies to improve economic growth and public transportation are necessary in St. Louis, but it is not clear that the proposed St. Louis Streetcar project is the best use of public resources to achieve these goals.
Here’s a link to Mead’s full paper: Evaluation of the St. Louis Streetcar Proposal (19 page PDF).
Mead must have missed the reason for looking at a modern streetcar now, mentioned on page 2 of the Final St. Louis Streetcar Feasibility Study:
When St. Louis University announced plans to move their law school from midtown St. Louis to downtown, the Partnership for Downtown St. Louis once again began the discussion of a streetcar for downtown. This move presented an opportunity to link the two campuses with a streetcar and fulfill the goals of the Downtown Next Plan.
The idea of SLU running shuttle buses every day between midtown and downtown meant only a small segment of the population would be served, pollution would increase, roads would be see additional traffic from the continuous loop of shuttles. Us regular transit riders along Olive/Lindell would still have 30-40 minute headways on the existing #10 MetroBus. Why not improve the public transit system for all?
Connecting to south St. Louis wouldn’t help SLU with transporting students, faculty, and staff between the main campus in midtown and the new law school building downtown. By including a north-south segment on 14th the proposal recognizes future expansion into south & north city.
The existing MetroBus isn’t slow, it doesn’t take me long to get to the Central West End from my downtown loft, but the streetcar will come every 10-15 minutes instead of every 30-40 minutes — that’s far more important than whether it takes 8 minutes versus say 12-15 minutes to reach my stop! The streetcar will be faster than the bus, the center dedicated right-of-way, off-board fare payment, etc. will make the trip no longer than bus, very likely shorter. Buses are sometimes late; they get stuck in traffic, wheelchair lifts malfunction, rerouted around events, etc. When the bus takes 10 minutes to get to my stop but arrives 10 minutes late that puts me way behind. If I take the 30 minute earlier bus I arrive way too early and it uses more of my day.
Also from page 2 of the final study:
The purpose of the study was to:
- support the goals established in The Downtown Next 2020 Vision to improve Downtown’s accessibility;
- create a catalyst for continued economic development;
- provide additional opportunities for alternative transportation;
- support the region’s and City’s sustainability initiatives;
- and promote an environment that will retain and attract new jobs and residents to the City.
I’ve invited Mead to come downtown and ride the #10 MetroBus with me, to midtown and back, to better understand the existing conditions, then I think she’ll see how the streetcar will be a potentially massive improvement. She’s in town visiting family, we’re talking about doing this later in the week.
Mead is correct when she said, “the study inadequately addresses the wide variety of contextual factors, such as land use policy.” The word “zoning” appears just four times in the final study report. “Proper zoning” is mentioned, but not defined. My fear is we won’t set up the necessary land-use controls to guide new development over the 10-20 years following the completion of the streetcar. If the prevailing Laissez faire attitude in St. Louis is allowed to squash good form-based zoning then the streetcar investment will be at least partially wasted.
But if we can get the formula right, it will be a boon and expansions can follow every few years, as we’ve seen in other cities. But I’ve been here long enough to know the old guard isn’t going to change so easily. Will this time be different?
Please share your thoughts on Mead’s paper, or my response, below.
— Steve Patterson