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City Planning Student Critique of Proposed St. Louis Streetcar

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:

Artist rendering of proposed streetcar in downtown St. Louis
Artist rendering of proposed streetcar in downtown St. Louis.

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

  • Eric

    1. So basically she argued the same thing everyone here has been arguing, but since she has a certificate, you accept her criticism? In your defense, you were willing to post it.

    “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.”

    So why not run the bus more frequently, and build it a dedicated right-of-way and fare collection machines? Then it will have every advantage of the streetcar, at MUCH lower cost!

    • dempster holland

      Just run in more frequently , say every ten minutes (12 buses an hour instead
      of 4 an hour) and you will have solved the proble. Use the money saved to
      start on the north-south metrolink. Also, wont slu law students go directly
      downtown from home ionstead of to the campus and then downtown?

  • JZ71

    I have to agree will Jill’s analysis. The big argument you’re making in this post (as you’ve made in the past) is that the streetcar will increase transit frequency for non-SLU students (like you) to “every 10-15 minutes instead of every 30-40 minutes”. Frequency is independent from vehicle choice (bus versus streetcar) – there’s nothing stopping Metro from running the #10 bus every 10-15 minutes, now, other than a lack of actual demand! Investing millions of dollars to switch from transit vehicles with rubber tires to transit vehicles with steel wheels will NOT, in and of itself, result in double the ridership, and without double the ridership there is no reason to more than double the frequency!

    If the goal is to get more people to ride public transit, then put the money where it will do the most good – subsidize bus passes for all SLU students, increase frequency on all bus routes, solve the problems you’re facing with Metrobus now – “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.” Streetcars will be subject to the same traffic issues as buses are now. The only advantage streetcars will have, initially, is that they’ll be new and less likely to to have maintenance issues.

  • Wump

    a lot of people with money WILL NOT TAKE THE BUS. they will take metrolink, and they will probably take a street car. thats the difference.

    • JZ71

      So the way to get people to ride public transit in St. Louis is to replace all our buses with streetcars?! If “those people” end up being the primary users of streetcars, much like how they are the primary users of our current bus system, guess what? “People with money” won’t ride the streetcar any more than they’ll ride the bus, now . . . .

      • Wump

        Not all of them, some of them. I’m sure you don’t actually use metrolink, but its very diverse, just like the street car would be. People are prejudiced against the bus, its that simple.

        • JZ71

          No, I do use both Metrolink and Metrobus, when the schedule actually works for me – the last time was a couple of weeks ago. I do agree that many people in St. Louis (my wife included) ARE prejudiced against the bus – the real question is why? Is it economic prejudice? Racial? It’s a major hurdle that doesn’t seem to be being addressed, and we simply don’t have the resources to make all public transit “not a bus” to attract riders with irrational prejudices.

  • moe

    Interesting. For some time now we’ve heard that “professional” people should do the city planning. Well really, any planning…don’t want to limit it to just the City. And here is a “professional” that disagrees with other “professionals”. Imagine that. On that, I think she demonstrates quite clearly the difference of a generation or a different interpretation of education. I find the irony of age and education funny indeed.
    But seriously, I have to agree with her. It’s as if this magic bullet trolley will solve the problems and drive development. But it wont. Wump below has it right though didn’t say it as bluntly. The trolley is for middle class and above. The bus….for “those people”. Until that perception is changed, nothing is going to work.
    On top of that….the trolley line will cost hundreds of millions. It will never pay for itself. And just because the Feds will pick up a good share of it, let’s not kid ourselves, WE are paying for it. It’s just not a wise use of resources. (for reference…how is this different than the “Bridge to Nowhere”? I am sure if you asked the locals, they would say it was worth every penny, but the rest of the country disagreed).
    If trolleys will drive development, then I would say sink that money where it will do the most good per square foot….North City. But they wont. We wont. Because of “those people”. Oh yeah, they also happen to be the ones that need it the most.

  • Andy

    I live in South City and work in Creve Coeur; public transit is not convenient for me at all and I don’t utilize it so it is likely that my comment has no bearing.

    That being said; it seems to me that using the transport needs of a small population (SLU students that need to go from Midtown to Downtown) as a springboard/justification for investing millions in a streetcar project seems dubious at best. Public transit strikes me as something that works well in theory but trying to implement it in modern times where driving is (or appears to be) so much more convenient and time efficient is akin to a lost cause.

    • Eric

      The US (except a few places like NYC, San Francisco, etc.) is the only place in the world’s that’s rich, low density, and relatively high-crime. Unless you have all those factors, public transit is a necessity. Even here, it’s a necessity for poor people. Visit Europe some time – which is higher density and lower crime – and you’ll see transit is the most efficient way to get around most cities. (Crime is important because it drives people out of interesting dense neighborhoods and into the suburbs.)

      • Andy

        My assumption is that public transit in Europe and even in NYC/SF/Chicago has more to do with the large populations that existed prior to the modern ubiquity of the automobile and thus infrastructure was built around sustaining the public transit. In St. Louis you see so much infrastructure built around the idea of hopping in your car to go wherever you want, not necessarily with public transit in mind, so trying to spend anything on moving people around that isn’t directly related to improving the quality of the highways and byways is always going to be an uphill battle.

        It seems to me that unless you are lucky enough to live and work in the city you are basically making things more inconvenient for yourself by choosing public transportation.

        • JZ71

          The difference between NYC/SF/Chicago and here is not suburban sprawl (they have tons of that, as well), it’s that their historic dense urban cores either never emptied out or have successfully redensified. Public transit needs density, in both employment and in housing, to be truly successful . . . .

  • Metro Area Resident

    It is an age old problem. How do you fix a problem? Why through more money at it, of course. It didn’t work then and won’t work now.

    One of the poster’s has it right. The thought that buses are for those who can’t, and trains are for those who can, but don’t want to. is something you see everywhere, not just here in St. Louis. Metro’s problem is the same as the transit systems in most of the American cities I have visited.

    How do you get people who don’t need to ride a bus to ride one. Well, one way is to make them feel that they can do so safely, and that is a problem here in St. Louis, although it is not exclusively a St. Louis problem. It means finding a way to keep the truly unwashed, and/or unbalanced from bothering the rest of the ridership. How to do that without offending others has always been the problem. Getting ridership up means that you may have to do things that some people won’t like.

    Then there is the crime that seems to happen around St. Louis and its relationship to public transit. Again, this is not only a St. Louis problem. Different cities have handled it differently then others. Some having better success then others at limiting transit related crimes.

    Cleaner, safer buses are a start, but going where the riders need to go is yet another as often as they need to go there is another. Buses are easier then trains or trollies when it comes to keeping up with the changing needs of the riding public.

    TL:DR – Fix what you have. Don’t throw money at it, by building something new.

    • JZ71

      Which gets down to one of the big differences between Metrolink and Metrobus, and what will be one of the big challenges for any streetcar line in St Louis – the whole “stop” experience. Metrolink offers stations that create an illusion of greater safety, if from nothing else other than safety in numbers, along with the reality of a security guard with eyes on the station. In contrast, to use a bus or streetcar, at any intermediate point along the route, one has to be willing to wait at a stop that may offer little security, may appear to be isolated, may offer little or no weather protection and one that puts you “on display” to everyone else who’s driving by.

  • http://yastlblog.blogspot.com/ Kevin Barbeau

    In agreement with pretty much everyone else here. For all the pretty renderings and wistful memories of St. Louis’ trolley-laden past, the proposed central corridor streetcar is — if not a boondoggle — at the very least an unnecessary and duplicative waste.

    If the goal is to activate ridership between Forest Park/CWE/Midtown and downtown, then double-down on central corridor bus service. For 6-12 months, drop in the best of your fleet, increase service and promote the hell out of it to all who might benefit. SLU and Metro should create a package in which monthly passes are either included in admission or at least steeply-discounted through the school’s student center/university store.

    Downtown West and Midtown is steadily progressing its development; no need to force its advancement more quickly and more successfully than it potentially could (or should…) by burdening the effort with an expensive streetcar.

    Give me regular 8-15 minute bus service heading east-west on Market, Olive and Washington for a fraction of the streetcar cost any day.

  • Ed

    Couldn’t agree more with her analysis. When you blog that the city has missed the
    boat on development around Metrolink stations, why would we expect the
    streetcar to be any different. Why not
    improve the infrastructure already in place, then when demand exceeds capacity look
    at options to further grow public transit in a manner that doesn’t require
    special tax districts.

  • BSDA

    There are two major problems with streetcars. 1} Limited stops that are safe and merchants and customers unwilling to give up parking
    2) included in point number one, is that you can walk to your destination faster than the location where you would exit the streetcar in a safe place

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