Streetcars Are for Densely Settled Cities

by / Nov. 20, 2018 6pm EST

The environmental benefits of electrified transportation here deserve a formal study, but they would seem obvious because Western New York is home to the Robert Moses Power Project. Our buses should all be electric. Ditto our cars, including our self-driving Uber cars, should the engineers ever learn how to make autonomous vehicles pedestrian-friendly rather than pedestricidal. The New York State Power Authority can’t even give away power because huge industrial users have low-cost options—so now is the time for our public transportation agency to pounce.

Sadly, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority (NFTA) is making other plans.

While the world has figured out that streetcars work beautifully in dense urban environments, the NFTA is proposing to engage the Buffalo area in a years-long process of seeking support for a one-line, suburban extension that probably won’t get approved for US Department of Transportation funding—certainly not so long as Donald Trump is president—but that looks a whole lot like plans that were nixed when Barack Obama was president.

And we don’t have to spend a nickel of taxpayer money to read the report from the University of California’s Institute of Urban and Regional Development about public transportation systems: The NFTA is saddled with one of the most cost-ineffective rail systems of any transit network in the USA, mainly because low-density population dispersal—otherwise known as suburban sprawl—has made public transit a very costly proposition here.

So why are we talking about putting a single streetcar line out Niagara Falls Boulevard to Maple Road instead of fixing the transportation deficits in the urban center?

We’ll get to that.

The allure of the streetcar

This year or early next year, Oklahoma City will get a 4.6-mile streetcar for $132 million. Milwaukee will soon complete a 2.5-mile streetcar for $128 million. Fort Lauderdale’s 2.8-mile system will cost $195 million by the time it’s ready in 2020, which is when Tempe, Arizona will get a three-mile, $186 million streetcar. There are a couple of other places—including the 14-mile Queens-Brooklyn connector that will cost $2.5 billion to provide another transportation option within one of the most densely-populated places in North America, and an extension of the Washington.

In each of these cities, streetcars are sited right in the center of the urban core. Transportation engineers who have worked on these systems are adamant: Since the advent of Uber, streetcars won’t work unless the walk from the sleek new surface train is a kilometer (just over half a mile) or less. They have to be convenient, and fares have to be low. Detroit’s new streetcar is hailed as a marvel for the three miles it travels up and down Woodward Avenue, but when the fare went from free to $1.50 ($3 for a day pass), ridership fell 40 percent. (In Buffalo, the fare is $2 one-way, $5 for a day pass.)

Cities want them. They look great. Streetcars get riders who don’t like buses. Faraway Europe has had them continuously since the first electrified subway in Budapest in 1890, which is still operating and still beautiful, with its immaculate tiled stations and its wood-accented carriages. The streetcars there and everywhere else in Europe connect up to the underground metro where it exists in the big cities, and to the buses and to the inter-urban trains everywhere else. In Buffalo-sized cities from Krakow to Bordeaux, from Caen near the Normandy D-Day beaches to Montpellier on the Mediterranean, cities operate two to four streetcar lines in addition to their bus networks.

Your city doesn’t have to be 2.8 million people, like Toronto with its streetcar fleet of “red rockets,” to enjoy streetcar success.

But the only places where they make sense are in city centers. That’s true in Europe. It’s true in Ottawa, where a bus rapid-transit system has just graduated into a streetcar system. It’s true in Hamilton, which once again voted in a city council that has a political mandate to build out a two-line system for about US $750 million. And downtown-centered systems work in Portland, Seattle, and in all the new places where they’ve been built.

Why more bad planning?

The proposed $1 billion UB-to-UB line, besides being budgeted at almost three times the per-mile cost of lines in Milwaukee and Detroit, and almost five times the per-mile cost in Oklahoma City, is not a city-centered project in a densely settled area.

The NFTA proposes a seven-mile, single-line Niagara Falls Boulevard-Maple Road corridor in an area that is already underserved by buses, except for the existing UB inter-campus bus.

The NFTA plan would seek federal Transportation Department funding in the aftermath of the federal agency’s rejection of the suburban portion of the Detroit streetcar plan—rejected during the Obama administration, rejected by streetcar enthusiast Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who shepherded streetcar projects in Cincinnati and in Saint Louis, specifically because population density beyond Eight Mile Road was not high enough, and the line not close enough to walkable neighborhoods. The single long line proposal in Detroit’s suburbs didn’t meet federal criteria.

The projects that got approved were all in the urban core.

Streetcars in cities work. Spending $1 billion on a single seven-mile line to connect the Amherst and Buffalo campuses of UB will not work.

Let’s electrify the core

Congressman Brian Higgins has it right: The NFTA needs to focus its efforts on serving the transit-dependent in the urban core.

Let’s take that one step further: Let’s seize the opportunity to deploy locally generated green power, specifically electricity, in the service of green transportation.

There is every reason to deplore the unspoken assumptions (let us be polite and demure and call them cultural assumptions) that are implicit in the NFTA’s pursuit of a link between the two UB campuses.

Precisely now, while real estate in East Buffalo and West Buffalo and Northwest Buffalo is still undervalued relative to the rest of the region; precisely now, while electric power generation is looking for customers; precisely now, when we observe that climate scientists are well-beyond urging to virtually screaming that we replace fossil-fuel dependent transportation with green transportation before 2030; precisely now, when we begin to wake up to our Comparative Advantage of being a climate-change refuge rather than a fiery California, a drought-stricken Midwest, or a hurricane-ravaged Southeast—now is the time for an investment that will endure for the rest of the century.

That investment should be in re-creating the pre-World War II electrified surface transportation network of Buffalo, a streetcar network, in the place where the opportunity for density is greatest, and where, paradoxically, the very transit-dependency of the current population is an asset, not a liability, but a huge asset.

From the Berkeley report: “Rail…has economies of scale at higher passenger volumes and is generally less affected by traffic congestion than bus. When rail provides passenger miles more cheaply than bus, transit agencies save money by switching to rail.”

But as that report and many others point out, the experience of rail-focused cities is that the transit option has to be convenient for people who are likely to continue to use, or to start to use, transit that is less than half a mile from home, work, school, recreation.

That’s a description of the city, and of the densely-settle first-ring suburbs. It’s not a description of the Niagara Falls Boulevard-Maple Road corridors.

And the SUNY campuses already have a bus system.

It’s time to rethink our transit priorities. There is no cost-effective way to serve the low-density suburbs with green public transit. But there is a great opportunity to leverage the remaining density of the urban core to attract investment. The prospect is positively electrifying.

Bruce Fisher teaches at SUNY Buffalo State and is director of the Center for Economic and Policy Studies. His latest book, Where the Streets Are Paved With Rust: Essays From America’s Broken Heartland (The Public Books/Foundling Press 2018) is available at Talking Leaves Books and at