Rallying for streetcars in Chicago

Chicago’s extensive streetcar system operated from 1859-1958. Through much of the early 1900s, the system was one of the largest – and most successful – in the US. Streetcars in Chicago had the most active miles of track, and more routes than any other streetcar system in the nation.

By the end of World War II, however, the streetcar system began its decline; buses were introduced into the city at a rapid pace. Over the next decade, streetcars were completely phased out of Chicago.

John Krause, an architect and designer, recently launched a website and blog that calls for the return of streetcars in Chicago. The initial streetcar “starter line” he proposes would run on Clark Street, from Wrigley Field to the Loop.

Krause says a new system of modern streetcars in Chicago would present a host of benefits. Modern streetcars run quietly and exhaust-free, while they spark development and create revenue within the neighborhoods along the line.

While visiting Krause's website, www.chicagostreetcar.com, you'll enjoy some beautiful photos of vibrant streets with streetcars from around the world.

Apples and oranges

I see two very different issues. Share taxis are a great option to address traffic congestion -I’d love to see them in Chicago- but they don’t bring economic development or increase property value. As far as I understand, the streetcar promises to develop the areas where they exist. This is appealing to me. More so when we think about them running in less developed areas such as the Southside, as Moe pointed out.

I can’t speak to the financial viability of such large project as implementing streetcars but I can say that the bus system in the Clark area is deplorable. Not only the service is extremely slow but it doesn’t seem to be precisely a financial success. I hate to perpetuate a system that doesn’t work operationally or financially.

Thank you all for your comments. This is a great discussion.

Let's do both

The Clark Street streetcar doesn’t water down or replace traffic on the L. It replaces buses stuck in traffic with modern, efficient transit service that even people who hate the bus will ride. It brings many more transit riders to the L and into the system as a whole.

I would love to see your taxi idea make the streets of the grid more efficient. Like car share, they make it easier to live well without owning a car, which is great for those of us who do drive (and park). Taxis serve point-to-point trips, which is what the grid is good for. Clark Street, however, is aligned for commuting into downtown. This is what mass transit is good for.

Way to go! Streetcars are

Way to go! Streetcars are surely a classic. They never fade with their appeal. I'm so excited to see and take a ride in a streetcar.

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street cars

I like the idea of street cars but this guy is a dreamer. The route that this guy is proposing is not practical at all and unfortunately I don't think he is practical. From Wrigleyville to the Loop you have the "EL", the inner-city bus path and the LSD express. We also have taxis, several others bike, walk or drive. Why the street cars from Wrigley to the Loop? He appears to be a "Northside romantic." Again, the idea sounds good but FAR from being realistic.

A more practical idea would be to place street cars on the Southside where they're mostly needed. From the South Loop, to Hyde Park, far South Shore into Roseland/Pullman. Yeah, not the most desirable areas and of this this guy would never have the enjoyment of riding them but that's where street cars are most practical and needed.

Not a congested transportation buffet such as the Northside.

Dreaming vs. thinking big

There is a difference between dreaming and thinking big.

I admit to being a dreamer.

I dream we’ll stand up and make the transition from an economy dependent on fossil fuels to one powered by clean renewable energy that gets cheaper every year and never runs out. I dream of wind farms and smart grids replacing oil rigs and coal mines, of buying power from Illinois farmers instead of the Saudi royal family. Actually, that’s not dreaming; those things are inevitable. My dream is that we do those things now instead of waiting until we’ve converted the rest of our coal to carbon dioxide and fought with the Chinese over the last of the oil.

I dream of lasting economic growth in Chicago, a migration of population and wealth from the suburbs to the city. I dream of walkable urbanism gradually replacing suburban sprawl. I dream of developing all those vast areas of vacant urban land into vibrant streetcar neighborhoods.

The Clark Street streetcar is thinking big.

It falls somewhere between a drop in the bucket and the answer to all our problems. It’s only one step, but it’s a pretty big step in the right direction. I’m completely open to the possibility that it’s not the right first step, or that there are a lot of other things we need to be doing now before we can take that step. But I believe it’s important to think big—to think about where we want to end up, and to plan out a strategic path to get us there. We’ve done great things before, and we can certainly do this.

I agree that streetcars will do more good on the south side than the north side.

I chose Clark Street for the starter line because it goes through the four zip codes with the highest population density and the highest transit ridership, but in a corridor where it’s too far to walk to the L. There are over 70,000 daily boardings onto buses stuck in traffic. A streetcar with that kind of ridership gives you the transit service of the L at 10% of the construction cost, and a lower operating cost than the buses we have now.

The streetcar will provide more benefit to commuters and neighborhoods in places where transit is sparse, property values are depressed, and services are hard to find. Eventually the Clark Street line might continue through the South Loop, swing past McCormick Place, and head down Cottage Grove to Hyde Park. The development potential (the value we capture to pay the capital cost) is much greater, but there’s much less population density. My estimation is that Clark Street is a safer, more practical choice for a starter line. What do you think?

Streetcars are nice, but how

Streetcars are nice, but how does he want to pay for them? It seems like there are higher regional transit priorities right now, not all of which can be funded. Red Line South Extension. Red Purple Modernization. Yellow Line to Old Orchard. Orange Line to Ford City. Circle Line. Infill stations on Wabash and Cermak. BRT on Western and/or many other streets. Metra STAR Line. Metra Southeast Service. Other Metra extensions. Pace BRT routes. I just don't see streetcar money coming out of transportation funds. Maybe someone else could fund it.

Streetcars are more than just transit

You mention a lot of transit projects that need funding. I don’t pretend to know enough about the system as a whole to be able to prioritize among them. But I believe in the transformative power of modern streetcars—in their potential to bring positive changes to neighborhoods and cities that go far beyond their value as transportation projects. I think we should do BRT on Western Avenue, but I would not move my company from Houston to Chicago or my family from Naperville to Lincoln Park for BRT.

I love the L, but for the cost of extending it one mile, we could build ten miles of streetcar—the entire Clark Street line from Wrigley Field to Daley Plaza, including extending it all the way down to Hyde Park. There’s a really big gap in the transit spectrum: at one end we have buses that stop every block, load slowly, and are stuck in traffic; at the other end we have the L, which moves lots of people very efficiently but doesn’t go very many places and is unbelievably expensive to build any more of. The modern streetcar does a good job of filling the gap in the transit spectrum.

A better way

I know the allure of trains, but unfortunately the density on even this most practical route would have to be increased further to compensate for the far increased proportion of people who primarily own and use a car. Further, the red line already serves much of this area, making this a foolhardy use of taxpayer dollars. There is frankly insufficient speculative developmental benefit to compensate the taxpayer for watering down the clientele of the only CTA line (red) not operated at a loss. Due to the dire state of the city, state, and nation's finances, these fiscal considerations matter.

Add to this the fact that there is a more effective policy option involving zero public expenditure and offering enormously improved transportation effectiveness throughout Chicago -- end the ban on share taxis, originally lobbied for by the streetcar companies in the years before 1920 when they started to become popular and threatened to hurt the streetcars' bottom line. Share taxis are the primary transportation solution throughout much of the world, and are incredibly well suited to Chicago's particular needs, especially the need to effectively and flexibly serve truly vast areas of thinned out poor populations on much of the city's South and West sides. There is no way that any amount of street car investment could cover these areas as well as private share taxi operators seeking the most passengers possible.

The city could even trade the right to operate on profitable route, such as the Clark route you speak of, in exchange for the requirement to serve less profitable routes, such as Marquette Rd on the Southside. To maximize public benefit from this policy the licensing fees should be minimum, enough to cover installing a GPS device on all licensed share taxis so that these agreements can be enforced.

In order to see this solution's effectiveness, simply visit any number of cities around the world.

I love streetcars, but unfortunately they will not repay public investment in any realistic sense. But share taxis offer the public the ability to discontinue the most empty CTA bus service AFTER it is being effectively served by entrepreneurs from those very communities. The reason -- share taxis allow flexible entrepreneurs to use smaller vehicles which come more often to more precisely match traffic patterns all over the city. Like breaking an image in to more pixels to more precisely match the real thing. And they can responsively and iteratively shift to match changing transportation and population patterns as time goes on.

I think that skeptical analysis will reveal that there is no more obvious solution for such a large problem, which would benefit the public so indiscriminately, that remains unimplemented. Most solutions have many costs and benefits and reside within a gray area. This one offers the rare unequivocal home run.

It doesn't even break any policy precedent that should scare people -- the precedent is, well, taxis, and the fact that share taxis operate all over the world, in some US cities, and even previously in Chicago.

Let's do both

The Clark Street streetcar doesn’t water down or replace traffic on the L. It replaces buses stuck in traffic with modern, efficient transit service that even people who hate the bus will ride. It brings many more transit riders to the L and into the system as a whole.

I would love to see your taxi idea make the streets of the grid more efficient. Like car share, they make it easier to live well without owning a car, which is great for those of us who do drive (and park). Taxis serve point-to-point trips, which is what the grid is good for. Clark Street, however, is aligned for commuting into downtown. This is what mass transit is good for.

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