Thursday, December 28, 2006

Streetcar on Main Street, 1920s

City Council recently appointed a Streetcar Task Force to look into the feasibility of creating a streetcar system for our community -- um, I mean, re-creating a streetcar system for our community.

ACCT (Alliance for Community Choice in Transportation) has been pushing this idea for some time, and I'll be very interested in the Task Force's findings.

The history of streetcars in Charlottesville is a long and somewhat painful one. From this interesting online history of transportation in Charlottesville:

On January 12, 1895, the Charlottesville City & Suburban Railway Company operated the city’s first electric streetcar. Town denizens and University students responded enthusiastically to this symbol of modernity; more than 2,000 fares were collected in the first two days of regular operation. The editor of The Daily Progress remarked that his only complaint about the new cars was that the ride ended too soon. He proudly proclaimed, "Their hum as they swiftly passed through the streets has a very business-like sound and it is only necessary for the wide awake citizens of Charlottesville to close their eyes in order to imagine that they are in one of our metropolitan cities." - Daily Progress, January 13, 1895

It wasn't long until streetcars in Charlottesville and elsewhere in Virginia became a focal point of racial discord. From "The Story of Virginia--An American Experience":

A 1906 law required black Virginians to sit at the back of all public transit vehicles. Segregation caused many problems. Conductors had to decide a person's race at a glance, sometimes resulting in fights or lawsuits. Visitors to Virginia were puzzled as to where to sit. White workmen returning from dirty jobs often sat among the blacks rather than beside a white woman. Blacks decided to boycott the streetcars.

The last Charlottesville streetcar rode in 1935 -- a victim of the automobile and the Great Depression. Will we see a streetcar ride again in Cville someday? Stay tuned...


TrvlnMn said...

I've got a couple of questions.

1- Why do we need a streetcar system?

2- What would it accomplish that the current bus system doesn't?

2a- and if it would accomplish something the bus system didn't then- Why couldn't the current bus system be modified to do whatever that might be?

3- With a streetcar system does that mean we could scrap the current bus system?

3a- And What about all the money that's already been spent on the bus system?

4- How much does this "Streetcar Task force" and the feasibility study cost?

5- Does the city really need another cost incurring "improvement"?

6- Just because we have the money does that mean we should spend it?


DaveNorris said...

Excellent questions! In fact, those are exactly the kinds of questions we have directed the Streetcar Task Force to consider.

At least since I've been on Council, we have not had a single discussion amongst ourselves about whether or not we think a streetcar system is necessary, feasible, or cost-effective. We do all agree, however, that a streetcar system is an intriguing enough concept to merit some study.

Creating a streetcar system would be a huge and costly undertaking for our City, and Council wants as many facts on the table as possible (and as much community input as possible) before taking the City in that direction -- thus the Streetcar Task Force. Oh, and by the way, the Task Force itself will cost the taxpayers approximately the price of a few sandwiches to feed its members (all of whom have agreed to contribute many volunteer hours to this endeavor) during some of their lunchtime or dinnertime meetings. :-)

TrvlnMn said...

Thanks for taking a stab at my questions.

I think a "streetcar system" would be little more than another trophy for the city of Charlottesville. I don't think it would benefit more than a handful of residents living in already "privileged" parts of town.

The issue (for me) that needs to be addressed with any new public transit alternatives would be "travel time" and convenience. It would have to be faster (less time in traffic) and more convenient than my car or a bus (with the latter that would mean not having to wait 45 minutes for the next one to come along).

If a streetcar competes with an auto or bus for traffic- then it's really not much better than either.

I'd recommend finding out what it would cost to implement- then taking that money and putting it into streamlining the existing system.

That's my 2 cents anyway.

Anonymous said...

In the discussions I have heard the streetcar does seem to be a solution in search of a problem (though I think it would be hard to compete with the Transit Center in pure trophy value).

Beyond being cool, however, I have heard two problems it would try to solve. The first is related to it's coolness - that it would spur mixed use development on West Main, connecting the University to downtown. To the extent that drawing activity to the center of the city is a good goal, this makes sense to me. West Main is right between the two economic engines of the city and is the main route for traveling between them, but is mostly dead. A streetcar may not be the thing to do here, but I do think encouraging more development in this area is a worthy goal for city government.

The second problem is that getting from the University to downtown takes forever, or at least it used to. I drive, walk and occasionally take the Trolley down West Main, often during rush hour. I used to be able to pass cars on foot or watch others pass me while sitting in the trolley. I was skeptical about the difference synching the lights would make, but I think the difference has been significant. I don't see near the gridlock there was before, which has cost me some pleasure and to my mind decreased the need for a dedicated transit lane or streetcar, but is probably a good thing overall.

I will be interested to see what the task force comes up with, but it seems odd to me to have a task force that explores the viability of one solution rather than the viability of several solutions to one problem.

AliaAnderson said...

This is a great discussion and one that needs to continue as Charlottesville further considers an urban streetcar system. I have been studying the potential Charlottesville streetcar for several years now, so I'll try to respond to a few of the questions posed above.

Why do we need a streetcar? Just as stated above, a streetcar could: 1) spur compact and mixed-used development along West Main St (thus making it a much more inviting place to be), and 2) make it quick and easy to travel between downtown and UVA without a car. Will a streetcar really achieve these goals? A formal feasibility study will help answer that question, but all the evidence from other streetcar communities in the US tells us that it will. A streetcar could run in a central, transit-only lane on West Main, meaning that it would bypass other traffic. This means it may be quicker to ride than to drive. Furthermore, I believe that downtown cannot continue to grow and remain vibrant if we depend on cars alone to move us between destinations. There simply isn't enough space for enough roads and parking to meet the demand. So, if we agree that some type of alternative mode is needed downtown, a streetcar is the mode that is reliable and attractive enough to draw a wide base of riders. In Tacoma, WA, they replaced a bus route with a streetcar (same route, same placement, same schedule,....)- Ridership tripled and continues to grow today.

Why streetcars over buses? First, there isn't a single example in the US of a bus route attracting compact development along a corridor. If it is infill and "people-oriented" development that we want, rail transit is a great tool to consider. Second, this streetcar would replace most of the bus service on West Main, but it would only be successful if it were part of a larger, excellent transit system (which CTS continues to develop). Schedules would be designed so that riders could easily transfer from other bus routes. We would also have to plan parking facilities that would encourage people to drive into Charlottesville, park, and take the streetcar the rest of the way to work/shop/play downtown.

Would this only be another "toy" for the wealthy? I think, in fact, it is quite the opposite. The streetcar would make transit in central downtown quicker and more reliable- a huge service to those who rely on public transit every day. It could help relieve some traffic in the center of the city, which would be a relief to all of us. It would cause redevelopment downtown, giving us an opportunity to require developers in that district to either build affordable housing or contribute to a municipal housing fund (as they did in Portland, OR). Though a streetcar would serve the greater community, I think the group to benefit most immediately would be the lower income community.

We have a lot of great ideas about what a streetcar may offer Charlottesville, but we still have a lot of questions. The streetcar Task Force will answer some of those questions, and also make recommendations about the next steps. In the mean time, please check out the full streetcar report at ACCT's website,

TrvlnMn said...

Thanks for your answers to my questions.

I think it's too limited in the number of people it would benefit vs cost. This would be a give-a-way for property owners in neighborhoods along the proposed route.

I disagree with your assessment about that area- it is costly to live in that part of town- unless you own a house from before the boom or live in one of the public assistance communities. People who are able to live close to those areas *are* privileged whether they are wealthy or not. Property owners in that area qualify as wealthy.

The low income neighborhoods are already getting pushed out. This would further promote that.

This would be a "giveaway" to the rich. Look at the cost of condo's in the downtown area. It would encourage similar development- making the area less accessible rather than more- to the working class you propose would be benefiting.

The Transit only lane for a "streetcar" that you propose could just as easily be created for a bus or the free trolley. Not enough people use those as things are now. Maybe a bus only lane would encourage ridership between downtown and UVA?

The above option would not cost very much, would be less expensive to implement and is easily and reversible if the ridership numbers do not pan out.

But a streetcar would be prettier you say?

Fine, buy a few more of the pretty trolley looking buses and run them exclusively on the downtown routes in the transit only lane you propose.

Just because the City of Charlottesville had a budget surplus last year- does not mean that it should be spent, or spent making the Downtown (including West Main) and the UVA area a further draw for the wealthy.

My real estate taxes were paid to the City of Charlottesville.

I still must drive to get to downtown or UVA area.

I still must pay to park there when I get there.

Find a way to bring people from the outskirts to the downtown area more effectively than bus transit and you might solve the traffic problem along west main, as well as further increase commerce for those doing business in that area.

A "Streetcar" is not the answer.

Anonymous said...

Ms. Anderson is right that if downtown is going to continue to grow it will need to decrease its dependence on car travel. There is no cheap way to bring more lanes into downtown and no good way to park the cars once they get there. I think growing downtown is a good thing for all kinds of reasons beyond the immediate pleasures of walking down the mall, good restaurants, and concerts. For one thing it is a tax farm. For all the complaints about money being spent downtown, it should be acknowledged that it brings in a lot of revenue (much of it from non residents).

I think that trvlman's suggestion of a dedicated lane for trolleys is a good one. It would accomplish some of the goals of a streetcar without the massive headache and cost. If it seemed right, a streetcar could be added later. One of the challenges to this idea in the past came from West Main business owners themselves who didn't want to lose the street parking spaces. Maybe that would be different now.

Len Schoppa said...

Trvlman’s suggestion that we start with a dedicated lane for a bus is a good one. It is not at all unusual to begin moving toward a streetcar by first taking these steps. The key to making the venture a success, however, is to make a firm commitment to install a streetcar at a specific date in the future so that businesses will begin investing in transit-oriented development even before the streetcar is in place.

The denser and higher-quality development that typically grows up around streetcars will generate much of the tax revenue needed to pay for this infrastructure, but it will only happen if the community locks in its own investment. One reason property owners have not tended to invest as heavily along bus lines is because they know that there is no infrastructure on the ground (tracks, wires) to keep the bus line going.

Portland and other streetcar-innovating localities are not the only models for this strategy of investing in infrastructure in order to attract dense development. Thirty years ago innovative city planners bricked over the section of Main Street that ran through downtown to create the pedestrian mall we now value. The restaurants and ice rink and entertainment venues grew up around it. Yes, the streetcar will provide an alternative way of transporting our citizens, but that is not its only value. It also promises to extend the success of the downtown mall across Ridge / McIntire along the West Main corridor.

TrvlnMn said...

Len wrote: One reason property owners have not tended to invest as heavily along bus lines is because they know that there is no infrastructure on the ground (tracks, wires) to keep the bus line going.

I don't think that's true. Like a A bus line, like any form of public transit lasts only as long as the subsidizing agency chooses to keep it going. Further, I'd have to ask- how many times has the City of Charlottesville cut a busline that business owners wanted kept operating? I don't know the answer- but I'm going to guess it's zero.

Using your own logic- the city of charlottesville has invested quite a lot in the bus system. The cost of the buses, covered bus stops, signage along routes in the city, the transit center- all of these represent real physical investments in infrastructure. One that the businesses and development should feel comfortable will be around for quite sometime.

Yes the streetcar is pretty. But it benefits too few people. Charlottesville isn't Portland. This isn't the west coast. A streetcar isn't needed.

Kevin Cox said...

I think that CTS in it's present form and a light rail system are both expensive and out of date ideas that are inappropriate for Charlottesville. The current bus system is basically a copy of a large urban areas style system. It doesn't function well, though it could be improved a lot with better management and customer service. The cost per passenger mile of CTS is very, very high. I believe that fares only cover about 25% of the operating costs.

My dream: A computerized system that relies on cell phones, the web and call boxes at the stops. Passengers would have to schedule a ride and then a dispatch computer would sort out the calls. Numerous small vans stationed at various points around town would receive a list of pick up and drop off points and then go pick up and deliver the customers. The vans would be equipped with wireless internet service, Shenandoah Joe coffee and Tea house tea and any other amenities that might encourage drivers to get out of their cars. The goal would be convenient, prompt service that could actually compete with the ease and convenience of use a car provides. Pickup would be guaranteed within fifteen minutes of placing a call but they could also be placed way ahead of time. It's just a dream.

I think it's much more likely that millions of dollars will be spent on a trolley system that will be pretty and lots of fun but actually not very efficient at moving people or getting them to give up their cars in a serious way.

BTW,I have a five foot long piece of the track from the old Charlottesville trolley in my backyard.