Beyond the Build

Community Service

Streetcar Desire

Recently, I participated in a working panel concerning urban growth and development. Led by Roger Millar of Smart Growth America,  it highlighted the Portland Streetcar Initiative, with the idea of bringing something similar to our city.

The smart growth concept is intended to combat the idea of suburban sprawl “building urban or suburban and rural communities with housing and transportation choices near jobs, shops and schools.” These strategies will support local economies and protect the environment along the way, which will in turn encourage redevelopment and facilitate pedestrian oriented design, just to name a couple of benefits.

Streetcars were the focus of our discussions, specifically the part they may play in the urban settings for smart growth. Why you ask?

  • Streetcars convey a sense of permanence to the community. Tracks are not easily changed, although bus routes can be.
  • They link neighborhoods with places of work, community services and amenities.
  • Air quality is protected and energy conserved.
  • Relative to light rail, streetcars are much more economical. The system uses existing ROW and fits in multimodal street configurations.

Without a doubt, our cities are regaining population lost over the last several decades. Smart cities will be prepared. While transportation is just one platform needed for smart urban growth, some say it is the most important.

Just after this panel, there was an interesting article in the WSJ which offered other perspectives on trolley lines, cost and impact. The conflict of ideas always makes the end result better.

To me, beyond being a functioning permanent transportation component of an urban setting, a trolley system can have a lot of eye appeal. It can be invigorating and also make people feel good about where they live. When this happens, much can occur.

Merrill Stewart Jr.

Merrill Stewart is Founder and CEO of The Stewart/Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham.