Eisenman: The streetcar we desire

streetcar
Photo by Darell Koh.

New Haven’s urban planning policy often operates at the cutting edge of nationwide best practices. The proposed revival of the streetcar line, highlighted in the News this week, is just one example of the grand scale of city’s newest projects. In discussing the project, however, Monday’s article (“Streetcar proposal sparks debate between city, experts”) suggested a critical dialogue between city officials and urban planning professors that simply does not exist. And by prioritizing criticisms of the streetcar line’s potential for sparking economic development, the article neglected its likely benefits.

In fact, the streetcar proposal represents an attempt to solve a problem that New Haven has been grappling with for over a hundred years: the physical and psychological distance between Union Station and downtown New Haven. In their landmark 1910 plan for the city, famed architect Cass Gilbert and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. proposed a grand boulevard extending from the southern end of Temple Street to the train station, providing a welcoming route for travelers into the city and decreasing the perceived distance to the city center. But the plan was never implemented. And in the years since, the Oak Street Connector only deepened the divide between the two areas.

When the streetcar is complete, travelers will walk out of the train station to find an inexpensive, highly visible and reliable route to the city center. While access to Union Station is currently available through taxicabs, the CT-Transit Shuttle Bus and the Yale Shuttle, a streetcar system leading to the station would streamline them into a more convenient and sustainable form of transportation that will run more often than every 15 or 20 minutes. Due, in part, to the infrastructural investment required for streetcar lines and stations, streetcars attract more riders than corresponding bus routes; there is something intrinsically more appealing about boarding a streetcar at a station than waiting for the bus on a corner Streetcars run smoothly on electricity and emit no exhaust; buses jerk riders around and create excessive noise pollution. The list goes on.

Admittedly, the economic benefits of streetcars are debated. Critics like economist Randal O’Toole, of the far-right Cato Institute, have called them “Disneyland toy[s]” that don’t attract new development. They require a hefty upfront investment, and their economic feasibility is dependent on high ridership. Perhaps development in Portland would have occurred with or without a streetcar line. But Monday’s article mistakenly portrayed the streetcar proposal as a mere cause for controversy and falsely suggested a certain ineptitude in New Haven’s bureaucracy. Professors interviewed from the Pacific Northwest ought to have been regarded as experts only on the streetcar systems in their respective cities — suggesting that they have knowledge of the New Haven system or its potential impact on economic development is unfair to the city officials and consultants who have spent months analyzing the proposal.

And New Haven isn’t Portland. Unlike the larger metropolis, New Haven’s economy is fundamentally rooted in its educational and medical institutions. This streetcar line will supply these institutions —Yale and Yale-New Haven Hospital among them — with reliable access to Union Station that is not limited to Yale affiliates, as the Yale Shuttle is. Those who commute to these institutional centers from elsewhere will be more likely to take the train to work instead of driving, and visitors and patients will find the city much more accessible. The line will make working in New Haven more attractive, livable and convenient.

Likewise, the streetcar will make living a sustainable, car-free lifestyle in downtown New Haven easier and more appealing. Those who or cannot afford or choose not to own a car will have a one-transfer train connection (via Shore Line East or MetroNorth commuter rail) to job markets ranging over a hundred miles along Long Island Sound — from Old Saybrook to New York City.

In a way, O’Toole is right: Streetcars are theme park toys. But that is exactly the point. Today, cities are marketing themselves today as festive, compact, mixed-use hubs centered around transit nodes where residents can live, work and play within walking distance. Such hubs are not only good for our cities; they also encourage the behavioral changes needed to reduce automobile dependence and greenhouse gas emissions. The streetcar will extend the effects of the vibrant transit node at Union Station to apartments, shops and offices downtown.

So while the land-use-based development potential of the streetcar line may be up for debate, its potential benefits to New Haven should not be. Neighborhoods like Fair Haven, in eastern New Haven, are called “streetcar suburbs” because they grew up around streetcar lines with downtown access, not bus lines. While this first leg of the system could serve a greater immediate social need by reaching lower-income neighborhoods of the city down Whalley or Dixwell Avenues, providing the system with a secure foundation in finances and ridership by extending it first to New Haven’s crossroads downtown will prime the way for slated extensions already in the works. The bottom line is that the system will send a message that New Haven is an attractive place for investment and business relocation that also has a high degree of livability. Given the unfounded image sometimes thrust upon our city by outsiders, this kind of infrastructural investment is exactly what New Haven needs to develop to its full potential.

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