MKE Streetcar: Personal Blog
Posted: 2021-04-08; Revised: 2022-08-12
Why I Support Streetcars
I've utilized The Hop in Milwaukee since its opening in 2018. During that time, I've learned more about transit and streetcars by riding daily, observing streetcars in the city, and studying academic and technical literature. I've developed comments about my support for streetcars used for transportation and city development. I have two sections: Support for Streetcars in General, and then Support for The Hop Streetcar in Milwaukee in specific.
Please see my caveats about my blog before reading this.
Support for Streetcars in General
The nature of the modern streetcar as transportation offers favorable qualities: emissions-free operation, accessibility through large doors, ADA-compliant level-loading, rapid loading, smooth ride, predictable-path travel, excellent ventilation through the large doors, hybrid battery and overhead-wire energy system, high passenger capacity, ability to connect walksheds centered at stations, energy-efficient and low-resistance rail operation (many times more efficient than rubber-tired vehicles), ability to capture the attention of residents and visitors, strength in supporting transit-oriented development including affordable housing, record of safety, ability to run in all weather including the polar vortex and blizzards, permanence as infrastructure, and the ability to alleviate the need for automobile storage at destinations. Steel for rails can come from American-made sources, and streetcar vehicles are available from American manufacturers.
Streetcars motivate development. The predictable-path travel of rail means that the streetcars can be placed closely within pedestrian-oriented areas. The fixed nature of the streetcar tracks connotes an investment in an area's infrastructure that captures attention for land use decisions. The relationship of streetcars to development is one of catalytic, dynamic, and mutually-reinforcing factors due to the fixed rail infrastructure commitment, land use decisions to capitalize on density, and high-quality, emissions-free transportation. These qualities can contribute to place-making and city-building. Streetcars open up pedestrian-oriented areas. Streetcars build value through transportation that is efficient, scalable, durable, community-building, eco-friendly, and preferred by riders.
The abilities of streetcars have been proven throughout the world in hundreds of streetcar systems for more than a century and operating today. America's early transportation network included streetcars--first horse-drawn and then electric-powered. Historic streetcars served people during the walkable urbanism of those times, and the streetcar networks grew because they met people's needs well, demonstrating the inherent ability of streetcars to connect walkable urban areas and build a durable transit fabric for cities. Rail-based streetcars use electric power efficiently, are emissions-free, and are ready to receive power from renewable sources, address climate change, and move communities forward.
For Further Information
Support for The Hop Streetcar in Milwaukee and its Expansion
Should The Hop be expanded?
Answer: Yes, here is why:
- The Hop has proven itself to be a capable public transit system on its small starter route. It has operated safely and adjusted its service dynamically to changing conditions. It operated during polar vortex conditions, in our four-season weather, in mixed street traffic, and during the global Covid-19 pandemic. It served large crowds during the summer of 2019 and demonstrated its flexibility for serving large capacities during those busy times.
- The Hop's ridership grew in its first full calendar year of operation, 2019, and showed great ridership levels and interest before the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic caused a plunge in public transit ridership worldwide. The Hop's service on the Main Line relies heavily on downtown destinations, many of which were shuttered during the pandemic. The Hop's service schedule was reduced during the pandemic. The Hop's ridership has been recovering.
- The Hop's award-winning, modern, electric-powered, hybrid (overhead or battery power options), emissions-free, ADA-compliant, level-boarding, two-door boarding, American-made vehicles as well as its support team and operators have proven their ability to operate safely and well along the starter route and adjust to technical challenges and use innovative short routes to continue service during outages, for example, of the St Paul Avenue Bridge.
- The Hop's characteristics as urban rail transit--modern streetcars--are unique in the state (Kenosha has historic streetcars) and unique in Milwaukee in the 21st century. Streetcars are used in hundreds of cities throughout the world and are being emphasized as a transit mode that addresses climate change and provides accessible, pedestrian-friendly (quiet, emissions-free) transit to walkable urban neighborhoods. The Hop's Liberty modern streetcar can draw power from the overhead wire and the pantograph or onboard lithium-ion batteries. This allows for reduced construction costs and lengths of the route on which no overhead wires need to be constructed.
- The Hop's fixed-track nature is not a detriment, but a catalyst for development. Observations have shown that development occurs near streetcar stations and that more efficient land use results from streetcar stops. The Hop's Main Line has seen many developments during its operation, including the completion of the BMO Tower, the Huron Building, Tru by Hilton, Holiday Inn Express, Home2 Suites by Hilton, Cambria Hotel, and the Dwight and Dian Diercks Computational Science Hall at Milwaukee School of Engineering University. The construction of The Ascent began in the fall of 2020 and The Couture began in 2021. Notably, the buildings listed here provide more productive use of the urban land, as many replaced automobile storage areas. Research into the historic Los Angeles streetcar has shown the durability of the density and land use decisions that streetcar stops established that lasts for decades. (Brooks & Lutz, 2019, "Vestiges of Transit: Urban Persistence at a Microscale").
- The Hop's fixed-track nature is not a detriment, but a benefit for pedestrians and the urban fabric of walkability because it provides a reliable, quieter, emissions-free, known path of travel that allows for the vehicles to closely integrate with pedestrian areas. The best example of this can be found at the Milwaukee Public Market stops where people and streetcars co-exist side-by-side. The Hop reknits the walking and transit fabrics of the city lost during the 20th century due to automobile dominance.
- The Hop has generated revenue through sponsorship and advertising and has started to deploy CityPost Smart Kiosks that come "at no cost to the city, as Smart City will own and maintain the kiosks throughout the 10-year agreement while providing the city a share of the revenue generated through the platform" (Urban Milwaukee, February 20, 2020). This is an excellent example of a public-private partnership that can benefit both. The Hop's vehicles and information kiosks can serve community needs for health and other public information.
- The Hop provides health benefits through its emissions-free operation so that people near the vehicles don't have to breathe fumes. It provides support for walking and the streetcar as a basis for personal transportation. It provides access to health services, grocery stores, a pharmacy, and parks. The Hop fits into Milwaukee's plans for addressing climate change and environmental issues (City of Milwaukee, "Environmental Collaboration Office (ECO)").
- The Hop provides equity benefits for people who need to have level-loading, smoothly-operating, accessible transportation. The Hop's big, double doors open in way that doesn't require a long delay in vehicle loading. The Hop's service to people who don't have cars, have a disability, or can't drive, gives access to municipal services (City Hall) and destinations to meet needs like grocery stores, pharmacy, and medical offices. The high-quality transit experience streetcars offer reknits the urban landscape around people and can start to rectify imbalances due to inequities in transportation options.
- The Hop provides livability benefits by offering an alternative means of transportation other than automobile travel. It brings a visible, unique, reliable form of transportation to visitors and residents alike. The streetcar utilizes the curb space for bringing people to and from destinations much more efficiently and in a higher capacity than an individual vehicle or a bus. The Hop highlights businesses along the route through great visibility from riders to the businesses through the large windows.
- The Hop provides prosperity benefits by its status as public infrastructure, public transportation, and rail transportation. Public transit benefits include energy and environmental benefits, economy and employment benefits, and health benefits (American Public Transportation Association). Rail benefits include "less traffic congestion, lower traffic death rates, lower consumer expenditures on transportation, and higher transit service cost recovery than otherwise comparable cities with less or no rail transit service. This indicates that rail transit systems provide economic, social and environmental benefits, and these benefits tend to increase as a system expands and matures" (Litman, "Rail Transit In America: A Comprehensive Evaluation of Benefits," 2020). The prosperity of private enterprise itself depends on public infrastructure. Public transportation, in general, is never built to make a profit but to give public benefits and support free-market enterprises. The Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway (MTR) does make a profit, but it does so using a "transit + property" model where the MTR operates real estate on its service corridor and makes profits based on the added land values due to rail service. Our system of public infrastructure + private enterprise allows the benefits to accrue to the community and the private sector. Hence, our public infrastructure itself needs financial support for its funding since it allows the benefits it creates to go to the people, not to itself, nor to a government-run property manager.
- The design of the streetcar corridor reveals a path for developing urban areas to their potential for walkability, environmental benefits, equity, and economic growth. The Hop's goal has always been for service beyond the Main Line. Expanding the streetcar line by even one stop adds significant destinations because the additional area encompassed grows by the square of the distance around the additional station. Expanding the Hop expands the health, equity, livability, and prosperity of our community.