New Haven plans a streetcar, but will a one-way loop work well?
New Haven, Connecticut, is planning a three-mile streetcar line that would connect Union Station — easternmost stop of the heavily used Metro North Railroad — to the downtown, Yale University, and the city’s medical district.
Since 2008, when officials began studying the potential for a streetcar line, “our confidence level has improved substantially,” Mike Piscitelli, the city’s director of transportation, traffic, and parking, told a public meeting Sept. 23. If built, the system, operated by Connecticut Transit, would put the first streetcar on the streets of New Haven since 1948.
Yonah Freemark wrote April 23 on The Transport Politic blog that “the plan would be relatively cheap to build, according to the consultants, at only about $30 million, and it would fit well with the federal government’s Small Start program.”
The streetcar could be a boon to mixed-use development proposed adjacent to the train station, which is a busy hub for Metro North commuter rail transportation to Grand Central Station in New York; for state-run Shoreline East trains carrying commuters through 80 miles of Connecticut coastal communities; and for Amtrak service to more distant points.
The streetcar would complement Mayor John DeStefano’s plans for improving the street network between Union Station and the hospital area. Though the distance from the station to Yale-New Haven Hospital, Yale School of Medicine, and other health institutions is only a few blocks, the street pattern is a jumble, and it runs through an area that many regard as unsafe. The streetcar would operate for a short distance on “New Lafayette Boulevard,” a street that city officials want to create to give people a clear, more direct connection between the medical district and Union Station.
Much of the land near the hospitals is now covered by surface parking — waiting for better, more intense use. Piscitelli sees enormous potential there, saying it contains “nine or ten prime development sites.”
In a city that lost much of its manufacturing over the past several decades ago, the medical district has become a dense job center, second only to the university — and thus critical to New Haven’s future prosperity. Recently the medical district has been booming. Last October, Yale-New Haven inaugurated its 14-story Smilow Cancer Hospital, whose large staff has expanded the demand for downtown and near-downtown housing.
However, the streetcar plan, in its current tentative form, suffers from what many see as a serious flaw. Most of the line is projected to be a loop going only one direction. Passengers who board a streetcar at Union Station would have to go through the downtown, up Whitney Avenue to the Science Hill section of Yale and then back through the length of downtown to reach the medical district. Instead of a quick and fairly direct trip, they would face a much longer, circuitous journey. “That’s one easy way to turn off riders,” Freemark pointed out on his blog, available here.
Norman Garrick, a transportation engineer at the University of Connecticut and a leader in new urbanist transportation planning, cautions against one-way loops. “Loops are usually done to hit as many places as possible even if it does not make sense in the long run,” Garrick told New Urban Network. “The problem is that once the tracks are down, they are not so easy to change, and then the original might compromise long-term expansion.”
Another disadvantage of loop routes, according to a transportation consultant, is that they tend to be disorienting for new and infrequent riders, since you can’t get back to where you came from by crossing the street and getting on the streetcar that goes back the way you came.
New Haven architect Robert Orr applauded Piscitelli for advocating the streetcar, noting that experience in other cities has shown that when an existing bus route gets trolley service, “ridership has gone up as much as 700 percent.” Streetcars, he observed, are “seen as more middle class.”
Consultants from URS Corp.'s office in Rocky Hill, Connecticut, which has been advising the city, said the initial route was laid out to run predominantly through areas that already have a dense residential or employee population — immediate ridership. Some New Haven residents argued that the line should go into neighborhoods that have a greater working-class and immigrant population, as noted in a New Haven Independent article available here. That may happen eventually, since the three-mile line is seen only as a "starter."
Orr suggested that the streetcar line would be more effective if it were envisioned like the Portland, Oregon, streetcar — as “development-oriented transit.” Portland’s streetcar was installed so that in addition to running through downtown, it would foster development in the Pearl District — a formerly industrial and railyard area north of downtown — and in an undeveloped area along the Willamette River south of downtown.
The Portland line has been an enormous success, helping to produce a whole new mixed-use neighborhood in the Pearl District and another concentration on the south waterfront. At the same time, it has built its ridership faster than anticipated. Orr urged New Haven officials to consider running the streetcar line through an underdeveloped area between New Haven Harbor and the elevated Interstate 95, to generate development there.
Stephen Gazillo of URS described streetcars as “placemakers, not just people movers,” and said they’ve been shown to increase property values nearby by 25 percent and to encourage economic development up to three blocks away.”
Orr suggested that the line’s organizers think about acquiring and refurbishing old trolleys from the Shore Line Trolley Museum in nearby East Haven, following the example of San Francisco, which obtained old streetcars from all over the world and put them to use on the Embarcadero, where they are well loved. Renovated streetcars cost only half as much as sleek new ones, Orr said.
To make old trolleys accessible to the disabled, San Francisco had to build raised platforms. Old cars have the disadvantage of being less efficient — holding fewer passengers, for instance. But Darrin Nordahl, city designer at the Davenport Design Center in Iowa, argued in his book My Kind of Transit (reviewed in the Dec. 2009 New Urban News), that transit planners need to pay attention to the “fun factor” if they want a line to catch on. “Some rides are simply better than others — meaning more pleasurable, more exciting, memorable, more enticing,” Nordahl emphasized, citing the charm of New Orleans’ Charles Street streetcars, which have adjustable wooden seats popular with passengers.
Gazillo said modern streetcars such as those made in Europe are very quiet and can operate with a combination of electricity from overhead lines — less visually intrusive than those of the past — and from batteries. The technology is advancing. If a streetcar travels through an area like the New Haven Green, where aesthetics is a prime concern, it can be switched to battery power, avoiding the installation of overhead electrical lines.
Piscitelli said the city is following an application and development process that he believes will qualify for funds from the Federal Transit Administration. “We will see FTA in November of this year to lay it out,” he said. Analysis of alternatives will continue through the middle of 2011.