Can the Return of Streetcars Transform Reno?
When the 1905 Virginia Street Bridge was relatively new, streetcars were a primary mode of transportation linking Reno neighborhoods together and to the City of Sparks. The Reno Streetcar Coalition (RSC), a group of local citizens, is proposing to bring back streetcars to provide a transformative link between Reno downtown neighborhoods, the University of Nevada, the Reno-Tahoe Convention Center, the City of Sparks and the Reno Tahoe International Airport. Today’s streetcars are somewhat different, with the newest iterations incorporating battery power and other new technologies that dramatically reduce the capital costs to build the system by eliminating the overhead catenary cables and associated electric substations, the time needed for construction, and the costs of operation and maintenance.
The IBM Smarter Cities study had, as its top priority, a recommendation to link UNR to downtown Reno. Years later, this still is more of an aspiration than a reality. The RSC believes streetcars could be the catalyst that finally “connects the university on the hill” with downtown and midtown Reno. Additionally, the RSC believes that the perception of Reno will be significantly enhanced - across the board: by locals, tourists, developers, students, and individuals making business location decisions.
In the middle of the last century, streetcars “went away” in many American cities, including Reno. Automobiles not only provided individual flexibility and convenience, they became an extension of people’s personas (as evidenced by Hot August Nights). For those who still relied upon mass transportation, buses offered a less expensive and more flexible alternative than streetcars.
Roughly a century later, there is a resurgence of streetcars in America. In the western U.S., every major city either now has light rail and/or streetcars, or is planning for streetcars – with the exception of Las Vegas which has monorail. Streetcar projects are under construction in cities across the U.S. and throughout the world. Why?
It partially has to do with perception of streetcars by people who are infrequent mass-transit riders, which seems to be significantly different than their perception of buses. At several presentations by the Reno Streetcar Coalition, the audience was asked, “How many of you ride the bus?” The response has ranged from zero to a very small percentage of the audience (single digit percentages). When asked, “How many of you would ride a streetcar?” the response has ranged in the 90-100% range. We don’t yet fully understand why, but the anecdotal explanations have included “streetcars are fun,” and streetcars seem safer.
The response from those in Reno seems to be corroborated by actual results from Portland, Oregon:
First up, between 2000 and 2003, bus stops within a sixth of a mile of the streetcar saw ridership drop by 20 percent when the rail went online. Meanwhile, the streetcar ridership grew well beyond that drop, indicating the system was attracting more people than just those who would have ridden the bus. Second, according to a June 2011 rider study, 38 percent of occasional and infrequent riders exclusively used the MAX [Metropolitan Area Express Light Rail], while only 12 percent exclusively used the bus. Of course, the MAX is not the streetcar, but this fact seems to speak to the attractiveness of rail travel over bus for some transit users.
Kullgren, Ian, “Do streetcars really beat out buses in capacity, ridership and cost?” PolitiFact Oregon, 2012; http://www.politifact.com/oregon/statements/2012/apr/03/charlie-hales/do-streetcars-really-beat-out-buses-capacity-rider/
There is a second, and perhaps more compelling reason that streetcars are resurgent: streetcars are not just an alternative mode of transportation; they are a transformative community development tool. Some cities are developing streetcar lines through blighted areas because significant private investment dollars follow the streetcar lines, typically extending up to three city blocks on either side of the line, with the greatest densities of new development near the transit stops.
For Reno to accommodate the coming growth with the least amount of urban sprawl, with the lowest impact on water and other natural resources, and with the most attractive urban development, it makes sense to incorporate streetcars as part of the infrastructure. It will serve as a catalyst for transit-oriented development, with higher density, mixed-use, pedestrian friendly development, the form of community most favored by millennials, the largest probable demographic who will be moving to Reno to fill the many new jobs headed our way.
It will reduce travel time between living, working and shopping activities. It will help create urban environments and a sense of place that is attractive to all generations. It will make Reno a truly “walkable” city, one of the most often repeated goals to be raised in the recent Reimagine Reno outreach workshops recently conducted by the Reno planning staff. Evidence from other communities with Streetcars is that there are fewer cars per household because the broader community is so much more accessible without driving and the associated costs and pollution.
Although Reno has changed significantly and we no longer live in the city of 100 years ago, bringing back a modern version of the streetcar from the last century can play an important part in “The Biggest Little City in the World” enhancing its quality of life as we look to the future and the additional, exciting changes it will bring.