Streetcar Resurgence in the United States: Transit Strategy, Growth Machine Tactic, or Some of Both?

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date


Subject Area

place - north america, place - urban, mode - tram/light rail, operations - performance, land use - planning


Streetcars, cost per ride, growth-oriented public–private coalitions (growth machines)


Streetcars have returned to many cities in the United States, and dozens of cities are contemplating making their own streetcar investments. Yet most streetcars carry relatively few riders per unit of service at a relatively high cost per ride. The streetcar’s poor transportation performance thus raises questions about the purpose of these investments. From a case study of five cities, the authors seek to better understand the streetcar’s appeal in the face of the mode’s poor transportation performance. The authors draw on interviews with developers, business leaders, local officials, transit planners, streetcar advocates, and other key respondents, as well as on documentary sources, and find that private actors with business and development interests in downtown and nearby areas are the main drivers behind the streetcar resurgence. These actors operate within growth-oriented public–private coalitions (growth machines) and typically regard streetcars as economic development, image-making, and tourism promotion tools rather than transportation investments. Rent-seeking behavior underlies growth machine dynamics, and thus streetcar projects remain appealing to these actors, despite the streetcar’s weak transportation performance. The focus on nontransportation goals as primary streetcar objectives affects local decision making and likely leads to the streetcar’s underperformance as a mode of transit.


Permission to publish the abstract has been given by Transportation Research Board, Washington, copyright remains with them.