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Relationships between streetcars and the built environment

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Portland streetcar (Wikimedia))
Portland streetcar (Wikimedia)

Once part of the urban fabric of the United States, streetcars declined as the automobile rose during the 1930s and 1940s. In the last several decades, however, streetcars have returned to popularity — more than 40 new systems are in planning, construction or operation.

To better understand the renaissance of this classic form of urban transportation and its potential development and land-use impacts, the Transit Cooperative Research Program conducted a study in 2010, “Relationships Between Streetcars and the Built Environment: A Synthesis of Transit Practice.”

To focus on the impact of newer systems on the built environment, the study specifically excluded legacy networks such as those in Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco. Fourteen systems were included in the study, including those in Astoria and Portland, Oregon; Charlotte, North Carolina; Dallas and Galveston, Texas; Little Rock, Arkansas; Memphis, Tennessee; and Seattle and Tacoma, Washington.

The study found a range of impacts from streetcar systems, from residential housing to office and retail. The range of property value premiums for proximity to streetcar systems included:

  • Single-family residential: From +2% within 200 feet of a station (San Diego Trolley, 1992) to +32% within 100 feet of a station (St. Louis MetroLink Light Rail, 2004)
  • Condominium: +2% to 18% within 2,640 feet of a station (San Diego Trolley, 2001)
  • Apartment: +0% to 4% within 2,640 feet of a station (San Diego Trolley, 2001) to +45% within 1,320 feet of a station (VTA Light Rail, 2004)
  • Office: +9% within 300 feet of a station (Washington Metrorail, 1981) to +120% within 1,320 feet of a station (VTA Light Rail, 2004)
  • Retail: +1% within 500 feet of a station (BART, 1978) to +167% within 200 feet of a station (San Diego Trolley).

The survey includes information on its methodology as well as case studies of five systems. Each includes information on the system’s development, financing, management and impact on the built environment and economy of the city.

Tags: California, technology, municipal, infrastructure, mass transit, gentrification

    Writer: | Last updated: November 29, 2010

    Citation: "Relationships Between Streetcars and the Built Environment," Transit Cooperative Research Program, September, 2010,

    Analysis assignments

    Read the issue-related New York Times article titled "Administration Loosens Purse Strings for Transit Projects."

    1. If you were to rewrite the article based on knowledge of the study, what key changes would you make?

    Read the full study titled "Relationships Between Streetcars and the Built Environment: A Synthesis of Transit Practice."

    1. Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
    2. Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
    3. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)

    Newswriting assignments

    1. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
    4. Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.

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    Streetcars and Transit-Oriented Development Nov 1, 2011 12:02

    […] development” may go a long way toward explaining the current streetcar renaissance. A recent study of the relationships between streetcars and development [PDF], sponsored by the Federal Transit […]

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