Portland St. Louis Streetcar Urbanism

Don’t Forget the Zoning

» Streetcar projects promise new development along their rights-of-way. But cities must allow new transit-oriented buildings to be built nearby. A look at St. Louis and Portland.

In the United States, streetcars have assumed a dramatic new prominence, in part because of increasing federal support. In dozens of cities, new lines are under construction, funded, or in planning thanks to local political leadership that recognizes the benefits of such investments in relatively cheap new rail lines. While streetcars are typically not the most efficient mobility providers — compared to light rail lines and often even buses, they are slower and more likely to be caught in traffic — they are promoted as development tools. Streetcars, it is said, will bring new construction and the densification of districts that are served by the new rail lines.

But streetcars alone aren’t enough to spur construction of residential and commercial buildings in neighborhoods with transit service. Just as important are the municipal regulations guiding new development. If zoning prevents large buildings around streetcar corridors, how exactly will streetcars lead to new construction?

A comparison of two streetcar projects — one soon to enter construction in St. Louis and the other about to open for service in Portland — shows that there are very different rules guiding what can be built in the two cities. The result may be that one city sees significant new growth along its corridor and the other sees very little, despite both projects being new streetcar lines. Other cities looking to extract value from their transportation investments should consider how their land use regulations may affect new construction.

St. Louis

Unlike most cities building new streetcar lines, St. Louis’ federally funded project will be constructed outside of downtown, in the Loop District four miles from the city center. The Loop Trolley will extend two miles from the Missouri History Museum at Forest Park, along DeBaliviere Avenue, and west along Delmar Boulevard into the independent municipality of University City. The route, which will be partially double tracked, will serve ten stops and is expected to attract about 800 riders per weekday (and 2,000 per weekend day) in the opening year, rising eventually to 2,600 riders a day by 2025.

The project suffers from many of the flaws of other streetcar lines throughout the country — it will have limited frequencies, a non-exclusive right-of-way, and a route that doesn’t directly serve the biggest destination in the area: Washington University.

More important, however, is the fact that zoning in both St. Louis and University City is not adequate to produce “urban infill and transit-oriented development along the route,” as project proponents claim the Trolley will encourage.

In the City of St. Louis, the blocks directly facing the streetcar route are mostly zoned for neighborhood commercial, commercial district, and multiple family dwelling areas. In these districts, buildings cannot exceed three stories or 45 to 50 feet. Non-residential buildings are limited to a floor area ratio (FAR) of just 1.5*. Meanwhile, non-pedestrian-oriented uses, such as drive-through restaurants, are allowed to be constructed. For residential buildings, developers are required to provide parking for one car per unit, and commercial structures over a size limit must provide parking as well.

In University City on the western section of the route, zoning is similarly restrictive. Half a block off the Delmar Loop, where the line runs, “core commercial” zoning is used. In these areas, residential units, bars, hotels, and more are allowed, but they require a conditional use permit from city hall to be installed — a needless complication for uses that are more than appropriate for this kind of area. Buildings are limited to just 35 feet in height, with the exception of certain buildings with large setbacks. But in a walkable area like this, it is more than appropriate to build taller structures right up to the sidewalk line. North of the streetcar corridor, high density residential zoning is in effect, but there no mixing of uses is allowed at all, and FAR is limited to 1 unless buildings are built on one acre or larger lots.

Just a block or two south of the route, in both St. Louis and University City, surrounding land is mostly zoned for single-family homes in “neighborhood preservation areas” that make a mix of land uses and increased building sizes almost impossible to construct.

In sum, even if developers are intrigued by the idea of building along the streetcar corridor, St. Louis’ project is likely to attract little actual construction because of city regulations that limit new construction. Developers wanting to build large structures will be limited by low height limits and requirements to get special permits to provide a mix of land uses. That should put a big question mark over how valuable the project will be from a land use perspective.


Portland’s streetcar, which has been in operation since 2001, has been the national model for such projects; combined with the city’s large MAX light rail network, it has offered this region a transit-friendly image. Thanks to an infusion of $75 million in federal funds, the city has built a $148 million, 3.3-mile extension that will open for service on September 22. The project is expected to roughly double existing ridership (now about 12,000 on a weekday) and attract 2.4 million square feet of development by serving the Lloyd District and Central Eastside neighborhoods, which are across the Willamette river from downtown. In these areas, there is currently a paucity of urban development and plenty of space for new construction. The project connects to the north end of the existing streetcar, runs across the river, runs south on Grand Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard to the Oregon Museum of Science and Indutry, and will eventually form a loop around the city center when it is connected with the south end of the existing streetcar in 2015.

Portland Streetcar Loop map, from Portland Streetcar

Like St. Louis’ line, Portland’s also has some transportation deficiencies. Rather than offering direct access into downtown, the route requires riders to take a circuitous journey to get there. Trains will run in a right-of-way shared with automobiles. Based on the schedule, trains will run through the area at just 7 mph, an absurdly slow pace even for a streetcar. Compounding the problem is that the service will only be provided into the Eastside at headways of 18 minutes (which is far worse than the 12-minute headways promised in 2008 for the project). If you miss a train, there is little point in waiting for the next one at those frequencies.

Nevertheless, Portland’s project offers far more opportunity for new development around the line than the St. Louis program. As shown in the images below, very high densities — up to an FAR of 12 in the Lloyd District but at least 5 everywhere — are allowed in the blocks directly surrounding the new streetcar extension, and very little has been built there so far, so there are many opportunities for growth. The top image should make us question whether some areas along the existing streetcar loop, such as the Pearl District, deserve to see a serious up-zoning to allow for increasing new development.

Above: The degree to which blocks surrounding Portland Streetcar and extension have been developed. Below: Allowed floor-area ratios by block. Source: City of Portland

With the densities allowed in Portland, significant new construction in the Eastside areas will be possible. Based on previous trends in the city, such development seems likely. In downtown Census tracts (on the west side of the river), the total population has increased massively since 1980, going from 8,671 then to 17,789 in 2010; about half of that increase was between 2000 and 2010 alone. That kind of growth would have been impossible without the increase in transportation options made possible through the construction of the city’s streetcar and light rail systems.

Meanwhile, though the percentage of people living in those areas using private cars to get to work has increased since 1980, when just 26% did (following the national trend), it has declined from 38.3% in 1990 to 36.9% in 2010, indicating that the new development is attracting people who want to live without cars on a daily basis. That’s a success that seems likely to be continued with the streetcar extension.


Transportation engineers are loath to support new streetcar lines because they cannot understand why it makes sense to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in a rail line when a far cheaper bus service would provide similar, or even more, mobility benefits. From the pure perspective of moving people from one place to another, streetcars are irrational investments.

Some Portland residents have expressed concerns that the streetcar has been excessively subsidized even as bus routes have faced service cuts and increasing fares because of declining revenue. If transportation spending were simply about helping people move around, these would be entirely legitimate claims.

But we can overlook the technical deficiencies of these two streetcar projects by emphasizing their development impacts. The point of the St. Louis and Portland projects is not necessarily to attract many users (though the latter line likely will), but rather to develop a culture of transit use in dense neighborhoods where dependence upon the automobile is not a necessity. Portland has demonstrated that a fixed-route streetcar can encourage development around stops quite effectively, and thus if it is the goal of a city to increase the density of its core areas, streetcars can be a useful tool.

Without appropriate zoning, however, the value of a streetcar project declines tremendously. In places where regulations make building large, mixed-use buildings difficult, transportation projects that will not do much to improve mobility will be incapable of encouraging much construction either.

* A FAR of 2, for example, means if you have a lot of 10,000 square feet, you can build 20,000 square feet of building on site. In an urban district, a building with a FAR of 2 might have 3 to 4 stories, depending on setbacks and surrounding yard areas.

Image at top: Portland Streetcar and MAX light rail line cross path, from Portland Streetcar

St. Louis Streetcar

St. Louis’ Loop District Gets Endorsement from Feds with Grant for Streetcar

» New “trolley lines” will connect to two light rail stations and activate region’s most urban district outside of downtown.

St. Louis’ successful bid for a $25 million grant to partially fund the construction of a new streetcar line in the city’s Loop district is being hailed in the local press as the latest achievement of a man who has in just a few of decades taken what was once a downtrodden street and transformed it into one of the city’s most active commercial areas. Joe Edwards — the “mayor” of the Delmar Loop — started a restaurant, then restored a concert hall, then opened a hotel and a bowling alley, and recently he has been the primary proponent of this rail project.

From that perspective, it makes sense that of the nine streetcar systems* the federal government has funded this year (thanks to the TIGER and Urban Circulator grants), only St. Louis will be constructing a line outside of its downtown. The rest, including Fort Worth, whose project I described earlier this month, will have their new street-running trains in the center-city.

But the Loop, which straddles the City of St. Louis and University City (both in St. Louis County), is as vital as the downtowns of many smaller cities, and it’s arguably only indirectly served by rapid transit. Its heart is roughly a half-mile from the Delmar and University City Metrolink light rail stations; Mr. Edwards will clearly see his business improve by having streetcars run in front of his enterprises, to and from the rapid transit stations and to the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park.

The 2.2-mile, $44 million St. Louis project has been planned for for more than a decade. It will run along Delmar Boulevard and DeBaliviere Avenue. Construction is planned to begin at the end of 2011, with service sometime in 2012. Vehicles will be designed to include batteries, allowing them to run through some sections without an overhead catenary. Depending on the progress of other cities, this could make St. Louis the first city in the U.S. to experiment with this sort of alternative propulsion for rail vehicles.

To the credit of the streetcar system proponents, they have raised much of the local money for the project themselves, leaving St. Louis County to dedicate its voter-approved transit expansion program to bus rapid transit, light rail, and commuter rail routes serving less-served places in the metropolitan area. It would probably be unreasonable to suggest using region-wide funds for a streetcar project running in communities so close to existing rapid transit.

But to partially make up the $19 million in construction costs not being sponsored by the federal government, the streetcar will get $5 to 8 million from private sources in addition to $6 million from the East-West Gateway Council of Governments (the local MPO). Operations will be covered by a transportation tax residents in the surrounding area approved by 97%. This strong show of local support, both financial and political, is likely one of the reasons St. Louis won the grant from the U.S. DOT over so many competitors.

From an operations perspective, the project won’t do much to improve access, since its most distant station is less than a mile from an existing Metrolink stop. With nine proposed stations on the short line and vehicles running only every ten minutes, it will in many cases be faster to walk. The historic-looking vehicles will not have low floors, meaning they won’t be able to provide nowadays essential handicapped access; just as bad, they will have no capacity advantages over traditional buses (unfortunately a routine problem for most U.S. streetcar programs).

Edwards, the neighborhood developer, has been a proponent of eventually extending the streetcar route all the way to the riverfront, mirroring the route of the city’s old trolley network. Yet this would needlessly duplicate the services already provided by Metrolink. Rather, extensions south along Big Bend Boulevard, passing by the University City Metrolink Station, the two campuses of Washington University, and reaching Richmond Heights, could be truly valuable since it would encourage transit use by students for local-area commutes and connect dense areas with a corridor not currently serviced by rapid transit.

But the program isn’t — at least at the beginning — ready to support significant increases in the number of vehicles using the line. The section of the line on DeBaliviere (leading up to Forest Park) and part of the route on Delmar will be built with only one lane for the streetcars (though it will be separated from automobile traffic, unlike the other sections). This limits frequency since trains heading in both directions will use the same right-of-way.

These are, however, the consequences of what are in transport terms still relativity small investments; similar criticisms could probably be lobbed at many of the other starter streetcar lines currently being developed in the U.S. It’s expensive to invest in a new rail line — putting in the maintenance shops, buying the vehicles, maintaining the track — so even a short line racks up cash in no time. Only so much can be built at such a low budget as is being made possible by these federal grants.

Moreover, whether transport planners like it or not, these systems are in reality a lot more oriented towards fulfilling economic development goals than providing increased mobility. More transportation of any sort, even if it doesn’t seem particularly useful for many people, will encourage investment in new construction or redevelopment. For Mr. Edwards and the community he’s helped develop around Delmar Boulevard, there’s no reason to complain.

* Dallas modern, Detroit, New Orleans, Portland, Tucson (TIGER); Cincinnati, Charlotte, Dallas M-Line, Fort Worth, St. Louis (Urban Circulator)

Finance St. Louis

Major Endorsement from St. Louis Voters for Transit Improvements

» St. Louis County voters agree to 1/2¢ sales tax increase designated for the Metro transit agency.

It’s nothing less than a roaring comeback for public transportation in St. Louis: After a narrow loss at the polls for a proposed tax increase for transit in 2008, voters came out massively yesterday for similar measure, with 63% in favor. This approval will increase sales taxes by half a cent in St. Louis County, increasing contributions to the Metro transit agency by an estimated $75 million a year. The passage of the sales tax also triggers a quarter-cent sales tax increase in St. Louis City (not part of the county) first approved in 1997, adding an additional $8 million annually to region’s transit pot.

This is the first increase in local funding for transit in St. Louis County since 1994.

Proposition A will allow Metro to increase bus and light rail service to levels offered as recently as March 2009. The failure of 2008’s Proposition M forced the transit agency to reduce operations significantly; over the past year, Metro has ceased running buses to 2,300 of the region’s 9,000 stops. Because of the damaging effects of the recession, Metro warned that without the passage of this year’s referendum, it would have to reduce services to 50% of the 2009 benchmark, representing nothing less than a desecration of the region’s public transportation network.

Yesterday’s voter approval not only will prevent such service downgrades, but also allow Metro and the East-West Gateway Council of Governments to begin planning expansion of the region’s fixed guideway routes, including light rail extensions and new bus rapid transit or commuter rail lines. Potential services have been laid out in St. Louis’ Moving Transit Forward guiding document, submitted for citizen review earlier this year.

St. Louis’ passage of a sales tax increase in the midst of a serious economic downturn serves as a powerful rebuke to anti-tax zealotry such as is promoted by conservative organizations like the Heritage Foundation and the Tea Party. More than that, though, it demonstrates that a well-run campaign premised on the promise of palpable improvements in a public service can succeed, even in a difficult environment.

As I see it, St. Louis’ success is explained by three coalescing factors. One, there has been a popular realization that transit service is an essential necessity for the efficient functioning of the region and that those operations are dependent on adequate funding. The dramatic downgrade in service provision after the failure of the 2008 referendum made getting to work more difficult for a large section of the region’s population; the lack of adequate funding was made manifest in Metro’s clear demonstration of its efforts to improve efficiencies even as it had to cut back on trains and buses.

The question is whether St. Louis could have passed a similar measure without first having to suffer through service cuts. In other words, can the citizenry be convinced of the value of transit without first having to see first hand what it’s like without it? The answer probably depends on the degree to which two other explanations for the measure’s passage have been articulated.

If Metro entered the 2008 vote with a scarred reputation — its services had been plagued by high-profile crime among other problems — the agency’s management has made a concerted effort over the past year to demonstrate that it is a good custodian of public dollars and that it has been an efficient distributor of funds. Unlike in 2008, when Metro presented no real long-term plan for future transit expansion, Metro clearly timed the writing and review of its Moving Transit Forward proposal to show concretely how it would go about spending additional funds if it had them.

Meanwhile, the public review of the Moving Transit Forward plan emphasized participatory democracy. By staging meetings across the region, developing an active website and encouraging communication between “regular people” and top management at the agency, Metro demonstrated that it wanted to plan the region’s transportation options with the population in mind. Governments have a strong incentive to show that their efforts are designed to meet the needs of people on the ground.

The effort to project this kind of competence from the public sector is obligatory if the goal is to get voters on board with a tax increase.

Third, because as a government agency Metro is forbidden to campaign for the passage of an electoral measure, a business-institutional-citizen coalition called Advance St. Louis worked in favor of Proposition A both by organizing volunteering campaigns and raising money for advertising. By providing material support for public transportation, the alliance demonstrated the universal appeal of improved rail and bus services. Advocacy of increased taxes cannot come solely from politicians, or it can be distorted into a play to “take” more money out of the taxpayer’s pocket.

Other cities hoping to increase tax for the purposes of improved transit should learn from the St. Louis example and work to develop public recognition of the value of public transportation, a demonstratively efficient public sector with clear goals, and a non-profit third party actor in favor of the program.

The passage of the sales tax is certainly big news, but the degree to which it can actually produce major service improvements is questionable: the addition of $82 million a year isn’t that much money when a significant portion of the funds must go to operations and the region has a multi-billion dollar transit plan on its plate. Metro’s almost $300 million operating budget (including depreciation) is substantially underfunded by existing revenue because tax receipts don’t keep up with cost inflation. In other words, a tax that is adequate in covering operational costs for the first year will be insufficient ten years later. This probably means that Proposition A will only provide “excess” funds for capital construction for a short period; it is likely that the entirety of its collections will unfortunately eventually have to be designated for operations. The lack of significant aid from the State of Missouri doesn’t improve matters much.

Thus Metro is in a more tenuous long-term position than the passage of this new tax implies.

Even so, the construction of both a light rail line extension and a new bus rapid transit line seem feasible over the next ten years, as long as federal funding in the form of a New Starts grant can be assembled. The construction of the Shrewsbury light rail extension, completely reliant on local financing, came in over budget and has saddled Metro with $34 million in annual back-payments on bonds used to build the corridor; its example is not to be followed.

The East-West Council of Governments has yet to select a preferred route for new service, but the group will pick one of the lines highlighted by Metro. It should focus on routes that are most cost-effective in terms of ridership — corridors that serve high densities of population — rather than extensions into the far suburbs intended purely to gain support from a geographical perspective.

Bus Commuter Rail Light Rail St. Louis

St. Louis Metro Promotes Transit Investment Plan, But Will Need Sales Tax Support to See it Through

» Referendum on April 6 could determine feasibility of the project.

Planners at Metro Transit call Moving Transit Forward St. Louis’ first serious long-range plan for public transportation. For the city’s voters, who will vote in April on a sales tax referendum called Proposition A, its release is better late than never; it is essential that the electorate have a clear understanding of the projects for which their money would be used.

For 2010, that’s what St. Louis will get, but in the process, citizens are being given the suggestion of a promise too big for their region to fulfill.

The last time around, in November 2008, voters in the transit area — including St. Louis City, St. Louis County, and St. Clair County (in Illinois) — struck down a proposal that would have increased the tax rate to pay for transit investments and potentially a new light rail line. There had been no elucidation of spending priorities before the vote, other than a claim that service would be downgraded without the new tax; this missing information diminished support significantly.

That lack of voter action has deprived the transit system of adequate funding, and it has had to cut services repeatedly in recent months. A new infusion of tax money must be put in place if the agency is ensure adequate long-term funding. That’s one of the primary reasons why Metro has made such a big deal of Moving Transit Forward, why it has held dozens of meetings to discuss it, and why it has modified the report’s suggestions as a result of public involvement.

Approved unanimously by the Metro governing board last week and likely be approved by the East-West Gateway Council of Governments (the regional MPO) later this month, the Moving Transit Forward plan promotes an enormous number of potential projects: eight light rail extensions, five bus rapid transit corridors, and two commuter rail lines.

It’s the complete antithesis of the set of minor proposals for Indianapolis unveiled last week by a local business group.

If Indiana’s capital city suffers from a deficit of ambition, Missouri’s largest metropolis may be afflicted by a glut of the stuff, at least relative to the city’s limits on funding capacity. If passed, Proposition A would generate an estimated $75 million a year from its 1/2¢ sales tax — a lot of money, to be sure, but certainly not enough to stimulate the kind of massive new capital investments promoted by the plan. This is especially true because Metro has committed to spending first on a restoration of bus and rail operations to service levels that were in place two years ago. Existing funds don’t provide adequate resources to cover those expenses.

Though Moving Transit Forward lacks a definite price tag (fault of a lack of in-depth research on each potential line), it does provide a general layout for how limited funds could be used over a thirty-year period, though it doesn’t prioritze any specific project. Within five years, two bus rapid transit routes could be built; within ten, additional BRT routes and one light rail extension could be implemented; within thirty, a second light rail alignment could be constructed. There is no clear plan for how spending for commuter rail would be undertaken.

Metro wouldn’t move forward on any of the projects without a commitment from the federal government and additional financial support at the local and state levels.

In other words, the huge network of lines suggested in the map above and in the Moving Transit Forward plan itself is more a chimera than fact — perhaps even an attempt to distract the voter with a sense of the possible, rather than bog him or her down with the reality of a lack of adequate finances. St. Louis will not be getting this system in the next thirty years, even if Proposition A is approved in April.

This isn’t to suggest that this plan has no merits. The NorthSide and SouthSide light rail lines, which would coalesce downtown, would serve the densest and most transit-friendly areas of St. Louis City; the same is true of the Grand BRT, which would operate as a sort of inner-city circumferential route and allow people to avoid downtown transfers.

I’m less enamored of the miles and miles of suburban light rail extensions also being promoted by the plan; these projects would likely attract fewer riders per mile and reinforce the job growth and residential sprawl that already plagues the St. Louis region. The highway-running bus rapid transit lines suggested for each of the Interstates radiating from downtown would be cheap to implement — they could run in converted automobile lanes — but they wouldn’t attract many users unless they could ensure quicker commute times than can cars. The commuter rail corridors, which would use existing freight track, are not transit as much as inter-city rail lines; they should be pursued by the Missouri Department of Transportation, not Metro. Spending on public transportation capital programs should be focused on St. Louis City, which has lost considerable population since mid-century.

For the region, Moving Transit Forward is a step forward, but it isn’t an exact list of projects to be funded over the next thirty years, and it makes no effort to prioritize investments. For the savvy voter, then, its suggestions may appear as just another example of Metro Transit skirting the question of how it would take advantage of its new funding capacity.

On the other hand, at least it’s a list of proposals at all: if St. Louis does move forward with the sales tax increase, it will have a refined ability to discuss and then choose from a defined universe of light rail, bus rapid transit, and commuter rail options. That’s more than it could say last time around.

Chicago High-Speed Rail Midwest High-Speed Rail St. Louis

Major Study Advocates 220 Mph Operation on Chicago-St. Louis Run

Chicago-St. Louis High Speed Rail MapMidwest High Speed Rail Association envisions a less than two-hour express trip between the cities.

Today, the Midwest High Speed Rail Association released a major report studying 220 mph train service between Chicago and St. Louis. Though the project has yet to be endorsed by any government officials, the Association’s study will stimulate further discussion about the level of investment necessary for the link between the two cities. More importantly, the study’s conclusions indicate that Illinois’ existing plans for 110 mph, four-hour service between the metro regions are out of date and under-scaled to meet travel needs in the Midwest.

The study, completed by consultant Tran Systems, was commissioned by the Association to determine costs and other elements of a potential very-fast service across the state of Illinois. The main challenge of the report was to compare the existing Amtrak corridor, which runs almost directly from Chicago to St. Louis, via Springfield, with another corridor, partially unused, which runs via Champaign and Decatur before continuing on. The latter route was found to be acceptable for a 220 mph operating speed, largely because it is quite straight throughout. The Amtrak route is constrained by numerous curves which would slow down trains considerably.

Excitingly, the study argues that trains could run express between the major cities, with stops in Champaign and Springfield, in 1h52; with more stops in Kankakee, Decatur, and Metro East, trains could complete the journey in 2h04. The study advocates hourly trips. These journey times compare favorably with operations on the very similar Paris-Lyon TGV corridor in France. According to the report, the line could be rebuilt with electric catenary for $11.5 billion in 2012 dollars, an estimate that does not include rolling stock or maintenance facilities. The study argues that the state could prevent a sudden loss of treasury by building the line in seven phases.

The short report is worth a glance-through; though it isn’t particularly detailed, it is the first step towards transforming ideas for this Illinois route from mediocrity to world-class status.

The cost of implementation for this project would be relatively minimal considering how effectively it would likely contest air and road travel along the corridor. This route is currently served by at least 41 daily round trips on a number of airlines, making it one of the U.S.’s major air links and one that would be prime territory for rail market share takeover considering the less than two hour trip made possible by high-speed trains. The route could also serve as the central corridor of a line eventually stretching west to Kansas City and south to Dallas; the connection at Chicago would similarly provide new routes to Minneapolis, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis.

It’s two bad that this report was commissioned, then, by the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, not the Illinois Department of Transportation. We need to push this route as one of America’s major transportation corridors, but few at the state or national levels are willing to take the major political step necessary to begin pushing for a financial commitment similar to California’s $10 billion high-speed rail bond approved last November. Illinois needs a push now to make this study more than simply a series of hypotheticals.

Image above: Potential routes for Express HSR service, from Midwest HSR Association