Sandy Johnston | New Haven Independent

Streetcars, innocent as they may seem, are in fact one of the most controversial topics among 21st-century planners—and among people who care about New Haven, as witnessed by passionate debate over a plan that the Harp Administration revived this week.

This seemingly never-ending discussion is of interest to me both as a New Haven expat and as a planner-in-training, since it directly reflects some of the loudest debates in the planning and transportation professions.

New Haven’s nostalgia for streetcars as a mode of transportation is certainly understandable. The city was once home to a comprehensive streetcar system, the last remains of which can be seen at the Shoreline Trolley Museum in East Haven. Though the last trolleys operated in 1948, and despite the damage done by the misguided urban renewal efforts of the 1960s, the city still has “good bones” that make it transit-friendly—a logical street grid, densely built neighborhoods, a system of mixed-use arterial roads, and a compactness conducive to getting across town quickly even on a local bus.

It is crucial, therefore, to understand that the recent proposals for bringing a “streetcar” back to New Haven mean something entirely different from what existed in the city before 1948. The 21st-century urban streetcar, often built as a downtown circulator (as is proposed in New Haven), has only limited value as a technology for mobility. Streetcars that run in traffic lanes together with cars move no faster, and often more slowly (you can’t dodge obstacles if you’re on rails!) than bus service on an equivalent route.

Indeed, most advocates and planners point to the primary purpose of the modern streetcar as being not urban mobility, but economic development. Streetcars are supposed to appeal to a Millennial generation that craves the urban experience and living with few or no cars, and their “permanence” (it’s much harder to move rails embedded in a street than a bus stop) is supposed to indicate to developers a city’s commitment to dense and transit-friendly (and therefore profitable) development. Photo Credit:Reuters/Mosab Omar {….}