Frequently Asked Questions
For most station locations with room for development, mixed-use development normally occurs, including retail, restaurants, entertainment and residential as well as offices or lodging.
On the ground floor, uses might include a pharmacy or shoe-repair service, a cafe or sandwich shop, and all sorts of retail, including clothing, shoes and books.
On upper floors, residential is typical. Since the 2001 opening of the Portland streetcar system, 7,200 residential units have been built within three blocks of the streetcar system — most within one block. New downtown residents need services. Mixed-use development allows these services to be located close to apartments and condominiums.
Other features adjacent to some streetcar stations are plazas, courtyards or other public spaces. These gathering places are often encircled by restaurants, entertainment and retail. During the summer, outside restaurant tables create a "sidewalk café" atmosphere. These days, public spaces typically include public art or attractive landscaping.
Mixed-use development encourages more people to walk, since much of what they need is nearby, resulting in a vibrant community in station areas.
There are a number of studies that show what distances people will travel to and from transit stops. Results vary by size of city, type of transit and whether transit-oriented development is present. In smaller cities, one-quarter mile is the average distance (or five minutes is the average time) people will travel to reach a transit stop.
In larger cities such as Chicago and New York, because of the density and pedestrian environment, people will cover longer distances. The average in larger cities ranges from one-third to one-half mile (or up to 10 minutes' time). And some commonly walk a mile each day between the train station and their place of employment.
Multiple research findings indicate that people will:
- go farther if the station area incorporates transit-oriented development — including a mix of land use (residential, retail, services) and pedestrian-friendly features (wide walks, plazas, landscaping, window-fronts).
travel farther to a rail station than a bus stop. The average distance to a rail station — including streetcar, light rail or commuter rail — is one-half mile, or 10 minutes.
Multiple research findings indicate that people will:
- Safety and security are big concerns, which might explain why people will go farther with transit-oriented development nearby. Mixed land use tends to provide more activity and more people on the streets.
People will go greater distances when the path is free of street crossings where they'd need to wait for traffic to clear or signals to change.
Measures of streetcar success include the number of riders (actual versus projected), money captured through fare revenues and nearby economic development related to the streetcar and its route(s).
Ridership — After only two years of operation, the Portland streetcar ridership was more than double any projections made during its feasibility study.
Fare revenues — If fare revenues surpass the estimated average due to exceptional ridership, this also indicates the public's willingness to pay for the service — a key measure of project success.
Economic development — Higher property values, the number of building permits issued near streetcar routes and related job creation are measures of economic development. The first leg of the Tampa streetcar system cost $56 million. However, Tampa reported $1 billion of economic development attributable to the streetcar — a 1,000 percent return on this project's investment of $56 million.
Other measures — Other less tangible indicators of success for a Grand Rapids streetcar system will include the increased vibrancy of the downtown area — for example, if it attracts more employees and students or results in economic advantages over surrounding urban areas. Some of these factors can be measured by population or sales tax revenue growth, but are not as easily directly attributed solely to the streetcar.
Will the streetcar help connect the various college campuses? We have at least six colleges represented downtown, but we don't have a "college town" feel.
The Streetcar Study Task Force is examining part of this question. While a route along Monroe and Market links some downtown venues, a different route may provide a much more useful connection between Grand Rapids' university campuses and existing gathering places such as Monroe Center and Avenue of the Arts. Revisit this web page in the coming weeks for further developments related to a change in the proposed routing.
While a streetcar system can provide the transportation component of a "college town" environment, a combination of elements — including affordable, mixed-income housing, additional services and entertainment — will help create a sustainable community atmosphere.
Looking well down the road (or track, in this case), a streetcar system would connect multiple neighborhoods on each point of the compass. Initially an "anchor leg" is needed to connect the various spokes of the system to downtown destinations and the hub or operations facility.
Where do residents want the system to go? Eventually, north, south, east and west from the hub. So, the next set of questions includes the following. What should be the next priority? What potential route directions already have destinations or clusters of shops, restaurants, and entertainment?
Many residents have said East Hills and Eastown are ready made for streetcar service, so east may be a priority. However, there are many steps, such as figuring out funding sources, construction and initial operation of the anchor leg, before deciding on the next priority.
Streetcars have several desirable features for downtown areas. First, with metro dwellers and workers nationwide demonstrating a strong preference for rail transit, streetcar systems draw more riders than equivalent bus systems.
Second, streetcars have no vehicle emissions and therefore help improve air quality.
Third, while streetcars have a higher initial investment, their operating cost is typically lower than equivalent bus systems. Higher operating cost for buses is attributed to escalating diesel costs, and shorter service life. The average life span for streetcars is 25 to 40 years and 12 years for buses. This trade-off will be part of the feasibility study evaluation. Is it worth a higher initial cost to provide increased benefits for many years to come?
Although Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) vehicles have special characteristics (such as multiple doors and low floors), they run on rubber tires. Streetcars have similar characteristics but run on steel wheels and rails.
Rails account, in part, for a higher construction cost per mile.
Both BRT and Streetcar have fixed stations providing maps and scheduling information, electronic signs displaying vehicle arrivals and departures, security cameras, and a way to pay fares. Where BRT and Streetcar routes overlap, the vehicles share the same station.
Both vehicles are energy efficient. Hybrid diesel-electric BRT vehicles reduce fuel costs by about 30% and reduce emissions by over 30%. Streetcars draw power from overhead wires, called overhead contact systems (OCS), and have no street-level emissions.
In other cities, both BRT and Streetcars have stimulated economic and transit development, and vibrancy and vitality around their stations.
This is exactly the sort of question the feasibility study will address. The ultimate goal is to connect existing and developing residential areas with jobs, services and retail. Depending on the selected route, the streetcar may also serve convention business and tourism, including stops at DeVos Place and Van Andel Arena.
A streetcar system has the potential to provide needed service for an extended portion of the day.
A streetcar system could link people with housing, remote parking, hospitals, offices, museums, hotels, restaurants, and other activity centers without the need for more parking garages and without street-level emissions.