Do streetcars support commercial development? New Orleans results say yes
New streetcar lines are in the planning stages in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Proponents cite not only the lines’ ability to strengthen the transit system, but also their potential as catalysts for development. Estimating the impacts of streetcars is challenging, however, as most U.S. lines operate in downtown areas with many interrelated factors at play. A recent U of M research project examined the issue through the prism of one city’s experience: post-Katrina New Orleans.
The researchers estimated how the frequency of commercial and residential permits changed with distance from streetcar stops, controlling for hurricane damage, proximity to existing commercial areas, and pre-Katrina demographics. The streetcar system at the time of data collection (2005–2008) included three lines totaling roughly 12 route-miles, including the central business district, several residential neighborhoods, two universities, and the French Quarter riverfront. (New Orleans has since chosen to expand its streetcar network.)
They found that throughout the system, building permits strongly reflect the distance to stops—and that commercial and residential permits move in opposite directions within the first 750 feet.
In contrast, the number of neighborhood residential permits rose about 24 percent with every 100 feet from a stop. “These trends suggest that commercial uses may have outbid residential uses in the immediate areas near streetcar stops in residential neighborhoods,” Guthrie says. “The result is a diversity of land uses near stops.”
Based on their results, Guthrie and Fan conclude that traditional streetcar lines can help increase commercial development not just in downtown business districts, but in other urban areas as well.
The findings also indicate that streetcars shape development in urban neighborhoods in a fundamentally different fashion than light rail. “Streetcars appear to have impacts that are less intense at each stop, but because they run on continuous corridors with close stops, they act on large geographical areas,” Guthrie explains. “In the right neighborhoods, streetcars may be capable of similar or even larger overall impacts than light rail.”
The researchers caution that New Orleans is a unique city, and Hurricane Katrina a unique event, so applying the findings to other cities or corridors would require consideration of similarities with and differences from the study area.
The full research paper is in the Journal of Planning Education and Research.
- “Streetcars and Recovery: An Analysis of Post-Katrina Building Permits around New Orleans Streetcar Lines,” Journal of Planning Education and Research, December 2013; vol. 33, 4: pp. 381-394
- “How the Streetcar Shaped Post-Katrina New Orleans,” The Atlantic Cities, Nov. 29, 2013