I was pleased to see the article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel earlier this week stating that work on the Milwaukee streetcar is on track to begin in summer 2014. Though the route has severe limitations and I worry that the project is set up to fail based on that route, I still think the project is worthy of support. Here is why.
First, having actual tracks in the ground will hopefully end the illogical bus v. train debate in Milwaukee. Urban transportation is about moving people from point A to point B, but for some reason the debate over urban transit in Milwaukee is all about modes of transportation rather than the concept of transportation. How often have you heard opponents of the streetcar argue that trains are outdated?
Incidentally, both buses and trains are descendants of the omnibus, which was essentially a horse drawn box-like container. The first omnibus used for mass-transit in America, in New York in 1829, did not operate on a fixed track. It wasn’t until 1832 that someone decided to put the omnibus on a track and call it a horse-railway. So arguably, a streetcar operated on a fixed rail is a more modern idea than a bus. But that is beside the point. What matters is that Milwaukee needs a modern transit system, and the construction of the streetcar will hopefully shift the debate to how Milwaukee can best use a diversity of modes of transportation (like most other large cities) to meet the needs of its citizens and visitors.
Second, if the potential route of the Milwaukee streetcar (check out the second graphic down here) is ever realized it would be hugely successful. Connecting natural destinations like downtown, the airport, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Marquette University, and Miller Park will ensure ridership in a way the original route does not. More important, in can turn Milwaukee from a car-city to a public transit city. That idea may seem abstract, but I do not think it coincidence that the cities most successful at attracting young people (and their entrepreneurial energy) are easy to navigate via predictable public transportation.
Which leads to my third point – having tracks in the ground creates route permanence. Nobody (that I know of at least) opens a business or buys a home because it is near a bus line. As we’ve seen in Milwaukee bus routes can and do change frequently. Route changes are much less likely when there are tracks in the ground, making it more likely that people will invest near lines.
Fourth, building the streetcar demonstrates that Milwaukee is willing to take risks and boldly invest in its future. And the streetcar is a risk, especially with its current route. But without taking this risk the city will never get the broader system streetcar advocates are smartly emphasizing. I admit part of my support for the streetcar is emotional Milwaukee boosterism; a major diverse city like Milwaukee ought to have a major diverse transportation system.
The shame about all these years (decades?) of debate over the streetcar is that it could have been so much more productive. Maybe if we were not mired in argument over the existence of fixed rail there would have been agreement on a better and/or broader route. But regardless, the streetcar still has huge upside, and I am hopeful the boldness and persistence of advocates will pay-off in the years to come.