Why the Streetcar Won’t Work
The planned route will duplicate bus routes and won’t solve any of the city’s needs.
Streetcars are the new fad in urban planning and it seems like every city in the United States is planning or already building one. While they’re a little late to the party, Mayor Tom Barrett and some civic and business leaders here are determined to make sure Milwaukee isn’t left out of the trend.
Unfortunately, though, just because something is popular doesn’t mean it is a good idea. That’s especially true for the Milwaukee streetcar project. There are a number of flaws with the plan that make me believe it should be sent back to the drawing board, even if that means Milwaukee forefits the $54.9 million in federal funding dedicated to the project
The Streetcar Won’t Increase Mobility or Job Access
One of the benefits of the streetcar touted by proponents is that it will increase job access and mobility for city residents. At best, this is a misunderstanding of how transit works, at worst it intentionally misleads the public in order to gain support for the project.
Portland native and transit planner Jarrett Walker has written extensively about this issue on his Human Transit blog. Streetcars running in mixed traffic have been shown to have little to no impact on mobility and job access when they parallel existing bus routes. While the proposed streetcar for Milwaukee would include improvements like better-designed stops, pre-boarding fare collection and all-door boarding that can lead to improvements in speed, these features are by no means exclusive to streetcars. There are bus systems all over the world that include these, just as there are train systems that do not. Milwaukee’s streetcar will run in mixed-traffic parallel to MCTS routes 15, 30, and 57. In the case of routes 57 and 15, the streetcar will run more slowly, and in the case of route 30, less frequently.
The Streetcar Won’t Boost Economic Development or the Tax Base
The Streetcar Isn’t Well Designed for Expansion
Milwaukee already has a very well-patronized bus system that excels at providing short, local trips. Partly as a result, we have the third-highest transit ridership per capita of any major city in the Midwest. What Milwaukee’s system doesn’t do well, however, is provide fast trips across the city and county. As a result, bus trips from Downtown and suburban jobs to most neighborhoods in the city are often prohibitively long, making it harder for transit-dependent Milwaukeeans to access jobs and educational opportunities. Any major transit investment should take this into account. A downtown streetcar can easily act as a starter route for a larger city-wide system that could help rectify this problem but to do that it needs to be routed places where there is high demand for transit (like Wisconsin Avenue, not St. Paul Ave in the Third Ward), stop less frequently than every block, and run in its own lanes out of traffic. These are all things that are compatible with streetcar technology. However, because it’s not designed to serve these needs, the initial segment of the streetcar is predicted to have low ridership. This could actually end up frustrating efforts to build future extensions by making it look like rail won’t work in Milwaukee.
The Streetcar Won’t Attract Millennials
Another argument that has been made for the streetcar is it will attract and retain young professionals in Milwaukee. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Data has show that millenials primarily move for educational and employment opportunities (something which is lacking in many fields in Milwaukee). Income and racial inequality has repeatedly been pointed out as an impediment to growing Milwaukee’s economy. If Milwaukee wants to grow its economy and attract more millenials (and everyone else), we’ll need to focus on solving this inequality, not building expensive projects that will further concentrate wealth and use up city resources that could have been spent elsewhere.
The Streetcar Won’t Meet the Needs of Minorities or the Transit-Dependent
The most important reason why the Milwaukee Streetcar project needs to be sent back to the drawing board is that it does nothing to meet the needs of minorities or the transit dependent. The initial route for the streetcar, coupled with the fact that the city couldn’t find the resources to initially extend the streetcar up N. 4th Street towards N. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. and Hillside Terrace but magically came up with $25 million to extend the line to the proposed Couture luxury condo tower, shows a troubling lack of concern on the part of Mayor Barrett and city leaders for racial and economic justice. In a city where African-Americans and Hispanics outnumber whites almost 2 to 1, it is deeply problematic for a major transit investment like a streetcar to only serve overwhelmingly white neighborhoods. This doesn’t mean we don’t need or shouldn’t build better transit on the East Side or Downtown, but there needs to be a focus on initial routes that serve a representative swath of the city and address the huge social and economic issues this city faces.
Milwaukee Streetcar Maps and Renderings
Milwaukee Streetcar Coverage
- The Story Behind the Streetcar Referendum – Michael Horne and Bruce Murphy – January 8th, 2015
- Council Delays Streetcar Until January – Jeramey Jannene – December 16th, 2014
- Committee Takes No Action on Streetcar – Jeramey Jannene – December 10th, 2014
- Committee Approves Milwaukee Streetcar – Jeramey Jannene – December 9th, 2014
- RACM Approves Tax Funding for Streetcar – Michael Horne – December 8th, 2014
- How to Sell the Streetcar – Michael Horne – November 28th, 2014
- Next Stops for the Streetcar – Michael Horne – November 24th, 2014
- Barrett Moving Forward with Streetcar – Jeramey Jannene – November 18th, 2014
- Who Will Be Streetcar Operator – Michael Horne – May 8th, 2014
- A Streetcar Named Cooperation? – Dave Reid – April 27th, 2014
- How a Streetcar Spurs Development – Angie Schmitt – November 3rd, 2013
- Streetcar Social – Michael Horne – September 12th, 2013
- Mayor Says Streetcar is a “Trojan Horse” – Michael Horne – April 17th, 2013
- Whoops, We Changed Our Mind – Dave Reid – September 27th, 2012
- Battle of the Bobs: Donovan vs Bauman Streetcar Press Conference – Jeramey Jannene – May 18th, 2012
- Important Hoan Bridge and Milwaukee Streetcar Meetings This Week – Dave Reid – November 14th, 2011
- Milwaukee Streetcar Passes Common Council – Jeramey Jannene – July 26th, 2011
- Keep the Milwaukee Streetcar Moving Forward – Jeramey Jannene – July 8th, 2011
- Milwaukee Streetcar at Apex – Jeramey Jannene – June 16th, 2011
- Milwaukee Streetcar Takes Key Step Forward – Jeramey Jannene – May 6th, 2010
- Milwaukee Streetcar Meeting This Thursday – Jeramey Jannene – October 5th, 2009
- Milwaukee Streetcar Routes Unveiled by Mayor Barrett – Jeramey Jannene – September 21st, 2009
- Milwaukee Streetcar Round-Up – Jeramey Jannene – April 19th, 2009
- Vote for your Favorite Milwaukee Streetcar Route – Jeramey Jannene – March 25th, 2009
- Design Your Own Streetcar Route – Jeramey Jannene – March 23rd, 2009
- Streetcars Coming to Milwaukee – Dave Reid – March 14th, 2009
For more project details, including the project timeline, financing, route and possible extensions, see our extensive past coverage.
- Plats and Parcels: Lakefront Streetcar Extension Scheduled for June 2022 Opening - Jeramey Jannene - Dec 6th, 2020
- Transportation: Should Milwaukee Stop The Hop? - Jeramey Jannene - Oct 13th, 2020
- Transportation: The Hop Now Wears a Mask - Jeramey Jannene - Aug 18th, 2020
- Eyes on Milwaukee: Is A Couture Deal Finally Coming? - Jeramey Jannene - May 13th, 2020
- Transportation: SUV Driver Runs Into The Hop - Jeramey Jannene - Feb 28th, 2020
- Transportation: Streetcar Kiosks Could Bring In $500,000 Annually - Jeramey Jannene - Feb 20th, 2020
- Thanks A Million, Hop Riders! - The Hop - Feb 19th, 2020
- Transportation: We Energies Will Sponsor Streetcar - Jeramey Jannene - Feb 10th, 2020
- Transportation: Streetcar Ridership Up in January Versus 2019 - Jeramey Jannene - Feb 7th, 2020
- Transportation: Streetcar Ridership Up in December - Jeramey Jannene - Jan 14th, 2020
Read more about Milwaukee Streetcar here