Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Do Millennials Oppose the Streetcar?

Not really, but a new survey is fueling misunderstandings. What do millennials really want?

By - Dec 15th, 2015 11:05 am
A rendering of a Brookville streetcar in Milwaukee's Third Ward. Milwaukee's streetcars will be manufactured by U.S.-based Brookville Equipment Corp.

A rendering of a Brookville streetcar in Milwaukee’s Third Ward. Milwaukee’s streetcars will be manufactured by U.S.-based Brookville Equipment Corp.

No sooner had the Public Policy Forum survey of metro area-millennials been released than I heard from a streetcar opponent noting the survey found a minority of respondents, only 47 percent, supported a downtown streetcar.

The only problem is that this was a survey of the four-county metro area and 38 percent of those responding live outside the city and were far more likely to oppose the streetcar. The survey found 52 percent of millennials living in the city supported the streetcar and 61 percent of them also felt “effective mass transit to connect downtown attractions” was important compared to just 46 percent of non-city residents.

Meanwhile, the media response to the survey has also perpetrated the idea that millennials really want the same thing as older metro-area residents. “Millennials are just like the rest of us,” the Business Journal declared, no doubt cheering its older readers.

Curiously, this idea was also pushed by Rob Henken, executive director of the Public Policy Forum, who told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel “The preferences and concerns of metro Milwaukee millennials with regard to the region’s livability, attractiveness and transportation needs are not much different from what might have been expected from the general population.”

But that is a direct contradiction with the report that Henken co-authored, which states flatly that “we only surveyed millennials. Consequently, while it would be desirable to do so, it is not possible to use our survey responses to compare the views of Metro Milwaukee millennials with those of older generations.”

So we can only speculate as to how millennials compare to their elders, but I’d say their priorities look quite different. When asked if they supported major transportation initiatives, 65 percent supported additional capacity on major highways, 59 percent supported faster and more frequent Amtrak service to Chicago and 52 percent supported better and expanded bike trails, bike lanes, and bike facilities. I’d guess the percentage of baby boomers choosing more Amtrak service and bike lanes as a priority would be way lower, probably below 20 percent of respondents.

Indeed the big emphasis on train and bike transit by local millennials would seem right in line with a recent national survey by Portland State University and the National Association of Realtors , which found millennials use transit much more than other generations (40 percent took transit in the last month compared to 28 percent for Gen X, 19 percent for Baby Boomers, and 8 percent for Silent Generation). And “over 30% of Millennials reported walking to or from work/school in the past 30 days, compared to less then 20% of Gen Xers or Baby Boomers. Over 60% of Millennials reported walking for errands, shopping or eating out.”

News flash: Millennials are younger and more active, and that changes their priorities. Consider that respondents repeatedly cited parks and recreation as a high priority: 69 percent picked that as important when choosing a metro area, ranking it higher than property taxes, poverty rates or arts/culture. And when ranking amenities, parks, trails and open spaces were ranked higher than concert and music venues, nightlife, or professional sports teams.

As for activities they engaged in during the last year, 78 percent had been to a Milwaukee County Park, second only to retail mall shopping and more than 19 other attractions, including Summerfest, State Fair and Downtown nightlife. Considering that 29 percent of respondents live outside Milwaukee County and could be going to parks in the county they lived in (which wasn’t a choice in this question), the 78 percent figure likely understates how many went to parks. Clearly this is a top priority for millennials.

By contrast, pro sports ranks considerably lower. On that same list of activities, a Brewers baseball game ranked eighth and a Bucks game twelfth in activities engaged in during the last year. And when asked what cultural and entertainment activities are important when considering a metro area to live, pro baseball ranked seventh, behind concert/music venues, public zoo, art museum, theater venues, science museum and history museum. Pro basketball ranked ninth, also behind professional baseball and resident theater companies.

Would older people in the metro area have ranked parks so high and pro sports this low? That seems unlikely. But it’s an interesting question in light of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce’s push for funding of an NBA arena. Certainly for millennials it doesn’t look like a high priority. By contrast the MMAC push for a four-county tax to support the Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee County Zoo and Milwaukee Public Museum is more in line with the priorities of young residents, though they might want upkeep of parks added to that list.

The big news emphasized in media accounts of the survey was the importance of crime. The crime rate ranked as the number one factor when choosing a metro area in which to live and ranked first as “the most critical issue facing Metro Milwaukee in terms of attracting adults in their 20s & 30s.”

It’s clearly an important issue, though Henken and co-author Jeff Schmidt somewhat undercut the finding with this observation: “We found the emphasis on crime among Metro Milwaukee millennials to be somewhat surprising, as Milwaukee is not necessarily known as an unsafe city, despite a recent spike in the murder rate. It is possible that this emphasis was skewed by the substantial attention being given to the city’s murder rate at the time the survey was conducted, but there is no way of knowing if that is the case.”

Meanwhile jobs consistently ranked second as the most pressing issue for respondents. Only half of respondents said metro Milwaukee provides opportunities for family supporting employment and career advancement, and only about one-third of black respondents agreed. That’s a hugely negative finding, if metro Milwaukee’s leaders hope to retain younger residents.

And by the way, that’s really what this survey is about. As the authors note, “because we only surveyed millennials who currently live in the metro area, the results may not hold much relevance for those considering how to attract millennials from outside of the region. Indeed, more than two-thirds of those surveyed originally are from Metro Milwaukee and have not lived outside of Wisconsin since turning 18 years old, suggesting that the survey is far better suited to assess strategies for retaining millennials already living here.”

In short, this survey does nothing to contradict national research suggesting “walkable” cities with good transportation, bicycle friendly policies and cultural amenities have more appeal for millennials. It does not tell us why young people from other cities have moved to Milwaukee. It is a portrait mostly of young adults who grew up here and will probably stay here — if they can only get a decent job.

More about the Milwaukee Streetcar

For more project details, including the project timeline, financing, route and possible extensions, see our extensive past coverage.

Read more about Milwaukee Streetcar here

45 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Do Millennials Oppose the Streetcar?”

  1. beer baron says:

    Well done in picking this survey apart. I read it last week and found it interesting and at first disappointing. Then, the breakdown of numbers took hold and showed what the real results seemed to be:

    Millennials in the burbs are most like the old generation with anti-city views, anti-transit views, the “Milwaukee is a cesspool of crime,” views, etc. etc. etc.

    Meanwhile the city Millennials seemed to be the dynamic forward thinking group that wants good things and wants the city to be world-class, not the forgotten rustbelt area that had the glory of once long ago that the burban people view and crave. The real sea change will come with younger city and county leadership that will be bolder than our current crop. Too many dance afraid of talk radio while others create old blocs bent on self-appeal as opposed to actually improving life (i.e. the county board). I’ve never volunteered for a campaign or gave to a politician, but once these new kids start showing up with bold ideas and no fear of the suburbs, my god, I’ll vote for them and volunteer all day!

  2. Stinky says:

    The headline focuses on the streetcar, but the article seems to be more about the grim outlook for attracting young people to Milwaukee. Recent development suggests the city is doubling down on driving and pro sports. Older townies will be on the hook for these decisions for another generation or so at least, meanwhile young taxpayers will continue to leave for greener pastures.

    Good luck balancing those books.

  3. Mary Kate says:

    The biggest problem with that study I’ve seen so far has been the possible over interpretation of results. Without knowing the questions, the design, the controls, etc. none of which have been offered in any article I’ve seen reported I don’t see how anybody can be making the sweeping statements they are making about the results. Overall it seems designed to generate a predetermined answer, it sounds a lot like many consumer surveys that never get at true good information. In any event I agree with you, saying that millennials care about being able to commute safely and conveniently on the freeways means that they don’t support the streetcar is quite a stretch. Plus right now they aren’t being offered an alternative, they need to get to work and home, if you had asked a few of them if we expanded the freeway vs gave you that great bus system you had while in school in Minneapolis which would you pick you might have gotten a different answer, but, you can’t design a survey that way. However, that is where being careful about interpreting the results of what you did get comes in.

    Of course they care about crime, who is going to answer no I don’t care about crime, millennials are known for being more involved in and caring more about society and the environment than previous generations, I truthfully would have expected that number to be higher. My guess is however many readers missed the point, they are concerned and care about it, they aren’t scared away from the city and reactionary about it.

    I do find it hard to believe that a survey would show less than 20% of older inhabitants of the city would support expanding Amtrak service and bike trails. The population that moves to the city moves precisely because they enjoy a lively active city experience without a car. That includes a significant expansion of the streetcar, expansion of Amtrak, and more bike trails. I see plenty of grey haired riders of Bubblr, and bikers and walkers around the city, I would anticipate that increasing as amenities increase. You’re talking about a generation that grew up active, of women that grew up with Title IX and sports, that are keeping orthopedic surgeons quite busy now and the health system adjusting to their needs, I don’t see them slowing down and taking to a rocking chair on their porch.

  4. Bruce Murphy says:

    Mary Kate, you can link to the study in the first paragraph of my story and the report explains methodology, and lists all questions asked. I don’t believe the study was intended to generate a predetermined answer and saw no red flags in how it was conducted. PPF does solid work in my opinion. The questions I raised were more about how the survey was reported.

  5. Mary Kate says:

    Thank you Bruce Murphy, I’m sorry I missed that link, but that is still a pretty brief description of methodology, although I’ll take your word on their work. I still think if people aren’t careful about over interpretation of those results it could lead them down some wrong paths, but I heartily agree with you on how poor some of the reporting has been.

  6. Rob Henken says:

    Hey Bruce, very fair and thoughtful piece, and thanks for pointing out that the full survey results, questions, methodology, etc. are available on our website for everyone to review and draw their own conclusions. Just wanted to point out that the Journal Sentinel quote you mention was taken from a larger quote from our media release, which reads as follows: “On the surface, the survey found that the preferences and concerns of Metro Milwaukee millennials with regard to the region’s livability, attractiveness, and transportation needs are not much different from what might have been expected from the general population. Yet, probing more deeply, we also see that characteristics often cited as critical to attracting millennials to our region – such as a variety of cultural and education attractions, a robust parks system, and vibrant concert and music venues – do register high on the list of reasons cited by millennials for their decision to live in Metro Milwaukee.” I was not trying to push readers toward any conclusion, but was merely trying to point out the nuanced results and the need not only to absorb the general findings, but to probe more deeply as you have done.

  7. bruce Murphy says:

    Rob, thanks for clarification. The full quote you’ve shared is more in line with your report’s conclusions. I’d say your quote was taken out of context by the newspaper.

  8. John Casper says:

    Rob, thanks for the clarification.

  9. wisconsin conservative digest says:

    Some of you might remember that the last 5 years or more, those of us that are Conservative have been talking about rebuilding the city from the neighborhoods up, instead of the top, toys, on down. First we must listen to David Clarke, 80% of vote last time, instead of th Barrett/Chisholm/Flynn/Kremers, soft on crime, who are far more interested in their vendetta against Walker, than they are on stopping crime.
    All they do is find ways to blame someone, mostly their little sisters.
    After that if you want families you need to teach kids to read, only 15% of kids at MPS, in 3rd grade, can do that. That is disgusting, but it shows the quality of the leaders in Milwaukee, especially at this site.
    Then we have the heroin/fentayl deaths, human trafficking, no jobs, poverty.
    Trolleys, Bucks, culture will not do that, families come after you have a city that is livable, and the people here mostly are whiners and do nothings, never solve problems. losers all.

  10. beer baron says:

    WCD, Put the scotch down. I know you don’t like transit but that post doesn’t make sense. But if you do care about the city as you claim you do, then buy a house here in a depressed neighborhood and help. Otherwise worry about your own community.

  11. wisconsin conservative digest says:

    Typical answer from one of the Left wing, male, white racists that control Milwaukee. we need better bus routes not toys for downtown.
    Fact is that I have had lots of property, lived and worked in Milwaukee, the greater part of the last 50 years. Where Milwaukee goes, so goes the SE Wisconsin and it is disintegrating, in first stages of Detroit.

  12. Marie says:

    Every study has built-in biases or limitations, but this one seems pretty fair in the survey questions. The researchers were also fair in assessing potential limitations in interpreting the results.

    But it’s stretching it to interpret from the study that millennials here don’t care about a streetcar or other mass transit. It’s hardly a surprise in a car-centric city that anyone of any age would want the roads kept up, since potholes are a costly annoyance. Yet, it’s still a leap for many here to even imagine mass transit going from the suburbs to the city.

    Thanks, Bruce, for also emphasizing the most unequivocal takeaway (unstated in several other news reports)–that respondents value parks most highly and that they use Milwaukee County Parks no matter where they live. As you note, suburbanites probably use their neighborhood parks too, as all Americans of any age do. Based on other research I’ve seen, older people value parks as much as young people, but sometimes for different uses.

    The only people who may be all that concerned about parks are the wealthiest people with the most options for recreation and getaways, including second & third homes, boats, etc. Yet even they may use our county parks yacht basins and attend park concerts and events like Bastille Days. Unfortunately, many of the powers-that-be here don’t quite comprehend the value of parks, including as economic drivers. Milwaukee seems unusual in that respect, since most cities are making public spaces a priority because of their ROI.

    Millennial or otherwise, many people can only attend a cultural attraction or zoo on a special occasion. In contrast, enjoying a green space, trail or public plaza can be done by everyone 365 days a year.

  13. Marie says:

    Oops…Make that “The only people who may NOT be all that concerned about parks are the wealthiest people with the most options for recreation and getaways…

  14. John Casper says:

    WI CON digest,

    You’re not a conservative, because you’re not a capitalist. Per Adam Smith, it’s the DIVISION OF LABOR which leads to specialization. That’s what drives productivity increases. That creates wealth. The street car is the specialized transit design for dense urban areas. If you’d ever owned a car, you’d know the last place you want it is downtown. Search on “Integrated Multi-Modal Transit.” Let us know what you don’t understand.

    When you get serious about helping the descendants of the slaves, publish Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case For Reparations.”
    “Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.”

    Quote any statement he makes that you don’t think is accurate, complete and true.

  15. 2fs says:

    Good article – but god do I hate this “generation” garbage. I can’t keep straight who’s supposed to be in which generation, and I have no idea who the “Silent Generation” is supposed to be. (Probably me – ironically – born in very late ’61, too late to reasonably be called a “Boomer” but too early for whatever is supposed to follow that.)

    What the hell is wrong with “people in their 20s” etc.? (And while I’m griping: can we kill “thirtysomething” written like that? The show that led to the coinage has been off the air for decades…)

  16. Michael says:

    52% of millenials living in the city supporting the street car is actually pretty low and while above the 50% mark does raise a by of a red flag.

    Personally (speaking as a millennial who lives on the east side) I don’t see the value. When I think of problems in Milwaukee worth investing in, getting around downtown is not one of them. Between cars, busses, taxis, ubers and bar shuttles (to summerfest and baseball games) there are plenty of options available. Heck even walking is not difficult, our downtown is a pretty small area. Yes I get we have federal money and yes I know the argument that it’s a start, but heck in the next 10-20 years we will have driverless cars that will make other transit options near obsolete.

    At the end of the day it seems like many of the arguments for a streetcar are that white people don’t ride busses.

  17. Why are we taking this survey so seriously?

    “78 percent had been to a Milwaukee County Park”

    What does this mean? What did they do in the park?

    For all we know 78% have walked more than a block on a sidewalk. People make 78% more right turns than left.

    So what?

  18. Kat says:

    Michael, I think you’re my new hero. Thanks for lending some common sense to the streetcar nonsense from the target demographic.

    1) 47% constitutes a minority? Yes, that 3% away from a 50/50 split is really going to shift the tide of opinion.
    2) I was just in Portland. The LIGHT RAIL is successful because it runs to the airport, parallel to freeways, across the rivers, and has several overlapping lines into the various “districts.” The STREETCAR is a failure. I never saw one in my 5 days there, and the tracks ran right outside of the lobby of my hotel.
    3) That being said, the light rail took up a considerable amount of parking and driving space. The forward-thinking culture of the Pacific NW is not SE WI. We love our cars. We want to park next to where we’re going, especially in the big-bad-intimidating downtown of Milwaukee (pun fully intended). Portland’s mass transit setup basically discourages driving in the city. There is a steady stream of bikers, pedestrians, buses, and trains for cars to play leapfrog with.
    4) Which brings me to my point of the massive cultural shift required to change how we park, how we drive, being aware (probably while driving after having a 9th Miller Lite after the big game) of the trains and their departing/boarding passengers, etc. Good luck with that.
    5) Good job further driving a wedge between the city and the suburbs. I’ve lived here for 10 years and only see the vehemence exchanged between both “sides” increase in bitter attacks. Wouldn’t it be good for Milwaukee’s economy (restaurants, sporting events, museums, shops, etc.) to encourage suburbanite patronage? Wouldn’t it be cool for growing places like downtown Waukesha to encourage visitors from the city to do the same? Nah. We all should be suspect of those living in the city for either being hippies or criminals, and we should hate suburbanites because we assume their WASPiness will stifle the burgeoning coolness.

  19. Crystal says:

    Totally agree with Michael! I also speak as a millennial living on the east side – I still don’t see the point of the streetcar. I take the busses or walk…not once have I ever had an issue getting where I need to go in the city with the current transportation options. I feel something like what Kat mentions in point #2 would be a much more useful option – a light rail system that offers transportation to/from near suburbs, airport, etc. that avoids the highway so you don’t have to sit in rush hour. Then at least it would be easier for suburbanites to patronize downtown establishments (economic boost) and it would hugely benefit those of us that live in the city and need to go places that are not a quick and easy bus commute due to traffic and not located downtown. The current streetcar plans will benefit a very, very small portion of the city. Yes, there are plans for expansion but how many years will that take, and how much money? I love living on the east side right now, but when I grow tired of renting and decide to finally buy a house you bet I’ll be making sure I don’t purchase anything within Milwaukee county because all I see is a tremendous waste of taxpayer dollars in the future between the streetcar and the Bucks arena.

  20. M says:

    Great insights, Michael! I do hope the streetcar yields some better outcomes than that but I often wonder about your last line. I wish people would stop trying to pretend a few niceties will make up for all the other stuff we ignore or have given up trying to fix. And you nailed it, Kat.

    Thanks for the link, John. Coates article in the Atlantic is a good place to start breaking through collective denial about America’s racial history played out everywhere. Coates was just named a MacArthur genius. Milwaukeeans don’t like to talk about race (well, nobody does) but refusing to look at history serves no one.

    Tom, does it matter what people do in parks? Really, how many people never use parks? Their purpose is to do whatever you please (except sleep in one if you’re black and the park has a Starbucks).

    But instead of funding things of real value, well-lobbied politicians got convinced that $400 million for a new NBA arena–plus many more millions in free property–was a good “investment” to lure and keep millennials. I was OK with spending some millions but not for giving away the whole store and half of Westown–so some Wall Streeters could use the arena to siphon all the revenue and send it to NYC, Cayman Islands or wherever. “Negotiating” rubes got swindled but they were playing with our money.

  21. M says:

    BTW, there’s a huge contemporary “redlining” issue in Milwaukee that’s being swept under the rug. The Bucks want to put up a permanent barricade on 4th between Juneau, which will cut off through traffic going north to Haymarket and Bronzeville. Through traffic breeds easy access and increases visibility for businesses.

    Closing off streets in cities clog “arteries.” Ald. Bauman says it’s Urban Planning 101. But city officials care way more about the Bucks owners than the black community and its future. Or for all of Westown, for that matter. And let’s pretend MATC does not even exist…

  22. Dave Reid says:

    @Kat Odd I’ve taken the streetcar many times in Portland… The streetcar and light-rail both worked great for me.

  23. Dave Reid says:

    @Kat And in regards to 3 and 4, Portland didn’t always have a streetcar or light-rail. It has been a slow evolution going back decades

  24. SteveM says:

    The only way to get the anti-mass-transit crowd to support any form of transit is to propose the next level. So, if we want them to support streetcars or light rail someone needs to propose a subway or monorail.

    Pair this with the recently revived article about parking, 2009, and it’s obvious that many are more concerned about driving and parking close than they are about progress and development.

    The arguments against any discussion of public transportation are absurd, but loud and repeated often.

  25. wisconsin conservative digest says:

    Fun to read the whines of the people on this spot about the toys they ant while the city is disintegration around them cause of terrible leaders.
    Milwaukee leaders do not give a damn about the kid that can’t read and get shot on their porches.

  26. M says:

    So WCD, as a self-proclaimed “non-racist” white male, dare I ask what your proposed “solutions” for our city might be? Or your thoughts on the Ta-Nehisi Coates article about how cities (and suburbs) and race relations came to be what they are. It’s a long read, but well worth it.

  27. Adam says:

    We have discussed the merits of the streetcar ad nauseum. Yes this STARTER line does not go very far, but in a state which is always frugal and currently controlled by tea party zealots, even this is a small miracle it is moving forward. Add some (already planned) extensions and come back in 5-10 years when downtown and surrounding environs are thriving and take the survey again. You’ll get a different result.

  28. Marie says:

    National research about what millennials value…from Residential Architect Magazine:

    “Pegged as socially conscientious, millennials by and large seem to value the principles of New Urbanism—walkability, connectivity, and what the Congress of New Urbanism calls “traditional neighborhood structures” that include defined public centers, discernible boundaries between neighborhoods, and a sense of urban diversity. Among the biggest factors in choosing a house was the neighborhood, according to the National Association of Realtors study, “Millennials were most influenced by the quality of the neighborhood (75 percent) and convenience to jobs (74 percent).”

  29. Marie says:

    Link for report on study about millennials mentioned above:

  30. Al Lindro says:

    Michael’s comments are right on point. I’m not a millennial (whatever that is!) but I have lived for 15 years now right in the neighborhood that will be surrounded by the streetcar route. I know lots of people in the couple of blocks around our condo — as diverse a population as one can imagine, bar none. I am out and about a LOT with my dogs and have dozens of conversations a week with my various neighbor-friends most of who are renters or condo owners. Many are young professionals, both couples and single people, many are empty nesters (both retired and employed), many are seniors in subsidized housing, many are students at Marquette, UWM, and MSOE. You name the group; they are here. And the younger ones who will get married and have children as most eventually do — they will be gone for better schools and single family houses.

    I will state categorically that in all my conversations about our environs (typically they say as I do, “It’s a great place to live”), not one single time has any of them ever commented about it being difficult to move around the area — and I don’t remember any of them saying anything substantive about the introduction of streetcars to the area. Not one time. Zero.

    I am convinced that this venture is completely unnecessary even without considering the costs of it. And if there were a referendum about whether the streetcar is a worthwhile idea and will make living here more attractive, with 3 possible responses (1.Yes; 2. No; 3.“What are they THINKING”) it would probably be something like 20%-40%-40%. Crazy waste of money for the area taxpayers and (even moreso) US taxpayers who will never so much as be aware of it, much less benefit from it.

  31. John Casper says:

    Al, your landlord’s raising your rent. If you had talked to any property owners, they would have all told you the same thing. The Street Car’s raising the value of their property.

    Look at the data from Tucson, particularly slide 5

  32. wisconsin conservative digest says:

    First time I have heard that in the whole debate that property values will be going up. At least that will help pay for some of that toy.

  33. Fat Tony says:

    Some general observations about Milwaukeeans (confirmed by the this survey):

    – They were born here and haven’t lived anywhere else. Few people move to Milwaukee from the outside, and a large percentage of high performers leave permanently.
    – They are proud of the satus quo, without regard for (or even awareness of) what’s going on elsewhere.
    – They are not interested in critical self reflection, assessing and solving problems, or copying the behavior of more successful peers.

    Greater Milwaukee will never succeed in attracting new people to settle here because Milwaukeeans literally *do not want to change*. Any criticism of the status quo puts you at odds with the majority of your neighbors.

  34. Tom D says:

    @WCD (post 32),

    The increased property taxes from value appreciation and new development are a key reason for the streetcar (and should be enough to cover its operating subsidy).

    In addition to Tucson (see link in post 31), Portland saw $3.5 billion in new development within 2 blocks of the streetcar:

    In Cincinnati and Kansas City, property values improved and developers announced new projects after streetcars were announced. One Cincinnati realtor said “Literally, the day after the ballot initiative passed I got calls from people about properties.”

    And even in Milwaukee, all of these new projects (each within a block of the streetcar’s first phase) were announced AFTER the streetcar route was announced:

    • Buckler Apartments (4th & Michigan)
    • Downtown Marriott hotel
    • Downtown Hilton Garden Inn
    • Homewood Suites by Hilton hotel at 500 N Water
    • New 33-story NML residential tower
    • Sale of Post Office site (for future development)
    • Avenir Apartments (Jefferson and Ogden)

    (The Avenir’s website already lists its proximity to the streetcar):

    And another new hotel (Spring Hill Suites, 744 N 4th Street) is going in on an announced streetcar extension:

  35. Al Lindro says:

    John (Casper) and Tom D: I don’t have a landlord, John, as we own a condo. (Side Note: I guess the City of Milwaukee is my landlord, considering property taxes at about 60% as much as my mortgage; but that’s another subject altogether).

    I haven’t studied the experiences of other cities in any depth, but I have some questions that you may be able to shed light on because of your knowledge bases:
    (1) What studies of the economics of streetcar projects (including property value effects) have been done by organizations and/or individuals who don’t start with a bias or vested interest on the subject?
    (2) How feasible is it to factor out other variables in order to determine what effect the streetcars, per se, have had? Do studies achieve that, or is that “beyond them” other than to speculate?
    (3) Related to #2, don’t cities generally have to implement (and pay for) ancillary economic development strategies in and around the streetcar route to make the whole thing attractive and viable?
    (4) How deep in the red do these streetcar initiatives run, financially? Seems to me there is a lot of subsidizing by taxpayers compared to the revenue generated by fares; am I right?
    (5) Why no referendum? That would have allowed (and required) the justification to be made convincingly to all of us, would it not? I became mega-skeptical about the “for” arguments since those promoting the idea were against collecting public sentiment. I now wonder if the plan and funding was approved to some extent by greasing palms and making promises to elected officials in exchange for their votes. Maybe not, but I am a cynic in general re: enabling processes like this one.
    (6) Was there a survey of Milwaukeans living and/or working in the area to be serviced by a steetcar asking them if and how ofen they envisioned riding on it, and how often, and under what circumstances and at what price (fare)? Nobody asked ME, formally or informally, so I wonder if the projected ridership data were sort of blue sky numbers.

    We left Milwaukee in the early ‘80s and moved to the Chicago area because of my career. Never dreamed we’d come back when I retired in the late ‘90s. Milwaukee had just not been cutting it in terms of the central city vitality when we left; rust belt kind of thing. But return we did, after seeing and learning about the resurgence of the city during the time we were away.

    On that point, Tom D, you list several examples of recent hotel and apartment construction. But what about all the development (condos and apartments especially, but also hotels, interesting clubs and restaurants, the Art Museum, Discovery World, Miller Park, MSOE campus, Manpower, the brewery sites like Schlitz Park, and entertainment venues) that came about in the past couple of decades well before there was any talk of a streetcar? It’s been a remarkable turnaround in many respects, especially the many renovated buildings around the river and lakefront, along with new construction. Milwaukee “found itself” again, seems to me (Grand Avenue notwithstanding) in the absence of even thinking much about a streetcar route(s).

    I admit to some bias myself, and this is a partial listing:
    (1) I don’t like it when a relatively small group of people are served (and catered to, actually) via funding that comes from “other people” be that outlying residents in the city, or the DQ franchisee in Antigo, or some farmer in East Armpit Missouri who is a US taxpayer.
    (2) Increasing MY property value (if indeed that were to happen) should not be done at the expense of others.
    (3) Milwaukee is already easy to get around in without a streetcar line. Very easy and fast compared to, say, Chicago (difference of night and day) and to many other major cities. My son, a Chicago resident, thinks it very humorous when some Wisconsinite starts to whine about traffic and delays. He says, “you guys can get anywhere in the metro area in a flash”. And now we have Uber, too.
    (4) I’m for better public transportation in the entire metro area to make it simpler to get from the city’s neighborhoods (especially the inner city) to potential jobs. I dream of a mega-fleet of little busses that shuffle people from here and there to everywhere for a couple of bucks a ride. Not a streetcar running around in the more affluent parts of town; and not more humongous busses that I see being underused every day. Why don’t WE come up with our own solutions for Milwaukee’s transportation policy gaps versus mimicking other streetcare-cities that may or may not be similar in their demographics and needs and strategies.

    Seriously, I want what’s best for Milwaukee. We intend to stick it out here for the rest of our days if we can afford to, and not follow the growing number of our friends and neighbors who’ve left for better climate and lower taxes. But I just have my doubts that this streetcar idea is going to do much for the City. And a big part of that doubt is because I see, other than a few people on this site and others like it, so little enthusiasm around this issue. I sure hope I turn out to be wrong; won’t be the first time for sure.

  36. M says:

    Looking at the list of “attractions” the survey asked about attending, a few obvious choices for millennials were missing–such as the Rave/Eagles Ballroom. It seems to be attended ONLY by that demographic. Where there other things overlooked by the old people who commissioned the study as they hoped to gain support for whatever their specific agenda was.

    This is not a major criticism of this study, just an observation. But I have heard from numerous millennials involved in civic issues and efforts that there’s not much (if any) room made for younger folks (even under 50) at the tables where decisions are made around here. Women also are scantly represented. More than just polling millennials to find out how MKE powers-that-be can market to them, why not actually engage in more inclusiveness? Good-old-boy networks are becoming passe in the really cool cities drawing all these millennials everyone’s hot to target.

  37. Tom D says:

    Al Lindro (post 35), thanks for the thoughtful questions. I’ll try my best to answer them.

    (1) I know of no study by a totally disinterested party that concluded anything about streetcars and development. I remember hearing of one (can’t find it now) that decided that there were just too many variables. If there were something conclusive, we would all hear about it.

    (2) The data from Portland looks convincing to me. They looked at whether (but not why) new development levels differed depending on streetcar proximity. New development was measured in terms of FARs (Floor Area Ratios). If a building has the maximum square footage allowed by zoning, it has a 100% FAR; a building with a 50% FAR is only half of its maximum legal size.

    Portland found that new construction (built after the route announcement) within one block of the tracks averaged FARs of 90%, 1-to-2 blocks away averaged a little over 70%, 2-to-3 blocks away 60%, and more than 3 blocks away 43%. And these development patterns only started after the streetcar route was announced; before that, new development across that area was much more even.

    You can see this data on page 3 of:

    While this report was put out by the streetcar’s operators (a potentially biased party), I have never heard anybody dispute these numbers. The biggest objection I’ve heard was that there was a lot of city money spent on incentives to lure developers (see point 3 below), but I’ve never heard anybody say these incentives were higher near the tracks.

    If the incentives alone (without the streetcar) were the reason for the new development, why wouldn’t that development be uniform across the area (with similar FARs regardless of how close that site is to the streetcar)?

    (3) Streetcar opponents claim Portland’s development resulted from hundreds of millions in developer incentives. But what exactly were those “incentives”?

    The Portland Streetcar was designed to jumpstart an old rail yard and an industrial area (198 acres total) that were being converted to residential use. Portland did indeed spend lots of money getting this property ready for development—clearing the land, correcting “brownfield” conditions, and building normal urban infrastructure—utilities like sewers, water mains, etc. Portland also built streets (there were no streets at all in the rail yard, for example), curbs, storm drains, sidewalks, street lights, fire hydrants, and some small parks. The streetcar opponents treat all these infrastructure expenses—including the streetcar itself—as giveaways to developers.

    (Question: if opponents consider the streetcar a developer subsidy, aren’t they actually admitting that the streetcar adds value to the property?)

    Keep in mind that these “giveaways” applied across the entire area, but the resulting construction mostly followed the streetcar tracks (with much less going up elsewhere—on parcels with all the same incentives but further from the streetcar tracks).

    (4) The streetcar will lose money, but so do buses. Streetcars can cost less per passenger to operate and maintain than buses. A transit system’s biggest expense is labor, and the biggest single labor cost is drivers. All bus and streetcar workers are unionized (transit-specific federal regulations prevent Act 10 from changing this, even for purely public-sector operations like Madison’s Metro buses) and those workers have very good compensation packages. (Let’s save for another day the inevitable discussion of whether they are paid too much!)

    A streetcar driver makes the same as a bus driver, so that cost is the same for a bus or streetcar. Electricity is cheaper than diesel fuel, so the streetcar fuel costs less. Vehicle maintenance costs are lower for streetcars than buses because streetcars don’t have transmissions, engine cooling systems, exhaust systems, steering systems, “kneeling” suspensions, timing belts, differentials, motor oil (or oil pumps or oil filters), fuel pumps, etc. Their rigid axles never need front-end alignment work. Their steel wheels never need air and can last as long as the vehicle itself, which can approach one hundred years (see next paragraph).

    Streetcar vehicles last much longer than buses. As of 2013, the average age of an active transit bus in the US was 7.6 years while the average age of an active streetcar was 45 years. (Source: US DOT’s 2013 National Transit Database.) If the average active vehicle is half-way through its useful life, that suggests buses last about 15 years, and streetcars 90 years.

    Streetcars do face additional costs for track and electrical maintenance. But the tracks are laid on reinforced concrete (rather than the wood used for Milwaukee’s old streetcar), and should be fine for decades. The overhead wire needs little maintenance for decades (out east, Amtrak is now replacing the overhead wire installed in the 1930s) and all the other stuff is solid state.

    (5) As to your “referendum” question, why should there be one? Was there a referendum before building the Zoo, the Public Museum, the Library, the Art Center, Marcus Center, County Stadium, Miller Park, Mitchell Field, or even the freeways?

    Opponents claim widespread opposition, but they were unable (twice) to find even 7% of Milwaukee’s adults willing to sign a petition. To see how holding a referendum might have played out, look at what happened in Cincinnati, which is building a similar streetcar.

    In Cincinnati, opponents were able to collect enough signatures to force a referendum very similar to what Bob Donovan wanted. (If approved, it would require a second referendum before money was spent.) The vote was held in 2009, and the referendum failed (56% of voters supported the streetcar).

    Did the streetcar opponents accept the will of the people and back down? No, they circulated ANOTHER petition for ANOTHER referendum—this one banning the streetcar outright. That referendum failed in 2011 (this time, 52% of voters supported the streetcar—admittedly a smaller margin).

    One critical difference between the two cities is that it is much easier to force a referendum in Cincinnati—they only require 6,150 signatures (vs Milwaukee’s 30,800) and allow more time to collect those signatures (at least 7 months vs just 60 days).

    (6) Ridership estimates for a totally new line like this are always guesses based on other cities’ experiences (not surveys of residents). For one thing, people who think they would never use the streetcar sometimes change their mind after it opens. Consider this excerpt from a NY Times story regarding Phoenix:

    “Among the many detractors — and they were multitudinous — who thought a light rail line in this sprawling city would be a riderless $1 billion failure was Starlee Rhoades, the spokeswoman for the Goldwater Institute, a vocal critic of the rail’s expense. ‘I’ve taken it,’ Ms. Rhoades said, slightly sheepishly. ‘It’s useful.’”

    source: first paragraph of:

    Another problem with surveying residents is that many of them can’t be found. (How can you find residents of a building that doesn’t yet exist—like the new 33-story NML residential tower one block from the streetcar??)

    Milwaukee’s ridership estimate of 665,000 a year (under 13,000 a week) actually seems absurdly low to me. With about 650 round trips (1,300 one-way runs) each week, an average of even a dozen people on each run substantially exceeds the estimates.

    (7) Regarding your other (un-numbered points)…

    Yes, downtown had construction before the streetcar announcement, mostly near the lake while other areas (especially west of the river) languished. Today, things are still going up near the lake (833, the NML complex, the Couture), but things are ALSO happening in previously dead zones. Even Grand Avenue is showing signs of life; based on this week’s sale price, its value has jumped almost 50% in 14 months. (The streetcar’s third phase will run up 4th Street right past Grand Avenue.)

    Now, to your numbered list of follow-on points:

    (1 and 2) It is very common to use public money to increase property values near transportation projects. Freeway construction has always increased commercial property values near exits and nobody complains. Land on the west side of Mitchell Field (near the airport entrance) is worth much more than land on the other three sides and, again, nobody cries “Unfair!”

    Note that the City is making a effort NOT to use general city money for the streetcar, either for construction or operations. Construction money is coming only from Washington and from downtown TIF funds; no property tax money (except from within the TIF districts and then only over and above what those properties were worth before the streetcar) is being spent.

    The operating subsidy beyond the first 18 or 36 months (covered by Washington) will come from parking revenue, not property taxes. Since that parking revenue (roughly $40 million annually) now serves to reduce the overall City tax levy, parking fees/fines must be raised slightly (around 5%) to cover the $2 million (or so) that the streetcar subsidy will cost (without impacting property taxes). Since almost all City parking revenue (and all the relevant TIF money) comes from downtown, virtually all of the local streetcar funding will come from downtown; unless you live, work, or park downtown, you will never pay anything for the streetcar once it gets beyond the first 36 months (and the last federal subsidy ends).

    Note that the streetcar project as neither requested nor budgeted for any money from the state or county.

    (3) Downtown Milwaukee is easy to get around by foot only in nice weather and only if you are healthy. When I was younger (I’m now 64) I couldn’t imagine how my body would start breaking down with age. Since 2012, I’ve been immobile 3 times (broken foot, dislocated knee, and a recurrence of the knee problem), and arthritis is starting to become an issue. I used to think nothing of climbing stairs or walking a mile or two; I can still walk a mile on good days, but can’t on others.

    Look at how many people get knee or hip replacements these days. Each of those people experienced limited mobility for months or years. As the population ages, this is becoming a problem for more and more people.

    Moving within downtown by car is an option, but one the City tries to discourage with its “Park Once” strategy. Driving within downtown (either in your own car or in Uber) needlessly increases traffic volume and air pollution. (And since catalytic converters don’t work until a car warms up, when you drive just a mile or two, you pollute much more than most other drivers.)

    (4) “Humongous” 40-foot buses are used in nearly every city because they actually have the lowest overall cost.

    If half-size vehicles were used, we would need additional vehicles whenever today’s 40-foot buses are more than half-full (rush hour, not to mention Summerfest, State Fair, etc).

    The biggest single expense of operating a bus (or streetcar) is the driver, and since reducing vehicle size will not reduce a driver’s salary and benefits (those pesky unions, again), operating smaller buses means operating MORE buses and paying MORE in total driver compensation.

  38. Nathanael says:

    Spectacularly careful and accurate set of answers from Tom D. I can vouch for the accuracy of all of them from my own research into public transportation economics and urban development.

  39. Al Lindro says:

    I completely agree, Nathanael, with your praise of Tom D’s commentary. Very impressive and helpful. I will stop short of shouting out “I AGREE!!”, but it will be an important addition to my admittedly meager knowledge of streetcars and other public transit modes.

    One thing that bothers me, Tom D., is your statement: “Construction money is coming only from Washington and from downtown TIF funds….” That’s a big part of my objection to the concept. First off, I am not aware that “Washington” HAS any money. It overspends relative to what it takes in, and what money it HAS temporarily I view as “all the peoples’ money some of which passes through Washington on its way to finance or subsidize activities, entities, and causes that benefit society generally and support those in the greatest need of assistance. And some of that taxpayer and/or borrowed money gets doled out for things that don’t have a broad national (interstate) impact but rather cater to an interest group, even a locality. Such is the case with the Milwaukee Streetcar.

    Why should Federal taxpayers’ money, collected from all across the country, be channeled here for purposes of development and to increase MY and my neighbors’ property values (if that happens, as you argue it will)? Strikes me as kind of embarrassing, actually, to have our hand out to the nation to pay for what “we” through our local politicians think will make our city “nicer” or “more attractive to some” or something.

    Again, thank you, Tom D, for your thoughtful input.

  40. M says:

    Hats off to Tom D. for your detailed analysis. Adding to Al’s point, I’m also concerned that it’s often implied that financing development through TIFs is a magic solution. While public infrastructure, such as mass transit, is a legitimate use of tax dollars, developers have come to expect it to subsidize their projects even in thriving areas like downtown. It can be just another form of crony corporate welfare. UM ran an op-ed recently about the need to reform how TIF money is allocated and accounted for.

  41. John Casper says:


    wrt “Why should Federal taxpayers’ money, collected from all across the country, be channeled here …”

    Wall Street elites don’t have your conscience, “5 U.S. Banks Each Have More Than 40 Trillion Dollars In Exposure To Derivatives.”

    To put $200 trillion in perspective, annual U.S. GDP is around $17 trillion. Social Security’s Trust fund is around $2.3 trillion. We blew at least $6 trillion in the Middle East occupations.

    Per the “zerohedge” link above, they’re using the FDIC to “socialize” their derivative risk onto the taxpayers. Almost none of the $200 trillion “trickles down.” It’s mostly on interest rate swaps and credit derivative swaps, nothing goes into the real economy that makes stuff or into new technologies.

    President Obama and Speaker Ryan are fiscal illiterates. We don’t borrow dollars from China or our grandchildren. Per Modern Monetary Theory #MMT, since the ’40’s we’ve known that “(Federal) Taxes For Revenue Are Obsolete”

    No one is saying federal taxes are obsolete. As hedge fund manager, Warren Mosler explains in the link, they aren’t.

    State and local budgets have to balance, just like a family’s. The federal government is different. The currency is a public monopoly. The federal government does not need tax revenue to provision itself. The federal budget does not have to “balance,” nor should it, if you want the private sector in prosperity. What has to balance for any country that issues its own currency are the three economic sectors, private (domestic) foreign (trade balance), and public.

    Forbes reporting on sector balances, “Beware of Politicians Bearing Household Analogies.”

    “Four Reasons to see the deficit as your surplus”

    It’s an unfolding tragedy that so many, who claim to be capitalists, and “fiscal conservatives,” have ignored the paradox of thrift.

    One gives kfreely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want.

    — Proverbs 11:24

    If everyone saves, everyone goes broke.

    From economist Pavlina Tcherneva

    “…If we demand that the government runs a surplus, then we are demanding that we, the private sector run a deficit. If we are demanding of the government to pay off its entire debt, then we must be demanding that every single private portfolio, retirement, or college fund lose its Treasury securities (in this case, the private sector will get dollar reserves in
    exchange, but chances are that the private sector prefers the interest income the Treasuries pay). The government’s deficit is someone else’s surplus and the government’s debt is someone else’s asset. If you want to wipe out one, you must be asking to wipe out the other. …”

    As long as a debt is denominated in dollars, the U.S. government cannot default on it, except by choice. There are plenty of things we can run out of, breathable air, drinkable, potable water, safe food, sustainable energy, some metals, minerals, and medicines. Those are examples of what Adam Smith called, “capital.” They are also the corner stone of local security, which is what drives national security.

  42. Will says:

    I remember flying into Portland and landing at 8AM while my business partner was going to land at 11PM that same day. Essentially, I had all day to kill. Little did I know for a fee of something like $2 I could take the street car all over Portland leaving from inside of the airport. Needless to say, it saved me money, and it excorted me to all of the go-to spots around town. I didnt end up paying for one taxi and I saw a ton of the city. To me, it doesnt sound like that is what Milwaukees street car will be offering. It seems that it is basically just looping around downtown.
    Here are my proposals:
    streetcar extends to the airport, goes north to north ave and prospect and west to 35th and wisconsin. Heck, I’d even like to see it extend to Mayfair.
    Downtown Milwaukee is in fact easy to navigate around by taxi, foot and uber, but going out to Tosa from downtown or to downtown from Tosa or to the airpoort from downtown or to downtown from the airport to me would be invaluable.

  43. Dave Reid says:

    @Will What you caught at the airport in Portland was the light-rail (known as the MAX) system, which connects from the burbs to downtown. It does kinda act like a streetcar downtown (running on the streets and all) but it is a full blown light-rail system. And I’ll note I love how easy it is to catch the MAX and zip into downtown Portland (so great).. But, in addition to the MAX, Portland runs a streetcar that operates very much like Milwaukee’s proposed system. (It’s possible what you used once you were downtown was the streetcar). The Portland streetcar started small, only covering a few miles, like Milwaukee’s proposed system, and then has been extended multiple times. It basically connects near neighborhoods to downtown Portland, just as the Milwakee streetcar will do.

    Here’s a shot of the Portland Streetcar in 2009 in the Pearl District
    Here’s a shot of the MAX in 2009 at Pioneer Square

  44. Fred Fleming says:

    What do Millennials want?
    1) Something simple to be outraged about.
    2) To have Dad pay for it.

  45. M says:

    Are the millennials you know all that outraged?
    What are they getting Dads to pay for?

    Is it someone close to home? Time to pull the plug?

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us