“The Milwaukee Streetcar will…establish a successful initial system that will allow for practical expansions in the future as funding allows and market demand dictates. Without this start, a modern, fixed-rail transit system that connects people to jobs and daily needs will never EXPAND CITY-WIDE.”
Debates on mass transit are always political, because they affect many people and everyone has an opinion on the feasibility, importance and cost of such projects. Usually, however, the biggest shitstorm regarding these projects is upon their startup and planning. Can you imagine New York City without a subway system? Of course not: it’s ingrained in the culture and functionality of that great metropolis. The first elevated section of the subway in New York opened way, way back in 1868, while the first underground section began operation in 1904. In 2012, the subway delivered over 1.5 billion rides on a system that translates to over 650 miles of revenue track. But even in New York, there was paranoia, fear and anger over the proposed subway system.
It’s no surprise, then, that a much smaller city like Milwaukee with its long-entrenched car culture would find the idea of mass transit systems, like streetcars, to be a volatile topic. I found it disappointing that the federal government in September declined to provide grant money for which Milwaukee had applied to expand the startup streetcar system, but perhaps more details need to be ironed out first. But really, a streetcar system would bring Milwaukee back to its roots. Milwaukee had a streetcar system from around 1890 until the late 1950s. Like many American cities, rail systems began to be phased out due to the fascination with cars and buses and the lure of the open and newly paved road. People wanted to drive themselves and go where they wanted, when they wanted.
The independence provided by the car culture is somewhat analogous with suburban sprawl. That sprawl found tens of thousands of people moving away from the vital urban cores where they’d once lived their entire lives, and as a result, a move also occurred away from the heavy use of the backbones of those cities, the streetcar lines. Sure, many factors came into play with this change in American culture, but in the last 20 years or so, transportation methods have sort of come full circle, back to fixed-track technology but now featuring efficient, modern light-rail trains or streetcars. In a country as broad as the United States it makes little sense to build a robust network of trains that would crisscross the entire continent like they have in Europe. The density of the country in terms of population doesn’t support that. It makes sense to have bullet-type trains between major population centers, but what I’m most interested in are localized, regional transit networks.
(Image: European railway map; Wikipedia)
In my opinion, Milwaukee is decades behind in this area, and I think there’s a direct, obvious connection between a lack of modern transit in Milwaukee and problems with the local economy. People who live in the Milwaukee area are less likely to come into downtown Milwaukee to party at bars, eat at restaurants or check out a Bucks game if they have to drive there, especially during the winter. People from Chicago or Madison are less likely to pop into Milwaukee when there is no easy transit system.
City buses are a less-than-brilliant alternative to trains because they have to stop so many times. In addition, the buses in Milwaukee are run on an antiquated system of paper transfers that can’t even be read electronically. Many cities provide more time for riders to use transfers and employ a system where a scanner simply reads a code on the card and the rider is on his or her way. This method bypasses time-wasting procedures like having to show your transfer to the driver.
Another thing about buses is that they have a bad reputation for not showing up on time or people perceive their clientele as of ill repute. Buses have to deal with traffic and weather problems much more directly. With trains, there’s a lot more room for people to sit and move about, and the train only stops at designated stations, providing a quicker, more comfortable and reliable ride. Many people tend to associate transit systems with ‘undesirables’ or low-income folks but the reality is that in most big cities, the diversity of the train ridership is deep and wide. People from all races, ethnicities and economic classes ride the trains because it makes common sense. Why would anyone drive when it is 10 times cheaper and easier to hop on a train? Trains are also typically run via electric current, and are thereby more efficient and less environmentally harmful that exhaust-belching buses and certainly less damaging than everyone driving their personal automobiles everywhere. On top of all that, you can drink and not have to worry about driving home. When you have rail backing you up, you’ll get home safely; no driving drunk. With rail there is less money spent on parking fees and less of a need to build more monolithic ugly parking structures. In addition, rail transit encourages walking, which would be good for everyone.
“Rail transport is an energy-efficient but capital-intensive means of
mechanized land transport.”
“[Rail transport] arrangements revalue city spaces, local taxes, housing
values, and promotion of mixed use development.”
Trains aren’t perfect by any means, but the biggest cost in instituting a rail system is the genesis of that system. Once it’s up and running, it can do wonders and the extension of it is then less expensive and audacious than the startup. I’ve encountered rail systems in Denver, Salt Lake City, San Diego, Chicago, Washington, St. Louis, New York, and elsewhere, and each and every time I’ve come across these networks I’ve been amazed at the vitality and movement they bring to the communities they serve. I live in Minneapolis, and the rail line here is soon to welcome a major expansion which will see the existing line, which runs between the Mall of America and airport area to downtown Minneapolis, connected with a new line that will run through the University of Minnesota campus and all the way to downtown St. Paul. In comparison to the fluidity and effectiveness of transit in many of these places, Milwaukee is disconnected, offline; a rail system could really bring a lot of great things in Milwaukee together, and make them more accessible to more people. I want that for my home town.
(Image: Paul Weyrich Photo; http://www.thetransportco.com/id8.html)
I’ve seen firsthand the extreme revaluation of property values around rail lines and the development they spur. Previously little-used plots of land are seeing major development and housing projects rise from the dust. I’ve seen the light-rail system here carry thousands of Twins and Vikings fans to and from games. I can take the train to the Mall of America, Target Field or to the airport without ever having to consider taking a car. Minneapolis also has a commuter rail line going north and is developing a major transit hub next to Target Field which will link many lines together. I’ve seen the ease and excitement with which visitors to the city gravitate toward the transit system BECAUSE simple and quick light rail is involved. It’s a heck of a lot more inviting for visitors to use a mapped-out, easy-to-understand fixed-rail system than try to decipher convoluted bus routes when they visit a city. Milwaukee’s intermodal station would be truly effective if it were hooked up to a city light-rail/streetcar system. Imagine a train line that would take people from General Mitchell Airport up through the Bay View neighborhood and into downtown Milwaukee, for example. I want Milwaukee to dream big things for its future.
Granted, what’s done is done and Miller Park sits in a giant concrete slab rather than somewhere in downtown Milwaukee proper. I respect the sanctity of the tailgating tradition for the Brewers. I also think it would do the city a lot of good to send train loads of Brewers fans into downtown Milwaukee and vice versa. Just think if people could jump on the train from over by Brady Street, for example, and ride a streetcar all the way to Miller Park….how cool would that be? Downtown Milwaukee would become a destination for Brewers fans before and after games unlike it is now. Visitors to the city could stay in downtown hotels and take the train easily to Brewers games and other destinations. Furthermore, visitors to the city would be much more likely to explore areas of the city that currently feel far away from the baseball action, including the Third Ward, Riverwest and East Side areas, to name a few. I applaud visitors who manage to see a lot of Milwaukee despite its lack of good transit. It takes some work, especially if you don’t have a car handy.
I’m not saying rail is the answer to everything. Of course it isn’t. It may bring complications and issues. It will scare some people for various reasons. The startup is expensive (but worth it). But does Milwaukee want to be a great city in this century, or fade into obscurity? Milwaukee needs to go bold again, think big again. Milwaukee needs to invest in its future and the future will invest in Milwaukee. Why wouldn’t Milwaukee want to be more connected with Chicago and Madison? Isolation is not the answer to Milwaukee’s woes. It seems a no-brainer to me that Milwaukee would want to connect to those places as well as institute its own people-moving system within the city. Just imagine how much more attractive the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Marquette would be to prospective students if they knew they could get around town by simply jumping on the rail? Imagine how many folks from Chicago or visiting Chicago might head on up to Brew City for a day if it could be done cheaply and without a rigorous departure schedule.
(Image: "Route 10 car on the former joint right of way near Soldiers Home and County Stadium"; check out this site for more amazing images: http://www.thetransportco.com/id8.html)
The first planned route of the proposed streetcar system is nice, if extremely modest. And even that isn’t a sure thing yet. The Streetcar website notes that the City of Milwaukee Common Council “voted to authorize planning work” and the Federal Transit Administration “issued a Finding of No Significant Impact”. Much work remains to get this thing started for real. What I’m really excited about is the potential of an expanded system that would see a train running to Miller Park, perhaps the Milwaukee County Zoo, the Harley Davidson museum, Summerfest, to the north and west, whatever. Connect the city to itself for the first time in ages. Bring neighborhoods together, rather than separate them. Downtown Milwaukee would be revitalized with a rail system. My confidence in an eventual rail line to Miller Park is shaky…it could be a pipe dream or it could be 10 years away. Who knows. In any case, Milwaukee would be wise to invest in a rail system as soon as possible. Get it going, and horizons currently invisible will become seen.
(Image: "800 series car on Route 40, South Side"; http://www.thetransportco.com/id8.html)