Looped: A Downtown Streetcar Isn't Transit


Sometimes, you can have too much of a good thing. A case in point is a downtown streetcar.

Cute and nostalgic - maybe a double-decker, like the one at The Grove - a trolley on a 3-to-5-mile loop from the Disney Concert Hall to LA Live via Broadway has enthusiastic backers already on board. (Among them are the billionaires at either end of the circuit: Eli Broad and Phil Anschutz.)

Rail advocates and downtown boosters see more progress for the city's revitalized historic core. Contractors and their lobbyists see a $140 million construction project payday. Council Member Jose Huizar sees the happy political benefits. Building owners see the potential for juicing property values and rents. (But some are skeptical; $50 million to $60 million in construction costs will come from assessments on property owners).

The rest of us may have a harder time seeing the point.

The point doesn't seem to be improved mobility. Downtown already has the region's densest transit network: Metro's local and rapid services, other municipal commuter lines, the city's DASH buses, Blue Line light rail, and the Red and Purple subway lines. When the Regional Connector beneath downtown is completed in 2020, more stations on that spur will expand access to the subway system.

There are so many choices and so many modes in the same neighborhood that some transit users find the tangle confusing.

According to critics, the addition of a streetcar doesn't rationalize this network; it adds another, very specialized layer with unique rolling stock and estimated operating costs of $5.3 million to $6.9 million a year. (Some critics fear that the streetcar may cannibalize passengers and operating subsidies from existing services, potentially reducing transit options rather then increasing them.)

In fact, the point doesn't seem to be transit at all. The current streetcar plan is a single-track, one-direction loop that would compel riders to travel from north to south and back again to get from one side of the loop to the other. As Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic points out:


But some occasional riders would benefit (to the benefit of some businesses and institutions along the right-of-way). Tourists and conventioneers could ride the trolley as a convenient and low-cost way to go from the sell-scape of LA Live/Staples Center/Farmers Field to the culture-scape of the Broad Museum/MOCA/Disney Hall.

And that does seem to be the point. It's not a bad point, just not the one all the trolley talk is about.


D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.


The image on this page was taken by flickr user Brandon Doran. It is used under a Creative Commons License.