Will Salt Lake City’s new streetcar create economic development?

The Atlantic Cities reported Tuesday that while streetcars are often touted as economically beneficial, their actual impact is relatively unknown.

A 2010 survey of 13 U.S. streetcar systems, sponsored by the Federal Transit Administration, concluded that the economic impact of streetcars remains largely unknown.

Portland's streetcar

Portland’s streetcar

That’s in contrast to the way local leaders often portray streetcars, which is as tools for economic development. The article also notes that Portland seems to be an exception, though streetcars there are just one part of a broader strategy.

As it so happens, Salt Lake City just barely finished construction its own streetcar line to the Sugar House neighborhood. And, perhaps not surprisingly, leaders in the city are making the same apparently unfounded claims that often accompany streetcars:

Salt Lake City and South Salt Lake officials also believe the S Line will attract economic development.

South Salt Lake Mayor Cherie Wood said already various interests have expressed desires to build along the line in her city ­— from 500 East to 200 West.

“Now it’s more than just a concept,” she said. “This corridor will reconnect our two communities.”

I’m not opposed to streetcars by any means. In fact, I’ve been rather looking forward to this new line. But it’s also important to have realistic expectations for what it will accomplish. It’s also important to not take unfounded accepted wisdom for granted; if in this case doing so gave us a streetcar line then in other instances the accepted wisdom has produced plenty of car-oriented development as well.


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