Streetcars for Houston?

old streetcar.jpg
(Houston, 1912: Library of Congress.)

This is post three of a three-post series. Post one discussed modern streetcars in general. Post two discussed the idea of rapid streetcar.

So the question is: should Houston have electric streetcars?

We’ve answered that question once before, in 1889, and the answer was “yes.” That turned out the be a pretty good answer for the next 50 years. At its peak in 1927, the Houston streetcar network had 90 miles of track. It was the armature that the city grew around for half a century. The Near North Side, the Heights, the East End, Montrose, Midtown and the Museum District all developed around streetcar lines. The last streetcar ran in 1940, and there is virtually no physical trace of the system left, but it left its mark in the form of walkable neighborhoods all over Houston.

This map shows the 1927 system and the extent of the city’s development at that time.

houston streetcars 1927.jpg

It’s quite appropriate that the light rail system we’re building covers much of the same ground: the neighborhoods that were built for transit service 100 years ago are the same neighborhoods that will support transit today. This map is to the same scale as the 1927 one.

houston light rail 2012.jpg

But the light rail system is serving a different function than the streetcars did then: it’s faster, and it’s connecting activity centers bigger than anything Houston could have imagined then. It’s the high capacity spine of the new transit system. But it has gaps. And streetcars could fill those gaps.

Some quick criteria for a Houston streetcar corridor:

  • It has to connect to the light rail network. That makes it much more useful to many more riders.
  • It should serve area that won’t be served by the light rail system.
  • It needs to serve existing population, to create a base ridership for the line.
  • It should serve restaurant/retail areas and cultural institutions to boost weeknight and weekend service, and to attract occasional riders.
  • It should serve areas with potential for more development.
  • It should connect to at least one employment center.
  • It should either have its own reserved lanes or use uncongested streets.
  • It can’t cross an active freight rail line at grade.

To find a good Houston streetcar corridor, we can start by looking at old streetcar neighborhoods. And we should focus on livable centers — walkable places with retail, employment, and high-density residential — that aren’t served by the light rail system. Here’s a few corridors that might qualify:

Washington Avenue, Downtown to Memorial Park
This was one of the key corridors in the old streetcar system. Today, it’s booming, with new townhouses, new apartments, new retail, and one of the best selections of restaurants in Houston. A line could start at the Preston light rail station, passing Market Square, Theater District, and the city courts complex before heading out Washington, passing restaurants and retail, a cluster of apartments at Studemont and Waugh, and the neighborhoods of the Sixth Ward and the West End. After reaching the Washington-Westcott roundabout, the line could loop around Washington, the Memorial Park Loop, and Arnot before the streetcar heads back downtown. A potential extension could take the line past Market Square to Minute Maid Park and Discovery Green, creating a connection to the East End and Southeast light rail lines in addition to the Main Street Line connection.

The biggest issue with this line is the Inner Katy light rail, which is slated to to be the first light rail line built after the current round of lines. It will be the direct link between Downtown and Uptown, so it needs to be light rail and not streetcar. No alignment has been chosen, but Washington is one of the options. So this line might be light rail instead, or it might be a streetcar line that serves the parts of the corridor that light rail doesn’t. In either case, it would need to be coordinated.

(Map key: Green: streetcar. Dashed green: streetcar extension. Thin blue lines: 2012 light rail system. Thick, light blue lines: 2025 light rail system.)

houston streetcars Washington.jpg

Montrose-Studemont, Museum District to Washington Avenue

There’s a lot along Montrose: apartments, neighborhoods, retail and restaurants, museums. And there’s more to come, including the new Islamic Center on Allen Parkway and a new mixed use development at West Dallas (it won’t happen right now, but it surely will when the economy picks up since the location is so good.)

Moreover, this line has excellent light rail connectivity: the Main Street Line in the Museum District, the University Line on Richmond, and the Inner Katy Line somewhere around Washington. So anyone along this streetcar line would have an easy connection to any of the major activity centers inside the urban core.

There are several good expansion possibilities as well. One is on the south end, where the Texas Medical Center is just on the other side of Hermann Park. Because the light rail line is so busy, sharing tracks is unlikely. It might be possible to add a streetcar in traffic lanes on Main, using the Holcombe overpass to turn around. Alternately, the line could extend eastwards into the Museum District to Almeda.

The other promising expansion would be northwards into the Heights. This could follow Washington to Heights Boulevard, then up Heights to 19th. This would put much of the Heights within walking distance, and serve the neighborhood’s “main street” on 19th.

houston streetcars Montrose.jpg

West Gray

A West Gray streetcar would serve not only a series of dense Neartown neighborhoods but the River Oaks shopping district and the most walkable section of Midtown as well. None of those places are served by the light rail system, so that’s a major addition.

The line could start at Shepherd, in the River Oaks shopping center, then run down Gray into Midtown. To connect to light rail, the track could then use Travis and Milam to make it to the Downtown Transit Center, or the line could extend further into Downtown along the same streets.

houston streetcars West Gray.jpg

Kirby

The Rice Village is one of the most walkable places in Houston, and it’s surrounded by neighborhoods. But it’s not well served by transit. A Kirby streetcar could fix that. It could also pick up the new density at Kirby and Westheimer. The line might start there, next to the new West Avenue development, connect to the University Line at Richmond, continue south into the Village, then turn on University to meet the Main Street Line in the Med Center. Alternately, it could continue past the Village on Kirby and then follow Holcombe into the Med Center. Either way, it’s picking up a lot in a short way.

The problems with Kirby, though, are obvious: it’s congested. And rather than being rebuilt to include tracks, it’s being rebuilt to make SUV drivers feel more secure. And ultimately, there may be too much demand for streetcar: both David Crossley and Chuck Kuffner have suggested light rail might make sense here, as a shortcut between Uptown and the TMC, and I think they may be right.

houston streetcars Kirby.jpg

the Heights via MKT

One of the few opportunities in Houston to run a streetcar outside of streets is the old MKT right of way northwest of Downtown. The streetcar line could start at UH Downtown, directly under the light rail station. It could then follow the abandoned rail line past the Intermodal Center, through the Old First Ward, past the Target store and apartments at Sawyer Heights, alongside the edge of Woodland Heights, and into the Heights itself. There, the line could pick up Heights Boulevard to 19th and end in the shopping district there. An extension further into Downtown would be difficult because of the active freight rail tracks along the bayou.

This would connect a lot of places with very good transit service. It would be a very convenient way to commute Downtown from the Heights or the Sixth Ward — with Main Street trains running every four minutes, the transfer would be easy. And it would be quite easy to build and use no congested streets. It also would be very unlikely to conflict with the Inner Katy light rail line. In fact, the two might even come within a block of each other where the MKT meets Heights Boulevard for a convenient transfer. While this line would go in the same place as the MKT hike-and-bike trail, the tracks and the trail could be alongside each other, as has been done elsewhere (see my last streetcar post, for example).

(The thick green line is the portion of the line which would run in the MKT right-of-way, outside city streets.)

houston streetcars MKT3.jpg

There are many other possible streetcar corridors as well: Navigation, Almeda, West Dallas, North Main, Dowling, Holcombe/Bellaire, Westheimer to Highland Village. And, of course, multiple corridors could create a system.

Will any of this happen? That’s a question not of money or technical feasibility but of politics. Any rail line built in a Houston street needs voter approval. That could come with the next METRO bond referendum, which would be needed to build the Inner Katy or any of the rest of the next round of lines. But METRO’s unlikely to spearhead this project, even if it might contribute funding or operate the finished line.

If Houston gets a streetcar line, it will be because a neighborhood — residents, merchants, institutions, landowners — decides it wants it. So will that happen? And which neighborhood will it be? Tell us in the forums.

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