Tucsonans celebrated the debut of the modern streetcar in a BIG way this past weekend– by riding it en masse. Following multiple ribbon-cutting ceremonies along the route on Friday, July 25, 2014, 17,000 Tucsonans rode the SunLink streetcar on the first day alone.
A total of 60,000 people total rode the streetcar for free over the three-day weekend and flooded special events, restaurants, bars, and retail venues along the route. If social media is any indication, the well-organized celebration was a smashing success, with hundreds of smiling streetcar riders posting Facebook selfies, Tweets, and random video clips of the festivities and their experiences on the streetcar, at the pop-up downtown beach, or at the multiple events. The city is to be commended for orchestrating a complicated roll-out of a new mass transit service. From ice-cold water bottles and helpful volunteers at all of the stops to a pop-up beach party off of Congress, every detail was well planned and well executed.
The modern streetcar was part of the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) vote in 2006. The RTA package included something for everyone– road widening for the sprawl promoters and bus pullouts, improved bike paths, and the streetcar for the sustainability activists.
But the streetcar is far more than a mass transit service. Here are the top 10 reasons why the modern streetcar (and mass transit) are good for Tucson– and good for you.
1) The streetcar is an economic development engine. The naysayers who ridicule the streetcar as a multi-million-dollar boondoggle that will never pay for itself at the fare box need to think outside the box and look at the multiple benefits of the streetcar in particular, and mass transit, in general.
The streetcar has been the catalyst for more than $1.5 billion in investment along the four-mile route, according to long-time streetcar promoter, State Senator Steve Farley, who spoke at the downtown ribbon cutting. More investment = more jobs for us and more revenue for the city.
2) The SunLink streetcar project is the first American-made streetcar line in 58 years! The cars were made in Portland, Oregon. The American-made aspect of the project helped Tucson win millions in federal funds to lay the tracks and purchase the streetcars.
3) SunLink is a great example of collaboration between multiple levels of government– city, county, and federal– the University of Arizona, and local businesses for the common good.
4) SunLink gets people out of their cars and allows them to experience Tucson in different ways. When you drive to downtown for an event or a night out, you drive, park, do what you intended to do, and leave. Maybe you walk around some while you are downtown, but if you’re like us, you don’t move your car once it’s parked, which means you don’t explore much. Streetcar passes allow you to hop on and off as many times as you want to between the UA Health Sciences Center on the east end and the Mercado San Agustin on the west side.
5) SunLink promotes sustainability by connecting easily with the SunTran bus system, VanTran, CatTran, park and ride lots, cycling, and walking. We rode the streetcar all three days over the weekend. For the downtown ribbon-cutting on Friday, we rode the SunTran bus from midtown to the Ronstadt Transit Center, ate brunch at The Cup after the speeches, caught the streetcar on Broadway, rode to the last main campus stop, and caught the SunTran bus home. On Saturday and Sunday, we parked our car at a UA park and ride lot, near the big poet’s head (the eastern-most stop) and rode the streetcar or walked for the rest of our excursion.
6) Using mass transit is good for the environment. Less driving means less pollution, less traffic, less road-widening, fewer new parking garages– you get the picture.
7) Using mass transit is good exercise. Too busy to exercise? Use mass transportation. When I worked on the UA medical campus, I took the bus and/or rode my bide nearly everyday for six years. The UA’s discount SunTran passes were a great deal compared to the $350/year blue lot parking pass that didn’t even guarantee you a parking spot. (Who knows what those parking passes cost now?) An added benefit to riding the bus was 45 minutes of walking exercise I got each day as a bus rider. When I rode my bike, I got 1.5 hours of cycling in per day. If it was 105 degrees at 5 p.m., I put my bike on the SunTran bus and rode it home. SunLink and SunTran are both compatible with cycling.
7) Mass transit builds community. The streetcar was PACKED all weekend, and everyone was totally cool with it. (The awesome AC probably helped!) People of all shapes, sizes, ages, races, and ethnicities crammed unto the streetcar and enjoyed the ride. I didn’t hear any grumbling or fighting. In fact, I saw 12-15 people I knew during my Sunday streetcar excursion with my grandchildren. If I had driven downtown, I most likely would not have seen any of those old friends.
8) The streetcar is a teaching tool. On social media and on the streetcar, people used the experience to teach their children and grandchildren about our city. My grandchildren– ages 3 and 10– loved the streetcar ride. On the way downtown, they stood by one of the low windows and enjoyed the ride through the UA campus, the historic West University Neighborhood, funky 4th Ave., and downtown. I told them about our nephew who is starting at the UA in the fall, I showed them the area in West University where I used to live, and we pointed out restaurants and shops on 4th Ave. that we had visited previously. I overheard parents and grandparents doing the same. One grandma told her granddaughter that she had graduated from the UA; the little girl remarked, “I want to do that.” When you’re driving, you don’t have those conversations and don’t travel those same scenic routes.
9) The public art along the streetcar line ads to the beauty of our city. Last week we attended a UA Poetry Center event at Hotel Congress and learned about the public art and poetry. Local artists Simon Donovan and Ben Olmstead coordinated the artwork along the streetcar line and designed the giant poet’s head that marks the eastern-most stop near the UA Poetry Center and the medical campus. Other stops have smaller sculptural pieces that ft the overall theme of “flow” or they have lighted marques with lines of poetry, curated by the Poetry Center.
10) Expansion of the streetcar will promote sustainable growth, business development, community, and connectedness. Promoters of the streetcar are already talking expansion. Should it go east on Broadway, as part of the Broadway Blvd. widening, as several Broadway options suggest? Should it go to the airport? Should it go up Campbell? Although I’ve been a vocal opponent of making Broadway Blvd. look like a freeway, even some of the more modest proposals for Broadway include bike paths and the streetcar line. According to transit authorities, Broadway SunTran line is one of most utilized. Expanding SunLink down Broadway seems like a good next step to me.