I reaaaaaaalllly wanted to write on this topic but I never got around to it and I am really really glad that Kate Lowe and Joe Grengs did because I think it’s an important topic: it’s clear that the primary beneficiaries of streetcar projects are the landowners that surround them. Streetcars are not easy sells in terms of mobility; they are circulators. How many car trips they actually “take off the road” is a dubious conjecture, but they are fun to ride, contribute to defining districts, and circulators are really useful in the places that have them. (Those alone strike me as good enough reasons to do them even if they do not do much to fight climate change or any of the great big goals we planners tend to attach to things.)
The Detroit example shows philanthropy directed at just such a project, and I think Lowe and Grengs are more fair and less critical than I am about treating the Detroit streetcar as mobility rather than as a simple land amenity. By most indicators, this is businesses and elites doing fairly standard philanthropy: it doesn’t alter power relations, and it’s ultimately done for their own private interests. Again, I have no real problem with that except to the degree that there has been the temptation to act like these arrangements are the future of transport finance, and as Lowe and Grengs show, it’ll take a lot of changes to this model to make it workable outside the context of this one project.
Here is the citation and the link. It’s behind a paywall, but if you ask me or the author, I suspect we can find you a copy of it:
Lowe K, Grengs J. Private Donations for Public Transit: The Equity Implications of Detroit’s Public–Private Streetcar. Journal of Planning Education and Research. 2020;40(3):289-303. doi:10.1177/0739456X18761237
Transportation agencies are increasingly seeking private sector funding, but resulting deals have implications beyond specific projects. We analyze the broader regional and equity impacts of private funding by examining Detroit’s donation-funded streetcar. Despite potential negative consequences for transit-dependent populations, the longer-term political will forged through streetcar planning has a contingent possibility to enhance regional transit. In addition to donations, the streetcar relies on public sector funds, but we found limited public influence to ensure collective transportation benefits. A federal-level actor did mandate that a regional transit agency form, but more systematic public action is needed.