Streetcar is Sacramento’s history and future

A streetcar advocate looks at how streetcar will grow Sacramento’s urban core

I've been waiting for Sacramento's new streetcar to arrive for about a decade.

Back in 2005, I attended a “Streetcar Summit” about the coming resurgence of the American streetcar, just as I was writing my first book about Sacramento's streetcar network. In 2008, I talked my way onto a citizens' advisory panel to select a provisional streetcar route (who else could say they literally wrote the book on Sacramento's streetcars?) and became more convinced that a streetcar network was a key factor in rebuilding our downtown's urban fabric.

The reasons behind building a streetcar line extended beyond nostalgia and novelty. They represent a return to the lost tradition of building great American downtowns, a tradition that was once strongly held in Sacramento, rediscovered and reinterpreted for the 21st century.

A century ago, electric streetcars were tools for suburban growth. One end was located downtown—near workplaces, shopping and entertainment—and the other end was located in recently acquired farmland, marked into for-sale lots. Often, the same businessmen selling the lots also owned the streetcar company, and the electrical utility that powered the cars and lit the homes. This combination built neighborhoods like Oak Park and West Sacramento, Land Park and East Sacramento, Curtis Park and north Sacramento.

Commercial streets followed streetcar lines, so riders could shop on their way home. Streetcars were often marginally profitable, but without a streetcar line potential buyers had no way to get from home to work or shopping. Streetcar tracks became the skeleton of the city, providing a sturdy armature for cities' economic muscle, and commercial and residential development. People, the lifeblood of cities, flowed through the system.

Today's streetcar is a tool for urban regrowth. One end is still located near workplaces, shopping and entertainment, but the planned neighborhoods are former industrial areas and waterfront sites like the Southern Pacific Shops in the railyards, the Docks along the Sacramento River, R Street and vacant downtown buildings.

Many of these places fell on hard times after losing our original streetcar network. The good thing, though, is that streetcars work best in conjunction with other development efforts—like those either planned or underway in West Sacramento, the Railyards and River District, and along R Street—based on urban forms that leave little room for parking. The work of zoning and planning for transit-oriented development is done, but we must build the transit first, then watch the city regrow around it.

Streetcars won't replace or displace the automobile, but they will render it unnecessary for an increasing number of urban residents by promoting growth better suited to pedestrians, bikes and transit other than cars.

Cars and buses have more flexible routes, sure, but they create a different urban form. Flexibility has its advantages, but rubber tires make a terrible skeleton.

Measure B, the streetcar tax that residents near the line are voting on this month, is the last step in a decade-long effort. When it passes, it will leverage federal transit funds, West Sacramento sales-tax funds, and years of route plans and environmental reports by the city of Sacramento. The route goes to the right places with potential for expansion. It's a civic investment that is useful to visitors, residents, businesses, developers and thousands of potential riders.

We've waited a long time for this streetcar to arrive. All we have to do is pay the fare and get on board.