The United States is infamous for its lack of public transportation options, despite its ability to cut commute times, traffic congestion, and of course, carbon emissions. Americans love their cars, but in metropolitan areas, the growing calls for better public transportation are getting too big to ignore. In our home city of Omaha, a feeble bus network has long been in the crosshairs of public criticism, with demands for an expansion of lines and more reliable bus schedules. Fast forward to 2021, and the city pivoted to an intricate (and to some, nonsensical) plan with Mutual of Omaha to build a streetcar network that would service Downtown, Midtown, Blackstone, and the UNMC campus. While we don’t entirely support the path the city took to get here, we think the streetcar is an amazing idea (even if higher-ups like Warren Buffett don’t think so).
1. Environmental Benefits
This is an environmental education project, so of course we have to talk about the environmental benefits of public transportation. Trading a lot of consumer vehicles for one mass transit vehicle minimizes the amount of carbon released into the air, but an electrified streetcar minimizes carbon emissions even further. The transit network, however, is far from carbon-free, as road construction and manufacturing will have their own carbon costs.
But greenhouse gas reductions aren’t the only environmental benefit of the streetcar network. Like with many American cities, urban sprawl has turned native forests and grasslands into suburbs and parking lots. But with the introduction of fast, reliable, and FREE transportation to the urban core, that 35-minute commute looks a lot less desirable (and an inner-city condo more so). The streetcar is just one piece of Omaha’s larger plan to bring 30,000 residents and jobs to the urban core in the next 20 years. Spurring more dense development won’t only lead to a slowing of urban sprawl, but a reduction of wasted space. Currently, almost 50% of Omaha’s urban core is reserved for parking, even though the number of jobs in the downtown area has actually declined since 1963. If transportation is provided, parking lots can be redeveloped into apartments, offices, etc.
2. Economic Stimulation
Being the first public transit system of its kind in the state (since the removal of traditional streetcars, RIP), it was bound to see pushback. And being in a conservative state, almost all government spending sees resistance. However, the streetcar project won’t rely on general taxes at all, and instead gets much of its funding from the economic stimulation it will ultimately lead to. The project is estimated to cost about $306 million but could in fact spur more than $3 billion in development within 15 years! The Tax Increment Financing (TIF) not only allows for the cost to be covered by the economic benefits the project actually provides, but also means that the funds raised through these means can only fund the streetcar. This revenue will fund maintenance, upgrades, and other costs of the streetcar network.
3: Perspective, Perspective, Perspective
We aren’t marketing experts (by any means), but we do understand the concept of wanting the latest and greatest new toy. You might see a commercial about the latest phone, and immediately “need” it. There may only be a couple upgrades compared to last year’s model, but the screen is nanometers larger, and the camera is ever-so slightly sharper – so you buy it for a premium.
When it comes to a streetcar, busses can look like “last year’s model.” They both carry people from place to place; they both run on a schedule; they both primarily serve those in an urban area – but they do have their differences. The Omaha streetcars will have a capacity of about 220 passengers (much more than any bus) and will be entirely electric (as previously noted). But the biggest thing that sets them apart is public perspective. We covered the conundrum in detail back in 2021 (Post 850), but it basically comes down to this: with the rise of the automobile, cars became a luxury for those that could afford one and busses (and before them, traditional streetcars) were left for those of lower income. Since then, busses have been viewed as a welfare program, making it very difficult for transportation companies to flip a profit, and in turn, expand and upgrade lines to provide the better service they need in order to get middle class and wealthier riders.
Where do streetcars come into the mix? Streetcars are the modern equivalent of the latest-and-greatest toy mixed with a nostalgic comeback. They may have been phased out in the 50s, but now they feel almost novel. The American general public doesn’t want busses: they want streetcars, subways, and light rail. They want something that feels new, even if it’s been done a million times before. Call it marketing, call it a gimmick – but this reversal of public perspective is dire in shifting the minds of Americans toward more sustainable transportation.
No one can tell the future, but history will tell you that what happens in large cities eventually trickles down to those further down the line (and Omaha is no different). Seattle is revamping its waterfront; New York is turning some city streets into pedestrian-only areas; even close-neighbor Kansas City rolled out its own streetcar in 2016. The widespread observation is that pedestrian-friendly areas and public transportation go hand-in-hand, spurring demand and development. With a streetcar (along with other pieces of the urban core development plan), Omaha wouldn’t just be ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ – it would be waving in the future. Wide downtown streets could be reimagined as pedestrian- and bike-friendly pathways, street parking could be transformed into outdoor seating areas, even Old Market (a historic entertainment district of downtown) could go car-free with its brick streets only accessible on foot or streetcar.
As it stands now, the future of Omaha looks bright with the addition of a streetcar network. Personally, we’re excited to see the network go into service at the end of 2026, but we’re also excited to see what it means for the city. Of course, a streetcar is not an alternative for more inclusive, more widespread bus routes in the metro, but it will be a great way to bring people to the urban core, and usher in a new way of looking at transportation.
Read more about the benefits of the Omaha Streetcar, read more about the goal to get it operational by 2026, or take a look at the general Omaha streetcar website. You can also read more about Omaha’s plans for the urban core at the Omaha Chamber of Commerce.