Manchester streetcar system

The following is a piece by Michael Bellefeuille outlining the reasons for considering a streetcar system in Manchester and one possible design for such a system.  It was originally published as a two-part series on goodgood manchester in January 2011, and generated many thoughtful comments there. You can also read Adam McCune’s column about the proposal in the Union Leader, published January 27, 2011.

Part One: Public Transit: they key to Manchester’s future
Part Two: A Manchester streetcar system

Public transit: the key to Manchester’s future

Rendering of a streetcar gliding up Amherst Street

Manchester needs a better transit system. The City of Manchester, the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce, Manchester Transit Authority (MTA) and Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission (SNHPC) all seem to agree on this, but plans for an improved — and likely regionalized — system have remained nascent and timid for too long.

A better transit system would not only benefit those who rely on it, but also those who would choose to take it regularly or occasionally; and perhaps most importantly from a planning perspective, it would serve as an enormous economic development tool for the Greater Manchester/Merrimack Valley region.

As an intern architect and Manchester native, I have been interested in land use and development in southern New Hampshire for many years. Transit is a crucial component to land use, as it provides the means to connect various areas of a city and region, as well as informing development patterns. It’s easy to see how a poorly functioning transit system leads to a reliance on automobiles, which necessitates parking lots, wider streets and the sort of sprawl that is now widely derided. More people are choosing to live in urban, walkable neighborhoods, but only if they are well served by transit.

Manchester once boasted diverse, lively neighborhood centers where residents could shop, dine and meet at the bar, but even though most of the buildings in these areas remain intact, that sense of neighborhood centers has largely been lost. There are vibrant communities throughout the city to be sure, but they aren’t served by the same neighborhood centers as in the past. The City’s recent efforts, beginning with Rimmon Heights and recent zoning changes, as well as citizen-led initiatives are very promising, but without a better transit system to connect these nodes with each other, downtown and various other points, they will remain too isolated and auto-reliant to prosper.

On a recent trip to the Portland, Ore., I was surprised to see how extensive and well-functioning the transit system is for a city that while much larger is not much denser than Manchester. Portland is a vibrant city full of interesting, well-connected neighborhoods and it owes much of this to its excellent public transit system, as well as other carefully conceived land use policies. It was after this trip that I began thinking about the possibilities for a vastly improved public transit system for Manchester and the surrounding area, and how this would influence development patterns and neighborhood revitalization in the city.

The MTA has done a lot with its limited resources, and the recent addition of a free, frequent Downtown circulator bus is an excellent start to a better transit system. Still, the system is stuck in a catch-22: it is under-funded, infrequent, and its routes often circuitous because of low ridership, but it is unable to attract elective riders for those very reasons. With so many city workers living in neighboring towns and so many regional amenities being outside the city, it is unrealistic and unfair for Manchester to bear the burden of funding, planning and running a transit system.

SNHPC is currently studying the possibility of creating a regional transit system, and they and the City understand that a vastly improved, regional transit system is crucial for future economic development and the competitiveness of the region. I suspect that a regional transit plan will likely be composed entirely of bus lines, hopefully building on and increasing the frequency of the MTA lines, with other lines extending into neighboring towns mostly to serve commuters. This would likely be supported by commuter rail connections to Boston, Nashua and Concord, and perhaps even a bus rapid transit (BRT) network, providing frequent, rapid transit from divergent points of the Greater Manchester region.

Buses—and even BRT—rarely encourage the same degree of economic development as rail transit, however, which is why many cities similar to Manchester are considering streetcar (alternatively called trolley or tram) lines to anchor their bus systems. This may seem far-fetched for a city of Manchester’s size, but advanced proposals for streetcars in Stamford, New Haven and Providence, and more preliminary plans in Lowelland Portland, Me., provide evidence and models for a possible streetcar system in Manchester. The considerable cost to implement (often largely reimbursed federally) and operate such a system would be offset by enormous gains in economic development both along the streetcar route throughout the region.

A Manchester streetcar system

Since visiting Portland, Ore., and considering an improved transit system for Manchester, I have developed and tweaked one potential plan for a streetcar system in the city. I am very pleased to have been invited to share it here in the hopes that it will generate some discussion about both a potential streetcar system for Manchester and more generally about an improved transit system in the region.

My proposal is rather extensive, but I tried to approach it realistically. I considered my familiarity with the city where I was born and grew up, and my limited knowledge of transit planning to design as extensive and efficient a system as I imagine Manchester would be able to support. I considered the city as it is now, as well as how it might be altered by the self-reinforcing nature of streetcar lines—well-designed and run lines tend to promote growth along them, supplying their own ridership demand—and designed accordingly. A system of this sort, however, would likely be implemented in phases over several years or even decades, beginning with the urban core and extending outward as funding and demand allowed.

If a streetcar system were to be considered seriously by the city or region, many other possible plans would likely emerge; this is just one idea.

The streetcar system would be anchored by a Downtown Loop, running approximately the same route as the current downtown circulator bus. As long as it ran frequently, it could likely run in a single direction; I have proposed counter-clockwise (north on Elm, south on Commercial). This would mean building half as much track as a two-directional loop, and is based on successful single-directional loops in many existing systems. The Downtown Loop would serve the Elm Street corridor and Millyard, as well as the long-discussed but as yet underdeveloped Gaslight and Warehouse districts.

The Downtown Loop would be served by various spurs into the surrounding neighborhoods, which could be built over time. Each of the spurs would work as an extension of the Downtown Loop, circulating along the Loop (possibly more than once depending on demand) before returning to the linear spurs.

The Rivers Edge spur would continue along Elm Street south of the Gaslight District and Verizon Wireless Arena to the Elliot at Rivers Edge complex now nearing completion. This area, sometimes referred to as Downtown South, is a redevelopment priority for the city. The line would help spur development in the Gaslight and Warehouse districts, as well as along Elm Street and around the economic/health care anchor at Rivers Edge. Additionally, it would connect residents in the Bakersville and Kalivas/Union neighborhoods with Downtown.

The Rimmon Heights spur would cross Bridge Street and run along Kelley Street to Pinardville and Saint Anselm College. This would serve the dense, vibrant Rimmon Heights neighborhood and further encourage the development of neighborhood businesses along Kelley Street. Connecting to Saint Anselm College would provide an important link between the city and the college, bringing residents to sporting and cultural events at the college, as well as more regularly bringing students downtown:

The Granite Square spur would cross Granite Street and run south along Main Street to the dense Piscataquog neighborhood, with the possibility to extend further south to Bedford to serve commuters and shoppers in the future. Granite Street is likely the most important gateway to the city, and Granite Square was once a distinct neighborhood center closely tied to Downtown. The city’s master plan considers this area part of Downtown, and a spur here would help promote growth and investment in this vital neighborhood:

In addition to the Downtown Loop and spurs, there would be an East Side Loop, which would connect Downtown with the proposed Arts District of the inner East Side, as well as the dense, diverse neighborhoods of Janeville/Corey Square and Hallsville, particularly around the Hollow. The East Side Loop could possibly be extended along a former rail line to a commuter lot or garage in the Eaton Heights neighborhood, though this would likely be served less frequently. The East Side Loop would provide a crucial link to institutions such as the Currier and promote the development of a true Arts District, as well as to the ethnically diverse communities and burgeoning neighborhood centers of Hallsville and Somerville:

The Rockwell site along Elm Street that is now set to house a Market Basket had previously been the city’s preferred site for a downtown commuter rail station and intermodal transit facility. This is also the historical site of the beautiful Union Station building, which was demolished over the city’s objections nearly 50 years ago. Assuming that it is no longer feasible to locate a major transit facility there, it is likely that the transit hub would be located at the city’s secondary site at the intersection of Spring, Canal and Commercial streets, currently the Bedford Street parking lot. In many ways this site holds the potential to better tie the Millyard with Elm Street, and given the small footprint of the site, it’s easy to envision a beautiful tower there to house the transit facility under several levels of parking and serve as a gateway to the city. This would serve as the connection to intercity rail and buses, as well as the hub of city and regional bus routes and the Downtown Loop.

In addition to the streetcar lines and loops, a better functioning system of city bus lines and regional commuter bus lines would be necessary. It’s possible that the streetcar system would lead to the ability to consolidate several bus lines and run them more efficiently. Regional commuter bus lines could likely extend along Route 101 West to Bedford, along I-93 to Londonderry, Derry and Salem, and north to Hooksett. Additionally, it would be important to link to the Airport and South Willow Street, perhaps with a BRT line along the old rail tracks parallel to Willow Street.

Getting There

There’s a tendency in New Hampshire to emphasize the cost when considering a public project, and while this aversion to waste can be good, it can also lead to the sort of unwise frugality that prevents public spending as an investment. Any improvement to the transit system—whether as ambitious as a streetcar line or simply a vastly improved bus system—will be expensive, but if done well, that expense will be an invaluable investment in Greater Manchester’s future, and the cost will be easily offset by economic development. Innovate public-private partnerships might also allow for forms of sponsorship or development fees to offset the public cost of building and operating a better transit system.

Given the limited hours, circuitous routes and infrequent service, it’s clear that the Manchester Transit Authority (MTA) is largely seen as a social service to be used by the city’s lower-income residents; while this is a crucial role of public transit, it’s hardly its sole purpose. Well-functioning and well-funded public transit would allow Manchester’s growing population of senior citizens to live at home longer without the need to drive, it would attract young professionals and recent college graduates who currently leave in high numbers, and it would allow families and residents to live and work in vibrant urban neighborhoods while reducing their dependence on (and the cost of maintaining) an automobile. It would also encourage redevelopment of various parcels in the city that were once buildings and neighborhoods but are now being used for parking.

If Manchester is to remain competitive as a place to live and do business, it needs to dramatically improve its public transit system. A streetcar line may be too ambitious for Manchester, but it may not be. As similar cities in New England consider and eventually implement streetcar networks, Manchester may be left at a competitive disadvantage. While the MTA should be commended for the work it has done with so little resources, public interest in a plan as ambitious as a streetcar might show the City, Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission and others that support exists for improvements beyond later hours or Sunday service (though those are hugely important).

The future prosperity of Greater Manchester depends on improved public transit; whether that’s streetcars, trolleybuses, a bus rapid transit system or simply an improved bus network remains to be seen, but the city and region should not be timid in considering what such a system might look like. Residents need to speak up about the sort of system they want to see and use, and how they’d like it to shape their city.With the study of a regional transit system underway, the time to speak up is now.


7 thoughts on “Manchester streetcar system

  1. Very well thought out proposal. The article and proposal sheds light on a problem that faces many American cities. What if we were to expand on the idea and propose a link between the proposed MTA, Boston and Providence? Manchester, Boston and Providence could be linked by rail and thus increase economic opportunity and prosperity for these three New England cities.

    Looking forward to more development. Thanks!

  2. The notion of a central corridor that travelers have to go through is a bit out dated. I think a better proposal would be directly linking all hospitals, universities, shopping centers and public housing areas. Linking people with low car ownership to basic services would be a first step towards a functional system.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Good point about linking to areas with low car ownership to basic services. While we couldn’t find info on car ownership rates for different neighborhoods, the design of the system is intended to serve many of the city’s most densely populated neighborhoods, such as Rimmon Heights, Granite Square, Janeville/Corey Square and the Hollow.

      Part of the appeal of streetcars is that they tend to spur dense development around them, so it’s reasonable to think that other areas served by a system like this, especially downtown and the Millyard, would become denser in terms of population and businesses. The same would probably be true not only in neighborhoods served by the system, but in areas along lines that are currently underdeveloped like the southern end of Elm St and Rivers Edge.

      In building a viable transit network, it’s important to balance service to people without cars while attracting riders who might otherwise choose to drive (or live in the suburbs). We think this (very speculative) system does that pretty well. The East Side Loop (green), for instance, serves some of the city’s densest neighborhoods, as well as cultural attractions like the Palace Theatre and the Currier. It also connects to major employment/service centers like the Elliot, as well as to downtown.

      While it’s definitely true that cities aren’t as centralized as they used to be, cities like Manchester still have a pretty compact urban core where many amenities, attractions and basic services are located. And with a strong transit system–especially something like a small streetcar system–future development would be increasingly targeted in the city center. The present MTA bus system is a good example of how difficult it is to run transit all over the city, while running frequently and directly enough to be attractive and useful for people with or without cars. A viable transit system needs to do more than minimally serve those without cars, as well as do more than act as a development tool: done well, it should really do both.

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