BRT vs. Rail: A Tale of Two Urban Transit Systems

April 13, 2007 20 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

In previous articles, we've discussed the difference between bus rapid transit and rail transit in urban environments. We've also displayed evidence suggesting that bus dominated transitways in urban environments are more of a hinderance to stimulating retail, than a help. Now, to illustrate the idea on the eve of JTA's upcoming BRT downtown workshops, Metro Jacksonville takes you on a photo tour of these two transit systems, showing their effect on Tampa's urban core.


Marion Street Transit Parkway 

The Transit Parkway opened in the heart of Downtown Tampa in the mid 1990's.  Unlike Denver's 16th Street Mall and Orlando's LYMMO busway, both of which use slow moving free shuttle buses, the Marion Street line is used by regular city buses. Because of this, it is the closest example of what JTA's planned downtown bus lanes will resemble when finally operational.


On the positive side, by eliminating parallel parking, sidewalks were expanded creating a linear-like 1980's style urban park setting through the core.


Like JTA's routes, the transitway allows the transit authority a conduit to drop bus riders off next to major modern office towers.  On the surface, one would think the wide sidewalks and improved bus accessibility to the office tower core would spur retail opportunities along the transit corridor.  That's at least what Downtown BRT consultants and planners would like you to believe.

There's nothing like photographic evidence to expose facts and faulty logic.  The Marion Street Transitway has been in operation for over ten years, and while Tampa's downtown core has started to rapidly turn around in the last few years, the transitway remains one of downtown's most dark and desolate spots.


Where's the street retail on all these nice sidewalks?  I see a person, can you?


Along the eight block stretch, looking for successful retail shops lining the corridor is just as difficult as finding "Where's Waldo".  Instead, for whatever reason, street-level storefronts have been blocked in and converted to everything but retail.


Where are all of the people on such a nice Saturday afternoon?


TECO Line Streetcar 

On the south side of Downtown Tampa, the scene of vast abandonment turns into one full of residents and pedestrians enjoying the city's cultural destinations and attractions.  A major reason for this vibrancy is the Metro Jacksonville idea of "Connectivity". In Tampa's case, a two mile streetcar line was constructed a few years after the Marion Street Bus Transitway went into operation.  However, unlike the bus transitway, millions of dollars worth of economic development has occurred around the line.



The TECO Line Streetcar System opened for business on October 19, 2002.  The 2.5 mile line has 12 stations along a single track route with several passing sidings.  Since its opening, many of the struggling attractions it connects on its path between downtown and Ybor City have seen their fortunes change for the better.  One of the major reasons for their success has been the inner city marketing efforts put together by JTA's Tampa counterpart, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transportation Authority.


The streetcar begins its inner city path at the Tampa Convention Center, near the southern section of the central business district.  Since the streetcar's opening, two major convention center hotels (Marriott & Embassy Suites) have opened immediately adjacent to the line's terminal station, as well as a new hockey area for the city's NHL team, the Tampa Bay Lighting.



The line comes within walking distance of Harbour Island, a dense infill residential development, just south of downtown.  In this section, riders will discover waterfront parks and Tampa's next streetcar fronting attraction, the Tampa Historical Center.



Its been said that well planned transit can help spur development in depressed areas along its path.  Downtown Tampa's old industrial districts are living proof.  Ten years ago, this area was littered with abandoned warehouses and storage yards.  Today it has become a linear path with a diverse mix of urban activity.


Many claim Jacksonville is too spread out for something like this to happen locally.  Yet, Tampa is no Manhattan.  Its core suffers from more sprawl and is littered with more surface parking lots than the core of Jacksonville.  However, with coordinated planning along its path, the streetcar line has brought a breath of fresh air to inner city Tampa, and a stream of tourists enhancing the core's image as a major destination.


Halfway between downtown and Ybor City, the trolley route takes riders through the old Channel warehouse district.  Much of the waterfront land in this area is owned by the Tampa Port Authority.  Channelside (the retail center in the foreground) and the Florida Aquarium (glass structure in background) are two destinations developed by the port authority to complement its cruise terminal.


Believe it or not, Channelside was a struggling center when it opened in 2001.  Unlike the Landing, its developers had to suspend rent altogether just to attract tenants. 

Hard times besiege Channelside mall



Business was so bad, the Tampa Chamber of Commerce relocated its offices and tourist information center to the complex to help bring in foot traffic.  However, the center's fortunes would change when the streetcar system opened a year later, connecting the port authority's destinations to other inner city attractions and neighborhoods. 


Today, the Channelside complex is one of Tampa's major inner city destinations for both residents and tourist.  Tenants calling the $49 million, 220,000sf retail/entertainment center home include an Imax & Megaplex movie cinema, Splitsville (an urban bowling alley) and a host of restaurants, bars and retail shops.



While many of the establishments along the streetcar line struggled before its opening, the synergy created by their connectivity has spurred additional development in the area.  One of the latest projects is the Twin Towers of Channelside, rising across the street from Channelside.  When complete later this year, the twin 30 story towers will add 260 residential units and nearly 15,000sf of additional street retail to this immediate area.


The Florida Aquarium is another struggling Tampa attraction that has seen attendance increase drastically, since the opening of the streetcar line that drops riders off right in front of its doors.  Synergy has also been created by the diverse retail and entertainment options provided by Channelside next door and the port authority's cruise terminals.

The port authority has mastered the idea of clumping a dense mix of local oriented cultural and entertainment uses within a compact setting to convert its once struggling cruise industry into a tourism powerhouse.  The latest port authority attraction is the SS. American Victory.  The SS American Victory served the country during World War II, Korean and Vietnam wars.  She was one of the 534 Victory ships built during the mid 1940s to replace the Liberty ships, many of which were constructed in downtown Jacksonville.  After being mothballed for decades and scheduled to be scrapped, the vessel was saved and relocated to Tampa to live on as a floating museum ship.  

SS. American Victory


A cruise ship preparing to set sail just to the north of the Florida Aquarium and Channelside complex.  In this photo, note that this area is conveniently served by both mass transit and automobiles, yet the landscape is still pedestrian friendly.  This is an important point to make in sprawling Sunbelt communities, such as Tampa and Jacksonville. 

As the streetcar route moves north, the old channel is still dominated by industrial port related uses.  This photo, taken from the streetcar, captures a freight vessel being repaired at a private shipyard.



However, on the west side of the streetcar line, thousands of lofts and condo units have begun to rise in what was once an abandoned warehouse district, whose early 20th century heyday had passed it decades ago.  This is the perfect example of rail transit spurring transit oriented development along its path in economically depressed inner city areas.  What was once an area of crime, pollution and neglect, has now become one of Tampa's urban hotspots.



At street level, this old industrial district contains a mix of old and new.  While the taller projects have been built in the last two years, the smaller buildings on the right have been preserved by urban pioneers and converted into new uses.



The streetcar line terminates in historic Ybor City.  Like Five Points and Riverside, this inner city district's revitalization began over a decade ago.  However, by connecting downtown to this district, additional inner city redevelopment has mushroomed up along the streetcar's path, in areas that were considered no-man's land.

7th Avenue is Ybor's main commercial strip.  However, the streetcar line was constructed a block to the north on 8th Avenue.  By doing this, parallel parking and vehicular accessibility was saved, yet transit still benefited by being within close proximity of the district's vibrant pedestrian friendly activities.



1. Bus Rapid Transit does not spur urban retail development.

As shown in this article and several others posted by the Metro Jacksonville, busways do not enhance downtown retail developments.  In fact, if improperly planned and not well integrated into the core area's they serve, busways become a huge negative.  This is an important reason why the idea of adding busways on Adams Street and the Bay Street Town Center should be completely abandoned.

2. Urban Connectivity works

Inner City Tampa is living proof that using attractive forms of mass transit to connect inner city districts together and aggressively marketing the destinations along their path actually works.  This is important because our core already has several cultural and entertainment destinations, as well as an $184 million dollar peoplemover system.  While it's definitely had its struggles, no one can deny that it is one of very few downtown peoplemover systems in the United States.  This means that the Skyway is unique and we should take advantage of it by promoting it as the glue that links the core's attractions. Obviously, it worked in Tampa, why not apply that concept here?  In addition to the skyway, the trolley shuttle bus should be looked at as an affordable short term solution that extends the Skyway's endpoints into the surrounding inner city districts. These systems should be marketed as a package, not individually.

3. Marketing the Inner City as a whole

Up to this point, Downtown has been marketed by itself, with little to no effort to include its attractions within other popular inner city destinations, such as Five Points, San Marco Square, Cummer Museum, the Beaver Street Farmer's Market, and Historic Springfield.  While promoting the region's beaches and golf courses should be done, the local tourism industry is missing a huge opportunity of marketing the diverse mix of inner city attractions we already have.  Our neighbor to the south has laid the groundwork that provides us with a viable solution to the problem.  Let's find a way to create cross-promotional package deals with our inner city attractions and work with the JTA to use existing mass transit systems to connect them.

Additional Urban Tampa images:

Learning from Tampa