116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The recent public announcement on KCRG of an effort to bring a trolley line to downtown Cedar Rapids and surrounding neighborhoods, with the official backing of the Czech Village / New Bohemia Self-Supported Municipal Improvement District (SSMID), was intriguing to me. Before it was replaced by buses, Cedar Rapids, like most U.S. cities of moderate size or above, once had a burgeoning streetcar system from 1882 to 1937, which was also connected to interurban railways to Iowa City and Waterloo. The abandonment of most original municipal streetcar systems in North America during the mid-20th century, including every system in Iowa, has often been viewed by many urban planners and transportation advocates as a cataclysmic period in the continent’s turn toward car dependency and suburban sprawl.
Even if this project is comparatively limited in scope, the mere discussion of expanding public transit infrastructure in Eastern Iowa could easily be seen as cause for mild optimism. So don’t get me wrong — I love me a good streetcar — but I am concerned there are a few reasons to don “skepticles” for at least some parts of this project.
For starters, the logo for the trolley loop is somewhat of a misnomer. When talking with folks more familiar with the development of the proposal, it was revealed that the “trolley” in question would not be the traditional tram featured in the logo used in the KCRG story, but would likely instead be a battery-powered bus cladded to appear as if it was from the olden days. While understandable from a cost perspective, such tourist trolleys almost always come out looking extremely campy, with little more desirability than a conventional bus.
This falls in line with some other significant limitations to the actual operation of the trolley, when or if the project goes through. Its orientation toward tourists means that it would likely only operate during the latter days of the week and weekend, and would be operated by a private third party, with undetermined integration with already-extant local transit services such as Cedar Rapids Transit or the 380 Express. Public information about this idea is also limited, aside from a few passing mentions in meeting agendas, downtown ‘visioning’, and a prophetically specific public comment in the Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Passenger Transportation Plan from 2019.
Not unlike the bit in South Park about Des Moines being “lost in time” (three years behind the rest of the world in fashion, technology, and fads), the least charitable thing to say about this downtown trolley idea is that it seems like, on a smaller scale, a time warp from the various streetcar projects popular among larger U.S. cities during the Obama administration, except that one, the height of this trend took place closer to a decade ago rather than three years ago, and two, the implementation of this idea in Cedar Rapids does not seem to involve an actual train on tracks.
More often than not, these streetcars ended up being more so vanity projects to spur real estate development in select parts of town rather than serious attempts to improve the practicality of public transit through investment in transportation infrastructure, resulting in expensive projects of limited scope which yielded low ridership when those public funds could have been used much more carefully. It is this focus on a downtown tourist trolley as a vehicle to spur economic activity, rather than to move people around, that has me most apprehensive about the viability of a downtown trolley in this form. Getting people on public transit in Iowa will depend more on making transit an actually feasible system to depend upon for daily transportation needs, rather than a simulacrum which mimics, but in no practical way actually replicates, the streetcar network which Cedar Rapids had a century ago.
For downtown Cedar Rapids, a place hollowed out from decades of urban sprawl and automobile supremacy, decent public transit in the downtown and nearby core neighborhoods offers a real opportunity to flip that paradigm around — integral if the City is to meaningfully curb its carbon emissions from buildings and transportation. In those conversations with people more familiar with the project, there are some components which I am genuinely optimistic about. The current vision involves fare-free rides with 10 to 12-minute headways during the limited hours in which the ‘trolley’ would operate, which would be advantageous in reducing barriers, both monetarily and in ease of use, for getting people to actually use the ‘trolley’. It is these practical matters — how often transit runs, which hours it operates, how accessible is it to use, how practical is it to reliably and meaningfully replace driving — that determines whether people use public transit services, not how pretty a bus looks.
When one is driving, the presence of additional people and cars is generally unwarranted, slowing traffic and becoming competitors for street space and parking. However, when it comes to transit, the presence of more people becomes a good thing, as all of your fellow riders become justification for improved services. A mission of bringing more people into downtown for commerce and leisure alike is one aligned with the ultimate purpose of a city, which is ultimately a collection of people who have chosen to live near one another.
Public transit can be an important part of bringing people closer to one another rather than repelling them away, and if this “Core CR Trolley” can eventually act as a beachhead from which to expand public transit in Cedar Rapids, then this trolley is quite interesting indeed. However, if it ends up instead acting as a trinket for the streets, more fitting as a prop for a television advert than to actually ride, then I wonder if the resources of the downtown districts and SSMIDs would be put to better use in expanding the capacity and scheduled runs of the city bus system — which, while lacking the old-world charm of a wood-paneled trolley, already exists.
Austin Wu is a Gazette editorial fellow.