I had the recent fortune to be in Tampa while on spring break with my family. I convinced my wife to make another small excursion for one of, “dad’s transit trips” and as a result, we were able to ride the Tampa Streetcar line from it’s northern-most station to the downtown end point, and back. We followed the ride with a stop at the Tampa Bay Brewing Company where the beer was good, and the food left a little to be desired. Normal readers can imagine how excited I was to ride another one of America’s streetcar system; something that is few and far between. I planned ahead so that we knew where to park (we got a free parking spot), how far it went (downtown) and a good place to eat along the line (YBor Centro Station Area). With that in mind, here are a few observations from my experience.
The route connects downtown’s business district, with the YBor neighborhood to the north. According to the shill provided at a stop, one of Tampa’s original streetcar lines ran between downtown and YBor City. It makes sense looking at the dense development in the YBor area, how it grew up around the streetcar. The area almost has the feel of Broad Ripple here in Indy, only a whole lot better. The infrastructure is better maintained, and even in the middle of the day on Friday, there were a lot of people out and milling around. If someone wanted to travel without a car between these two areas, there are plenty of stations to facilitate that.
The Tampa line is ADA compliant, however, since they employ vintage style cars, they are not on level boarding with sidewalks. As a result, if you are on a wheelchair, you must roll up an incline and make use of the wheelchair lift. Otherwise, it is 3 steps up to seating level. The ride itself is nice. The inside of the cars are fully outfitted to feel like a classic vintage streetcar with wood panelling, wood seats, operable windows and a drivers seat on each end with what sounded like an operating air horn. The cars are air conditioned as well, so the temperature was comfortable, even in Florida’s springtime heat. The stations themselves are located near activity centers such as YBor Centro and the Channel District. I was inspired by the amount of new apartment construction in the Channel District (located about halfway between downtown and YBor) however, some of the buildings appeared to still rely heavily on automobile parking. One building looked like it’s lower floors were all dedicated solely to parking. It was not an attractive sight.
As I have already stated, the streetcar goes where people are. It is relatively easy to use no matter who you are and the frequency is rapid enough to make it useful if it is your only mode of transportation. However, the biggest downfall is that Tampa seems to have taken to marketing the streetcar strictly as a tourist attraction. This is most evident in the fact that most days, service does not begin until noon; on Friday-Sunday, it starts at 11am. This really restricts the streetcar from being a transportation device for daily workers in the downtown Tampa area. That being said, we did see some daytime workers using the streetcar, so at least some residents seem to be attempting to use it this way.
While the visit was nice and I had a lot of fun riding the streetcar and taking pictures, it was disappointing in a sense to not see Tampa taking full advantage of the tools at their disposal. Their streetcar could be utilized as a means for vastly reducing automobile trips if the operating hours were changed to allow daytime workers usage from early morning to late evening. The hard work of getting the tracks laid, connecting activity centers, and getting vehicles moving is done. If Indianapolis hopes to someday employ a downtown streetcar, I hope that the service offered permits the streetcar to be used as a real utility rather than simply another downtown tourist attraction.