The Clark Street streetcar project is easier.
It’s the low-hanging fruit in the modernization of Chicago’s transportation infrastructure. It’s a good place for a starter line not because it would have the greatest positive impact on the city, but because Clark Street is the easiest place to demonstrate how a great a modern streetcar can be for a neighborhood.
The people are already here, and they’re already taking transit. We’re already spending a lot of money providing them with buses stuck in traffic.
Some neighborhoods in Chicago (like Lincoln Park) deserve streetcars because they already have the density and ridership to motivate upgrading to a more efficient mode than buses stuck in traffic. Other neighborhoods (like the near South Side) are vastly underdeveloped in light of their outstanding locations, and these are ripe for the kind of development seeded by streetcars that we’ve seen in Portland’s Pearl District.
Because of how diverse Chicago is in terms of population density and development potential, we should expect to see streetcars serving different purposes—maybe even along a single line. The Clark Street line might continue south through the Loop, swing past McCormick Center, and along Cottage Grove to Hyde Park. The north half of the line would be primarily a transit efficiency and congestion reduction project, while the south half would be primarily a neighborhood development and revitalization project.
We might some day see an entirely different third type of streetcar project along Milwaukee Avenue. Instead of building a tremendously expensive express train between the Loop and O’Hare Airport, we could build a modern streetcar line on Milwaukee and convert the Blue Line to express service. That would cost about one-tenth as much as building a new heavy-rail express train. And the Milwaukee Avenue streetcar would provide much better transit service than the Blue Line: travel times would be similar, but the stations would be at street level right in the neighborhood instead of elevated and in the middle of the highway. The new streetcar would boost property values and business all along the line.