I believe that the upcoming lakefront “extension” for the Milwaukee streetcar will make the system worse, to the point that it wouldn’t be worth running if construction were free. Put another way: if we have the opportunity to run limited service on the spur – or even abandon it completely – we should take it and focus our resources on the existing M-Line.

First some quick notes. The existing line on the Hop (Milwaukee’s streetcar) is officially designated the “M-Line” and jogs across downtown from the Intermodal Station to Burns Commons. It’s a generally good route for trips within downtown and that shows in the ridership: over 2100 daily riders last month compared to the pre-covid projection of 1850. The Lakefront, or “L-Line” is a new service (not an extension of the existing line) that will be launched later this year where vehicles will head west from the Couture on Clybourn, go north on Milwaukee to Kilbourn, come back south to the Third Ward on Broadway, then turn back up Milwaukee before heading back to the Lakefront on Michigan St. (see map below). Currently the M-Line runs every 15 minutes during the week and 20 minutes in evenings and weekends. I haven’t seen a schedule for the L-Line but I believe it will have to run at 20 minute headways.

Map of the M-Line and L-Line routes

Who does the lakefront line serve?

While the M-Line serves a wide variety of trips across downtown, the Lakefront Line will focus on people heading to/from the Lakefront from the core of East Town. The new line will have 5 main stopping areas (I’m combining two stops serving the same area in either direction to a single stop): City Hall (Wells), Wisconsin Ave, Third Ward, Jefferson (at Michigan or Clybourn) and the Couture. That’s small enough that we can easily consider every possible trip on the new line, and they fall into a few different categories:

Too Short to be Relevant

City Hall <-> Wisconsin Avenue
Wisconsin Avenue <-> Jefferson
Jefferson <-> Couture

All of these are just a few blocks (about 1/4 mile at most) and very few people will find the streetcar worth even a nominal wait. That’s not a problem, it’s just the nature of a local service like The Hop.

East Town to Lakefront

City Hall <-> Jefferson
City Hall <-> Couture
Wisconsin <-> Couture

This is the new line’s best market. Especially if you’re heading to Summerfest (as opposed to, say the Art Museum) the streetcar will save you a reasonably long, and somewhat unpleasant, walk. But even here the longest trip (City Hall to the Couture) is less than 3/4 of a mile which most people will be able to walk in 15 minutes.

Third Ward

City Hall <-> Third Ward
Wisconsin Ave <-> Third Ward
Third Ward <-> Jefferson
Third Ward <-> Couture

Here’s where it gets weird, the line’s odd T shape and one-way operation means that trips involving the Third Ward will work very well in one direction but very poorly the other way. Specifically, the new L-Line is great for trips from City Hall or Wisconsin Ave to the Third Ward (direct, fast), but when you want to go back you’ll have to detour to the Couture and wait a bit at the terminal before continuing. Similarly, going from the Third Ward to Jefferson or the Couture is very efficient but the trip back requires detouring all the way from Clybourn to Kilbourn, which will usually take longer than walking the half mile between those stops. I’m sure some visitors will ride those trips, but it’s not good transit.

How would riders travel without the lakefront line?

When considering a new service, we need to consider how it fits in with the other options riders will have. Since this is a short local line – again, the longest trip is less than a mile station to station – walking is an alternative for most riders. But that’s too simplistic, not everyone can walk that distance and we’re trying to encourage people to spread out and explore more of downtown.

Looking back at the breakdown above, any trips which don’t involve the Lakefront or Jefferson stops are better served by the existing M-Line. It runs at least as directly as the upcoming L-Line and extends further into the city so you have more options for getting on/off the streetcar.

If you’re going to the Lakefront you can ride the M-Line to Wisconsin (for the Art Museum area) or the Third Ward (for the Summerfest grounds) and walk about half a mile, or get on the BRT from anywhere on Wisconsin Ave and ride it to the same Couture transit center the streetcar will use. However, the bus runs more frequently – every 10 minutes instead of every 20 – and should be faster – it has a dedicated lane and doesn’t detour through the Third Ward.

The upshot is that the new L-Line will save you some walking if you’re heading from City Hall to the lakefront, it will be a good option for going to the lake from the Third Ward (but not heading back), and only beats the BRT from Wisconsin Ave because it’s free.

More is still better through, right?

Ok, so the line isn’t very useful but it’s still good for some people, right? Plus, it will encourage more people in downtown to visit the lakefront, and more lakefront visitors to check out downtown resturants and businesses. The problem is that the line isn’t free and running the L-Line will take resources that could make the M-Line much better.

We can keep this simple: the Hop has 5 trains. One is always set aside for maintenance (which happens while the others are running service), the L-Line will take one for 20 minute service, and the rest go to the M-Line. 3 trains is enough to run an every-15-minute schedule, which is what we have today. If we dedicated all 4 operating trains to the M-Line, we could run a 10 minute schedule. That’s a massive difference on a route as short as the streetcar, and would probably do more to boost year-round ridership than the L-Line ever could.

Even if you’re going to the lake, a more frequent train followed by a half mile walk will usually be faster than waiting for and riding the L-Line.

Beyond that, the second line will create confusion. Rightly or not, the Hop today is targeted at visitors who are not familiar with riding public transit. One of the toured benefits of a streetcar is that people can be confident they know where it will take them. Many casual riders won’t be aware that there are two lines, they won’t know how to easily tell which train is which, and they may be dissuaded from riding completely lest they end up going to the wrong place.

The streetcar has done a lot of good for downtown in large part because the M-Line is a useful transportation route, not just a gimmick. I’m afraid that the L-Line is the opposite and will do more to harm the system than help it.