Street car concept art
Part of the RTA plan calls for increased public transportation.

I'm writing this from a coffee shop in the center of Vienna, Austria. Though I'm in a touristy area of the city and a couple miles away from my apartment, I was able to satisfy a sudden urge for espresso by a five-minute ride on public transit, a feat unthinkable when I was in Tucson.

It's doubtful any regular Sun Tran riders are 100 percent pleased at the city's public bus system. The most recent good news for Tucson public transit came in late January when the city and the Regional Transportation Authority announced it would be going to bid on four aspects of the modern streetcar project downtown, including a bridge across the Santa Cruz River. But more on that later.

Though Vienna's population is only slightly larger than metropolitan Tucson, you could easily fit the city's footprint several times over inside the area between Marana and Sahuarita. A public transit system therefore thrives in such a dense environment, making cars unnecessary. Transit ridership differs wildly between the two cities - 800 million per year in Vienna versus 20 million a year in Tucson - but there is much Tucson can learn from Vienna, which according to a recent study is the third best in Europe.

To that end here are some tips from Austria's capital about Tucson's new modern streetcar:

  • Make it go somewhere. Where does Tucson's streetcar line go? The four-mile route begins near University Medical Center and ends near a giant hole in the ground west of downtown. Most of Vienna's streetcar lines end somewhere important like a train station, major park or bus hub and certainly not at a giant metaphor for the failed Rio Nuevo. It would seem to have made more sense to run track to Tucson International Airport, a place where people are actually going. Or imagine what a streetcar line along Broadway to Hi Corbett Field or south to Kino Stadium (the old Tucson Electric Park) could do for the future of baseball in Tucson?
  • Let people know. Tucson's modern streetcar route connects the University of Arizona with downtown via Fourth Avenue, the most densely populated and foot-trafficked spot in Southern Arizona. If the project fails it will likely be because of an inability to get the message out about its benefits.
    These benefits don't need to be explained to a city with a transit system like Vienna's. Catch a bus or streetcar at certain times and you'll see it packed with fans decked in green or purple, depending on which soccer team is playing that night. People here don't need to arrange for a designated driver when going out because the system is running late into the night. Even people new to the city will see handy icons on route maps on where the main attractions are.
    A few months ago when the subway lines started running 24 hours on weekends a media blitz went up all over the city to let people know about it. Tucson's streetcar can help with with parking problems and gridlock whenever there's a UA home basketball or football game, somebody has just got to make that clear.
  • Count on it. In my college days in Tucson, I relied on a Sun Tran bus to get to and from campus. With no way beyond a printed schedule to tell when or if a bus would show, I was often late. Vienna has installed digital displays at bus and streetcar stops telling passengers how many minutes away the next ride is. There's even a smartphone app that uses this data to tell you not only when the next car will arrive but whether it's a new or old model.
  • Keep it clean. I ride a streetcar or subway every day in Vienna and I've yet to encounter a ride that has been unpleasant because of graffiti, trash or questionable stains on the seats. While I won't come out and say all Sun Tran buses are unpleasant and unclean, there were a few days when I'd rather bicycle in the heat. Since Sun Tran got some new buses for its 2009 rebranding campaign some of them have been quite nice, but I feel that most bus riders are one mal-shaped seat stain away from switching back to cars if they can afford them.

People will ride Tucson's modern streetcar, but if it starts looking like the inside of some of the buses that are on the road, we're going to start wondering why we ever built the thing in the first place.

Nicholas K. Smith, a former reporter for Inside Tucson Business, is now a freelance reporter based in Vienna.