How Fast Is That Streetcar Anyway?

The perception has been shared here and elsewhere that the Streetcar is slow. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that a person walking can keep up with the Streetcar.

First we need to look at the purpose the Streetcar was constructed for. It was designed to be a circulator in the city center, not a commuter service. As such, it is geared toward frequent stops and short trips. This is the reason that stops are spaced relatively closely together. The emphasis is on convenience rather than speed. If we are successful in funding an extension to Lake Oswego, we will clearly be designing to a different set of goals and design parameters like stop spacing will look much differently.

It turns out that the biggest variable in the Streetcar’s progress through downtown is time boarding and de-boarding passengers. As the passenger count has risen to 7,800 per weekday, this has required the operations staff to sharpen their focus to keep service on-time, and sometimes we are challenged during peak periods.

Other important considerations include signal timing. For example, in the burn-in process leading up to opening the extension to RiverPlace, we were able to work with the signals engineers at PDOT to reduce the average Streetcar wait at the Naito Parkway signals from 45 seconds to 15 seconds.

So how fast is the Streetcar? Well, I can’t keep up. I often get downtown by walking along the alignment until a Streetcar catches up with me (something I can do without risking it catching me between stops by using the NextBus signs in the shelters). If I just miss the train at 23rd and Marshall, the next train (13 minutes behind) will catch me somewhere between Johnson and Everett.

In fact, the published schedule for Streetcar shows a 22-minute trip from PSU to NW 23rd, a distance of 2.4 miles. That works out to 6.5 miles per hour. Googling ‘typical walking speed’ produces estimates of 2.5-3.5 mph.

How does Streetcar compare to a bus? Let’s look at a side-by-side comparison. Both Streetcar and the #15 go from downtown to NW 23rd and Lovejoy/Marshall. Unfortunately since neither system publishes schedules for every stop, we’ll have to take approximate comparables:

Streetcar from Central Library (10th and Yamhill) to NW 23rd and Marshall: 17 minutes (3pm)

# 15 from 5th and Washington to NW 23rd and Lovejoy: 17 minutes (at 3pm)

In the morning, the bus shaves a few minutes off this, presumably because traffic is lighter, while Streetcar keeps a more constant schedule (different operating practices on scheduling), but you get the idea, the difference is measured in deltas of a minute or two.

By the way, the power-to-weight ratio of the Inekon vehicle is actually better than that of a MAX car, so watch out when we get on the open stretches to Lake O!

Let’s call it a Streetcar Named [Relatively] Speedy.

24 Comments

24 Responses to How Fast Is That Streetcar Anyway?

  1. jim karlock
    July 12, 2005 at 6:34 am Link

    Chris Smith at 06:02 AM By the way, the power-to-weight ratio of the Inekon vehicle is actually better than that of a MAX car, so watch out when we get on the open stretches to Lake O!

    JK: By the way, Chris, power to weight has nothing to do with speed on open stretches. Basic physics.

    Power to weight only gives you acceleration. Power to losses gives you top speed.

    On flat open stretches, the top speed is determined by the power to losses from frontal area (wind resistance, a 3rd or 4th power relationship) plus rolling friction (a linear relationship). Weight is only significant in acceleration. (And deceleration=breaking). The real speed limit will likely be track condition and safety considerations at crossings etc.

    Going uphill, part of the power is used to overcome gravity, reducing the power left for friction and wind.

    Of course we could talk about its cost/benefit another time.

    Thanks
    JK

  2. Notorious J.E.S.
    July 12, 2005 at 9:00 am Link

    Chris,

    Your attempt to illustrate that the streetcar is faster than walking is based on the wrong assumption. If you walk to the streetcar route, of course the streetcar will be faster (and why would one walk that route, anyhow). If you want to get from NW to PSU, try cutting through Goose Hollow. It might not be faster, but it’s close (of course, it’s a lot harder to read the morning paper during a swift morning walk), especially if you factor in a short walk to the streetcar and even a short wait for the streetcar, when you could otherwsie be walking.

  3. Chris Smith
    July 12, 2005 at 9:44 am Link

    I’m not in any way trying to promote the Streetcar as an alternative to walking. If I have the time, I walk rather than take transit. I’m just trying to dispel the notion that it’s unreasonably slow.

    However, I do enjoy the walk through the Pearl past Jamison Square, even if it is longer than crossing Burnside and taking advantage of the angles in the street grid.

  4. Karen Frost
    July 12, 2005 at 10:01 am Link

    Physics, schmysics. Has anyone checked the number of people crammed into the steetcar? They don’t think it’s too slow; they’re loving it. And sometimes ya just don’t wanna walk.

  5. Bob R.
    July 12, 2005 at 11:23 am Link

    I like the streetcar, and frequently take exercise walks along the corridor without even riding (it’s a good walk with a lot of architectural variety).

    I understand the limitations imposed by frequent stops, moving with traffic, etc.

    However, the problem of labelling the streetcar a “circulator” is one of headways and wait times.

    Sure, the streetcar will outrun you over its entire length. But if you want to go say from Safeway to Powells, and there’s 10+ minutes before NextBus tells you a streetcar is coming, it is faster to walk, making the streetcar inconvenient as a circulator.

    Sometimes I’ve seen NextBus estimates of greater than 20 minutes for a streetcar. Who wants to wait for 20 minutes to “circulate”? (Unless, physically, they are unable to walk the distance anyway.)

    My point is not to bash the streetcar. My point is to nudge streetcar management into improving headways… Can anyone speak authoritatively on this? Have there been budget/ridership projections for purchasing/operating more vehicles on shorter headways?

    MAX, interestingly, functions much better as a “circulator” in its corridor. Rush hour headways are sometimes under 3 minutes. One need only step onto a MAX platform downtown and be reasonably confident that a train is about to arrive.

    When the Mall rebuild is completed and the Green line launches, north-south headways for Green/Yellow trains will average 7.5 minutes, making for an excellent North-South downtown circulator. I understand there are plans to run additional pure downtown loop train, which will further reduce headways.

    So, when will we see 7-minute or better Streetcar headways?

    – Bob R.
    Portland, OR

    PS… I am the owner of the (unused) domain name PortlandStreetcar.com. I have offered it repeatedly to Portland Streetcar, Inc., but they declined to purchase it. Any offers?

  6. brett
    July 12, 2005 at 2:16 pm Link

    I hate to agree with Jack Bog, but I can see where this site is going.. Cars bad! Streetcar good!

    I used to take the streetcar to work every day when I lived in NW, and the suggestion that it’s as fast as the bus is ludicrous. I used to catch up to it on foot all the time. It is retardedly slow. I stopped taking it and started taking the bus because it took literally half as much time.

    I like how you slide right by the question:

    Q: Is the Streetcar slow?

    A: Well, it wasn’t designed to be fast…

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of the Streetcar, but SPEED THE THING UP and don’t make apologies for it.

  7. Chris Smith
    July 12, 2005 at 3:16 pm Link

    Bob, to your question about headways (time between vehicles), the goal of the Portland Streetcar, Inc. board (of which I am a member) is 10 minutes. Of course it’s a function of money – to get better headways we need more vehicles and then have to pay drivers to operate them. In the current year budget it would take an additional $600K to get from 13 minutes at peak hours to 10 minutes.

    We’ll get a litte bit closer to 10 minutes next year when we start operation to Gibbs in South Waterfront.

    Meanwhile, about that domain name, how much do you want for it? Keep in mind that we’re a thrifty organization, because we try to keep all the $$$ going into operations.

  8. Chris Smith
    July 12, 2005 at 3:18 pm Link

    Brett, you don’t have to look any further than the contributors list to understand that this site has a point of view supportive of alternative modes. Nonetheless, the conversation is open to everyone.

    Thanks.

  9. jim karlock
    July 13, 2005 at 2:29 am Link

    Chris Smith July 12, 2005 03:16 PM: Of course it’s a function of money – to get better headways we need more vehicles and then have to pay drivers to operate them. In the current year budget it would take an additional $600K to get from 13 minutes at peak hours to 10 minutes.

    JK: now that we are on money, what is the cost per passenger mile of this thing? Give me yearly passenger miles and yearly costs, includig both operational and construction amortization, and I’ll do the math (ie: division.)

    Thanks
    JK

  10. jim karlock
    July 13, 2005 at 2:35 am Link

    Chris Smith July 12, 2005 03:18 PM: Brett, you don’t have to look any further than the contributors list to understand that this site has a point of view supportive of alternative modes.

    JK: What contributors list, I missed it – where is it?

    Thanks
    JK

  11. Chris Smith
    July 13, 2005 at 7:33 am Link

    The contributors list was linked from the original welcome post. I have just added a link in the sidebar of the home (Main) page.

  12. Bob R.
    July 13, 2005 at 11:07 am Link

    Chris –

    Thank you for your reply. I sent you a private email about the domain name.

    A question about the Gibbs extension –

    I recently walked past the construction and noticed that the extension is single-track. All of the previous design drawings I’ve seen from the South Waterfront district people have shown a two-track loop on adjacent blocks, much like the 10th/11th street alignment.

    Is the single-track extension a temporary situation until more streets are constructed in South Waterfront? Or have new projections or constraints been imposed that limit this to single-track for the long term?

    Also, I have a safety issue I’d like to point out.
    I noticed it while driving a few weeks ago:

    In the block of SW Montgomery between 5th and 4th (the old end of the line) there is some confusion. For a car that has been driving South on 5th on the streetcar tracks (which is legal), turning left onto Montgomery, there is no signage that I could see that indicates it is NOT allowed to drive on the tracks on Montgomery.

    Now, a car that follows the track in the right lane down Montgomery will be forced to turn south onto 4th – driving against one-way traffic in the streetcar’s protected lane.

    I can forsee an out-of-towner unfamiliar with the one-way street grid making this choice to turn right and running into serious trouble at 4th and Harrison.

    I suggest one or more of the following:

    1. Put diamond symbols in the track lane on Montgomery (similar to what max does)
    2. Put bumps along the lane divider between cars and streetcsar (again, like max)
    3. Signage at the East end of Montgomery (at 4th) that says “Do Not Enter – Streetcar Only.”

    – Bob Richardson

  13. Chris Smith
    July 13, 2005 at 3:24 pm Link

    Bob, we would definitely like to be double-track in South Waterfront, there’s this small problem with a working barge plant where we would like to put the second track :-)

    Zidell will eventually move their plant, and we’ll reexamine that area then (including whether to locate some stops there, depending on the development plans). Meanwhile, on the next segment under consideration (Gibbs to Lowell) we are definitely looking at double track.

    I’ve flag the operations staff on your safety concern and will see what they think.

  14. Chris Smith
    July 13, 2005 at 3:32 pm Link

    Jim, Here’s your data. Unfortunately we don’t track passenger miles, just boardings and deboardings, so you’re going to have to make some assumptions about average trip length. My own sense is that it’s worth looking at a range of values.

    On pure operating costs I don’t think we’re going to look that much different from a bus. While we have a slightly higher hourly operating cost, we also have a higher passenger density.

    Of course when you include amortizing capital investment, it will be a different story. But I’m going to claim that’s an investment to create a dense livable neighborhood, a view I already know you don’t share :-)

    For the current fiscal year:

    Operating Budget: $3.1M
    Service Hours: 22,500
    Passengers: 2.2M

    Capital Cost from 23rd to RiverPlace: ~ $70M

  15. jim karlock
    July 15, 2005 at 3:19 pm Link

    Chris Smith July 13, 2005 03:32 PM:

    Chris Smith July 13, 2005 03:32 PM: Unfortunately we don’t track passenger miles, just boardings and deboardings,

    JK: How can I get a copy of that data, in is most detailed form. Presumabley a record is made of every boarding and de-boarding.

    Thanks
    JK

  16. Bob R.
    July 15, 2005 at 4:34 pm Link

    JK wrote:

    “Presumabley a record is made of every boarding and de-boarding.”

    Get real, JK. Haven’t you heard about sampling? Or do you propose that Portland Streetcar dramatically increase costs by putting full-time staff onto every train just to count boardings?

    If you want to make principled arguements against public transportation, I’d love to hear them, but the junk you’ve come up with in the various threads on this site doesn’t pass the laugh test.

    – Bob R.

  17. Chris Smith
    July 15, 2005 at 4:56 pm Link

    Actually, TriMet has technology that gets all boardings, but we’re simple folk at Streetcar (although I’ve asked that we investigate what TriMet uses). We do indeed do samples. I’m finding out now how we keep the data.

  18. jim karlock
    July 15, 2005 at 11:38 pm Link

    Bob R. July 15, 2005 04:34 PM (quoting JK):“Presumabley a record is made of every boarding and de-boarding.”

    Bob R. July 15, 2005 04:34 PM: Get real, JK. Haven’t you heard about sampling? Or do you propose that Portland Streetcar dramatically increase costs by putting full-time staff onto every train just to count boardings?

    JK: No, I thought that maybe they used industry standard automatic counters. They are an extra cost item, so I asked.

    Bob R. July 15, 2005 04:34 PM: If you want to make principled arguements against public transportation, I’d love to hear them, but the junk you’ve come up with in the various threads on this site doesn’t pass the laugh test.

    JK: What doesn’t pass the laugh test?

    Transit uses more energy than cars? See Page 2-14 of TRANSPORTATION ENERGY DATA BOOK: EDITION 24 ORNL-6973 (download from: http://cta.ornl.gov/data/download24.shtml

    TriMet uses more energy than cars and cost more? see http://www.saveportland.com/Car_Vs_Tri-Met/TriMet_vs_Car5.htm

    Metro is trying to turn us int LA? Well just look around you – more density and congestion everywhere JUST LIKE LA. In case you didn’t know LA is the densest census region in the country. Want proof? Look on page 7 of Metreo Measured. Also look at the charts.Metro’s “metro measured”, available at: http://66.78.76.163/metrodocs/metro_measured.PDF

    JK: Can you cite something that I said that doesn’t pass the laugh test?

    JK: I’ll even give you one. The stuff that I have says that cars are slightly (maybe 10-20%) better than transit for energy and cost, but there are so many real world considerations and data errors that it is impossible to be sure which is best. But that is not the point. The point is that transit is not clearly superior, like many people think. And they never seem to talk about its downside of wasted time, safety, packed like sardines during commute time etc.

    Thanks
    JK

  19. Justin Wells
    July 20, 2005 at 9:12 pm Link

    Aaaah! Something I’m an expert on. I live in NW and go to school @ PSU, and I ride the Streetcar on average 2x per day (to and from).

    I can tell you this: the walk from my apartment on 20th & Marshall to my class @ PSU takes 45 minutes – and I walk pretty fast. I usually walk the streetcar route, or up on 12th and drop down to 10th later on, but it’s pretty much the same thing.

    The streetcar takes about 20-25 minutes to get me to PSU or back during the daytime (unless there aren’t many people around), and sometimes (late at night) around 17 minutes, which is about as fast as I’ve ever seen it.

    As you can see, far better than walking. But wait! There’s more! Most of the streetcar line is actually pretty speedy – it’s just the bits around Burnside that slow it waaaaay down. From Alder down to Everett, during the middle of summer when there are tons of people, most peds can keep up with the streetcar because of traffic congestion.
    Particularly annoying to those of us riding and getting passed by peds is the 2-block separation of stations from Couch to Glisan. It seems to me the Everett stop should just be elminated – come on, it’s only 2 blocks to the next stop! If people won’t walk even THAT far…

    But there you go, that’s 2 years worth of personal, scrutinizing assessment! Free of charge!

  20. Chris Smith
    July 20, 2005 at 9:17 pm Link

    Jim – sorry to take so long to get back to you, but I finally had a chance to sit down with Streetcar staff today about the raw data. I’m afraid I was wrong and we only track boardings, not alightings (as they told me the proper term was).

    So I don’t have a way for you to compute trip lengths. Sorry.

  21. Justin Wells
    July 20, 2005 at 9:18 pm Link

    Oh, I forgot something. I sometimes ride my bike S on 20th, cut through Goose Hollow by PGE Park, I follow the MAX lines on the street to 11th, and then to PSU. This route, on average, takes me 12 minutes one-way (I’m sorta a fast cyclist, but by no means sucidal!).

    However, I much prefer the streetcar when it’s raining, I want to look nice (biking that route in 12 minutes make you sweat), or I have lots of junk to carry to class.

  22. Justin Wells
    July 20, 2005 at 9:23 pm Link

    “I can forsee an out-of-towner unfamiliar with the one-way street grid making this choice to turn right and running into serious trouble at 4th and Harrison.”

    I’ve actually seen this happen before. I believe it was about two weeks after an old lady drove her car down BOTH flights of stairs at PSU’s urban center plaza.

    They out of towners turned left, as the opposing traffic had a red light.

  23. scott
    May 2, 2007 at 11:13 pm Link

    Looking for the top speed (in MPH) of a street car as well as the cost per mile for the network. Also intersted in the cost per car and the cost savings of having on board ticketing vs. Light Rail type station ticketing. I am doing some post grad studies….

  24. Chris Smith
    May 2, 2007 at 11:33 pm Link

    I don’t recall the exact top speed (there’s actually a governor), but it’s something like 35mph or so (others may remember).

    We’ve built about 4 miles of (mostly) double-track alignment for roughly $100M total, so that’s about $25M per double-track mile.

    We have dozens of stops, but only 10 cars, so in car ticket machines are definitely more economical.

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