Development-Oriented Transit: Bus, Trolley Bus and Streetcar

How do we create pedestrian-friendly mainstreets and 20-minute neighborhoods? At the beginning of the last century Streetcars were the preferred tool, and here in Portland they are again at the beginning of this century here in Portland and increasingly in other U.S. cities.

Of course it is not simply a matter of installing rails in the street – the successes in the Pearl District, the West End and the developing South Waterfront are based on planning, zoning and a combination of public and private investments including Streetcar.

But skeptics continue to ask whether the intense capital cost of Streetcar is necessary to achieve the results:

  • At the extreme end of the spectrum, it’s been suggested that simply the right mix of streetscape improvements and amenities could be sufficient:

    And if it is government investment, could we make such investment without the streetcar component? Could we invest in streetscape improvement, façade improvement programs, development of strategies to create a unique character (or “brand” if you are a marketing person) for a street or neighborhood, public art, civic buildings, etc. and achieve the same results?

  • Locally, sometimes Portland Transport contributor Jim Howell has pointed out that blossoming neighborhood main streets like Albert and Mississippi are succeeding only with frequent bus service. But the bones of these neighborhoods formed in Portland’s first Streetcar era. Do we have examples where a bus line has created such a neighborhood?
  • In Cincinnati, Streetcar opponents have trotted out the Trolley Bus question. Could catenary wires allow a rubber-tired vehicle to bring the same benefits that we’re extracting from Streetcar?

So how much investment, and which components, are really necessary to create a 20-minute neighborhood? How could we construct a test (preferably by surveying existing examples) to guide us?


28 responses to “Development-Oriented Transit: Bus, Trolley Bus and Streetcar”

  1. I vote buses, and lots of them.

    It seems to me a real “20 minute neighborhood” — where you can walk to nearly everything you need in 20 minutes — doesn’t have much to do with transit service, except to the extent that you can walk to a transit station that will get you to a meaningful range of destinations in a reasonable time. That means at least a couple of frequent service transit lines — bus, streetcar, light rail, subway, whatever. Since bus lines are the easiest to put in, it simply means lots of bus coverage through every “20 minute neighborhood,” preferably a combination of N/S and E/W routes.

    This is really a question of zoning … allowing a mix of housing types and densities; a business district that will provide groceries, a pharmacy, a bar, a coffeehouse, a barbershop and/or beauty salon, and an assortment of retail and restaurants.

    Public amenities should include an elementary school, a park or public square, possibly a community garden, maybe a community center or branch library. This could all be one thing: a school that is open in the evenings as a community center, with a schoolyard that doubles as a public park, and maybe a small branch library, a cafe, and a small convenience store built in to the school itself.

    Other public investment should be in walking and bicycle improvements, which might include creating some mid-block walkways (particularly to link cul-de-sacs) to establish a better “grid” for pedestrians. The test, I think, should be the ability of a six year old child accompanied by his wheelchair-bound grandmother to make a walking trip in safety to school, park, groceries, and so forth.

    We also should encourage home businesses or small businesses that cater to minimal automobile traffic, but which could serve pedestrians, and allow them to be scattered throughout neighborhoods. For example, there’s a small convenience store in Montavilla at SE 80th and Taylor Court, right in the heart of a solidly residential neighborhood. Allowing these kinds of mixed uses could do a lot to make a 20 minute neighborhood a reality.

    As for mixed housing densities: zone for mid-rise apartments, housing over retail, and row houses around the “main street” business districts that a 20-minute neighborhood would need. That will provide a lot of foot traffic for the businesses that will, in turn, support the larger neighborhood. Hand out ten-year tax abatements to spur faster development, if desired.

    But buses and streetcars? Not much use if your goal is “how many things you can walk to from your front door.”

  2. I agree the goal is “how many things you can walk to from your front door”. But most of those things you can walk to are going to be provided by some private sector business. The question I’m asking is what transit investment will best attract those businesses (including the developers creating the buildings the businesses go into)?

  3. Lots of flawed thinking in this idea. The few people the busses move in alberta and mississippi can hardly account for an economic success. I have driven those lines and you are never moving that many people who are going there to shop.

    Mississippi and Albert had one thing in common and that was low rent when all this started. Because of economic subsidies and waiving of taxes the pearl had a virtual low red to developers.

    The fact that that they are both on a bus rout has more to do with zoning and major streets. If you removed the bus from either rout the economic impact would be minimal. These areas would still be robust.

    As proof of this I give you China town in Portland. A once thriving community so much so they build the China Town arches but increased rents have destroyed that community and dozens of busses and the max go through there. If a single bus line could save mississippi and alberta then Old town china town should be a paradise.

    Facade improvement does not change everything as well. I can still remmember all the work done in MLK then union. Again we have this right on a bus line. So we had transportation and a facade change in the roads and environment. Did anything change because of that? Not for decades, you can still drive down the streets and count empty buildings and open fields. There are still open fields in POrtland right on a major rout with a bus line. If the above article was correct then this like chinatown should be the center of Portland.

    Take away city support to “Stimulate” MLK and high profile projects and you have it reverting right back to it’s former self. Prices low enough for business to afford to move in and a level of local wealth the exceeds the risk of opening a shop and you will have growth regardless of bus or facade.

    I remember driving down MLK 15 years after they spent millions rebuilding it. You still had 40 or so abandoned buildings or fields on each side of the street from Lombard to Broadway. Slowly, very slowly when you look at Alberta and Mississippi it has started to recover but you can stills see the scars of that era.

    I drive a bus, I love busses, rail and streetcar but they do not alone fix economic woes. We must never confused cause and effect when it comes to growing our economy.

  4. “Do we have examples where a bus line has created such a neighborhood?”

    I would argue that Alberta and Mississippi are examples of thriving mixed use neighborhoods created not necessarily by bus lines, but certainly not by streetcar lines either. Sure, 100 years ago they were developed around streetcars, but in the interim, they declined into extremely blighted areas. Their renaissance had virtually nothing to do with the historic streetcar lines, but rather has been a function of zoning, inward development pressure caused by the UGB, low property values resulting from blight and disinvestment, and the influx of creative class entrepreneurs the city has seen in the last 2 decades.

    The same could be said for Lombard/St. Johns, Belmont, Hawthorne, Division, Clinton, etc., although the decline was not as pronounced in those locations, so the existing building stock was more suited to mixed use development.

    The point is that many of the historic streetcar corridors are doing just fine from a development standpoint. The marginal benefit achievable by streetcar in these areas, with its large public cost, does not strike me as prudent fiscal policy, particularly if construction is paid through debt financing.

  5. The question I’m asking is what transit investment will best attract those businesses (including the developers creating the buildings the businesses go into)?

    Phrased that way, the answer is “rail.” “Close to MAX” or “close to streetcar” provides a selling point in marketing the property that “close to bus” does not. But I don’t think it’s a particularly relevant consideration in developing a 20 minute neighborhood. Public transportation investment should be based on making the whole neighborhood safer and more convenient for pedestrians and bicyclists. That might include improved bus stops.

    In terms of attracting the private sector businesses that will provide most of the walking destination, favorable zoning and short-term temporary tax abatements to jump-start development will do more than any transit service could.

  6. This one’s simple.

    You replace federal payroll taxes with a depleting fuels tax. Instantly it will be cheaper to employee people and more expensive to drive to shopping and services away from neighborhoods. Result: more labor intensive, service oriented, local businesses.

    Now to your specific question. If we were to work toward semi-autonomous neighborhoods where most daily activities could be conducted without resorting to private motor vehicles then we’d need local circulators in the communities and point-to-point transit among community and regional centers.

    Circulator ridership in most communities would never begin to justify rails, but might be able to justify overhead power lines. I believe that developments in electric bus propulsion will soon make continuous overheads obsolete; that ultrarapid charging at route layover points will be all that’s needed for local circulators.

    Similarly, rails will not usually be justified for inter-center transit because riders will want to travel among many centers and not just to and from one main regional hub. Accordingly, I believe that Metro and TriMet are making a mistake in emulating legacy air carriers’ hub-and-spoke system. What riders want is realiable and frequent point-to-point service with a minimum of transfers. So Southwest Airlines thrives while United, Northwest, et al are continually in and out of bankruptcy. TriMet, of course, doesn’t have to compete with other transit providers, so it will continue to be semi-oblivious to the real world, only to be shaken by the inevitable fuel price jumps and economic crises.

  7. I live in NW Portland and never actually leave NW Portland except to go to work and to the downtown YMCA.

    I never use transit because I don’t have too.
    Everything I need is right at my doorstep basically.

    I live in a 20 minute neighborhood and agree with the comments made by Douglas K.

  8. Higher density is key to 20 minute neighborhoods; for more retail/services, you need more people.
    Zoning is critical, but how to attract private sector investment to build attractive 6 story apartments and condos with retail? Not sure bus lines are the ticket.
    Mississippi Avenue has no bank, no grocery, no park, no library…just a couple of cafes and some cute stores; same for Alberta. However, both have attracted some higher density development…which has split the Mississippi neighborhood down the middle, but they are unified in not wanting Streetcar.
    Every transit project is an experiment, there is no template, just opportunity and community desire. Streetcar has worked on the westside; will it work on the eastside?…maybe, I hope it does. I think there are three corridors with enough lane space, vacant and/or underutilized land and potential community support for higher density…Broadway/Weidler, Williams/Vancouver and Hawthorne. All have great bus transit now; what would get them to the next level? I would vote Streetcar.

  9. Lenny Anderson Says: Mississippi Avenue has no bank, no grocery, no park, no library…just a couple of cafes and some cute stores; same for Alberta. However, both have attracted some higher density development…which has split the Mississippi neighborhood down the middle, but they are unified in not wanting Streetcar.

    I lived between those two neighborhoods for more than 10 years and your descriptions badly minimize the reality. On Mississippi, the entire stretch between Fremont and Skidmore is developed, either with commercial buildings or multi-family housing (some still under construction). It was transformed from a seriously depressed and half-abandoned area to a thriving neighborhood nearly overnight.

    Development along Alberta has transformed a much longer stretch of surface street with a heck of a lot more than “a couple of cafes”. Try getting through there on Last Thursday. And there is at least one grocery, right on the corner of 15th & Alberta, with the Concordia New Seasons only blocks north of Alberta.

  10. Sorry to minimize the incredible transformations on Alberta and Mississippi…I have watched these closely since I moved to NE in ’96. But that said, there are still no banks, no libraries, and not a lot of “useful” stores on either. Granted, “useful” is subjective, but reminds me of the conflict in NW between residents and the Nob Hill BA, which wants parking garages to attract suburban shoppers. The lack of “useful” stores on NW 21st or 23rd has been a point that residents raised since their revival. Everything “useful” is available at Freddies! Can’t compete with that!
    In some ways I think Streetcar is more important as a link between neighborhoods, not within neighborhoods; it was conceived as the former. That is why I can’t help but image a Streetcar route between Hillsdale and Multnomah over Capitol Hwy…which has a lot of commercial and higher density residential already at each end and inbetween.

  11. Dan Christensen wrote: The fact that that they are both on a bus rout has more to do with zoning and major streets. If you removed the bus from either rout the economic impact would be minimal…If a single bus line could save mississippi and alberta then Old town china town should be a paradise.

    This underscores the point that transportation investments – whether it be a bus line, or a streetcar or light rail line, doesn’t trigger investment, neighborhood improvements, etc. Despite the claims of the Streetcar supporters, there are dozens of examples in the Metro area, many of which within Portland city limits – of successful “20 minute neighborhoods” that have nothing more than bus service – no Streetcars and no light rail to speak of.

    The question is – does that mean we don’t need transit at all? I think that we (well, most of us, anyways) agree that access to public transit has certain public benefits that even if you don’t use it, there is still some indirect benefit available.

    Clearly, Streetcar was sold on the premise of its development power and that’s wrong – proven time and time again, much of the development along the Streetcar line is due to extreme favorable tax benefits, not because of the streetcar.

    Good quality bus service does have potential to increase and encourage ridership and usage, as is demonstrated elsewhere. I’ve seen the crowds of people at consecutive bus stops on S.E. Hawthorne waiting to ride the bus up and down the street. The impact of a bus should not be ignored or diminished simply because of a political bias or the “sexyness” factor…the choice of a vehicle should not be about development, it should be about which mode best suits the demand of transit. It very well could be that a Streetcar is the best mode of transport, but it should not be assumed.

  12. Lenny Anderson wrote: That is why I can’t help but image a Streetcar route between Hillsdale and Multnomah over Capitol Hwy…which has a lot of commercial and higher density residential already at each end and inbetween.

    This makes as much sense as ripping out MAX and replacing it with the Streetcar between Gateway and the Lloyd District.

    The OE (the predecessor to Multnomah Village, the original interurban route from Portland to Garden Home, Tigard, and eventually to Eugene) was a high speed “heavy rail” operation with top speeds of 60 MPH.

    Building a Streetcar would severely restrict the ridership potential of this route, especially given the long distance from Burlingame to Hamilton with nothing inbetween (in fact a Streetcar would be slower than a bus here!) Since the Burlingame, Hillsdale, Multnomah Village and Garden Home business districts are very close, densely developed areas, a Streetcar (designed to stop every few blocks) doesn’t match the type of development. A single MAX stop (as I suggested as my Portland-Tualatin MAX route) would suffice for each of these business areas with the entire business district within a five-ten minute walk of the MAX station.

    (Oh, and the MAX line would also connect two regional centers and multiple town centers, something a Streetcar wouldn’t do. In fact the Streetcar would offer virtually no benefit over the 44 line, which despite not being a Frequent Service route is one of TriMet’s best performing bus lines. Maybe increasing the 44 to Frequent Service, with new buses and upgrading most bus stops, would be just as effective but without the cost – and the negative impact on Capitol Highway west of Barbur Blvd. that a Streetcar would have on that busy arterial street).

  13. Lenny said: “Mississippi Avenue has no bank, no grocery, no park, no library…just a couple of cafes and some cute stores; same for Alberta. However, both have attracted some higher density development”

    What is attracting this higher density development are the taxpayer funded subsidies, property tax abatements, and in many cases, cheap land that has been provided by PDC and the City of Portland. If streetcars were to be were added to either of these streets, the taxpayer subsidized bailout for this kind of development would not only be even more costly, but it would create an ongoing public debt to just to keep the streetcar running. Streetcars are like a hole in the road that continually swallow taxpayer dollars and create debt – gulp.

    TriMet and the City of Portland need to be burped and consider installing a web of electric trolley busses instead of expensive and slow moving streetcars that can: 1) Double as both local circulators and be used for point to point transit service. 2) Have far less in up front costs with the similar benefits of a fixed transit system. 3) Create less disruption and less of an eco impact during system construction. 4) Generally move faster than streetcars. – and – 5) Since the trolley poles swivel, electric trolley busses can pull over to the curb and let other traffic pass when boarding passengers thereby creating less traffic congestion on the streets they use.

  14. “That was just cruel, Al.”

    I thought you looked great Jeff!

    Very professional!

    Wait till you see the movie, coming out soon, to a blog near you!

  15. With Streetcar speed isn’t the point, place is.
    I would just enjoy crusing in a Streetcar between Hillsdale and Multnomah and points in between. Clearly not a replacement for HCT in SW! Just fun. Hey, but I am a fan…indeed I was sorry when the 22 streetcar in Frankfurt was converted to the U7 between Bokenheim and the InnenStadt. Who wants to be in a tunnel? Moles I guess.

  16. Lenny, if light rail ran from the Lloyd Center to Goose Hollow in a tunnel it would not replace a streetcar line, it would create one. Streetcars could replace LRVs on the existing MAX tracks. You could then ride on the surface and cross regional travelers to save time in a subway.

  17. Jim, true enough. In fact in Frankfurt, citizens rose up and demanded that the transit agency stop decommissioning streetcar lines when subways opened. People there like their friendly little Strassenbahns…just like here! Someday we will have all three…Streetcars, MAX in a subway, and commuter rail to the north, south, east and west.

  18. Lenny Anderson wrote: indeed I was sorry when the 22 streetcar in Frankfurt was converted to the U7 between Bokenheim and the InnenStadt. Who wants to be in a tunnel? Moles I guess.

    Wait a second. I seem to recall that I suggested a MAX line running along Barbur Boulevard to Burlingame, then west to Garden Home, then to Washington Square, so on and so forth…

    And a certain individual who shall rename nameless jumped all over my idea because it didn’t include a (underground) tunnel to serve the worst designed employment center in Portland, OHSU, a huge facility on top of a hill with very little access and tons of congestion…

    And now “who wants to be in a tunnel?”

    I don’t. That’s why I proposed a MAX (not Streetcar) line to serve two Metro-designated Regional Centers, two Metro-designated Town Centers, several City of Portland neighborhoods and downtown.

    With Streetcar speed isn’t the point, place is.

    Which is why my proposed MAX line connects “places” that are walkable and communities.

    A streetcar…well…I don’t know, maybe it encourages sprawl out of these established communities. I’m not quite sure what the benefit of a streetcar is in southwest Portland other than to satisfy the City of Portland bias towards streetcar and against the bus, I don’t know. I for one would prefer my bus moving at 45 MPH on Barbur Boulevard rather than a Streetcar moving at 30 MPH so I can look at…a hillside…trees…a guardrail…a very brief glimpse of Ross Isl-oops, more trees.

  19. Obviously we need both MAX and Streetcar…just like in Frankfurt; MAX for speed and Streetcar for when you just want to mosey along.

  20. When I grew up on Multnomah, it was a “20 minute neighborhood.” The retail juice was sucked out of it the day Washington Sq. opened. Its back thriving again, but not with the full quota of “useful” retail (there’s that word again) it had in the 50’s-60’s.
    Bottom line is you have got to have customers close by, and the only way to get that is higher housing densities and better schools. Multnomah to Hillsdale along Capitol Hwy is getting just that to a point. Schools may be more critical than transit; they attract families (higher density per home), raise property values (attracting investment), and anchor a community in a very powerful way.

  21. Obviously we need both MAX and Streetcar…just like in Frankfurt; MAX for speed and Streetcar for when you just want to mosey along.

    Why do we need streetcar?

    And again, what is so bad about buses? (Other than an anti-bus bias?) From Multnomah Village, right now, there are three buses serving the Multnomah Village core (44, 45, 64) and the 1 skirts around Multnomah Village.

    The Streetcar proposal would eliminate all of these buses (or at least continue the policy of disinvestment upon the buses).

    The Portland-Tigard-Tualatin MAX proposal would enhance these buses. The 45 would likely become a local bus (little need for it to go all the way to downtown) re-routed from Garden Home west to Beaverton (providing a link that does not currently exist, but historically was a TriMet bus route) with a new Tigard route assuming the Tigard TC-Washington Square segment and continuing north along Oleson to Raleigh Hills but the 44 would remain going to Portland (which would also provide frequent service to Hillsdale and PCC Sylvania), the 1 bus would likely be re-routed to serve the 45 route north of Multnomah Village and also become a local route. Multnomah Village would once again become a true transit hub, itself a generator of community activity, and unlike the failed development at Beaverton TC would actually be focused on the existing community, rather than hidden behind a strip mall while ignoring the downtown area.

    (And the MAX line would link Multnomah Village with the Fred Meyer store at Burlingame and the Thriftway store at Garden Home. The 44 would continue to provide service to the co-op grocery at Hillsdale and Barbur Foods at Barbur & Capitol.)

    As for schools…I could go on and on but that’s a different discussion for a different forum.

  22. I think Douglas K’s comments are on the mark.

    Although they are commonly associated in the minds of most people, walkable neighborhoods and transit have little to do with each other, the latter being primarily a means of commuting (and not at all good at facilitating shopping trips).

    Portland is already walkable, as it was constructed according to a grid topology. (2/3rds of the city are very easily bikeable.) Douglas’ idea of ped/bike cut-through paths can assist the suburbs, with their terminating residential streets. Bike boulevards are pretty cheap too, as they only require flipping a few stop signs, some signage, and maybe a few stoplights at busy crossings. If a greater number of people would like to live within very close walking distance to one of our various shopping districts, that can be made possible through relaxed zoning codes. Allow mixed-used zoning with building heights of 4-5 stories on arterials, and the building of the duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, and the small-scale courtyard housing that we already have in our residential areas. (I am in favor of minimum landscaping requirements, as I would hate to see our city’s trees replaced by buildings that occupy their entire lot.) These are all very inexpensive methods of creating a 20 minute neighborhood, requiring very few subsidies. I don’t see the point of forcing Pearl-style development. If it happens naturally, fine, but I don’t see it as a necessity (or even really desirable).

    Although I like the urbanist ideal of walkable neighborhoods, I don’t share the urbanist transit fetish. I say this as somebody who has never owned a car. I hated transporting myself during the periods of my life where I was constrained by transit time-tables and had to confine myself in an enclosed space with people who I’d never invite into my home. I love cycling (my primary mode of transport), however, as it is personalized form of transit — similar to a car, but cheaper, more fun, and a great form of exercise. The vast majority of progressive Portlanders that I have met drive their cars whenever possible, in spite of their ideology and in spite of the fact that the city has gone out of its way to make driving difficult here. It remains a more efficient and pleasant experience. Transit is still necessary, but it will not and should not eclipse personal transport.

    Why not legalize jitneys? I’m not a libertarian, but this is one of their better ideas. Faster trips, door-to-door service, far cheaper than taxis, the ability to exclude problem customers, and no subsidies.

  23. Free streetcar service is justified downtown where parking is costly and traffic needs to be contained and reduced. The streetcars are packed often between the Pearl and PSU. The high-density development that has occurred along the streetcar line is suitable for downtown. Rail in the roadbed seems to put a damper on speeding motorists, important to keep these high-density areas walkable.

    This line of thinking leads me to support the Eastside Streetcar Loop, though as I’ve said here many times, build it in segments: extend across the Broadway Bridge up Weidler as far as 15th and back on Multnomah or Broadway. I figure this first extension should turn around at PSU. The 2nd extension would run south on MLK/Grand from Broadway/Weidler to Burnside. This line could turnaround on 23rd.

    These first extensions have the most development potential. Then extend to OMSI. Then build the Burnside Couplet streetcar line between E. 14th and W. 23rd. Lastly, the Broadway/Weidler line to Hollywood. This is a lot of streetcar work.

    At the height of Portland’s streetcar network, 1933 or so, over 600 streetcars were running, as many as today’s Tri-Met buses. Whatever.

  24. Streetcar extends the pedestrian zone…just watch the one we have now. 10 or more blocks is too far for most people to walk…but is easy on Streetcar. Portland has done almost nothing to make driving difficult…indeed all the investment in transit and biking has made it easier than ever to drive.

  25. Lenders won’t lend money for lower parking ratios if there aren’t some decent transit near the developments; bus lines are typically ignored.

    The other factor is that people ignore the psychological effect that rail transit actually has in the location that it is installed – it is a very clear sign (like an advertisement) that this is not a car-dominated place. And it makes it unique, and even special – and drives up real estate values.

    However, the streetcar had better damn well function as a transportation device, or nobody is going to use it. “Development-oriented transit” is such a BS term, and is the result of Americans having NO CLUE in their ability to judge or quantify the value of actual public amenities and infrastructure.

  26. Real estate development is based on 3 basic rules:


    The Pearl District was essentially a load of close-to-free property close to downtown and NW, with tax abatements and local subsidies to develop.

    Chinatown DID develop to some extent (there are many redeveloped and newer towers in the area), but development faltered the closer it got to Burnside and – SURPRISE! – the homeless shelters and soup kitchens.

    If we were in Seattle, that wouldn’t have been an impediment, since people there are used to a higher level of grit (cultural factor) and land values are much higher, and there aren’t many places to redevelop.

    As for MLK, development has been moving towards the Lloyd District for years. Right now there are maybe 6 or more mixed-use projects under construction near Shaver, including a 6+ story project that is probably the tallest building within a mile.

    Any area near downtown, however, benefits greatly from the existing number of people who already travel and live in the area – bringing money and wealth with them. Now, if developers would just start pursuing something besides luxury condo towers, we might actually see some more development occur. Like whats happened on Alberta and Vancouver!

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