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?

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