Streetcars as Part of the Transit Network

Curtis Ailes has long been a Portland Transport correspondent, living in Indianapolis. He and his family have recently moved to Portland and we’re happy to welcome him to the region and to Portland Transport!

Recently, a tectonic jolt rocked the transit blogosphere as The Atlantic Cities’ Eric Jaffe penned a column supporting the notion that streetcars in America are not part of the traditional transit network. Jaffe presented data suggesting that low ridership share of streetcar lines (as a percentage of total network ridership) supported this notion. Portland was not spared the brunt of this conclusion with Streetcar contributing a meager 3.5% (approximately) to the regional fixed route network. Certainly, when viewed through this frame, the thought makes a lot of sense.

But is this a suitable validation of the core question? Are streetcar systems “failing” as transit simply because they are not generating huge ridership numbers? Is the data being sliced the right way?

A look at Portland’s Streetcar ridership shows an increasing trend in boardings over time with no major dips. Analyzing the data a bit further, as of Q4 2013 daily weekday boardings are averaging over 13k (Q2 2014 has improved to 18k/day).  Contrast this with MAX which came in at 108k, and streetcar, if counted as part of the system, would count 10% of the system’s boardings.

I thought that digging a little further and comparing Streetcar’s contribution vs other individual MAX lines made sense as well. According to data obtained from Trimet by PT’s Bob Richardson, and based on 2012 data (the latest detailed data he was able to obtain), Streetcar contributed just 7% to the 2012 numbers. Streetcar easily contributes more than WES, something we all know, but falls below the other MAX contribution to the network. However, if we compare the growth of streetcar in just one year, total share has grown 3% and if the latest jump in ridership from 13k to 18k are to be believed, that share continues to grow, even as total MAX ridership dips.

So what can we conclude? Streetcar while not as big a contributor to the total rail network as individual MAX lines is showing impressive year over year growth while MAX ridership has flattened. From this point, you can suggest causes for this however you want. City Center densification? CL contributions (even if it is chronically delayed)? Whatever story we craft, streetcar ridership growth is robust.

Anecdotally speaking, as a newly minted resident of Portland, my family and I have relied heavily upon the streetcar for daily functions. We use it get groceries & to run errands. We use it to explore new neighborhoods. We use it to stay dry when getting from one place to the next. As a long-time observer of transit systems nationwide, I can attest to the first hand usage of Streetcar as a crucial part of the local transit network versus a tourist attraction. An inspection of the data supports this.


36 responses to “Streetcars as Part of the Transit Network”

  1. This seems like such a bizarre argument. Saying that streetcars are aren’t a real part of the transit system because they have only a few percent of the total ridership is like saying that the number X bus line (choose your favorite) isn’t a *real* bus route because it also carries only a few percent of the total ridership. Or maybe Oregon isn’t a “real” state because we have less than 2% of the total country’s population?

    I know streetcars are controversial, but I wish people wouldn’t invent these ridiculous arguments to atttack them.

  2. Why does this article mention fixed route while not including buses? The routes can be changed but rarely are, non-fixed would be like LIFT service

  3. Streetcar is interesting in many ways. To say that it isn’t part of the “transit system” is of course ludicrous–it is a key component for those who live downtown.

    Of course, its genesis was quite different. It was a City of Portland project, not a TriMet/Metro project… and its primary goal wasn’t transit per se–the role played by the Streetcar could be easily be done by a bus, after all (I’ll ignore the ~70% larger capacity and the occasional sections of the route that have no direct street equivalent). The Streetcar was deployed, in large part, as a land use tool, which is a big reason it is controversial.

    Many object to TOD as developer pork–and a good case can be made that developers have too much influence on land-use and development plans (and on politics in general). Many also object, and still do, to the use of capital dollars on transit that doesn’t offer many technical advantages over local bus (such as high capacity, lower per-rider operating expense, or exclusive right-of-way). TriMet likely wouldn’t have built the Streetcar if Portland hadn’t. And future expansions of the Streetcar system, other than closing the loop across the new transit bridge, probably aren’t going to happen for quite a while.

    But it is here, and it works, and it probably does attract riders that a bus might not, simply due to the psychology of it all. (Which, in some ways, is unfortunate). And in many ways, it (the original line, at least) was a home run for Portland. It seems bizarre that something as innocuous as a public transit line has effected such a transformation of the city–from Seattle’s little brother to a Millenial cultural mecca–and perhaps the Streetcar gets more credit than it deserves (many other things have come together to make Portland Portlandia; and many other cities have build their own downtown streetcars and not seen the same transformation).

    • Dear Curtis:

      If you want to understand the controversy over the street car, you could do worse than reading Engineer Scotty’s good synopsis and then going to Outer SE Portland.

      If you, like one PSU Planner I met, stay downtown you will never understand the opposition to the street car. I politely gave him a piece of my mind for being a big TOD advocate without ever visiting Richmond (where there has been a revolt against density).

      If you don’t go to Lents and Brentwood Darlington, then I cannot take you seriously. You have too look at those neighborhoods to understand the objections to how this City is being developed.

      Go to Cartlandia on SE 82nd and then take your family on a walk of the side streets. Stay off Harney if you have children- the street is too dangerous for them. Then go to one of the Wal-Marts on SE 82nd. You need to see the real Portland, not the Portland that Mayor Hales wants you to see.

      The dirty secret in Portland is how we get the streetcar money- by annexing poor neighborhoods, shoving poorly planned density into them, and then watching the body count rise from pedestrian deaths on streets with no sidewalks and big potholes to dodge. There are two Portlands- one rich, one cr@@pped on.

  4. Streetcar is a City of Portland project, but its origins are in the Central City Plan of the 80’s that had a ton of public participation and built on the successful Downtown Plan of the 70’s. The idea was a “circulator,” a kind of moving sidewalk connecting close in neighborhoods. Bill Naito, yes a developer but one committed to building and re-building the city, ran with it and got things moving in the early 90’s. So it was an transit option with its roots in “the Street!” And who do we expect to cover the cost of building new neighborhoods if not developers and their banks? An LID was a big part of the initial funding, so yes developers and property owners had a stake; no local nor federal transit capital funds were used.
    The transformation of the old Hoyt rail yards into a thriving city neighborhood in less that 20 years is nothing short of amazing; the transformation of the abandoned former industrial land in along the River south of downtown is no less so. Streetcar played a role…catalyst? critical ingredient? cause? take your pick, but its hard to image things playing out as they did without it.
    I expect ridership to top 20K once the Loop is done and the new housing in Lloyd and Central Eastside come on line, meaning it could represent almost 20% of rail transit ridership in a couple of years.
    Note: I am a member of the Portland Streetcar CAC.

  5. It is an important part of the system. I cannot ride busses, they make me seasick. The Streetcar takes me everywhere I need to go. They are smooth and rideable for seniors, toddlers and the disabled.

  6. Another element of streetcar “success” vis-a-vis LRT would be ridership per mile. While the CL extension hasn’t yet caused a gentrification boom, the ridership per mile on the NS line is surely considerably higher than that of the Blue Line. It’s only four miles from SoWa to 23rd (Google Maps) while the Blue Line is about 31 miles between Hatfield and the east terminal. So, the Blue Line is eight times as long as the streetcar and has 46 percent of the fixed rail ridership. Eight times seven and a half (2012 streetcar percentage) is sixty. Sixty percent is fourteen percent more than 46 percent. It is 130 percent of 46.

    So, the streetcar is actually thirty percent more “efficient” than is the Blue Line, which is one of the best-performing Light Rail lines in the country.

    Take that, streetcar haters!

  7. “It’s not a part of the transit system, its put it to spur economic growth, I thought everybody knew that.”

    No, actually, it’s both. (At least it’s pitched as both). Thus the phrase “Development Oriented Transit”, which is itself a play on “Transit-Oriented Development”. Just because it’s attempting to spur development, doesn’t mean it no longer functions as transit.

    The Portland Streetcar would not have attracted development, and most certainly wouldn’t have attracted renters and homebuyers, if it didn’t have transportation utility. In fact, it provides a useful connection to many important destinations in the central city.

    In my experience, the notion that streetcars are ONLY for development comes from streetcar opponents, not proponents.

  8. A few remarks on the original post, including some topics that others have touched on:

    1. I think a more useful comparison can be made with the streetcar and local bus service. The streetcar route operates as a local circulator, rather than a regional service. As to whether it is popular or successful, it can be compared to close-in bus service operating in similarly-dense corridors. (Some future plans, such as the proposed Lake Oswego extension, would operate more as a regional service. But as-built, the current streetcar operated like a local service.)

    2. A good way to look at popularity in any transit line is passenger density, which you can look at in terms of boardings per stop, or boardings per route mile. By those measures, the streetcar is one of the most popular transit lines of any mode in the city limits.

    3. Back to transit functionality: In the areas where the two streetcar routes overlap, headways are very short. Between PSU and the Pearl District, most of the day, cars arrive at frequencies of less than 10 minutes. (There are problems with bunching currently because the CL and NS lines do not operate at complementary frequencies, which makes timing difficult. But this will change when true Loop service begins.) In a few years, this will become 7.5 minute frequency through the core of downtown. Seems to me there is indeed a transit component and not just a development component.

    Disclosure: I’m also a streetcar CAC member.

  9. Oregon’s land use laws require cities to plan for more residents and, after losing residents to the suburbs for decades, Portland sought to reverse that trend and comply with state law by zoning for higher densities in the Central City and along commercial streets with good (we can argue about what “good” means) transit.
    The denser development of the area north of Burnside (aka The Pearl) and South Waterfront was done in order to reduce the density pressure on Portland’s eastside neighborhoods. The vast majority of eastside neighborhoods continue to be limited to relatively low density single family housing.
    Streetcar helped to make for even higher densities in the northern and southern sectors of the Central City, so residents out east should be offering thanks for Streetcar rather than scorning it. And please, the capital costs of Streetcar, at least initially, came from a very large LID (property owners along the line have put up millions) and City bonds paid off by parking meter money. No eastside pockets were picked! And the whole thing works…18,000 times every work day for rich and poor. Take a ride and check out the demographic range of Streetcar riders.

    • Lenny,

      You’re not likely to change Her Indignancy’s mind about the streetcar. People who buy latte’s like it, so it must be the first cousin to “these lovely little cakes.”

    • You can dismiss my equity arguments all you want- but trickle down development is not sitting well with many on the Eastside and our objections are quite valid.
      I hope that the “new guy” takes me seriously about a visit to Outer SE- where many TOD advocates fear to tread. I am over and out- but I do think of the Jack Nicholson speech “you can’t handle the truth.” My equity arguments are painful to certain people still in denial.

      • What are your thoughts on the MAX green line? Outer SE got a sparkly new MAX line just a few years ago. There are plans for BRT on Powell. Is it actually an equity argument, or do you just hate mass transit?

  10. I agree with Engineer Scotties synopsis of Portland’s Streetcar except his statement… “And future expansions of the Streetcar system, other than closing the loop across the new transit bridge, probably aren’t going to happen for quite a while.”

    A missing link in downtown’s streetcar system is a connection to the Transit Mall. The Green and Yellow Max Lines do not provide sufficient Mall service and the streetcar system could efficiently fill this gap.

    A new Transit Mall – Pearl District Streetcar Route can be established at low cost by adding 3,400 feet of track between NW 10th and the north end of the Mall at Station Way. It could serve three new stops, one in front of Union Station and the other two serving the new development at the east end of Northrup and Marshal.

  11. Welcome to Portland, Curtis! Awesome to have you here and contributing wisdom on PT.

    Smart post. Seems to me personally, though, that streetcar owes us some more home runs, development-wise, before it merits expansion beyond the two things mentioned above: closing the loop across the new bridge and maybe improving transit service on the mall. (Though it seems like the Orange is going to be good for that, too, yes?)

    • The Portland Streetcar was a definitive impetus for Pearl District, South Waterfront and innumerable streetcar related development projects and should be viewed as more than a few home runs. Streetcars downtown offer a service buses cannot.

      We’re due for different model buses. The new Gilligs are near identical to the New Flyers being replaced. Neither are designed for stop-n-go local service and neither hybrid models live up to hybrid potential. Tri-Met should purchase new paratransit vans that are low-floor with hybrid drivetrains. Seniors and disabled patrons deserve better. Denver’s 16th Street (hybrid) shuttle buses are more like what we should consider on some routes.

  12. Fact: The NS is one of the highest ridership local routes in the entire city (as in, there only a handful of bus routes that get more ridership per mile than the NS Line).

    Fact: People use the Streetcar (NS line) to commute. Every day. Downtown office workers, OHSU/LGS staff, PSU students. The Streetcar is an integral part of the Central City transit network. Trains are always standing room only in the mornings and sometimes approach crush loads in the evenings, especially if you add wheelchair users). It is much, much more than a midday or weekend circulator for tourists.

    Fact: Despite the continuing infill development in the North Pearl and NW, TriMet and Portland Streetcar have decimated local transit service. NW and Pearl were cut off from direct access to Line 17 when it was rerouted to take Line 9’s old route in NE Portland. The 77 was rerouted from Lovejoy/Northrup to take over Line 17 route on 21st and Everett/Glisan. Unfortunately, the 77 is a crosstown route, which means that NW has lost access to the Transit Mall spine on 5th and 6th.

    Adding further insult to injury, frequencies on the NS line have been cut in recent years from 12-13 minutes to an astounding 19 minutes during the AM peak. Streetcar does not ramp up service until 10 AM (the peak ridership hours on Streetcar are between 10a-7p), which means that service on Lovejoy/Northrup west of where the NS and CL interline is not even running at Frequent Service headways.

    All of this in some of the most dense and pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods in the Pacific Northwest. Instead of cutting service hours, TriMet needs to be augmenting service in preparation for the thousands of new units that are under construction and planned for North Pearl and the Conway area. These locations are right now woefully underserved by transit, and we cannot possibly absorb that many new residents while expecting them to drive for most of their trips outside of the neighborhood. Better transit connectivity with the rest of the city (and not just Downtown) is crucial for the overall livability and vitality of NW Portland, and would help more visitors reach the area without clogging up local street searching for scarce on-street parking (where it is still free).

    Oh yeah, I am also a member of the Streetcar CAC.

        • The bridgeplates may be long enough, so that may make the gap ADA compliant, but you sure don’t want people stepping in it. The plates would have to be deployed at every stop. Grant, there are few stops on the mall.

          OK, I guess it would work. Kind of clumsy, though.

          • A MAX train is 8 feet, 8 1/2 inches wide. A Portland Streetcar is 8 feet wide. That leaves a gap of just over four inches between the Streetcar and the platform. Seems pretty simple to just step over it, with a “mind the gap” warning. If we can trust people to climb a step, we probably can trust them to step over a four inch gap.

            • But federal regulations limit the horizontal gap to three inches and level entry vehicles must be with 3/8th inch of platform height. Four inch gaps are allowed only for retrofitted vehicles. (See 49 CFR 38.73(d)). And this gap would be slightly larger than four inches anyway.

              So no, it wouldn’t work under current federal standards.

            • Maybe just keeping the wheelchair platforms extended a bit all the time so that the gap is 3″ or less could solve this.

            • Jim Howell’s streetcar line connection between the north transit mall and Tanner Springs Park may seem simple to implement and justify, but only a subway that redirected MAX trains under the city could the transit mall convert to streetcar operation.

              The simplest subway locates the east portal at NE 6th and a west portal beneath the Morrison bridge ramp at SW 1st, about 1.3 miles. Convention Center & Rose Quarter Stations consolidate beneath I-5 and there’d be one subway station on the west side at Saturday Market.

              Most subway alignments are closer to 3 miles in length with the west portal beneath the Goose Hollow MAX station. The Yellow and Orange MAX lines would add two portals, or they could reroute to remain on the eastside.

              It’s more realistic to consider Post Office relocation to PDX and redevelopment around Union Station. Transit connections from the transit mall to the Pearl District can be readily achieved with specialty buses, something like the censored LOTi proposal no one is allowed to know about cuz it’s stupid, don’t you see?

            • Allan,

              What you’re proposing would be very dangerous. The streetcars would be running through cross-walks with what are essentially dull knife blades sticking out one side. Not. A. Good. Idea.

    • IIRC, there are some other technical issues (mainly to do with signalling systems). Both MAX and Streetcar use the same power source. But curb extensions would be needed to run Streetcars up the mall.

      This was discussed some back when the LO Streetcar was still a potential project–a regional connector like a route to Lake Oswego (as opposed to a local circulator) would be more effective on the transit mall.

      That said, a regional line would also benefit from longer stop spacings and better signal priority. If you can outrun it on foot, it’s probably too slow for effective regional transit. :)

  13. There’s something I’ve been wondering about lately. I’ve always heard that buses do an enormous amount of street damage because their weight per axle is so high. Anyone have a guess how much the city saves on street maintenance by using streetcars instead?

  14. A trip to Lents via the Green Line is on my “field trip” agenda; I urge Streetcar’s critics to venture into the City and ride the NS/CL line along 10th & 11th to witness that it is not just an upper class affair!
    The challenge for Lents, Gateway, Cully, Foster on the eastside is how do you make a community attractive without becoming the “Next Big Thing!” How do you attract private investment and retain and add affordable housing. URAs help, but don’t have the resources necessary without the private sector, which will want to make a profit. Would a Streetcar project out there help attract needed investment? Several lines have been suggested, but with any expansion of Streetcar the effort must be led by local communities both businesses and residents. LIDs must be part of the capital funding, and higher density housing along a line is part of the deal as well.
    I think an extension thru Macadam/Johns Landing is the most likely next project as much of the groundwork has been done. I would forget LO and run it across the new Sellwood Bridge and out Tacoma to the Orange Line. Next the best prospect is to extend Streetcar out Broadway/Weidler to Hollywood. Providence, New Seasons and Lloyd Center would have to take the lead on that and put LID money on the table.
    20 years ago NWDA pushed TriMet for a bus line along the NW 18/19th couplet; I could image a Streetcar line from the Conway development along that alignment to Burnside and then??? not sure. SW 18th to Collins Circle, then along Jefferson and Columbia couplet (in dire need of calming!) to the Hawthorne Bridge and beyond? or Burnside to E 28th and out NE Glisan…a big ugly street or?
    In the meantime, what about extending the 14 Frequent Service bus along those same lines to Conway via 18th/19th? FS bus lines are bringing new projects to Mississippi, Alberta, Williams, Division, Belmont, Hawthorne; why not Goose Hollow and the Conway project in NW. TriMet could experiment a bit: “how to make a bus line more streetcar like?” Whatever that is…would businesses pitch in with some capital $??

  15. Back in the 1950’s and 60’s when streetcar and interurban lines were being converted to bus, the number of passengers decreased usually around 50% unless the bus line had been extended. This happened even though the buses were usually new while the streetcars and interurban cars were usually quite old. Now the reverse is usually true, the streetcar attracts riders. I have visited many cities in the U.S. that lost streetcar service that resulted in the downtown being almost deserted. Ease of transport attracts riders. This is happening all around the world. The line must go where the people want to go and not to nowhere.

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