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.

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