What the Streetcar Haters Skeptics are Missing

There have been several critiques recently, dismissing streetcars as slow transit.

I think that misses the point of streetcar, at least as we have deployed it here in Portland. Streetcar is transit that emphasizes short trips.

That’s very much in line with the ‘Healthy Connected City’ plank of the Portland Plan, which envisions Portland as a city of corridors and centers that provide most of the daily needs of citizens within an easy walking or biking distance. The development pattern that streetcar incentivizes, and then serves, very much supports this vision.

The other point that’s missed is that streetcar exists in the context of a larger transit system. Certainly you could not and should not build a transit system entirely of mixed-operation streetcars.

In Portland, the regional transit system has a hierarchy of three levels of service:

1) Local Bus Service

2) Frequent Service Lines (bus)

3) High Capacity Transit (LRT, Commuter Rail, future BRT)

Streetcar wouldn’t make any sense if there were not the other options to move from the streetcar districts to other places (there are lots of intersections between streetcar and the HCT and frequent service lines).

And I would note that from my home, I have the option of either streetcar or a frequent service bus to get downtown (roughly covering opposite right angles of a rectangle) and they take about the same time. Streetcar is really not slower than a bus in a dense urban environment.

There’s also been some debate about where streetcar falls in this service hierarchy. Some of our planning documents lump it in the Frequent Service category, and there’s some logic to that as the operating costs and other characteristics are similar. But I think mixed-operating streetcar is really in a category by itself that I’d be inclined to label as “High Capacity Local Service“.

Some of the criticism of the DC streetcar has been focused on replacing bus service. We have largely not done that with streetcar in Portland, it’s been complimentary to the existing bus lines (some of which have been reconfigured slightly to take advantage of this). Replacing a purely local bus might work with streetcar, but probably not if the bus operated over a much longer route. Replacing higher classifications of transit service with mixed-operation streetcars would likely be problematic. Portland will probably be faced with this temptation as we expand the streetcar network. I hope we will choose carefully and wisely.

The question has also been raised about how “future-proof” these streetcar investments are? I would suggest that the future opportunity is to convert these lines to dedicated right-of-way by removing auto use from the alignments. The VMT goals in Portland’s Climate Action Plan would hint in that direction.

So I rise today not in support of slow transit, but in support of short-trip transit!

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