Archive | Streetcar

Passing the Streetcar Baton

Yesterday Willamette Week announced the retirement of Rick Gustafson as the Executive Director of Portland Streetcar, Inc.

This morning, as a member of the PSI Board, I had the chance to vote for his successor, Dan Bower, who for the last several years has been the leader of PBOT’s Active Transportation group.

Streetcar has many parents, but Rick has been the through-line, chief strategist, and finder-of-money for the life of this project. I’m sad to see him go.

But this is an important step in the evolution of Streetcar as an agency. Rick has always been part-time in the role, on a consulting contract. Dan will be a full-time employee of PSI. This marks a maturation of the role and the organization.

I look forward to working with Dan as we continue Streetcar as a transformational tool for Portland and the Region.

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.


I Beg Your Pardon, Streetcar Does Not Need to be Fixed

This year’s award for most inflammatory headline has to go to “Portland streetcar bottleneck needs $3.7 million fix less than a decade after tracks laid“.

The story refers to finally double-tracking a section of the alignment between 4th Ave and PSU Urban Center around what is known as the “Jasmine Block”. This is not a fix, it’s an investment in Streetcar’s expanded mission.

Let’s review a little Streetcar history. The original Downtown Plan idea was to provide a central city circulator. The first realization of this was a Streetcar line designed to connect the brownfields north and south of downtown and help enable their development. Today the Pearl District and South Waterfront neighborhoods stand as testimony to Streetcar’s contribution to this vision.

We built this line in steps, first from NW 23rd to PSU, then added three segments in short order: to Riverplace, to the base of the Arial Tram and finally to SW Lowell at the south end of the new neighborhood.

This was not simple and we often had to cope with uncertain plans for development on particular parcels. This was true on Moody Avenue (later rebuilt 15 feet higher!) and at the Jasmine block. In both cases we opted to build single-track segments in order to minimize the amount of capital expenditure on things that might need to be replaced. This is called being conservative with the taxpayer’s money!

And these investments have served the North-South Streetcar line very well.

After plans for this line were complete, we rose to another mission and vision: to achieve the original circulator idea writ large, spanning BOTH sides of the river, creating a loop that ties together the entire central city. Achieving that new mission has required four different capital projects:

  • Building new track from the Pearl District across the Broadway Bridge down to OMSI (including a temporary “tail track” turnaround at OMSI)
  • Adding a turnaround at Stephens to continue Streetcar Service during bridge construction at OMSI
  • Connecting to either end of TriMet’s new bridge under construction
  • Double-tracking the Jasmine Block section (because the single track cannot accommodate the traffic associated with two lines)

Apparently the Oregonian believes that when we built the Riverplace extension ten years ago, we should have known that:

  1. We would gain local consensus to extend the Streetcar to the east side
  2. We would successfully change Federal policy and become the first Streetcar project to get FTA matching funds
  3. Divine that a development goal for the Jasmine Block to develop and provide a diagonal alignment across the block would fail

And based on that perfectly clear crystal ball, we should have known the perfect double-track alignment to build between 4th Ave and PSU.

Well, those of us who work on planning Streetcar are good, but we’re not nearly that good. Instead we simply refrained from spending money we didn’t have, built facilities that served the mission we had stepped up to, and took calculated risks at minimum expenditure where future development made the perfect alignment unclear.

The funding picture for the final capital project for the Loop has become unclear for unrelated reasons and it definitely needs to be worked out. But that in no way suggests we made a mistake ten years ago that we need to “fix”.

Some of our readers may not agree with the vision and mission for the Streetcar Loop. But that does not mean the planning and execution have been poorly done.


[Update 2013-11-08 – Bob R.] To better facilitate the technical aspects being discussed, here is a sketch from PBOT from October’s Streetcar CAC meeting:

Jasmine Block Double-Track Sketch


Initial Thoughts on the ITDP Study

The transportation corner of the internet has been abuzz for the last week over the new study from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.

The report compares the amount of development catalyzed by a variety of transit projects, including Light Rail, Bus Rapid Transit and Streetcar – and looks at the ratio between capital investment in the transit system and the amount of development. It reaches the somewhat surprising conclusion that the best return on investment was from the Cleveland HealthLine BRT system.

HealthLine is compared against Portland’s own Blue Line MAX. While the Blue Line has a higher total development amount, the capital investment in transit is also much higher.

Portland Streetcar fares well with the third-highest return on investment.

The report suggests several conclusions about what makes for successful development along a transit line:

  • Run the line through a strong or emerging real estate market area
  • Make sure the line runs through the downtown district
  • Ensure that there are complementary government policies and programs that support development (zoning, comprehensive planning, investment tools, etc.)

These all make sense to me.

The startling conclusion the report reaches however is that the type and quality of transit matter very little:

“Our analysis found no correlation between the type of transit investment and the level of TOD investment. LRTs, BRTs, and streetcars all led to similar TOD investment outcomes under similar conditions.”

“The quality of the transit system investment matters, but only marginally. The very strong TOD impacts in both the silver-standard Cleveland HealthLine BRT and the silver-standard Blue Line LRT (Emerging land markets with Strong government TOD support) outperformed the TOD impacts of the below-basic BRT systems in Strong land markets with Strong government support (Kansas City Main Street MAX, Seattle SLU Streetcar, Portland Streetcar). This is the only clear indication that a higher-quality transit investment helped leverage more TOD impacts.”

The report has a methodology for evaluating the transit in term of “BRT Standard” equivalents, based on an elaborate scoring system, where Curatiba is Gold. The Cleveland HealthLine and our Blue Line are both rated Silver (there are no Gold systems in North America) while Eugene’s EmX is rated Bronze. Portland Streetcar is considered “below basic” (I’m hurt).

If you’re wondering about the choice of “BRT Standard” units as the scoring mechanism, keep in mind that WikiPedia indicates that ITDP “focuses primarily on developing bus rapid transit (BRT) systems.”

The reactions from different quarters have been interesting to watch:

So what do I think?

Fundamentally I agree with the idea that a combination of factors need to come together to stimulate development. But I can’t accept that the nature of transit doesn’t have significant impact.

Unfortunately, the report’s methodology (at least as reported) is not rigorous. An academic analysis of the same issues would include things like correlation coefficients, etc. We don’t have anything like that kind of quantitative analysis  here. And I suspect others are going to fact check a lot of details in the report.

I think the report suffers from the same “transit is about long trips” bias that imbues much of the criticism of Streetcar. Many of the reasons Streetcar scored “below basic” are related to not making an effort to support long, fast trips (but at the same time, Streetcar scores very favorably when compared on a riders/mile metric). For those of us working to create sustainable urban environments that rely more on short trips, Streetcar is a smashing success. I do agree with the report’s suggestion that Streetcar couldn’t work if there were not complimentary transit available for trips to other areas.

Fundamentally, the “type/qualify of transit doesn’t matter much” conclusion can’t be correct. My own hypothesis would be that what DOES matter about transit is the commitment of infrastructure in fixed locations that developers know won’t move anytime soon (permanence). Rails definitely serve that function, but it may well be that investment in BRT stations (the report describes “iconic” stations on the Cleveland HealthLine) and dedicated right-of-way is effective as well. Certainly here in Portland a number of folks have posed the question of whether catenary wires for electric trolley buses would have a similar effect. I hope at some point we see a rigorous study that illuminates this debate.