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Please begin with an informative title:

Last weekend was the opening of the new street car route in Portland, Oregon.  I rode the whole new route with Mrs. Peril.  The new route runs north from approximately the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) up to a point just past the Oregon Convention Center, then runs across the Broadway Bridge into the Pearl District.  The new route then runs south through the Pearl District, past Powell's Books (largest bookstore in the world, I'm told), eventually reaching Portland State University, where it turns and returns back east across the river.

Here's an image of the cars in use:



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As the route ran north on the east side, I noticed there were a lot of "for lease" signs and I wondered if the street car would bear out its promise.  I joked with Mrs. Peril that the "free rides" they were giving out that day might cost $10,000 each the way money had been spent on the project.  Well, we'll see.  I was a bit dismayed the next day to see a street car going by with just 3 or so people on board.  I rode it again yesterday (Sat., 9/29/12) and was pleased to see a fair number more people using the system.

The city's plan for the street car.
The city has a street car plan (link warning: large .PDF file).  This states, on page 65:

A streetcar system is a particularly effective tool to connect and shape neighborhoods. Streetcars connect neighborhoods by linking activities, destinations, and the regional transit network. They shape neighborhoods by stimulating redevelopment, supporting active uses, promoting public-private investments and creating places where people want to be. These types of neighborhoods make our community more livable and help the surrounding region by preserving farm and forest lands, protecting area rivers and streams, and reducing air pollution. They also directly reduce the threat of global warming.
Streetcar-oriented development will best integrate into the neighborhoods through careful consideration of the types and characteristics of the architectural and urban form and function of the surrounding neighborhoods. Several building design techniques can be used to reduce the impact of new development on established neighborhoods, such as incorporating elements of nearby quality buildings, including their details, massing, proportions and materials.
Many neighborhoods are already experiencing in-fill development. The streetcar can serve as a catalyst for organizing the new development along transit corridors.
I'm not sure I buy all of that, but if the street car is to succeed, it must be part of a much larger scheme of development.  This cannot be the form of development that we generally see -- a farm or orchard is bulldozed over, streets are laid out, sewers, water lines, electric power and telephone lines run, and before long, another Levittown is inflicted upon the country -- low density, with every resident therein dependent on the automobile for everything, and everything made out of ticky-tacky.  

But along the route, I saw other things.  Here's a newer building, high density, non-automobile-dependant near the Grand and Burnside stop, that is, at almost the exact center of the city.

Changing transportation patterns?
And here is one of the micro cars, this one owned by Car2Go, one of the car sharing services which are becoming increasingly popular in Portland.
Car sharing represents a significant breaking of the traditional American-style dependence on the automobile; as such, one would think it would have been concocted by some west-coast Trotskyite.  Car2Go however is owned by Daimler AG, and Zipcar, by far the largest service, is publicly traded on Nasdaq.

Still an industrial city!
One of the legends that the right wing loves to tell itself about the blue states, and the west coast in particular, is that we are a bunch of wine-sipping, pinkie-ring wearing liberal twits.  But Portland is very much a working city -- here's one example, visible from the new street car, of a grain elevator and loading facility, just north of the Broadway Bridge.  
This elevator, one of several in the vicinity, accepts wheat deliveries by rail (and I presume truck) as well as in huge barges (you can see one in the photo) brought down the Columbia River from the inland wheat loading ports of Oregon and Washington.  The wheat is stored in the large silos seen in the image, and when a ship comes in, the wheat is loaded into the ship.  The wheat trade is the very reason for the existence of the city of Portland, and, as a key export, it is one of the important supports of our national economy.  The grain elevators of Portland, often ignored as just another riverside industry, are in fact critical economic facilities.        

Criticism -- too expensive, too little use.
One of the selling points of the street car expansion in Portland, at least in terms of getting a large amount of federal money as a subsidy, was that a local firm (United Streetcar could (and was) contracted to produce a new set of street cars for the line, will be the first  such cars built in the United States in some 40 or 50 years.  (The previous cars on the Portland line were all made in the Czech Republic by Skoda.)  After many delays, the company's first streetcar was placed in use last weekend.  But it hasn't been a complete success, and it has many critics, and the best stated criticism may be here (The Oregonian, 9/21/12).  

They've built it. Now, who will come?

Or, better yet, who's going to choose the sexy but slow-moving electric streetcars in a corridor -- from the Pearl District over the Broadway Bridge to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry -- already heavily served by TriMet buses and light rail?

Skeptics predict the Portland Streetcar's eastside extension will be little more than a glorified shuttle for bar-hoppers and conventioneers. Privately, even some of the project's advocates say they're still uncertain about the new line's role in the city's commuting culture.

Mechanical/quality issues?
Critics of the streetcar were given a blast of schadenfreude when the brand new US-built streetcar proceeded to break down twice due to wiring problems.  I myself rode this car yesterday (9/29/12) -- and I tried the best I could to tell if there were any differences from the Skoda cars, which the American car closely resembles.  I noticed a couple of things.  The American car seems to have a louder interior whirring noise, maybe from an air conditioner or ventilator.  

There were signs that the American car had been rushed into service -- I mentioned the mechanical details, but there was for example (and quite unlike Skoda's proud announcement of the date and place of manufacture) no builder's name plates that I could see -- a rather telling detail for the first American-built streetcar to be placed in modern service.  There were also what appeared to me to be tooling or installation marring on the seats, which I did not see  on the Skoda cars.  All petty I suppose, but this is a situation where a nascent American industry is being heavily subsidized to match one of the top manufacturers in the world, and quality and attention to detail will be the key if there is to be a success.

Some criticism misplaced.
One of the more baseless criticisms of the streetcar is that "it doesn't go anywhere I want to go."  But a street car line isn't built overnight.  The critical link for the Portland Street Car system won't come until 2015 when the new Caruthers Bridge, a transit /bicycle/pedestrian only span, will be complete, and the streetcar will be able to make a complete loop around both the east and west sides of the central city.  This will also form a link with a new light rail line to be built down the east side of the Willamette river to link communities in the northern part of Clackamas County to the system.

Another criticism which I find off-base is that the streetcar line is a tourist boondoggle.  My response is the Cheneyesque "So?".  What community doesn't need tourists?  Love Canal?  Chernobyl?  People come to Portland for a lot of reasons, and what could be wrong with adding another one?  

An example of a good tourist tie-in.
The streetcar is going play a role in restoring a whole area on the SE side of the city near the Willamette river.  There already is a brand new train museum, the Oregon Rail Heritage Centerclose to the (current) southern terminus of the line.  Opening day for the center was last Sunday, September 23.  Here's a photo of one of their engines, which had steam up for the occasion.


This shows the magnificent former Southern Pacific steam engine 4449, built in 1941, and still kept in working order by the labor of many volunteers, and still wearing the colors of the famous Daylight passenger trains.  You have no real idea of the size and power of these engines until you see them up close.  This particular engine, the 4449, was housed at an inaccessible and quite filthy old roundhouse in a nearby rail yard until this year.  Now with this new facility which, includes several other historic (and operational!) engines, as well as other equipment, Portland will have one of the finest rail museums in the country -- and all this is within easy walking distance of the street car.

Again, there is no magic formula, and it will take a lot of work and money to make the streetcar succeed. I think it will work and it's worth the money to make the effort.    

FYI, there is now a scale model of the Portland Streetcar, and for somewhat less than $148.3 million you can put your own urban transit system together!


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Originally posted to Plan 9 from Oregon on Sun Sep 30, 2012 at 09:12 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Manifesto Initiative and Community Spotlight.


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