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In 2001, Portland, Oregon began operation of the first street car line in the United States to operate with modern equipment since World War 2.  The street cars different from the light rail system, which uses much larger and heavier equipment.  The street cars are double-ended and articulated, that is, they can bend around corners.  

portland streetcar
      Street car in Portland's Pearl District, March 3, 2009.
     © Adams Carroll, licensed for limited reuse under
     Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0)
The cars run on track laid in city streets and don't require a dedicated (and much more expensive) right of way, as the light rail generally does. The cars themselves are made by the Skoda firm in the Czech Republic.  

The Portland streetcar line has been emulated in a few other cities, and might be a model for urban transportation on a broader national scale.  

I consider some of these issues below the Squiggle of Doom.

The current Portland line is 3.6 miles one way (actually the total trackage is a 7.2 mile loop), with 42 stations, and connects the South Waterfront new large multi-use development near the Willamette River, just south of the Marquam Bridge, with the Pearl and the Northwest districts, where a very large amount of new urban construction and renovation occurred from about 1995 to 2008.  (See here for current route map.)

An expansion over to the east side of Portland was recently completed, and test runs have begun, see here  for a good photo of a test run across the newly complete tracks on the Broadway Bridge.

Financing and justification
The 2001 Portland street car route was constructed entirely with local funds.  The new extension, which will approximately double the trackage by 3.3 miles one way, with 28 new stops, was estimated to cost a total of $148.27 million, with the federal government picking up $75 million of that.  (fact sheet and map Feb 2011 .pdf).  Also, a $4 million dollar federal grant was obtained by a firm in Canby, Oregon to build a modern street car, which, it was hoped, would spark the beginning of a new American street car industry.  A prototype was in fact built, using a design licensed by Skoda, but it has never been placed into service and is still undergoing testing.

Now, by anybody's definition, even Mitt Romney's, $148 million is a lot of money.  The streetcar board claims this expenditure is justified because in linking with the existing streetcar line on the west side of the city, it will eventually (once a new bridge across the Willamette) is complete in 2015) make a continuous loop around and through the downtown core, and will reduce overall vehicular traffic and increase the attractiveness of the Portland downtown and east river bank area to new development.  A recent letter from Portland Mayor Sam Adams gives the best case for the streetcar.  

Street cars in other areas
There's an excellent website here which includes detailed information about streetcar developments around the country.  I'll just comment on a few of the systems in this blog post.  Here is a video made in 2008 showing a similar proposed Sacramento streetcar:

And here's one from 2007 showing then-proposed (and now under construction) Tucson streetcar.  When complete, this route will run 3.9 miles and have 18 stations:

Since December 2007, Seattle has been operating Skoda equipment on the South Lake Union Streetcar, a 1.3 mile route, and has plans to greatly expand the system.   Also using Skoda equipment, Tacoma has been running Tacoma Link, a 1.6 mile route since 2003.  

Other cities, such as Dallas have considered building a street car line, here's a video showing  street car being evaluated on DART tracks.   The car tested in Dallas was manufactured by Kinkisharyo.  

Another city thinking about street cars again is Milwaukee.  An excellent short study of the prospects and factors affecting the proposed Milwaukee streetcar can be found here (.PDF).  
A street car feasibility study was also done for the city of Cinncinnati, Ohio.  (link (.PDF)).

      Portland streetcar snakes around a turn, April 4, 2009.
     © effelarr, licensed for limited reuse per CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Criticism of the street car
Criticism of the street car is closely linked to criticism of light rail systems.  The most cogent criticism I think is based on the idea that the fixed trackage is expensive to install and operate and doesn't allow for route flexibility that one would have with an investment in buses.  Also, there is some merit in the criticism that these systems don't really replace cars, and that riders of the street cars and light rail are not people forsaking automobiles, but rather just switching over from use of buses.  

Street car proponents counter with an argument, on the fixed rail issue, for example, that it's better for community and business development because people like to ride the street car, and the existence of the visible and apparently permanent rail installations and stations gives real estate developers and businesses greater confidence in investing in the community.  And as you can see, there has been some effort to document the number of private vehicle trips made unnecessary by the street car.  

The money ($4 million) spent on developing a single production prototype American-made street car, does seem a bit over the top, especially since the design of the car was not original, but rather licensed from Skoda.  Maybe this could be justified as the basis for revival of the American streetcar industry, but they've got to compete with Skoda which will be very tough.  The manufacturer, United Street Car, seems confident (see their company website for a lot more info, including line drawings and specifications, all you need, Mr. Mayor, for your own street car line!), and they do have the contract to produce seven streetcars for the Tucson line.  

Portland Streetcar
      Street car in Portland, November 6, 2009.
     © David Reid, licensed for limited reuse per CC BY-NC 2.0)
But in the end the final determination is going to be made by the people as to what kind of a city do they wish to live in?  For the last 60 years or so, we've tried a model of an ever-expanding metropolis gobbling up rural areas for subdivisions, while transporting people and goods to and from in single vehicles over newly built roads using fuel imported from overseas.  Very powerful interests are associated with this urban model.  I don't think it's working very well.   But if this model is the one that the people want, I agree the street car doesn't have much of a place, which is probably why the old street car lines pretty much died out.  

Portland has a somewhat different approach, which is to improve the existing urbanized area, and the street car only makes sense as one part of an overall plan to achieve this.  There are many components to this, which include (among many others) strong but responsible local government, good schools at all levels, and an encouraging attitude towards entrepreneurship, business and innovation.

I like the street car and ride it whenever I can.  (It actually goes to places where I need be!) The cars are nice, the ride is smooth, and although there's a lot of stops, considering you don't to have to hassle with parking your car (typically in a parking garage), it's just as fast as driving in the downtown of the city.  

Other cities seem to be studying the Portland streetcar, and wouldn't it be lovely if we could actually start making things like streetcars in America again!  I'm looking forward to when the new bridge (transit, pedistrian, and bicycle only!) will be finished in Portland, this will really be a beautiful addition to the city and will really tie the street car network together.  

Just for fun.
Here's a Lego version of the Skoda 10T street car, similar to the models used in Portland, Seattle, Tacoma, and, soon, in Tucson.  And for all you folks out there with an unquenchable desire named streetcar, here's a handy little cardboard model of the Skoda 10T just like the ones in Portland that you should be able to put together in a few minutes, and before long you'll be an urban transit baron!  (Just be sure to follow the NÁVOD NA SESTAVENÍ)

Well, that's all for now.  What do you think of the streetcar idea?


Originally posted to Plan 9 from Oregon on Thu Mar 15, 2012 at 05:15 PM PDT.

Also republished by PDX Metro and Community Spotlight.


Do you think the Portland street car is a project your city should study?

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