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Cap'n Transit

Can you link to people who say that streetcars are necessary for redevelopment? I've read things suggesting that they facilitate development, and at least implying that they're the easiest development tool at hand. That's a very different argument.


Have you watched the move "Taken for a ride" ? It might explain some of the the sensitivity of the bus/streetcar issue.

Damien Goodmon

"Can you link to people who say that streetcars are necessary for redevelopment? I've read things suggesting that they facilitate development, and at least implying that they're the easiest development tool at hand."

Take two redevelopment project areas with similar characteristics, market conditions, etc. Provide one WITH a street car project and the other WITHOUT a street car project. Give the one without the street car the same level/amount of development subsidies, friendly policies and bureaucratic attention as the one with the street car. If the area with the street car attracts more development than the one without, then perhaps it is reasonable to claim "streetcars facilitate development." But I don't see anyone suggesting that, nor I have read any study that proves that.

Instead, in these streetcars = development arguments, there's this passing reference to the millions in subsidies, policy-alterations and bureaucratic time, as though these things are inconsequential. It's just confusing to me, especially as a person who lives in an area lacking adequate government services/coordination/attention, how this cocktail of government resources is so easily overlooked for the tracks. It's not logical.

Furthermore, last I checked, the streetcar poster-city (Portland) was #25 in the country as far as percentage of work time commutes on public transit at 12%, right next to Los Angeles, St. Paul, Cleveland and pre-Katrina New Orleans (not exactly model public transit cities, ehh?). So why again are transportation professionals, tasked with improving transit systems/improving mobility flocking to the city?


I don't think speed has ever been part of the streetcar image. Where are these supposedly ubiquitous claims of streetcars getting people places faster?


I'm not sure that the Portland Streetcar is primarily used for commutes--indeed, that isn't its purpose. If anything, it functions more as a circulator (albeit one with sufficient distance between points to be a useful one) than anything else. For commuting, MAX light-rail is the primary mode in the Portland area.

(That said, I gotta ask--where did that statistic come from? I'm not disputing it; I'm merely interested).

Like many medium-sized cities who have mass transit but which isn't comprehensive, there are many commutes in the Portland metro area which aren't currently covered by transit, other than a long slow bus ride. Many folks live in Clackamas County (south/SE of town) or in Clark County, WA (to the north); and work in the high-tech center in Washington County (to Portland's west)--and have no real choice but to drive. (Several proposed MAX expansions deal with these commuters; and the upcoming Green Line will give some Clackamas County commuters a reasonable transit route to the westside). Whether or not transit should be made available to these commuters is itself a subject of debate--quite a few transit advocates in the area have a "if you live in the suburbs, tough shit for you" attitude. Jarrett himself noted in another post that providing adequate transit to low-density areas is difficult.

The bottom line, I think, is pretty simple. Some people, and some communities, prefer streetcars to busses for local service. That's OK, there are legitimate reasons to do so--currently-available streetcar technology provides a nicer ride than currently-available bus technology, and for busy corridors the higher vehicle capacity might produce an operational cost savings. Many people simply won't ride busses, for whatever reason. These things, of course come at an increased cost, a decrease in flexibility, and the problem of obstructions on the tracks. Most local service in Portland is provided by busses, not streetcars; and even if every line on the proposed streetcar expansion were to magically appear, most local service would still be provided by busses. The "golden age" of streetcars, when most people owned the trains and few drove (or even owned) autos, isn't coming back any time soon; maybe when gas hits $10 a gallon and stays there.

Unfornately, the whole streetcar-vs-bus debate gets lost in a swamp of accusations of collusion and conspiracy and bad faith. Some folks view busses and bus systems as a "trojan horse" advocated by oil and automobile interests, to discourage building of transit systems and/or making them unattractive when they are built. (This attitude is especially prevalent when busses are proposed for mass-transit applications rather than local service). On the other hand, some view streetcars as a romantic fancy by Europe-loving leftists (in cahoots with construction and development interests), who think that by putting tracks in the street they can magically transform Peoria into Paris. With this sort of rhetoric constantly coming to the forefront, discussions of real transit issues like mobility, access, and (yes) comfort and convenience gets lost among the ideological shibboleths.

stuart squier

Like other posters have said, I'm not sure speed is the objective of many streetcar systems.

Here's a different way of looking at the mobility issue: streetcars are relatively oil shock proof compared to diesel buses. So when you take into account $200/barrel oil or no oil at all, an electric streetcar provides infinitely more mobility and access than a diesel bus with no fuel.

I'm taking the long view here, streetcar systems benefit the next five generations of transit riders not just this one.

stuart squier

Taking the long view in the opposite direction, there were an awful lot more places to go in the downtown core of my town, Richmond VA, when there were streetcars. The period of 1888-1949 was a time of dense, vertical growth in the city core. After the streetcar system was destroyed mid-century, growth was decentralized to the expansive suburban areas while the core declined.

Obviously a lot of other factors contributed to the decline of the city core. But mobility and access were far greater on the streetcars of the early 20th century than they are on the comparatively longer bus rides of the 21st century.

Jarrett at HumanTransit.org

Stuart and Michael

I strongly suspect that if a lot of people didn't have the (false) notion that streetcars improve mobility (e.g. by being faster or more reliable), streetcars would not trigger redevelopment to the extent that they currently seem to do. To the extent that they WOULD still do that, I'd argue that that would make the streetcar a possibly worthwhile civic amenity -- exactly like brick paving or public art -- but not really a transportation project.

As I've said there's a lot more to access than mobility, but by definition, mobility is the kind of access that transportation projects provide. That's why we call it transportation, no? Moving things from one "port" to another.


How much does the (admittedly false) notion that streetcars improve mobility affect things? The Portland Streetcar was never marketed as being faster or more reliable than a 40' diesel (or LNG; which Tri-Met now has lots of)--not to developers, nor to the public.

That said, the things are generally more comfortable that most people's perception of a bus; and for many that's reason enough to justify the additional expense and lack of flexibility associated with a fixed-path vehicle.

It would be interesting to ask developers and financiers to what extent streetcar lines, or other transit modes, affect which projects they greenlight, and why. I certainly won't presume to know the answer.



You're reading mobility into people's transit preferences regardless of its true impact. Yes, mobility is an essential part of transportation, but it's not necessarily why people prefer one mode over another.

Again, where are those people with the notion that streetcars improve mobility (as you define it)? I think you are attacking a straw man.


One more question for you... in your reference to streetcars as a "civic amenity"; you seem to be implying that the only advantage streetcars have over busses, in particular for users, is one of novelty--essentially, the "cute" argument.

Are you in fact making this argument?

Jarrett at HumanTransit.org

I'm going to stop right where I stopped: that if it doesn't provide mobility improvements it would be logical to think of it as a civic amenity rather than as a transit investment.

From there, you could pose a range of questions to ask about such an investment, many of which belong to the scary realm of "aesthetic forecasting."   "How well will this age?"   "How much of the success of this thing depends on its relative rarity?"  "In 40 years, will this seem immortally and delightfully retro, like the Space Needle?  Or will it just seem old?"  

And on those points, I really have no idea.


I think you still have to be careful in how you measure mobility, and you have to somehow account for not just the average travel time but also the variance, both for a given time of day and between different times of day. Streetcars MAY help here, as can a whole range of improvements to buses. I think to some extent you also have to weight any potential increase in ridership: a mode that seems faster/more attractive will get more ridership and provide more actual mobility to people than a system with the same potential mobility (i.e. running time) that attracts fewer riders. In terms of concrete examples, something like the Kawasaki LRVs in Philly or Kinki-Sharyo cars in Boston win on speed and capacity, while the streetcar in Portland only has the attractiveness to fall back on, which is a much fuzzier thing to measure objectively.

Jarrett at HumanTransit.org

I think I would insist that mobility is always "potential." The map above shows all the places that you COULD go in 45 minutes, but of course you can't go to all of them, and you don't have to go to any of them to feel the advantages that mobility (=access in this case) confers. I pay a high price to live in a dense city because of all the access that I CAN have within an hour's time, not the amount of this access that I actually use.

In your Boston and Philadelphia examples, it sounds like you are describing a measurable mobility difference manifested in speed and capacity, whereas my argument is focused specifically on the case where there isn't a dispositive and intrinsic speed or capacity or reliability difference, as appears to be the case with the Portland Streetcar.

Jarrett at HumanTransit.org

Again, I am not making a claim about the relative importance of mobility (+access in this case) as opposed to other virtues in the ultimate decision about whether to build a streetcar.

I AM suggesting that a proposed civic investment that doesn't improve mobility or access (except possibly via hard-to-trace impacts on redevelopment) is really pushing the limits of what can credibly be called a transit investment, as opposed to a civic amenity.


This idea that people think streetcars improve mobility still makes no sense to me (and despite several requests, I haven't seen any evidence that people in the real world really think this).

The suggestion that the development near Portland's streetcar line was somehow caused by the mistaken impression that the streetcar improved mobility is also ludicrous. The development near the streetcar line happened because the streetcar was a visibly permanent reminder of an investment in a form of transit that people in the real world actually like to use.

And if the development around the Portland streetcar was not just a result of incentives, can someone explain why the investment and floor space ratio figures taper off linearly by block as you move away from the streetcar route?


Sorry, the last part of my comment should have read "if the development...was just a result of incentives" (minus the "not").


At which point I'll ask for further clarification. For purposes of argument, I'm only considering benefits (or costs) to users of a particular choice of transit mode--mobility, after all, is a benefit to the users of a system. (A given choice might also bring benefits or costs to the transit authority, the local public works division, the public at large, the environment, transit workers, etc.) I'm focusing on users, because in the context of transit-oriented development, the reason that developers might want to develop around a transit service is because such service will provide benefits to tenants or homebuyers; thus making the development in question more attractive.

It's been stipulated that (mixed-traffic) streetcar doesn't provide any mobility advantage over (mixed-traffic) bus service; and may in fact provide a disadvantage due to the streetcar's inability to maneuver around obstacles and disruptions.

However, you seem to be asserting that mobility/access--how far can you get in a given amount of time--is the only user value which matters, or which ought to matter. You seem to be implying that all else is, for lack of a better term, fluff. When you refer to "civic amenity", the implication seems to be that values other than mobility/access are (or ought to be) of no concern to a transit planner--and that while a community might desire such amenities, they add no transit value.

I, at this point, disagree--I can think of numerous user values/parameters which are objectively measurable or controllable, and which might encourage (or discourage) a potential transit user to use transit. Among them:

1. vehicle amenities (A/C, seating configuration, etc).
2. fare collection mechanisms
3. ride comfort
4. station/platform amenities
5. trip planning/route information
6. fare
7. the need to transfer

A transit vehicle with A/C (in climates that need it) will be more desirable than one without; electronic fare collection systems are often better than exact-change-only-please, a covered platform with seats is nicer for the users than a signpost stuck in the ground in the corner; your most recent post covers the importance of signage. The lower the fare, the better, obviously (for the user); and transfers are bad bad bad bad bad; even if the overall trip time is the same; having to change vehicles is a pain in the ass.

Now, with the exception of #3, all of the above parameters are mostly, if not completely, independent of vehicle technology. Nice seats, A/C, wide doors, on-board fare payment systems, and such can be installed on any vehicle; and bus stops can be just as nice as rail stops.

However, many people, including myself, are of the opinion that rail vehicles are fundamentally more comfortable to ride on than busses; and that further, this significantly affects the behavior of (potential) riders.

I've re-read the inconvenient truth posting, and while this point is addressed, it isn't addressed forcefully enough. You note the improvements in bus technology, some of which have to do with ride quality, but I have yet to see anything which addresses the fundamental issue with busses: they operate on the public roadways, on a surface (concrete or asphalt, take your pick) which is frequently subject to damage such as potholes as well as intentional obstructions such as speed bumps, both of which subject the vehicle (and its contents) to significant vertical forces; frequently amplified by the suspensions needed for the vehicle to operate safely in these conditions.

Rubber tires on the public streets are going to produce a jerkier ride than steel wheels on rails; I haven't seen anything under development which addresses that issue. One can mitigate this by not operating in mixed traffic--at which point, the cost advantage of busses starts to vanish. But busses which operate in mixed traffic are going to have to deal with things like potholes, debris in the streets, etc. Rail simply has a smoother ride.

Further, it should be noted that the type of vehicle which generally does the most damage to pavement--are busses (and fire engines). Trucks of equivalent weight distribute their load on more axles (as do long-haul busses such as charters or Greyhound); but doing so makes busses much more difficult to maneuver, thus this is not typically done for vehicles in local transit service.

Now whether or not the smoother ride is worth the money--is a question for a given community to decide. Again, I think the position taken by Tri-Met is a reasonable one--if a community or neighborhood wants streetcars, it needs to pay up the difference; otherwise the default local service is the bus. But I think there ARE fundamental (and objective) differences in the user experience between the two modes, given current technology; differences which aren't simply the result of cultural biases--differences which transit planners ought to take into account. Discounting these issues as "civic amenities", beyond the scope of a transit authority's legitimate purview is, I think, a disservice.

Jarrett at HumanTransit.org

I'm working from my recollections of the tone of the 1990s Portland Streetcar debate, because I lived in Portland at the time. It's also clear from, say, this Infrastructurist post...


...that a lot of people want to believe streetcars are faster and are willing to lump together unrelated improvements in order to create that impression.

Re the development taper, this happened because it was planned. It's exactly what good planning does around mobility resources such as MAX light rail stations. It even happens, to a degree, on frequent bus lines if those routes are presented as sufficiently legible and permanent. (Examples in Portland would include much of inner Belmont and Hawthorne.)

But again, my purpose here is not to argue against streetcars but to propose that if you're going to call something a transportation project, it's not unreasonably to ask it to provide mobility, and that mobility is the same as access in this case.

Jarrett at HumanTransit.org

However, you seem to be asserting that mobility/access--how far can you get in a given amount of time--is the only user value which matters, or which ought to matter.

Absolutely not. I'm saying that mobility/access is what we all, consciously or not, expect from transportation. It's there in what the word means. And I'm suggesting that if there's no mobility/access benefit, we're talking about something that's more like a civic amenity. I don't agree that calling it a civic amenity is dismissive; civic amenities are important. But this happens to be a blog about transit.

My deepest motivating concern is that bending the concepts of transportation and mobility/access to the point that they embrace replace-bus-with-streetcar projects may stretch the meanings of these words to the point that it becomes hard to have clear conversations about mobility and access. We are near if not at the point where the Portland Department of Transportation thinks of a streetcar with 40 people on it as having a higher degree of entitlement to signal time and public space than a bus with 40 people on it. The danger there is that this produces a self-confirming obsession with streetcars that causes 90% of Portland's inner city transit network to be seen as unimportant, not worthy of investment. And it's quite likely that the net mobility/access outcome of that attitude could be negative, as small areas get huge investments around the streetcar and most of the city gets at best the status quo and at worst, creeping subliminal neglect punctuated by service cuts.

Fundamentally, my critique is of the notion that patronage and development outcomes of a service can necessarily be tied to the nature of the vehicle as opposed to the nature of the mobility and access it provides. In this I'm in good company -- See for example Robert Cervero's book The Transit Metropolis, which considers rail vs bus issues on a global developed-world scale and long timeframe and concludes (p412): "Good-quality service -- whether vehicles are propelled by vehicles or fossil fuels, or whether they roll on steel wheels or pneumatic tires -- will spawn compact development. It is the accessibility premium that attracts real estate development, not the type of transit equipment."

I'm not saying that the vehicle is unimportant, but I am saying that a lot of smart transit users use whatever service provides the best mobility and access, and that over time, given the changes coming at us as a culture, more of us are likely to become smart transit users, which in turn suggests that over time, vehicle will matter less to ridership than it does now.

This is why I don't need to engage the argument about ride quality. You're making a long term investment here, so you'd better be clear about what's really going to matter in the long term. Consider the parable of BART: BART's unusual wide gauge yields a low center of gravity that makes the ride smoother than the typical rapid transit train. It's also a HUGE factor in why BART is so absurdly expensive to build and procure cars for, which in turn is a huge factor in why, a generation later, we still have such a minimal BART system, which in turn is a huge factor in why the Bay Area has delivered such fragmented and inadequate region-wide mobility and access relative to the billions that have been spent. I doubt there are many people in the Bay Area who don't wish they could snap their fingers and turn BART into a boring old standard-gauge rapid transit line that was cheaper per unit to build, and that therefore has far more lines and stations covering the region, and that therefore offers far more REAL mobility and access. See the problem?


I'll agree that ride quality is secondary to mobility--a transit vehicle that is comfy and goes nowhere is useless; whereas one that gets you there even if it shakes you like a vodka martini is useful.

But informed decisions on this matter will consider the customer base; and once you expand the customer base beyond the transit-dependent, then "amenities" frequently become necessary to get folks out of their cars. At least until we have $10/gallon gas. :)

I can't speak to the PDoT and their motives, per se; Tri-Met does seem to have a reasonable position on the bus/streetcar issue. And so far, Tri-Met has not seen cuts in bus service directly due to the streetcar; the existing line was all new service. The eastside of the loop currently being planned will replace a few bus lines when it opens, but provide equivalent service, or close to it. Transit service as a whole has suffered due to the recession, but the streetcar has received service cuts just like the busses.

If anything in Portland-area transit has damaged bus service, its the WES commuter line, which is hideously expensive to operate. As its a low-volume commuter line running on FRA-regulated track, partially over privately-owned trackage, it seems as though the trains burn cash instead of diesel fuel. But that has nothing to do with the Streetcar.

If I were the director of Tri-Met, and I suddenly had a wad of cash that I could spend on the system, however I like, how would I spend it? The first thing I would get is not any new bus or rail service, or increases to existing service; the first thing I would get is a modern fare payment/collection system, with magnetic/RFID farecards and such rather than printed paper tickets. A significant hindrance to mobility in Portland (for those without transit passes) is the insane amount of time it takes to buy a single-ride ticket for MAX--and that's when the @#$! ticket printers are working. When the trains are running at 15-minute headways, and you miss one while waiting in line at the ticket machine, that sucks for mobility. :)


I guess the absurd conclusion to this is that transit companies should be running pickup trucks with 40-passenger hayride trailers down city streets, as this would provide excellent access and mobility (provided they were ADA).

I don't understand the argument that the only transit-agency issues are access and mobility. Transit service is not a utility unless it is used. Potential access and mobility isn't good enough, because it doesn't measure the SUCCESS of the system. It only measures the POTENTIAL SUCCESS. And who cares about potential success? Potential mobility does not necessarily translate into ridership numbers, and from my reading, that's what this blog is about. Ridership improvements and customer satisfaction. So it's confusing when we all of a sudden turn to operations as completely decoupled from vehicle selection, whether its between bus types or between entire modes.

For example, would the (hypothetical) buses that smell like cigarettes and urine and are covered with graffitti provide the same access and mobility as the new buses that replace them.

Were the new, decent buses (that indeed got higher ridershp numbers) not a transit investment? Should that money have come out of the civic amenity pot?

Account Deleted

I do not believe that streetcars are a necessary condition for access-improving redevelopment. You need to build the stuff closer to you to improve access and mobility. Also, street car lacks the driving skills to maneuver around obstacles and disruptions.



This seems as good a place as any to point out a discussion of alternate terminology for "access" (or "accessibility"). You can probably safely ignore it if semantics bore you.

The question was raised in this message:

and the conclusion was given here:

Jarrett at HumanTransit.org

Thanks, JC. The discussion at your link suggests that a house location with high access be called "opportune" rather than "accessible." I agree that the word accessible presents a lot of problems, which is why I'd probably just say "good access."


The main advantage of streetcars/light rail/subways over buses is capacity - streetcars can be made longer to hold far more people than buses, because they run on rails. Buses are generally limited to 18 meters for an articulated bus (60 feet), otherwise they are very difficult to maneuver on city streets; streetcars don't have this problem. Furthermore, there is a limit to how many buses you can run in mixed traffic without causing service reliability problems. This is why Toronto, Canada is embarking on a very ambitious program called Transit City to replace numerous busy bus routes (and I mean VERY busy - like packed 40' buses every 2-3 min at rush hour) with light rail.

Steve Munro

It would be worth taking the whole streetcar/LRT relationship to redevelopment issue and looking at subway systems in the same context. In Toronto, there is a myth perpetuated by the transit system, that subways generate development. They point to lovely aerial photos of tall buildings clustered at subway stations.

What they ignore is the very large number of stations that have no high density development around them at all. They are dependent entirely on walk-in trade from lower density residential as well as a strong feeder bus network.

In a way, this is a chicken and egg debate. If a city's planning policies foresee intensified land use that could drive up transit ridership (provided that the transit existed in an attractive form), then the question is which technology is best able to sustain the land use. I am, however, very suspicious of the claim that new transit generates development made at least as often for subways as LRT, usually as part of highly suspect "business case analyses" to justify the capital investment.


Steve Munro's last post makes and excellent point. In Atlanta, MARTA runs a rail line under downtown Decatur. Even after the rail line was built, the City of Decatur continued to flounder until they got smart about ordinances and city planning and made a concerted effort to revitalize the city.

Elsewhere on the same line, the proximity of any sort of development gets worse as the line moves east. The next station, Avondale, is seeing some of the city revitalization benefits of Decatur but the station itself was the old end of the line. The station is very close to low density industrial land, including the rail yard (which had to go somewhere).

Moving east, again, Kensington Station (built for the Olympic Games) is near both apartment and suburban living but the station itself is surrounded by a massive parking lot. Had the Kensington Station parking lot instead been the Kensington Station dense urban development, the area could easily have been a destination within the metro area.

Finally, the Indian Creek Station, the current end of the line (and also built for the Olympic Games), was designed as a commuter station with a massive parking lot, no proximate development, and large swaths of land between the station and the nearby suburban developments. The empty land around the Indian Creek station is so vast that roughly 90% entire dense downtown area around Decatur Station could have been developed around the Indian Creek Station. (And, built properly, the development could have housed, in parking decks, just as many cars as the current parking lot does).

It takes both quality transportation AND smart dense development investment to develop the sort of mobility and access that Jarrett is talking about.


Changing subjects, slightly, I'd like to throw a thought into the ring about why developers and passengers may see tracked modes (streetcar lines, heavy rail, monorail) as being superior to non-tracked routes:

Just as it takes investment from numerous interested parties (government, citizens groups, developers, etc) to build new highways, new malls, new subdivisions, new parks, etc, I believe it also takes investment from the local transit agency to make a line succeed.

The very flexibility of bus lines to reroute around obstructions may just be a major reason that people don't like bus lines: buses never stop at the same distance from the curb or along the curb, buses don't line up neatly with the curb or platform (meaning that passengers often have to take wide or high steps to get onto the vehicle), bus stops are often only a signpost (and that often planted in bare dirt or with no sidewalks to provide access), and bus routes can be changed on a whim (as MARTA in Atlanta is doing with approximately half of the bus routes in the next month).

The very inflexibility of tracked modes may be seen, subconsciously, as a positive by the passengers. I can trust that the transit agency will think very long and very hard about dis-investing in my route if they have spent the time and money to develop infrastructure more extensive than signposts to support my route. By being able to trust that the local tracked route will keep running, I know that I, too, can invest in the economic development of the area around the route by buying property along the route and near stations.

On the other hand, as a passenger, I don't really care how the transit agency gets the job done as long as I don't have to spend considerable amounts of time waiting for transfers, waiting for the initial vehicle to arrive, or waiting to clock in once the transit system has dropped me off at work. I happen to have opinions about which modes are the most time-efficient but my opinion doesn't jive with either the bus or streetcar side of the argument (which both tend to share the right-of-way and mix with motor vehicle and human-powered transportation), so I'll leave that argument for another post, another day.



I think we'll have an excellent test of the degree to which streetcars can power redevelopment when it's very clear they won't improve mobility. That will happen when dear old Portland opens the East Side Loop. A rider who wants to travel from anywhere near Burnside, Belmont or Hawthorne across the river to downtown would be crazy to take the streetcar.

So the "market" for the cars will be Eastside to Lloyd District, Eastside to the Pearl and Lloyd to the Pearl (which already has bus service just about as frequent as the Loop cars will have.

I very much expect this will be a gigantic disappointment and turn Portland (and other cities) off the streetcar boomlet.

So far as street running goes, well and good. Streetcars are at the mercy of clueless, selfish and hostile auto and truck drivers. They accelerate a little faster than buses and the ride is smoother, but in mixed traffic they actually average lower speeds than buses.

Reserve them right of way or don't build them as "urban circulators".

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