Portland Streetcar

Portland Studies Streetcar Expansion Citywide

First phase of new routes would concentrate on improving downtown mobility; second phase would extend across the city.

Portland Streetcar Concept Plan

This week, Portland released its draft Streetcar System Concept Plan, which will be under public debate until mid-August; it attempts to define the city’s streetcar investments over the next fifty years (h/t Portland Transport). In all, the proposal argues for eleven new lines operating in downtown and near Gateway Transit Center for the project’s first phase, with a total 73 miles of streetcar investments in the long-term. Though the majority of these segments have yet to be funded, Portland’s proactive and unambiguously ambitious planning process suggests that it will be prepared to adapt to a less auto-dependent future.

The document was released a day after Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood came to the city to praise its transportation investments and the construction of the first American-made streetcar in 60 years by Oregon Iron Works. Mr. LaHood’s arrival coincided with the commencement of construction on the city’s Eastside Extension Project, which will connect the existing streetcar line with a 3.5-mile new corridor on the east side of the Willamette River.

As outlined by this document, the first “Concept” phase of Portland’s program for streetcar expansion will focus on downtown, from which 10 new routes will radiate; an eleventh route would loop around Gateway Transit Center, where Red, Blue, and Green line MAX light rail trains will intersect once the latter corridor opens in September. These specific routes were chosen after a rigorous effectiveness comparison among dozens of potential routes throughout the city. The city hopes to raise funds for each line and pursue land use planning objectives that will encourage increased density alongside streetcar stops.

Today’s streetcar loop runs 4.1 miles roughly north-south through downtown. Currently programed routes — established prior to the publication of the city’s Concept Plan — include the 3.5-mile Eastside Extension, a 6-mile corridor from downtown south to Lake Oswego, and a 1.3-mile connection between the South Waterfront and the eastside. The eight corridors newly introduced here would provide three new east-west corridors between downtown and the eastside, an extension of the Eastside route north on MLK Jr, and several new lines in the downtown core, in addition to the Gateway loop previously mentioned.

The second “Comprehensive” phase of the plan — shown in yellow on the map above — would extend streetcars across the city, and connect the Gateway loop to downtown.

Unlike MAX light rail, streetcar service is specifically designed to encourage dense infill growth in whole sections of the city, rather than just around stations. Similarly, while light rail is successful in moving long(er)-distance automobile commuters to transit, streetcars are meant to encourage auto-free living in walkable, livable neighborhoods. They’ve been especially successful thus far in encouraging density in areas served in downtown Portland today, so there’s no reason to suggest they wouldn’t be successful in doing the same elsewhere as the system expands.

Portland’s main objectives for MAX expansion have focused on extending radially from downtown to serve “suburban” commuters coming in to work downtown. Conversely, the first phase streetcar proposal, rightfully, focuses on attracting growth to inner city areas. The expansion of the streetcar system, in other words, is the first step towards expanding the city’s dense core, making more and more of the city livable. Using streetcars to fulfill commuting needs at the city-wide range — something that’s suggested by the planned corridors in the second phase — seems inappropriate for this mode choice. Rather, the dense network of lines suggested for the first phase, which will simplify movement to virtually anywhere in the dense downtown core via transit, should be the model for expansion. Extending transit routes out across the landscape makes more since for faster light rail.

Image above: Existing and potential streetcar routes, from City of Portland

13 replies on “Portland Studies Streetcar Expansion Citywide”

what’s the advantage of these streetcars vs. a bus? i’ve ridden the portland streetcar; it’s nice and all, but I haven’t heard a good explanation as to why it’s worth the greater cost compared to bus.

Streetcars don’t have to fight with traffic unlike buses. Also, I don’t know of Portland is like this, but in Toronto, the streetcars have their own transit stop lights which allow them to go forward or turn before all autos, so it speeds them up even more. Plus, since they are electrified it’s easier to make them carbon-neutral or free if the electricity comes from a clean source.

i’m picturing these streetcars operating on tracks that are in a shared right-of-way, in which they DO have to compete with autos … is that incorrect? Where I live (SF Bay Area) some of our bus lines have the same sort of signal priority device that you’re describing, so that’s not exclusive to streetcar. We’ve also got electric buses (overhead wires; very unsightly and probably expensive to maintain) … but it’s hard for me to believe that ‘climate change’ is really the motivating reason for a city to invest in streetcar vs bus.

I should add, one argument that I’ve heard for rail over bus is that if you want to encourage changes in land development patterns (ie., denser and more transit friendly), that this is more likely when gov’t shows a permanent commitment to compatible transit service. And rail looks a lot more permanent than bus. Could this be the motivating factor in Portland? And does it make sense?

According to the Portland Streetcar System Concept Plan (which is who issued this report), the goals behind the streetcars are:

– Help the City achieve its peak oil and sustainability strategies;
– Provide an organizing structure and catalyst for the City’s future growth along streetcar corridors; and
– Integrate streetcar corridors into the City’s existing neighborhoods.

This can be found by clicking on the online comment form on their website (

Hope that answers their official rational for promoting these streetcars..

The main difference between streetcars and buses is that streetcars attract more ridership. Besides seeming more permanent and providing a nicer ride, I don’t think anyone has ever explained (at least not to me) as to why this is.

Portland doesn’t have a huge transit network. With a handful of light rail lines and a 4 mile streetcar route, you can’t exactly get anywhere. The thing that is great about the city is the level and consistency of its commitment. As one line opens, they start planning the next one and then they build it. New York, in comparison, has an amazing transit network, but the commitment to its expansion is always and off and on political horse trading. Go Portland.

Yes, the current Portland streetcar shares space with cars and doesn’t have right-of-way priority (there’s an amusing brochure somewhere that tries to put this fact in a positive light to the rider). Seeing as Portland is in the process of cutting bus lines and further reducing service across the board currently, I’d hesitate to claim full transportation enlightenment over here. It’s still a rather car-bonded city despite the publicity, too, mind you. Granted, I know there’s a huge difference between operations and capital investment, and we need to attract more riders to make the system function, but this just doesn’t feel like the right time to pat Tri-Met on the back for being so gosh-darned progressive. The long-term goal of increasing density jives with me though.

Streetcars offer a more comfortable ride than buses and actually attract ridership and development.

Along with ridership, development, and boarding speed up, a huge thing to notice in the operation of streetcars is their capacity. A standard city bus seats 40 with room for standing. A single light rail vehicle (streetcar) holds about 55-60, plus more standing room. So if an operator has 10 buses in circulation, the capacity is only 400, whereas you can seat more people and pay fewer operators by having only 7 or 8 streetcars in circulation.

Anything that makes either faster also improves operating efficiency.

A few things to note about the Portland Streetcar system.

1) The standard vehicle for local transit service in Portland and vicinity is the 40′ fuel-powered bus (Tri-Met runs a mix of diesel and LNG powered vehicles; trolleybusses are not used in town). The current and under-construction streetcar districts are funded in part by local improvement districts–unless a neighborhood is willing to pay to build local streetcar service, it doesn’t get it.

2) Portland does have an extensive bus system, the claim that “Portland doesn’t have a huge transit network” is simply wrong. Granted, much of the metro area is not served by rail of any sort, but you can get virtually anywhere in town by bus. Some trips, especially suburb-to-suburb, may be difficult and lengthy however.

3) The proposed LO streetcar extension is over an existing rail line (one which isn’t in good enough shape to effectively support MAX, but can handle the lower speeds of streetcars).

EngineerScotty: “Tri-Met runs a mix of diesel and LNG powered vehicles”

TriMet hasn’t used LNG in quite a few years. Every single TriMet vehicle is a straight-diesel bus, save for a scant TWO hybrid-electric vehicles.

“The proposed LO streetcar extension is over an existing rail line (one which isn’t in good enough shape to effectively support MAX, but can handle the lower speeds of streetcars).”

The existing line is unsuitable for anything except the occasional tourist trolley that uses it today. This line will require a complete top to bottom rebuild to support streetcar, light rail, DMU, etc. – just like WES. The only thing being re-used is the right-of-way — and Metro is even talking about routing the Streetcar on Highway 43 (where it would compete with vehicles on the only route from Lake Oswego to downtown Portland, moving at speeds slower than Highway 43 traffic) – thus not even recycling the right-of-way.

Cameron Slick: “A standard city bus seats 40 with room for standing”

There are larger capacity buses available; TriMet simply refuses to buy them. From 1981 until 1998, TriMet had a fleet of articulated buses that had the identical capacity of today’s Streetcar. Even podunk Eugene and Spokane have articulated buses; as does much larger Seattle, Vancouver (BC) and San Francisco.

NikolasM: “Streetcars…actually attract ridership and development.”

The development was planned before the streetcar; the streetcar was just a further enticement; also tax incentives (which could be applied to bus routes, but aren’t) also are a factor. As for ridership; much of the Streetcar route is fare-free while TriMet’s substandard bus service requires a $2.00 fare.

What would you ride: waiting for a bus at a non-sheltered stop, to get on a 20 year old, non-air-conditioned, high floor, sweltering bus that may or may not show up, and you have no idea if you just missed the bus or if it’s still coming or late, or a brand new, air conditioned, low floor Streetcar at an improved stop with a shelter (with art murals), benches, and a NextBus display, and area lighting at night?

AlexB: “Portland doesn’t have a huge transit network”

And you can thank transit marketing at work – we have a huge bus system, but who cares about that. TriMet sure doesn’t, Metro doesn’t, and the City of Portland doesn’t. But two-thirds of TriMet’s riders depend on it each and every day.

Adam: “Streetcars don’t have to fight with traffic unlike buses”

Streetcars operate in mixed traffic; quite frequently the Streetcars have to be shut down and replaced by buses due to traffic collisions, structure fires, etc.

(At least a trolleybus has a limited battery capacity that allows it to drive around obstacles for a couple blocks.)

“in Toronto, the streetcars have their own transit stop lights”

In Portland, there’s only a couple Streetcar only traffic lights – 4th and Harrison is a good example, because of the turn and that Streetcars run in the wrong direction on 4th Avenue, requiring the traffic light. Everywhere else – it uses the auto light.

“since they are electrified it’s easier to make them carbon-neutral or free if the electricity comes from a clean source.”

Unfortunately, despite the nearby availability of hydropower in Portland, Portland gets very little of it. Over half of Portland’s power comes from “green” sources – that is, if you include hydroelectric. Of the solar/wind/biomass “green”? About 1%.

Seattle, on the other hand, gets nearly 90% of its power from hydro and other green sources – and has an extensive trolleybus network to take full advantage of the clean, green power.

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