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