While the Washington Metro may have represented a dramatic, grand gesture for public transit, the Portland Streetcar is notable for being successful precisely because of its deliberate avoidance of dramatic, grand gestures.
An initial feasibility study was prepared by the City of Portland in 1990 that explored the possibility of constructing a modern, surface-running streetcar line to link downtown neighborhoods. Construction began in 1999, and passenger service began in 2001. A number of extensions have been added since then, and more are currently in planning stages. As of this writing, the system consists of an 8-mile continuous loop, with 46 stops 1.
The system is the first completely new streetcar line in North America since World War II. Seattle and Tacoma have built similar streetcar lines, and other cities, including Cincinnati, have proposed similar systems. Portland’s popular MAX light rail system passes through downtown Portland in a roughly east-west direction, while the streetcar generally travels north-south through a number of downtown neighborhoods. The streetcar tracks cross at grade with the MAX light rail tracks in four locations, but the two systems do not share tracks. While the MAX system focuses on providing relatively fast transit access between downtown Portland and outlying areas, the streetcar serves is a circulator within the downtown core.
The planning goals of the Portland Streetcar are as follows 2:
- Link neighborhoods with a convenient and attractive transportation alternative.
- Fit the scale and traffic patterns of existing neighborhoods.
- Provide quality service to attract new transit ridership.
- Reduce short inner-city auto trips, parking demand, traffic congestion and air pollution.
- Encourage development of more housing & businesses in the Central City.
The Portland Streetcar travels almost exclusively on city streets, sharing the road with buses, bicyclists, and automobile traffic. Unlike historical streetcar lines that tended to travel in the center of the street, the Portland Streetcar travels in the curb lane. Parallel parking along the curb is not affected, except at streetcar stop locations where a raised curb bumps out to meet the streetcar. The low-floor design of the streetcar allows barrier-free boarding for passengers with disabilities. With the exception of shelters located at each stop (not unlike typical bus stop shelters), the passenger facilities for the streetcar system are minimal.
Fare collection is via a so-called “proof-of-payment” system, in which passengers purchase tickets from vending machines located at each stop, and have the tickets validated with a time/date stamp upon boarding the vehicle. Compliance is enforced via random spot checks, although the central portion of downtown Portland features a designated “Fareless Square” in which all rides are free.
The streetcars are powered by an unobtrusive overhead catenary wire, and unlike buses, are quiet and emit no exhaust. The track bed consists of a relatively shallow, 12-inch-deep concrete slab in which the rails are embedded. Due to the streetcar’s relatively light weight compared to light rail vehicles, track construction requires minimal utility relocation or disruption to surface streets 3.
The tracks typically run on one-way streets, with northbound and southbound streetcar tracks usually a block apart. In addition to being minimally disruptive to street traffic patterns, this arrangement also allows the benefits of streetcar-related development to extend over a wider area.
Since the streetcar’s inception, Portland has seen $2.8 billion in new development along the route 4. Given the similarities in population and density between Portland and Cincinnati, city officials in Cincinnati are naturally looking at Portland as a model for development of a streetcar line connecting the riverfront and Over-the-Rhine, with a possible extension to the Uptown university / medical district.
This seven-minute video clip demonstrates the look and feel of Portland’s streetcar system: