Streetcar Advantages (Not Specifically Portland’s Streetcar)

I often complain that the streetcar did NOT get the X Billions of dollars spent in the Pearl.  That was because of the tax abatements, which even continue today and will via extensions, etcetera.  But what advantages do I know the streetcar to really have?

Legitimate Reason #1:  It’s stuck on the tracks, so it builds confidence along the line for developers.

This is true, you can go and ask a number of the individuals that are responsible for starting businesses along the line.  It offers longevity and a feeling of safety and comfort along the line too.  Along routes where buses are businesses often have fewer people out on the street near the line, near a streetcar though people don’t feel bothered by its presence like they do buses.

Does this counter my argument that the streetcar didn’t contribute significantly to the X billion?  No, because the X billions that where invested in the Pearl where mostly large scale developer money, which as I said before was primarily based or the organizations, structure and liveliness of the city, and of course the ability to sell units the abatements that removed the punishment doled out to residents via the excessive property/home taxes.

Legitimate Reason #2:  The streetcar is consistent.

People know what it is, what it does, and obviously where it goes.  Bus routes change regularly and disparage riders.  I’ve run in to no less than 3 individuals who asked me where a bus stop is on 3rd or 4th, to which I had to explain that the buses don’t run on 3rd or 4th anymore but on 5th and 6th now.  Those stops of course, don’t even remotely resemble what was there on the mall before, or even reflect what was on 3rd and 4th.  Even though it seems like a negative to have a consistent, unmovable route, it actually has this and the aforementioned benefit.

In turn for the “sometimes rider” from the suburbs this adds comfort to the rider.  This is one reason for games, events, and other such things in downtown Portland, millions of rides a year are taken on MAX or Streetcar that otherwise wouldn’t have been made into downtown.  The money that these riders bring into downtown, and to the city in general, equates to millions per year and hundreds of jobs.  Otherwise this money would have probably went to X-Boxes or other trite entertainment with 90% of the money going out of the United States.

Legitimate Reason #3:  This reason does NOT apply to Portland’s Streetcar.  Portland’s streetcar is outrageously expensive.  However, most streetcars are NOT even remotely as expensive as Portland’s.

Often they’re about 2-3x more expensive than a 40’ bus.  This leads most streetcar systems to be 10-30% cheaper than a comparable bus line.  If you don’t believe me, I’ll have the math coming very soon.  Currently I’m working the math out for light rail, which is a no brainer when looking at any long term transit strategy for a high throughput corridor.

Over the next 15-20 years of streetcar operations in Memphis, Little Rock, and other places the streetcars will actually end up being LESS expensive then comparable bus service.  In San Francisco and some other larger cities around the world, where streetcars have continued running for over 100 years, they’re already absurdly cheap.  In New Orleans the original St Charles line, even with hurricane repair included, is easily 30% cheaper than what bus service would cost for the same ridership numbers along that line.  Don’t even get me started on San Francisco’s lines, especially the cable cars, which pretty much under most logical accounting rules actually make a profit, but can’t say so because they operate under a non-profit accord for the city.

Legitimate Reason #4:  Electric Streetcars, just like electric vehicles of any type that run from catenary, are really easy to maintain.  An electrical motor and system is far less complex than a complex diesel engine.

Diesel engines are generally less reliable, more prone to issues during snow, heat, and other extreme conditions.  Electric engines are awesome for reliability.  In addition to reliability they’re also very powerful, often more powerful than diesel engines.

Legitimate Reason #5:  This reason is dumb, absolutely stupid, but it is a legitimate reason why streetcars have an advantage over many modes.  Matter of fact, I don’t event like this reason, but here it is anyway.

People LOVE streetcars.  Not for any logical reason, they just do.  Most people that LOVE streetcars do not have any reason they can verbalize or write down, that has a logical basis.  It might be a temporary thing, it might be a long term feeling, it might only be a myth among urbanites.  Whatever the case, fact is, the majority of people will get on a streetcar and sometimes even ride about for hours, long before they’d do the same on other modes of transport.  This plays to a much easier time of gaining political support for getting them built out.  Of course, there are some really loud naysayers, but the pro-streetcar people are actually louder these days, and thus win out.

Legitimate Reason #6:  They last forever.

New Orleans runs streetcars that have had basic maintenance and a revamp or two, that where originally built in the late 1800’s.  Streetcars are especially easy to keep up over a long period of time.  New Orleans is a prime example, a city which has been through hell and back multiple times, has managed to keep up multiple streetcar units that are over 100 years old.  There is no reason that these ever really need replaced, as with maintenance and appropriate piece part replacement, can last forever in an economic, environmental, and usability context.  Many other vehicles eventually just get thrown away and replaced beccause it is more expensive to maintain then to buy new.  This is not the case with Streetcars.  Streetcars are more like a building, one doesn’t just tear down a building or a home every few years.  Instead a remodel, a repaint, or a simple rewiring and then back to the route.

This type of service does not bode well for buses and most rubber on road based transport.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m also going to have the list of advantages that buses have coming soon.  So Al M, Erik, and my other hard core bus fans, don’t lynch me yet.  It’s coming.  I gotta get all this pro-streetcar, pro-light rail, and pro-commuter rail (NOT WES) out of the way first.  🙂

So everyone keep reading and stay tuned for the top reasons transit rocks, more to come.


  1. I don’t think New Orleans runs any 19th century vintage streetcars in normal revenue service anymore. They are pretty old, though. The St. Charles cars were built in 1923 and 1924.

    Since nobody makes ’em like they used to, the New Orleans RTA has craftsmen that rebuilds cars and builds new ones to old specs! (San Francisco Muni does this with cable cars as well).

    I went to San Francisco and marvel at its streetcar network. I love the F-Market & Wharves line, the second most iconic mode of transportation beside the cable cars. That’s where all the PCCs run. I snapped a lot of them, and they’re on my Flickr account at

    F is amazing because it started as a "toy." A streetcar preservation group got San Francisco to keep the Market Street surface tracks preserved so it could run its vintage cars for a festival. That grew into limited regular operations, and eventually Muni made it as part of everyday service. Today the line carries about 20,000 boardings. It is one of Muni’s most productive lines.

    San Francisco’s other streetcar system, Muni Metro, is also more impressive than most people make it out to be. Generally, Muni Metro is considered light rail rather than a streetcar. From what I have seen, I like to call it a Swiss Army Knife on rails.

    The Muni Metro vehicle can work three distinct classes of service: 1)High-platform light rail; 2)High-platform heavy rail under Market Street; 3)Bus-like streetcar service.

    The biggest drawbacks are the vehicles themselves and Muni. The design has always been problematic, and both Boeing and Breda built very unreliable cars. The other thing is that Muni is not known for a well-run system, and Muni Metro is very unreliable. Some of this, though, is the chaotic nature of three operating characteristics mixing together and hampering the whole network.

    However, this looks like something that can have an application in cities that have settled for bus rapid transit. Commonly, cities have had to choose between BRT to light rail, and a lot do not have the ridership density to support light rail (the post-San Diego form, which includes Portland). But, a Muni Metro vehicle would allow tracks to be laid, and then initially operate a busy line in the "bus" mode. As ridership gains momentum, a few platforms can be built so the system can operate in a faster "light rail" or even "heavy rail" mode.

    Best of all, it could be done cheaply as no new equipment or technology would be needed and incremental additions would be smaller than completely new systems.


  2. Good point about the MUNI LRVs. They’ve got a ton of those things running. I though, do not consider them streetcars really. They’ve more interurbanny, heavy railish/light railish in their nature, as you point out.

    However as for the New Orleans cars, they actually do have one car that is 100+ yrs old they run for events and sometimes even in regular service. They rotate a few of the cars, so as to keep a maintenance schedule. The average Pearly Thomas cars are between 80-90 years old, most have been redone over that course of time, but are basically the exact same things that rolled of the manufacturing assembly 80-90 years ago.

    Also yes, they do maintain, and actually built their own cars. This is one of the reasons I’ve actually been so pissed about what Portland did. They deprived several hundred million from staying in market and getting cheaper, better, higher quality cars here in country and instead shipped that money right out of here to the X-Soviet block state that built our "modern streetcars" for about 6x the price of a bus. But I digress, I’ve ranted enough about that stupid decision, they’re finally being built in country, right here in Portland now. The company even has a few on order from somewhere, I forget at the moment.

    The one thing that bugs me though, while New Orleans pretty much can build new cars if they need them for about 1/3 the price as the modern streetcars, Portland keeps paying for these new things at an ever increasing price range. We bought the first lot at 2.4 million a piece, they’re now bumped up to 3 million a piece. At least they’re built here, but it still bothers me, as it puts a decent ROI recoup on the investment at like 40-45 years before they’re in the same price league as bus service would have been, especially since most of the service is in a "fareless" area, even though they could have EASILY charge a buck, maybe even a buck and half and had very similar ridership.

    …anyway… GREAT comment. I appreciate the insight. Good pictures too, looked like an eventful run of photos. 🙂 I’m looking forward to taking a trip back into San Francisco sometime and running around more of the routes, there is still many parts of the city I haven’t even glanced upon.


  3. For the new light rail system in Phoenix, reasons #1 and #2 have proven to be very true. Fixed guideway / consistent travel has helped bring new business, awareness and confidence along with ease of travel to show much higher than expected ridership numbers for the first 6 months of operation. People that would never dream of riding a bus have embraced light rail for commuting and, maybe more for "recreation." ( ball games, arts centers, coffee shops etc.)

    For the Tempe South extension, a "modern streetcar" is getting a pretty serious look as an alternative to the existing light rail system. It looks very interesting.

    Here, our bus and light rail fares are the same and transfer between the systems. Currently, an all day bus or light rail fare is $2.50 but raises to $3.50 on July 1. Still a bargain, if you ask me.


  4. $2.50 to $3.50, yeah, that’s a steal. In PDX here our all day pass is $4.50.

    It will definitely be interesting to see how all of this pans out over the next 5-10 years, especially with a supportive administration & such. If it gains/grows some support among the Republicans ranks we’ll probably have one of the most built, capable & elaborate transit systems for our nation’s cities in the world in no time flat – but it will definitely need bipartisan support.


  5. [i]Good point about the MUNI LRVs. They’ve got a ton of those things running. I though, do not consider them streetcars really. They’ve more interurbanny, heavy railish/light railish in their nature, as you point out.[/i]

    Ride outbound past West Portal. Once the Muni Metro surfaces, the cars turn into bus-like service. The stairs fold down and the vehicles share the road with traffic. You board at ordinary bus stops and pay fares in a farebox, though you can climb up through any door.


  6. Street cars in Toronto are a landmark. They cross some major roads and carry a vast number of people through the city each day. And more recently city council passed the motion to purchase 204 new streetcars as part of a transit expansion (details of Toronto’s transit plans can be found at and also

    Toronto has elected to use streetcars/LRT (light rail transit) instead of subways because of cost savings (I’ve heard that it can cost up to $200mil/km for subways compared to $70mil/km for an LRT).

    Your 7 points about streetcars are all true in Toronto – businesses have followed the streetcar corridors, people love them and as I pointed out above there is a cost savings for the city compared to subways.


  7. People like rail. They like it because it feels good to ride, it is predictable, it is efficient, and it feels old-fashioned. Buses are considered noisy, trashy, polluting. And if it takes rail to get the suburbanites to ride it, then we need to give them rail. Because it is the suburbanites that sit in traffic; it is the suburbanites that spend 10$/day to park; it is the suburbanites that have to deal with an hour+ commute. Urbanites–we don’t care anymore. I gave up the bus last year: It is faster, more efficient, and healthier to just ride my bike.

    I am enamoured with the F-Market line in SF, as I am with the cable cars. They’re just… beautiful. We need more retro style in the world–when designers cared about the little things. Those forties-styled electric cars are absolutely gorgeous. I want.


  8. Cedric – 40s, & 19th Century Design (Cable Cars) 🙂 I dig too!

    Sasha – Awesome comment. Just saw a purchase order for 204 streetcars to Bombardier, I sure wish Portland could have captured that order!!! 🙂 We’d have streetcars coming out of our ears.


  9. All good points, and the streetcars do last forever. Most of Prague’s rolling stock was from the 60’s I think and still very nice and functional. The new low-floor designs are a huge improvement though.

    They also are also great for tight spaces. Although we don’t connect 2 cars together in Portland, they are capable of such. Maybe in the future? Try tying 3 buses together and maneuvering them through Old Town.

    Oh yeah, the Muni is just like the Green Line in Boston. In the city center it’s basically a subway, and when it comes out of the ground a bit past Fenway you pay your fare or scan your pass when you board in the front or rear cars. I think they have their own right of way though. Can’t remember if it mixes with traffic. Sure wish the MAX was underground from Lloyd to Washington Park. It’s so fucking slow through downtown. I say bury it and put streetcars on the current tracks.


  10. Oh my god, imagine if Portland had that 204-car order. It would be huge for the economy, but I don’t think they’re ready for that kind of production….yet. Chicago and NY need to build out their systems. Maybe one day United Streetcar will be selling to the European cities 🙂


  11. "Legitimate Reason #1: It’s stuck on the tracks, so it builds confidence along the line for developers."

    So, how’s that Red Electric line doing (1919-1929)? Or that Oregon Electric Line?

    Yes, there is some confidence but it’s not absolute.

    "Legitimate Reason #2: The streetcar is consistent."

    Not necessarily; I’ve tried to take the streetcar a few times and the waits were too long; once even the NextBus sign said I had an over 30 minute wait. (I had a friend drive and pick me up instead.)

    "Legitimate Reason #3: This reason does NOT apply to Portland’s Streetcar. Portland’s streetcar is outrageously expensive. However, most streetcars are NOT even remotely as expensive as Portland’s."

    Correct: Most streetcar systems use abandoned railroad lines that can be quickly rehabbed at little cost, with simple station platforms and inexpensive rebuilt vintage trolleys. I can have Gomaco build me a trolley for about a million. I can have Skoda or OIW build me a "modern streetcar" for three-four times that. The ridership potential is about the same so what’s the reason to pay the higher cost?

    "Legitimate Reason #4: Electric Streetcars, just like electric vehicles of any type that run from catenary, are really easy to maintain. An electrical motor and system is far less complex than a complex diesel engine."

    A benefit Seattle, San Francisco and Vancouver get with trolleybuses.

    "Legitimate Reason #5: People LOVE streetcars."

    I don’t buy this argument. People love a transit system that works, is reliable, is inviting, and gets people where they want to go.

    The fact is that nobody has really put an equal comparison between bus and streetcar. Whenever streetcar was added to replace a bus line it was a HUGE upgrade of service, including brand new stops, sidewalk connections, vastly improved vehicles, more frequent service – in short the difference between bus and streetcar was NOT just the vehicle, but the "total transit experience" as Fred loves to cite.

    Each and every time that a bus service is started that has "streetcar/rail attributes" (i.e. BRT) the bus service is wildly popular and beats ridership expectations. Nobody cares that they’re getting on a bus, they care that their transit needs are being taken care of, that they are getting on new, modern vehicles with air conditioning and maybe Wi-Fi service, with nice bus stops with benches and lighting, and that the service is reliable.

    The anti-BRT crowd likes to say that’s a sign of failure because "they should have built the train instead" but doesn’t that actually prove BOTH that 1: people will ride buses if the transit agency invests in it, and 2: when you improve bus service you increase ridership to the point that rail is the next logical step?

    The argument Portland uses is: "Why waste money building buses, because we know we can wait 20 years and build rail, even if it means fewer riders now." I’d like to think that building ridership is not the end goal (until you get to 100%, anyways) but a process.


  12. Oh, and:

    "Legitimate Reason #6: They last forever."

    No, they don’t. They last longer, but not forever, every "vintage" trolleycar you see operating today has been rebuilt at least once or twice.

    I suggest a visit to the Oregon Electric Railway Museum in Brooks where you can see a number of vintage trolleys from the early 1900s. You’ll find a lot of them are in need of SERIOUS work. You’ll also find a late 1970s Boeing-Vertol LRV used on the SFMUNI that, well, has all the charm of a bus. And most of those vehicles were scrapped by the two agencies that bought them (SFMUNI and MBTA).


  13. "Legitimate Reason #1" Name one area of Portland that was built and claims to have been built primarily because of bus access? Do the same for light rail and you immediately get the jist of the issue. Buses do NOT get things built, they placate the area with service, light rail encourages growth.

    When we’re low on jobs, such as right now, light rail pays dividends in the overall market vs. bus service. No one would even notice buses being added, but a new light rail line raises the spirits and encourages growth – albeit not as much as the urban planners and new urbanists like to think, but it does vastly more than a mere bus line.

    Legitimate Reason #3: We’re 100% in sync on that one. I WISH we’d get real, non-copied, American built streetcars. 🙂 It’d be nice and invoke a ton of pride – that’s honest instead of misplaced as the current streetcars provide.

    Legitimate Reason #6: The rest of the paragraph below that outlines what I was saying, the title part for reason #6 is mere liberal use of the English language. Kind of a metaphorical statement, of course they don’t last forever, nothing ever does. I’m expecting a little bit of common sense logic and wrote an overly simplified statement. That’s all. It makes it more entertaining for some – the perspective shift in the statement, it is absurd to suggest infinite longevity, but makes for a good read.

    Legitimate Reason #4: This is primarily a Portland based complaint. We have THE dirtiest, nastiest, most inefficient buses in the entire north west. It’s is saddening. I will definitely have "A benefit Seattle, San Francisco and Vancouver get with trolleybuses." as a major plus for buses when I get to my "Bus Advantages" blog entry.


  14. "Name one area of Portland that was built and claims to have been built primarily because of bus access? Do the same for light rail and you immediately get the jist of the issue. Buses do NOT get things built, they placate the area with service, light rail encourages growth."

    Again – was it the light rail line, or the development subsidies that made it happen? It’s hard to say in Portland since every project built along a light rail line gets huge subsidies or public investment to happen – even projects like Gresham Station which is basically an auto-centric strip mall which happens to be "transit oriented" because the back wall of the strip mall is adjacent to the light rail line. Cascade Station is, in my view, a horrendous failure of our region’s planning and is completely auto-dominated, yet qualifies as "transit oriented" because of the two, seldom used (but highly built) light rail stops located there.

    Yes, people don’t get excited about buses, just like people don’t get excited about fire stations or water/sewer lines – but we expect those services to be available. People don’t want to dump their garbage in a backyard pit, they want a garbage truck to show up once a week and haul it away. It’s not sexy but it’s expected. And when the garbage truck doesn’t show up people get mad.

    With buses…it’s hard to quantify development when all TriMet will do is stick a little bus stop sign and do nothing else. Heck, TriMet generally refuses to do any bus stop improvements or transit access improvements to get to a bus stop. People WOULD notice if they live on streets which don’t have sidewalks but all of a sudden do. Jobs WOULD be created and in local neighborhoods, building things that people actually can use on a daily basis, if sidewalks and new bus stops were built. Oregon Iron Works would employ a lot of people churning out bus stop shelters; other tradesmen would be busy installing them, pouring concrete, building pedestrian signals and signs, doing neighborhood road repairs, landscaping in the affected areas, and so on. I would certainly notice if I saw workers in my street; as opposed to the "stimulus jobs" at the Tigard Transit Center (I’m not quite sure what they did, all I know was that one lane of the transit center was blocked off for a week and there’s about twenty square feet of new concrete. But a couple days ago while transferring from the 78 to the 12 I noticed that there are no bus schedules for the 12 bus posted on the 12 platform, you have to walk over to the 76/78 platform to get to the 12 schedule; and there are no ticket vending machines or electronic reader displays for the half dozen bus riders – yet there was one on the completely unoccupied WES platform.)

    "This is primarily a Portland based complaint. We have THE dirtiest, nastiest, most inefficient buses in the entire north west. "

    You know, I’ve got a free ticket up to Seattle on Amtrak. It would be interesting to do an overview of Seattle’s transit.


  15. We’re talking about streetcars in this blog entry, as for developments that where built because of streetcars… let me get you a list. I followed up with this because I wanted to make sure I had a fairly accurate list. So here are a few areas that where built by streetcar (or interurban, i.e. light rail of yesteryear).

    Portland Heights
    Ladds Addition
    Oregon City (in large part, not completely)
    Council Crest
    Mt Tabor

    …and I’m sure I’ve missed a few dozen. Sure the light rail hasn’t had as many successes as the streetcars, but it does have some, more than the modern streetcar does and far more than any bus line can even remotely be attributed to.

    but I digress, I’ve got to get back to something more positive than all this transit nit-picking. All this in-fighting really isn’t doing the community any good, but it sure as hell is giving the "let’s build roads" community a TON of ammo.


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