BY BRIAN LIBBY
It was the summer of 2001. The nation was still several weeks away from the terrorist attacks that would mark the beginning of a new era of fear, squashed civil liberties, and a deregulated economy booming but set up to bust. Movie adaptations of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings books were tops at the box office, and the music charts were ruled by now-forgotten bands like Staind, Shaggy and Creed. And Portland saw completion of the nation's first modern streetcar line, extending from Portland State University at the south edge of downtown, through the Pearl District to 23rd Avenue.
Of course this wasn't the first time streetcars traversed the Rose City streets. Between 1872 and about 1925, streetcar lines extended to 14 different neighborhoods. Then, a combination of increasing automobile ownership and collusion by automobile manufacturers (who bought up streetcar lines throughout America and then shut them down) saw streetcar tracks paved over and transit funds allocated instead to freeways and widened boulevards.
Some were skeptical of the streetcar from the start. Factoring in platform stops and minor delays associated with mixed traffic operations, the average speed from one end of to the other is between seven and 12 miles per hour. The average speed of a person walking is three miles per hour. So if you pick up the walking pace just a bit, chances are you can be faster than the streetcar. What's more, streetcars usually go where buses already went, and bus lines are much cheaper than streetcars. What's more, although Portland has branded itself America's streetcar capitol, it's not as if people have given up their automobiles in droves. The streetcar seems to symbolize for some how Portland's central city is a kind of urban boutique while its outer neighborhoods and suburbs are more or less as automobile dominated as Anywheresville, USA.
At the same time, streetcars do something buses and highways don't: They act as a development tool, and a smart one. The streetcar was a major factor in the transformation of the Pearl District from a largely empty industrial zone and rail yards into a high-density neighborhood. As of 2008, private developers had invested $3.5 billion within two blocks of the original PSU to NW 23rd Avenue line alignment, including over 10,000 new housing units and 5.4 million square feet of office, retail and hotel construction. This represents about two-thirds of all development in the central city over that time period. These developments also utilized more of the allowed floor area ratio (FAR) than developments not near streetcar over 90 percent of its potential FAR compared to just over 40 percent for developments not near streetcar lines. Some of this can be explained by incentives to developers to build near the streetcar, but not all.
With one million new residents expected in the region by 2035, the streetcar has also been a way for the city to plan ahead in a way that minimizes traffic gridlock and greenhouse gas emmissions.
As Mayor Adams noted in a recent celebration of the streetcar's first 10 years, the transit line has created thousands of good-paying jobs, carried 28 million passengers, helped attract $4 billion in private investments and attracted 200 visiting delegations from other cities and regions.
I've long been fascinated in this psychological difference that exists between streetcars or other types of rail transit versus buses. Libertarians and conservatives have long ridiculed Portland's streetcars as an overpriced indulgence, in which we choose to move people in a fixed rail route vastly more expensive than buses that accomplish the same task more economically. Yet that pragmatic point of view just doesn't account for the different perceptions we have about rail, and those perceptions affect how and where we choose to live, work and play.
Consider a seemingly unrelated recent New York Times story about autistic children overrunning the city's transit museum.
"The link between trains and autism is well documented," writes the Times' Christine Haughney. "Autism refers to a spectrum of disorders that typically includes impairment in social interaction and sometimes includes stereotyped interests, like trains. People with autism have difficulty processing and making sense of the world, so they are drawn to predictable patterns, which, of course, trains run by. That explains why children with autism tend to be attracted more to subways, which travel on back-and-forth tracks, with little variability, than to planes, which move in more variable fashion."
In many cases, autistic kids follow bus schedules too, but ultimately trains win out in their imaginations by a considerable margin. I can't help but wonder if there is some connecting thread, or some larger public sentiment to be gleaned. Is it that we crave that same predictability that is associated with trains? Even if streetcars, unlike MAX light rail and regular freight or passenger trains, must often yield to traffic and are in fact part of street traffic, perhaps we still associate streetcars in our minds with transit that is above the fray. Regular automobile traffic offers individual control to drivers, the chance to speed up in hopes of advancing past other cars or to slow down and go with the flow. Even if streetcars are subject to the same limitations of traffic and roads as buses, we seem to view them as a saner alternative that is removed from the chaos of auto traffic.
Meanwhile, more streetcar lines are coming. First, there will be a line to Lake Oswego using mostly existing tracks from the Willamette Shore line. Although it has met with some controversy, with residents of the tony Dunthorpe expressing worry about the lines coming close to their multi-million-dollar enclaves, Lake Oswego is an ideal destination in that much of the walkable-community environment that streetcars are part of already exists here. Downtown Lake Oswego is more walkable than most any of its fellow suburbs. What it largely lacks is high-density housing. Having a streetcar line going there will enable developers to offer Lake Oswego condos as an alternative to the Pearl or South Waterfront, but just as well connected to the central city.
That said, extending rail transit to the suburbs is supposed to be the job of the MAX line, with the streetcar meant for central-city neighborhoods. It begs the question: Instead of having two separate rail lines with different names, purposes and identities, why not just call the whole system either MAX or the Portland Streetcar, and emphasize that rail transit within or going in or out of Portland is all the same? Yes, streetcar tracks and trains are differently sized than MAX. But they're both mass-transit urban rail lines. Shouldn't we be thinking of this as all one system?
A new streetcar line is also under construction along Martin Luther King Boulevard and Grand Avenue (which run parallel to each other). More than the Lake Oswego line, this will be where the streetcar has the most opportunity to act as a development tool. Along these streets, which pair to form Highway 99E, traffic moves relatively quickly and pedestrian ambiance is lacking. As is development. Both streets are littered with surface parking lots and suburban-style development. In the long run, if Portland is to keep growing in population without sprawling at its edges, we'll need high density housing along MLK and Grand. They are centrally located and within easy reach of both downtown and the Lloyd district, two areas full of employers. Instead of used furniture stores, a Salvation Army, a Burger King, this central spine of the east side could be home to thousands of people, who in turn would be patronizing local businesses and contributing to the tax base. If streetcars can lead smarter development of the MLK Boulevard area, they will - even with all the added cost versus buses - more than pay for themselves.
Looking ahead, federal funding for streetcars may be in jeopardy. After President Obama initially took office, he found considerable success jump-starting a wrecked post-Bush economy with a series of investments in jobs, home-buyer credits and mass transit. But after Obama committed most of his political capital to passing national health care in the initial two years of his presidency, public fears about big government helped usher in a new generation of reactionary Tea Party politicians into office, who now have siezed the federal agenda and forced the president to accept an austerity plan like the unsuccessful one underway in Britain that is leading to strikes, riots, and a downward cascading stock market. This means federal funding for streetcars and other mass transit projects, as well as even automobile-oriented projects like the Columbia Crossing bridge, may no longer be counted on. In some cases, this is the sensible move. The Columbia Crossing has become a billion-dollar boondoggle driven more by the highway-industrial complex than the needs of drivers. It arguably deserves a federal pass on funding. For streetcars, though, there is a pied-piper effect on the economy: spending on transit prompts private investment. If the right is correct that a healthy economy is the way to fill federal coffers rather than tax increases, we've got to spend finite dollars wisely in a manner that leverages other investment. And for that task, the streetcar has arrived right on time.