I often awake to the sound of the streetcar going by my apartment in downtown Portland. It’s a pleasant sound and I sometimes peek out the window to see the brave souls going to work so early. While I feel blessed to live between the SW 10th and 11th Avenue tracks, I rarely hop aboard. I prefer to walk to the areas I can get to in the “Free Rail Zone” (formerly “Fareless Square”) as I’m conscious about maintaining bone density. For the rest of its route, I can usually bike there faster—and get more exercise than I do hanging onto a loop aboard the streetcar. I’ve gotten my bike tire stuck in the streetcar tracks twice. You’d think I would have learned after the first scrapes and bruises.
Nonetheless, I’m a great fan of streetcars! One of my happiest memories as a young child was of my Aunt Millie taking me on a streetcar all the way out to the Carter Barron Ampitheater in my native Washington, D.C. to see a ballet. I liked the ride even better than Swan Lake! My fondness for streetcars is not just nostalgia. I believe that they have a big role to play in the green evolution of our cities in the 21st Century. I was gratified to hear from developer John Carroll, one of the early visionaries and funders of the non-profit Portland Streetcar, Inc., that he has been asked to consult about streetcars to no less than 83 different cities around the world.
Then too, the federal government is giving more support to streetcars than it was back in 2007 when The Oregonian editorialized that, “The feds should be encouraging it, not stifling it.” This year, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded grants totaling $258.6 million for streetcar projects in Portland; Tucson, Ariz.; Dallas; Cincinnati; Charlotte, NC.; St. Louis; and Fort Worth, Texas.
Opening in 2001, the Portland Streetcar was the first new modern streetcar constructed in the United States in more than 50 years. Some of the same developers who helped the city fund the reintroduction of the streetcar helped to facilitate a dramatic shift in land use patterns in the blocks surrounding Portland’s first modern line. By 2008, they had invested $3.5 billion within two blocks of the alignment, including more than 10,000 new housing units (I live in one of them) and 5.4 million square feet of office, institutional, retail and hotel construction.
Just as it was for Portland's original streetcar lines, redevelopment has been a major goal for the streetcar. The city is currently extending the streetcar to the central eastside. That project is planned to open in 2012. The Eastside Streetcar is expected to trigger development of 4,537 housing units, in contrast to 1,105 without it. And Portland has a plan to extend the system throughout the city. In fact, this Portland Streetcar System Concept Plan is one of the major implementing tools of the city’s effort to address global warming, community health, social equity and access and constrained fossil fuel resources in its 20-30 year vision for its future—the Portland Plan.
Portland believes that the eventual infill with mixed use development within future streetcar corridors will resemble the form of buildings and urban spaces that shaped the popular places of the original streetcar system—streets like Hawthorne St., Belmont St. and Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. The streetcar has demonstrated its ability to encourage denser development with a population that is less reliant on automobiles because destinations are closer and transportation options are available. Streetcars help to promote a more active pedestrian environment through the type and style of development they attract.
No single technology will help cities evolve away from the auto era and into a 21st Century community with a denser, more vibrant, more urban mix of uses than the streetcar. Even without the 3C Concept (Clean-Corridor Coordination) the streetcar would help Portland achieve its peak oil and sustainability strategies. But Portland’s 3C Concept would bring in two other “clean” technologies as streetcar tracks are laid: Green Streets and District Energy.
I can attest that residents living in higher density development, with a mix of uses (commercial, civic, entertainment and residential) and good transit service, are significantly more likely to use transit, walk, or bike than use an automobile. Since moving to downtown Portland, I walk or bike nearly everywhere I go with an occasional trip on the streetcar or light rail. Even less often, I use a car—to get to a friend’s home or a business in the suburbs that would be difficult to access by bike or rail. The fact that I am not alone has been well-documented in cities throughout the United States and in Portland.
Utilizing streetcar corridors to encourage more efficient utilization of the land will help to promote a more sustainable urban form throughout the city—absorbing growth, generating new jobs, and reducing pressure on the urban growth boundary. And reducing the pressure to sprawl—with all of the consumption patterns that go with it—is one of the most important steps we can take in creating a sustainable future.
Mary Vogel is a Portland-based Congress for the New Urbanism-Accredited planning and urban design consultant offering sustainability services to local governments and private organizations. She is skilled in the use of tools to help communities become more efficient and resilient, more compact and walkable, more connected to nature’s services and more prosperous and self-reliant—better prepared for the challenges of the 21st Century. She can be reached at mary at plangreen.net.