Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Jarret Walker scathing analysis of the Portland Streetcar

Jarret Walker

Me and Jarret had a falling out  over Mcfarlanes stealing a raise for himself and his pals while raising fares and cutting services. Jarret actually defended Trimet management which I then blasted which in turn he blasted me as being 'negative'. (what else is new)
All that aside this is a most excellent editorial on the Portland Streetcar

If the Portland Streetcar were designed to function as a reliable and useful transit service, which would mean exclusive lanes where needed and the very high frequency that’s needed to be relevant to short trips, it would be a much better exemplar of the outcomes you describe.

 Unfortunately, most details of our streetcar’s design not only lack those features but in some cases preclude them without an extensive rebuild. Nor does anyone have any idea how to run enough frequency to make good use of exclusive lanes, given the astronomical cost of the vehicles. 

I am struck also by how often the streetcar is promoted as having a valid role in the context of an imaginary abundance of transit alternatives, as you do here. This is the dream-city language of development marketing, and it is utterly divorced from the realities of transportation in this city of limited resources and narrowly focused leadership.

 Portland is a city where the citywide transit system was utterly devastated by budget cuts in the late 2000s, and where the transit agency’s level of service, in the most optimistic of scenarios, will take years to get back to where it was 10 years ago. Remember, the all-day frequencies on many major Portland bus lines are worse today than they were in 1982. 

Meanwhile, Metro studies show that abundant frequent transit service is the most important thing we could do to change our emissions outcomes.

So I evaluate the streetcar in the context of the real world of transit scarcity, not a fantasy world of transit abundance.

 In this world, it is in direct competition for resources with services that are far more useful to people who have to travel beyond their walking distance, including but not limited to the low income people who are being exiled from walkable areas all over the city. From this perspective, the huge investment in the Portland Streetcar is inseparable from the utter wretchedness of transit east of I-205, where the need is most acute, and indeed the dismal state of the Portland bus services even in areas that are redeveloping.

These outcomes are all part of the same set of City priorities, and I believe the net effect of those priorities has quite possibly been bad for our sustainability outcomes, not just for environmental justice perspectives.

If the Portland Streetcar had at least been useful as transit — faster and/or more reliable than bus services that could be deployed more widely at the same price — you might have justified it as a demonstration project that would eventually be extended across the city. But because of its unique combination of inner-city exclusivity AND functional uselessness, it is failing to inspire outside the circles of the already-converted.
As you know, Chris, the recent PBOT survey found that streetcar expansion is one of the absolute lowest priorities of Portland residents. You can’t begin to build a case until you grapple with why.

This comment is posted HERE originally

Jarret then responded to a post from Chris Smith
Your summary of my views is entirely false. We agree about the sustainability value of dense urban development, but the notion that these require streetcars that average 6 mph, come not very often, and are highly prone to disruption, is not only untested and heavily contradicted by the urban redevelopment that’s happening all over the city.

We will never know how fast the Pearl would have developed if it had had good frequent bus service in many directions; my hunch is that it would look much as it does now. In any case, far more urban development is happening along Frequent bus lines (and lines that desperately need to be frequent, like MLK) than will ever happen in the Pearl.

 I understand that the mega-investors who are driving Pearl and South Waterfront feel entitled to elite transit services, but that’s a very small part of how a sustainable city is actually built.

You falsely accuse me of caring about “how many people are moved how far how fast”. That’s an old-fashioned definition of “mobility” and I’ve been against that metric for as long as I’ve been writing. See here for example: (For a while, I was trying to rescue a more nuanced definition of mobility, but I’ve given that up and now call what I care about “access.” “Abundant access” means “how much of my city is readily available to me via transit plus walking? That’s a measure of your freedom as an urban resident.

The real question is whether transit should be liberating to people who need or want to travel beyond their walking range, and whose lives feature hard deadlines and limited time. The US streetcar-stuck-in-traffic, as modeled by Portland, is uniquely bad at that. Robust frequent bus networks, protected from traffic congestion and upgraded to rail as capacity requires, are the way to actually maximize access for a fixed budget.

Every dollar we spend on slower-than-walking streetcars is also a dollar we spend on forcing people in other parts of Portland to buy cars, because although the live in places where transit could succeed, it’s not important to us to reward that development with liberating and sustainable access.

Finally, Chris, let’s distinguish between abundant access and abundant “choices”, as you are conflating two ideas that are mathematically opposite. The fact that you have a choice of two transit services to go to the same place is an inefficiency.

If you cared about getting downtown on a deadline, you’d be far better off with one service that ran twice as frequently.

 In my planning work, we routinely increase ridership — and the necessary conditions for urban redevelopment — by replacing two infrequent routes with one frequent one.

 For example, before 1982 someone living at SE 20th & Alder had a “choice” between walking to a mediocre infrequent bus on Stark or a mediocre infreqeunt bus on Belmont. In 1982 the Stark bus was removed and the Belmont bus was made twice as frequent.

 People can get where they’re going faster precisely because they no longer have a choices between two mediocrities. Instead, they have one choice that actually works.

This was originally posted HERE!


Wilson said...

I'm going to make a very simple statement about the streetcar: having tested it many times, it consistently takes longer than the bus EVEN when the transit tracker projects it will beat a bus, has no posted schedule (at least when viewing the transit tracker), and is typically later than the tracker projects. Some of these are clearly problems with the transit tracker (which used to work well but I have to imagine due to funding cuts is no longer properly maintained to adjust for traffic and routing issues). But the fundamental problem is the streetcar is simply slower than every alternative of bus+walking. Why take it when the bus is better every time (except when there's a problem with the bus, of course)? Why is the city spending so much money only to see the streetcar virtually abandoned in non-rush hours even as the buses running alongside it are reasonably occupied and clearly simply more efficient from a rider perspective?

I'm not saying I've tested every line, let me be clear. These tests are for the CL line in NE, SE, and NW as compared to the 17, 77, and 6.

Jason McHuff said...

Portland Streetcar uses its own tracking system from NextBus ( and TriMet just copies arrival data from it, so things work differently than with buses and MAX trains.