Reflections on the Streetcar of Portland

Riding for a conference from the Portland airport to Portland State University on Light Rail Transit (LRT) and then streetcar gave me time to reflect on the Elysian Fields of transportation engineering, the Nirvana of networks and nexi.

Portland, Oregon is one of the major battlegrounds in the mode wars (car vs. transit and the internecine rail vs. bus). It has since the 1980s been held up by planners as the exemplar American city that does almost everything right. The foremost thing they do right in the view of the planning establishment is promoting LRT and bicycling.

The fascination with rail transit in particular (especially as compared with bus) was something I have never quite grokked. As a rational observer with formal training in transportation, I have had a hard time understanding the emotional relationship people have with rail. Why do people like LRT more than bus? Is it simply how we operate them, or that it is modern capital, or is there a psychological benefit associated with deterministic tracks vs. widely diverging roads? There are lots of theories on the matter, I will identify a few below.

1. Ride quality. The quality of the ride on an LRT is smoother and less herky-jerky than a bus, and passengers have a nicer facility.

2. Navigability. It is hard to navigate current US bus systems, while the fewer number of rail lines are fairly easy to figure out. Because trains cannot steer, they cannot get lost the way a bus can.

3. Speed. Trains are faster than local buses, especially if they have their own right of way and few stations.

4. Permanence. I can make a permanent investment decision based on the location of rail lines, as the transit system is committed to this line, while a bus line may be temporary.

5. Nostalgia. People who like LRT recall (or wish they could recall) the immediately post-World War II America when streetcars were at a maximum. 1946 was a magical period in US history, a boom following the long depression, when streetcar networks if not at a maximum were really close. (Coupled with a conspiracy theory about their removal)

6. Sexuality. This is part of the theory presented by Jonathan Richmond’s in his book Transport of Delight and earlier paper The Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los Angeles. The image of the train entering the tunnel clearly evokes a primal response.

There are logical rejoinders for the first four (though not the nostalgia or sexuality argument I suppose), the most obvious is that if you spent the kind of money you are spending on rail on buses instead, and operated them better, buses would be quite nice. Navigability could be improved with a bit of thought (and trains can divert), while permanence of the last generation of streetcars (1887-1954) clearly was temporary.

The theory I have now adopted comes from my recent trip from Minneapolis to Portland accessing the airport at both ends via LRT, and then riding the Portland streetcar almost full circle. Rail transit forms an urban superstructure. Guideway transit, esp. LRT makes the city more like a single structure, and makes everything seem closer. The LRT vehicle is continuously running, and if activities are along the path of the vehicle, everything seems quite coordinated. In a way by organizing activities linearly (or multi-linearly), it simplifies the city. Hopping on a train is much like getting on an elevator.

LRT, like walking indoors, keeps you enveloped within civilization, while walking, biking, or driving is a frontier experience, you alone in the wilderness. (And bus falls in-between). We can posit that distances within buildings seem shorter than distances between buildings (Some literature along the notions of this idea exist, see Tversky, but it is not directly on point). Distances connected by the urban superstructure will likely feel closer than those which are not so connected. Walking through a modern airport, or the Minneapolis Skyway, will tell you enveloped distances can be quite large, but still not feel as large as leaving one building into nature for another.

Preferences for civilization or frontier-crossing (or degree of each) vary across individuals. Driving of course places you in a machine, but you, not civilization, are operating the machine, so just as driving is freedom, not everyone wants that freedom to drive, they may prefer freedom from driving. The extent to which you believe in the importance of community over individuals (or vice versa) will affect your perception of the issue.

( LRT may also be more popular than traditional underground subway (Metro) systems. People of course like being able to walk out the door and step onto a train more than having to descend through the gates of hell, Metro to get to the underground subterranean system. There are many reasons, not least of which is the extra time and energy required to so descend. The advantages in principle are faster point to point travel time, but that depends on the access cost vs. the in-motion speed. )

Transit invokes further passions because of the positive feedback loop between ridership, revenue, and route frequency, especially where transit is weak as in much of the US. My riding transit creates a positive externality for you (more riders, shorter headways, and more routes), so of course if you ride transit, you want to impose your preference on me. It is only selfishly rational. Further cars use scarce roadspace. While similar feedback loops may exist on the highway side (more drivers means more closely spaced roads), congestion mitigates that and the network is largely built out, so drivers do not feel the same need to impose their modal preference on the transit riding minority. Finally, drivers may benefit in the short term if other drivers take transit. (Where transit is already congested and frequent, additional riders produce few positive externalities as diminishing returns set in).

4 thoughts on “Reflections on the Streetcar of Portland”

  1. One more advantage of LRT/subway system compared with buses is that it’s often much easier to transfer from one line from another, while regarding the bus system, it’s often difficult (or calls for extra effort) to figure out the right bus stop or the direction the bus goes.
    So in big cities like NYC, Beijing, Shanghai and Boston, I prefer to use subways/LRT whenever possible.

  2. LRT is also substantially quieter (and less polluting) than your typical bus/car/internal-combustion-propelled vehicle. That matters not just for the riders but also to every other person walking along the adjacent city streets. Little things like that matter when it comes to creating an enticing urban streetscape — and I think people very much associate lively streets with light rail.

  3. There is something very comforting about being inside a self-contained system. The move toward schematic London Underground-style maps by nearly every US rail transit system (the NYC subway being the stubborn exception), and an increasing number of bus operators, reflects this.

  4. The comforts associated with LRT are, from my perspective in Los Angeles, an operations problem–a sign we’re not getting the ridership we should in such a large, high-population and comparatively high-density region. When I get on and I have my choice of seats…it’s a not the lovely news for sustainability that many advocates think it is, at least not when you really think about it. It’s a conundrum. The more people take it (yay!) the less comfortable it becomes (boo), the more difficult it is to get riders. These types of discussion tend to remind me of what a fantasyland American transit is. In Manila or Mexico City or Delhi (or London even), there isn’t spare, comfortable capacity on any system–the sidewalks are congested, the trains are congested, the streets are congested…ditto the buses…and it’s hard to get a cab.
    I really have never understood why people frame LRT and bus service like they are substitutes. I have never viewed them as such. I think you can seriously undermine a good LRT system with lousy bus support (poor distributor support for the line haul) and you can undermine a good bus system with a poor line-haul system (LRT, subway, or expressway bus).

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