Corporate advertising helps offset the cost of streetcar operation in Portland. Photo by Don Mathis.
Corporate advertising helps offset the cost of streetcar operation in Portland. Photo by Don Mathis.

Bridge City, Rip City, Stumptown, PDX, City of Roses – Portland, Oregon, has many identities, but it is also known for its transportation systems, including a modern streetcar.

Portland’s streetcars were designed to fit the scale and traffic patterns of the neighborhoods where they travel. All are owned and operated by the City of Portland and run in mixed traffic. Their size, about 8 feet by 66 feet, is about 10 inches narrower and one-third the length of Portland’s double car MAX train, the long-distance light rail. The first 10 streetcars were made by Skoda-Inekon in the Czech Republic, but current models are manufactured in Clackamas, Oregon.

Streetcar stops are sponsored by various companies.

“Don’t get confused if the sponsor is not the attraction you seek,” advised Catherine Coleman, a resident of Portland and mass transit rider 20 years. “Streetcar costs are offset by corporate sponsors. The Marriott Hotel is not at their sponsored stop.”

Businesses also can purchase advertisements on the body of the streetcar (see top photo).

There is a two-inch step to climb aboard the streetcar; a ramp extends to make it easier for wheelchairs. Although bicycles are permitted, I didn’t see any bicycles on the streetcar, probably because they can get around downtown faster on two wheels.

Portland Streetcar route map. Click here for a larger version.
Portland Streetcar route map. Click image or here for a larger version.

The North South Line connects the base of “Pill Hill” and the Waterfront on the south to the Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center and Linfield College on the north – about 50 blocks away. Portland is wise to base major hubs of services at the ends of the line; thousands of hospital staff and patients use Portland’s transportation system daily.

The Central Loop Line connects about 30 blocks on the west side of the Willamette River to 40 blocks on the east. The circle will be completed when the TriMet Bridge is finished next year. Such is the nature of streetcar lines; they are always being extended or remodeled.

Both streetcar lines are connected to four light rail routes called MAX. Around 100 bus lines complete the TriMet system. Buses downtown have dedicated lanes – personal and commercial vehicles are forbidden – making for a faster bus trip. A fare of $2.50 covers unlimited transfers for two hours, $5.00 for all day. A fare of $1.00 lets you ride the streetcar only.

Portland is one of the most bike-friendly cities in the nation and the TriMet is an extension of this. The future TriMet Bridge, which mirrors the shape of Mt. Hood just 60 miles away, will carry streetcars and bikes but not automobiles.

Practically every business downtown has its own bike rack. Every few blocks, bicyclists are reminded that a wheel in a streetcar rail groove will send them sprawling.

The most dangerous thing about Portland’s streetcars is the tripping hazard for the many bicycles. Photo by Don Mathis.
The most dangerous thing about Portland’s streetcars is the tripping hazard for the many bicycles. Photo by Don Mathis.

Several hundred bicycles are parked in their own lot by the Tram, each with its own plastic saddle cover to protect it from the sun in summer and rain the rest of the year.

The Tram is an aerial gondola, $4 for tourists and free for staff and patients, to Pill Hill – where both Oregon Health & Science University and the Veterans Administration Medical Center are located. A sky bridge over a 150-foot ravine connects the two hospitals. This 660-foot span is more than scenic; it can save patients a 30-minute ambulance ride. Portland has its transportation systems covered.

One thing Portland doesn’t have is a river bus line or ferry. Come to think of it – other than our river taxis, which cost more than traditional transit fare and are more for tourists than transit– San Antonio doesn’t really have one, either.

Portland streetcars travel on the same roads as vehicles, though some of the streetcar lines diverge “off-road” to travel through and stop in pedestrian plazas (see video below).

In my opinion, San Antonio’s streetcar plan need not include the closure of several lanes on Broadway Street. A rail line must connect destinations where there are already masses of people – local people, not just tourists, who live, work, and shop along the line. The concept, “If you build it, they will come,” is a Hollywood fantasy.

A San Antonio tourist rail line might connect the San Antonio International Airport to the Alamo with stops at the Quarry, several museums and the Alamodome. But a more realistic rail line here would connect UTSA, the Medical Center, USAA, Ft. Sam Houston, the College Corridor (University of the Incarnate Word, Trinity University and San Antonio College), and downtown businesses. That’s where you’ll find masses of people looking to travel around cheaply and effectively.

Portland streetcars began with the North South line in 2001 to service Good Samaritan Hospital and Portland State University; both densely populated areas. The Central Loop Line runs from PSU in the Southwest to the Oregon Museum of Science & Industry in the Southeast and services residential and industrial districts as well as a complex of stadiums – the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Moda Center, and Oregon Convention Center – in the Northeast.

Portland prides itself to be the first streetcar line to be funded with a Federal Small Starts Grant and the first to use modern vehicles made in the U.S. by an American company. Their two lines currently connect 14.7 miles with 76 stop locations. Arrival times are based on a GPS tracking system  – and yes, there is an app for that.

San Antonio has a long way to go to catch up.

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*Featured/top image: Corporate advertising helps offset the cost of streetcar operation in Portland. Photo by Don Mathis.

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a periodic series of stories looking at streetcars in other North American cities. Click here to read our July 12 story from Kansas City. Next up: Seattle.

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How Streetcars Fit into Transportation Safety

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Clearing the Air at Streetcar Town Hall Meeting

Downtown Tax Funding Kansas City Streetcars

Toronto: The City that Saved its Streetcar Tracks

Don Mathis

Don’s life revolves around the many poetry circles in San Antonio. His poems have been published in many anthologies and periodicals and broadcasted on local TV and national radio. In addition to poetry,...