Portland – My Downtown Streetcar Experience

One of the reasons I wanted to go to Portland is their transit system.  Portland many years back decided to build their system using light rail technology.  We, in Vancouver, BC, have never really seen light rail technology unless we’ve travelled to neighbouring Alberta.  However, we tend to be SkyTrain snobs here in Vancouver.  We’re so used to SkyTrain in Lotus Land. I think it’s good for us to see what a similar sized city in this part of the world is doing differently.
Portland Downtown Streetcar to South Waterfront

Portland Downtown Streetcar to South Waterfront

My first experience with transit in Portland was their new Downtown Streetcar service.  Although these cars are not fast or high-capacity in any respect, they are definitely a joy to ride in.  The cars are longer than a city bus, but a lot narrower than most transit vehicles.  As far as I know, there are 10 cars in Portland’s streetcar fleet.  [Correct me if I’m wrong]  There is a single antenna that runs up to the electric wire above and has two articulations that allows the streetcar to take tight turns.  These particular cars are made by Skoda of the Czech Republic.  I might never buy a Skoda automobile, but I really like these trams.

The Portland Streetcar runs in traffic for most of its route.  The northbound cars run up 1 one-way street while the southbound cars run down a different one-way street just a block away.  It doesn’t interfere with automobile traffic, as far as I can tell.  The stops are on the sidewalk and you load onto the streetcar directly from the sidewalk.  There is no need to walk into the centre of the road.

Skoda namplate in streetcar stairwell

Skoda namplate in streetcar stairwell

One of the first things you notice as you board the streetcar is the large fare machine in the middle of the streetcar.  It gives you the options for paying for the basic fares – adult or child – as well as the option to buy your TriMet day pass to use on the whole transit system.  The box is rather large and clunky looking and takes up significant space in the middle of the car.  Most of the time, people do not need to use the machine since the majority of the streetcar route runs through Downtown Portland’s Fareless Square.  So I didn’t see anyone purchase a ticket while I was on the car.  The other thing that the cars have are ticket validators at either end of the car.  I guess if you bought a book of tickets, you could validate your ticket to prove that you had paid for ride for the next 90 minutes or so.

Fare machine on the Portland Streetcar

Fare machine on the Portland Streetcar

Ticket Validator

Ticket Validator

My only other experience with streetcars has been Toronto’s extensive streetcar system.  I can say for sure that Portland’s streetcars are way cleaner and way newer.  The width seems about the same, but the length is comparable to the long Queen St Streetcars in TO.  These streetcars are also double-ended.  So either end can be the front of the car.  The ride was also a lot more comfortable and a lot quieter.  I didn’t notice the typical steel on steel screech when rounding the corners in this vehicle.  It was a very smooth ride, smooth enough to play with an iPod Touch with no consternation.  Also, it was smooth enough for me to take pictures without much shake.

Portland Streetcar rounding the corner in South Waterfront neighbourhood

Portland Streetcar rounding the corner in South Waterfront neighbourhood

Another thing I noticed is the amount of development and redevelopment going on around the streetcar.  The South Waterfront seems to be reclaimed brownfield industrial sites that are now highrises.  So a whole new neighbourhood is being built around the streetcar in the south.  In the north, there is funky Pearl District that is home to many 6 storey lowrises.  It seems to be “the place” to live if real estate prices are any indication.  Apartments were easily US$800,000.  It made me think of Yaletown in Vancouver.

South Waterfront construction

South Waterfront construction

There is one issue that I had with the streetcar, though.  The streetcars run only every 15 minutes in the evening.  In the big picture of transit in North America, that would be considered frequent service.  However, 15 minutes is not a big draw for people who do not usually use transit nor do I like waiting close to 15 minutes for the next car.

Streetcar leaving us behind after going out of service

Streetcar leaving us behind after going out of service

The one evening we took the streetcar to NW 23rd.  We got boot off because that particular car was going back to the garage.  Fortunately, the signboard at the stop told us that the next streetcar would come in 13 minutes.  I was not about to sit in a streetcar stop in an unknown neighbourhood in the evening.  So we walked along the streetcar route until we found a restaurant to eat in.  We were starving by this point.  Did I mention that a 15 minute frequency is not frequent enough?

I think the Portland Streetcar experience overall was a positive one.  If we could emulate something similar in Vancouver with the Olympic Streetcar Demonstration Project, then hopefully, more people will be exposed to the great streetcar experience.  Now, I didn’t experience the rush hour streetcar, but the midday and evening streetcar rides were both comfortable and pleasurable.  We’ll see how Vancouver moves forward with their streetcar plans.  The streetcar will definitely add to the Vancouver transit experience. So let’s hope the Olympic Demo moves from Demo to reality.

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