Portland Streetcar News
Streetcar's numbers surprise
and SCOTT LEARN
After six weeks of operation, the new Portland Streetcar is destroying
projected ridership numbers. And officials are still waiting for a morning
Rick Gustafson, the system's chief operations officer, said a "simple
analysis" in 1996 projected the system would average 2,700 passengers a
day; Gustafson expected 4,700 riders. But operators are reporting
between 6,000 and 8,000 a day, even before Portland State University
starts fall classes -- and with six stops not yet open.
"I guess we qualify as a circulator system," said Gustafson,. "We see a
reasonable but not significant amount of commuter travel."
Ridership isn't the only thing that makes the system appear to be a
success -- at least so far.
The trains are getting good reviews from many who work near the line or
use the system. Still, some have doubts. A few business people in the
Pearl District see the line as little more than a novelty or say it has hurt
them by taking away valuable parking spots.
Others, however, are reacting like Greg Hermens, co-owner of the Nob Hill
Bar and Grill at Northwest 23rd Avenue and Lovejoy Street.
"We're definitely seeing the people and we're getting a percentage of
them; it's been a boost for sure," he said. "We get bunches of 10 to 30
people getting off at the stop, especially on weekends. You get one or two
of those every 20 to 30 minutes and it kind of adds up."
Portland Streetcar is a 4.7-mile, L-shaped loop that opened July 20. The
tracks circle Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital in Northwest Portland, go
east to the Pearl District before turning south to downtown and Portland
State University. The $56.9 million system uses five streamlined
streetcars made by Skoda in the Czech Republic.
Still, a few weeks is not much of a trial for an all-new system, Gustafson
said, especially when every minute is spent worrying about basics. "We
hope to spend the next 12 months upgrading customer amenities."
Topping the wish list: Discarding the schedule.
That goes along with hopes to install a $200,000 satellite positioning
system on each car, and an electronic message board in each passenger
shelter. That board would tell waiting passengers how many minutes until
the next car, or if an accident has blocked the rails. "With that system in
place, we could supplement the service and not worry about messing up
the schedule," he said.
Gustafson also wants to add more cars, but that cannot happen until next
July, when the sixth and seventh streetcars are due. Originally they were
to be built with three cars for Tacoma, with delivery due Dec. 31, but there
was a problem with the order.
The route is served today by four new cars on weekdays, and on
weekends by three new cars and a Vintage Trolley. At least one of the
new cars is being serviced each day. With four streetcars, service
frequency is 15 minutes. The whole loop takes one hour.
On a typical midmorning, most streetcars have a few vacant seats. But
the passenger count starts to climb about 10 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. and
late-afternoon cars are often packed. Typically, most riders go about a
mile, some to work, some sightseeing.
As for what will happen when classes resume at PSU, Gustafson's
response is simple: "You tell me."
Also, there are glitches to be worked out.
The on-board ticket machines seem to confuse people and on a recent
trip, the dispenser was never touched. That was true even in far
northwestern point on the route, outside of Fareless Square.
Still, Gustafson -- who plans to install a dollar-changer and a new kind of
ticket machine on each car -- says higher-than-expected revenues have
amazed him, although he did not say how much money has been
Another problem is the night glare from the passenger compartment. "For
the operators, the glare ruins their night vision. It's like driving a car
the dome light on."
Also, during the initial weeks, the cars were plagued by air conditioners
that weren't handling the load, and software that was incorrectly signaling
that the doors were open.
One accident only One of the biggest expected troubles -- streetcars
sharing traffic lanes with cars -- hasn't been much of a problem. Only one
minor streetcar vs. car accident has been reported so far -- it happened
Friday. And concerns about parked cars blocking streetcars haven't
proven out, either. "I have received just one tow company order,"
Riders generally give the streetcar a thumbs up. Paul and Melody Bycroft
and their 16-year-old son, Ben, visited recently from Salem and hopped on
the streetcar to browse Northwest 23rd Avenue.
"I think it's a great idea," Melody Bycroft said. "We aren't spending our
time looking for parking spaces or trying to figure out the one-ways."
Rachel Bandock rides the car from her home near PSU to a job as clerk
at a Northwest 23rd Avenue bookstore.
"It's just a little bit smoother ride than the bus -- on the bus you start
stop a lot," Bandock said. "And at 5 o'clock (in the evening) it beats the
bus because you don't have to go through as many stop lights."
Not all businesses thrive But whether the system is a boon to business
may depend on location.
Businesses in the rapidly changing Pearl District lost parking spaces to
make way for the line, and they worry about getting priced out as building
owners conclude the streetcar has added value to their leases.
Robert Swortfiguer owns Doma, a specialty furniture and decorations store
just north of Powell's Books on Northwest 10th Avenue. A stop is just
down the street, but "we're not seeing any more sales, zero," he said.
"There are people looking around and taking the streetcar because it's still
sort of a novelty," he said.
Lance Howard, president of Captain's Nautical Supply, moved from a spot
on the line to a nearby site with a parking lot and more space. He was
facing a sharp rent increase as a lease expired.
"When you come in from Lake Oswego and you need a chart or a global
positioning system, you're not going to take the streetcar to get here,"
But others seem more excited. Paula Troyer, marketing manager for
BridgePort Brew Pub, said the streetcar "has been amazing for all
businesses along the line. . . . You can be sitting outdoors, hear the
trolley's little bell, and a few seconds later a new group of people will
At Jake's Grill, with a streetcar stop across the street, manager Jeff
Crowbarger said business has been up, but he hesitates to credit it all to
the streetcar because the convention business has been booming. Then
he confessed -- "I live downtown and I take the streetcar at least three
times a week. God, I love that little train."
You can reach Bill Stewart at 503-294-7670 or by e-mail at
You can reach Bill Stewart at 503-294-7670 or by e-mail at