Are Streetcars as Part of the Transit Network in Portland?

Curtis Ailes has long been a Portland Transport correspondent, living in Indianapolis. He and his family have recently moved to Portland and we’re happy to welcome him to the region and to Portland Transport!

Recently, a tectonic jolt rocked the transit blogosphere as The Atlantic Cities’ Eric Jaffe penned a column supporting the notion that streetcars in America are not part of the traditional transit network. Jaffe presented data suggesting that low ridership share of streetcar lines (as a percentage of total network ridership) supported this notion. Portland was not spared the brunt of this conclusion with Streetcar contributing a meager 3.5% (approximately) to the regional fixed route network. Certainly, when viewed through this frame, the thought makes a lot of sense.

But is this a suitable validation of the core question? Are streetcar systems “failing” as transit simply because they are not generating huge ridership numbers? Is the data being sliced the right way?

A look at Portland’s Streetcar ridership shows an increasing trend in boardings over time with no major dips. Analyzing the data a bit further, as of Q4 2013 daily weekday boardings are averaging over 13k (Q2 2014 has improved to 18k/day).  Contrast this with MAX which came in at 108k, and streetcar, if counted as part of the system, would count 10% of the system’s boardings.