DTO Streetcars and Shuttles at BPAC tonight

This is wicked late notice, I know. But I wanted to point out, for you streetcar fetishists out there, that tonight’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC) meeting may be of interest to you. I’m not on the BPAC, but their agendas always look really interesting, and members always seem to leave those meetings bubbling over with all sorts of fascinating new information.

This month’s agenda (PDF) looks especially cool. It includes an update on the Broadway Shuttle (wasn’t that supposed to start running in June?), and also a presentation/Q&A with Daniel Jacobson, author of the excellent blog 21st Century Urban Solutions, and also the Oakland Streetcar Plan, which you may have read about in Chip Johnson’s column like a month ago or today at Oakland North.

Streetcars. Eh.

I should probably say right from the beginning, just to be super clear — I’m not into streetcars. I’m not like, crazy anti-streetcar or anything. I’m just not into them. I feel like I have to say that, because so many people are so completely obsessed with streetcars that if you say anything negative about a streetcar ever or even dare to question whether or not a streetcar is appropriate for any given situation , they get all worked up about you’re a hater.

Wev. I’m not a hater. I’m just kind of like, eh when it comes to streetcars. I mean, I don’t really have a problem with them, but I just can’t get that excited about public transit that goes slower than walking. I mean, streetcars definitely have a role to play in some situations, and certainly their placemaking value shouldn’t be underestimated. Sometimes they are the best solution for an area, sometimes they’re not. If thinking that means I’m a hater, so be it. But I don’t think it does.

Portland. Eh.

The other thing that makes me suspicious of streetcars is that everyone’s example of how freaking amazing they are is Portland, where, if you listen to streetcar fanboys, the streetcar completely transformed downtown and is 100% responsible for the uber-cool revitalization of the formerly industrial Pearl District.

Again, wev. First off, the Pearl District is not that cool. I mean, whatever, it’s fine. People like it, it’s nice for tourists, there are some nice stores — sure, Oakland should have a neighborhood like that. Why not?

But I used to live in Portland, for a few years before the streetcar was built, and then for like a year (maybe two? I can’t remember, exactly) afterward. And so when I hear people attribute like, everything good that ever happened in Portland for the last twenty years or whatever to the streetcar, I can’t help but roll my eyes a little bit. Well actually, a lot. Because that narrative just does not match my experience at all. The Pearl District was already hip and well on its way to being the neighborhood it is now before the streetcar.

If there was anything that really made the area explode, it was the fact that there used to be a giant brewery separating the Pearl District from downtown, and then the brewery closed and they put lofts and a Whole Foods in its place. I mean, I have no doubts that the brewery blocks developers are happy and all they’ve got a streetcar right next to their buildings. But that was like, a fantasy location opening up, and there is no doubt in my mind that Portland would have gotten condos and a Whole Foods right there in the exact same spot with or without any streetcar.

I just have a really hard time buying all the economic impact claims people attribute to the Portland streetcar. There were so many different things all coming together in that place and at that time. I don’t think the streetcar had any negative impact, and I’m sure it did play some part in the revitalization and economic growth that happened there. But so did a lot of other things, and so when I hear people go on and on about the streetcar in Portland and how it’s like, the best thing to happen to Northwestern Oregon since the construction of the Bonneville Dam or whatever…well, it’s all just a little much. Anyway. Enough about V’s college years. I’m happy I live in Oakland now.

The Oakland Streetcar Plan

So in case you have missed it somehow, this guy, Daniel Jacobson, has put together a 140 page paper about why downtown Oakland needs a streetcar, which he calls The Oakland Streetcar Plan (PDF).

If you’re into this kind of stuff, you really should download it and take a look. 140 pages sounds like a lot, but it really isn’t a long read at all. The font is really big, and there are tons of pictures everywhere. If it weren’t all prettily laid out, it would be like less than half that long. If even that’s too much for you, you can get a solid overview of the concept by reading the much shorter Project Summary (PDF).

Basically, he proposes a streetcar route that would run from 2nd and Alice in Jack London Square up to MacArthur and Piedmont, with most of the line traveling along Broadway. He lays out projections for economic development impacts of the streetcar (new housing units, retail space, office space, jobs, and residents along the corridor), environmental impacts (reduced emissions), ridership, and costs for both building and operating. It’s thorough and well-researched.

Proposed Streetcar Route>

At the end, he’s got a little section about how the whole paper proves that a streetcar is exactly what the doctor ordered for the DTO and Oakland shouldn’t even bother with doing a feasibility study about it, because now with this plan, we’ve got everything we need to build ourselves a streetcar, and the next step for Oakland should be to start working on an EIR and lining up funding commitments.

So. That part is not realistic. This paper, combined with BART’s 2003 Jack London BART Feasibility Study, does not put Oakland in a position to get the shovels ready for a new streetcar. From my reading, the weakest part of the Oakland Streetcar Plan was the funding section, which relies really heavily on ACTIA and CBD contributions that I just really can’t see materializing anytime soon. And clearly funding feasibility (for both capital and operating expenditures) is a major factor in whether you should be planning major transportation investments.

So that little overconfident “Next Steps” section bothered me, and with that part fresh in my mind, I definitely got more than a little eye-rolly after that Chip Johnson column about the Oakland Streetcar Plan came out, watching my Facebook feed totally fill up with comments about how the fact that this undergraduate student made this great plan that we could implement tomorrow and putting it together cost like no money proves that the City is totally incompetent and can’t do anything right. Or dismissive comments about how the paper is so great, but the City won’t take it seriously because it wasn’t expensive enough to produce or whatever. Every time I would see one, I’d like sit there muttering to myself about funding sources and operations and unrealistic projections and Portland and go back and forth in my head about whether or not I should leave a comment about how it’s not actually a feasibility study that is appropriate for the City to use for a major transportation investment.

But I never left any of those comments, because what is the point of sitting around picking apart and quibbling about details of this interesting and well-done paper that this guy obviously spent like a ton of time on. So the Oakland Streetcar Plan isn’t fully baked. Who cares? I mean, you’ve got to judge things for what they are, not criticize them for failing to be something they’re not. And when you look at the Oakland Streetcar Plan for what it is — a well-researched and well-presented sales pitch for a downtown Oakland streetcar from a totally unapologetic streetcar cheerleader, it’s really good.

Am I sold? No. I mean, I think it’s obvious that we need something to connect Jack London Square and downtown. Maybe a streetcar is the thing to do that, maybe something else is. Maybe instead of having modern looking AC Transit buses for the Broadway Shuttle, we should get those ridiculous buses that are painted to look like a trolley car and say “Broadway Trolley” on them like they have in the main commercial area of the Houston suburb where my parents live, and that will do the trick. Who knows? The overall tone of the Oakland Streetcar Plan was just too boosterish for me to feel like other options had gotten a fair shake.

But I really love the idea of someone just having a vision of what Oakland needs and doing all this work to get other people on board with it. So if you’re a streetcar person, or if you’re like me and not totally sold, but interested in hearing what the guy has to say, check out BPAC tonight. The meeting starts at 5:30, and the agenda (PDF) has the Broadway Shuttle at 6:30 and the Streetcar presentation at 6:50. The meeting is at City Hall, Hearing Room 4. It’s on the second floor – just ask the guard when you go in and they’ll point you in the right direction.

I will not be attending, because I’m going to the Mayoral forum I mentioned yesterday. But if anyone does attend, I’d love to hear a little recap of the presentation and questions in the comments.

15 thoughts on “DTO Streetcars and Shuttles at BPAC tonight

  1. Ken O

    why not tear out that bit of freeway? that will do the trick. the dark, dank massive concrete freeway is the largest mental moat separating JLS from Downtown.

  2. Miss Lady

    What happens when the street car is taken over by a gunmen and holds people for ransom? What then? This will just block up traffic on Broadway and how will you get the people off? What then?

  3. OaklandMedic

    Ask Denver if light rail revitalized anything. Or San Jose. Totally unrealistic.

  4. Naomi Schiff

    I think we should pour any available transit money into making AC Transit more efficient, more comfortable, and more frequent. All this talk about transit corridors, but we are dividing up the pie into smaller and smaller chunks, and the whole pie is shrinking at the same time.

  5. matt

    Miss Crazy Lady the crazy train is now boarding on platform WTF.

    Anywho, I love this guys ambition. I’m also glad we’re talking about transportation solutions for Downtown and not the Faux Riots of 2009 II.

    My experience has been much like V’s. The streetcar system that built the East Bay did so because it was the only game in town. Today the story is different. When the downtown core is so congested we need a streetcar/BRT then there you go.

    I think we are really shooting ourselves in the foot by not having a tourist train or bus route to connect our prized districts and destinations like the lake, Chabot Science Center, the zoo, etc.

  6. V Smoothe

    Len –

    What’s that thing they say? “It’s a feature, not a bug” or something like that? That’s the whole thing with streetcars – they’re for people who don’t use public transit.

    The idea, of course, isn’t that people who don’t use public transit will use streetcars with any regularity. It’s that people who don’t use transit any other time will use streetcars recreationaly the one or two times a year they happen to be near them because streetcars are, you know, pretty.

    It’s a worldview where public transportation is more about placemaking and marketing than it is about actually moving people around.

  7. V Smoothe Post author

    Oh. Also. Miss Lady –

    That predicament you just described, there? That is exactly why I, at heart, prefer buses to streetcars. Because they would perform better in a hostage situation.

  8. Jenn

    OaklandMedic, the light rail and the street car are two different things. The light rail in Portland has actually helped the northern part of the town become revitalized. The street car is just, meh. I agree with V on that. Having lived in Portland from 1985 – 1989, then from 1994 – 2001 and still up the for business and pleasure on a regular basis, I have seen NW Portland, including the Pearl, change a lot. That changed happened before the street car. The Pearl has cute condos and all, but then you walk by the PF Changs and realize it is still a big town that is very white and suburban. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of nice things about Portland that we can draw from to inform what we could do in Oakland, but don’t place too much emphasis on its supposed utopian qualities.

  9. Chuck

    The Portland Streetcar is basically a toy (yes, yes, yes, I know, it connects with the Aerial Tram, but that rather speaks directly to that point). Totally valid contrast with MAX, though, which you can actually use to, you know, get somewhere.

    Simply put, we don’t need a Portland Streetcar in Oakland, we really ought to be striving for a better solution altogether. Working out some kind of bus lane system / signal priority on Broadway from the waterfront up to …? would be a better opportunity, and would benefit existing service that uses Broadway in addition to providing circulator service.

    We could even get a couple of those gimmicky bus/trolley things V alludes to. I used to live in a downtown district that used those for a circulator line. They’re terribly uncomfortable compared to a real bus, but it’s amazing how many people will, e.g., drive downtown to ride the Trolley around but wouldn’t be caught dead actually taking a bus someplace.

  10. BTO

    Whether or not you care for streetcars, the important point is the need for an easy transit link to connect Jack London Square to the rest of Oakland. I like personally like streetcars and could see them as a viable option for Oakland. Most of my exposure to them has been in San Francisco, where they do go a little faster than your average pedestrian and are more fun to ride than a bus. The only annoying thing is that there are always tourists asking for directions or what their stop is. Anyhow, the JLS shuttle, however, will start out with buses, so there’s no need to worry about the streetcar issue now.
    What I do think is interesting is that all the talk of Daniel Jacobson’s plan, which is rather here nor there, while the city’s efforts go unnoticed. The city of Oakland has been working on the shuttle plan for years and even helped Jacobson with is project. I think it’s great for an outsider to propose ideas and plans, but the city is the entity that is making the transit link a reality and yes, it is expensive for cities to craft plans because they have to pay a staff and give them benefits.
    In the meantime, I will look forward to one day taking BART to Oakland and then taking a shuttle down to JLS.

  11. Daniel Jacobson

    There’s a lot of things I could respond to in this post, but I want to focus on three pieces:

    First, your claims regarding the lack of connection between streetcars and economic development are based only on your own anecdotal opinions. Property owners paid for as much as 25% of construction costs in Portland, and 50% of costs in Seattle because they knew they’d get a big financial return on their investment. Developers in Portland and Seattle built at double the density along the streetcar with less parking at a pace faster than other areas because they knew that they’d be able to market and sell those units with little risk (to tenants such as Amazon.com in Seattle, which built a new headquarters right along the streetcar line). Of course streetcars did’t account for 100% of new developments, but the expected and achieved investment return of streetcar-oriented development is exactly why property owners, developers, and business owners are pushing for and paying for new systems in cities as diverse as Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Dallas, Cincinnati, Charlotte, and many more.

    Second, if you are unsatisfied with the funding section I challenge you to find a better one in an existing feasibility study. In my experience, you will not find a more comprehensive and detailed funding outlook (even the feasibility study for the Sacramento Streetcar—one of the best out there—does not go nearly as in depth). The funding section has been called one of the strongest portions of the plan for the reason that it clearly lays out a number of ways to fund construction and operations without sacrificing city funds or existing bus service. The scenarios are merely there to demonstrate different ways a streetcar could be funded, but any combination of those sources is possible.

    Lastly, I want to address your comment:

    “[Streetcars are part of] a worldview where public transportation is more about placemaking and marketing than it is about actually moving people around.”

    This statement is fundamentally flawed in that you are denying the critical value of public transportation in shaping future growth while reducing our emissions, oil consumption, water use, and healthcare costs. Viewing public transportation only as a means to get from point A to point B essentially perpetuates the status quo of inequitable and unsustainable suburban sprawl by deeming smart growth and transit-oriented development as irrelevant. Public transportation in the 21st Century absolutely must be about placemaking and marketing: otherwise we’ll wind up with an unsuccessful Upper Broadway retail district with 8,000 parking spaces, or instead just another retail center in Emeryville where Oaklanders drive to spend their money. It’s no coincidence that integrating transportation, land use, and development is one of the major priorities of the Obama Administration because it is the single best way to improve the livability and sustainability of America’s cities.

    I have always said the plan is an economic development and smart growth project first, and a transportation project second. I couldn’t care less about whether I’m riding a streetcar or a bus—the transportation differences between streetcars and buses are generally irrelevant. What I can promise you is that you will not find a developer in Oakland that will build TOD in Upper Broadway or Jack London Square based around a shuttle or a regular AC Transit bus. If you are serious about creating a successful Upper Broadway retail district to generate new jobs and sales tax revenue for the city, or if you are serious about drawing more residents to Oakland to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and oil consumption, then the Oakland Streetcar—and the transit-oriented development that would result from its placemaking and marketing abilities—is progress toward these goals.

  12. Karen Smulevitz

    Can’t vouch for how objective my fuzzy memory is, but I fondly recall the last days of streetcars in Chicago. Just before or after 1950, my mother took me on the Irving Park Streetcar to Six Corners to go shopping. Ladies wore hats and gloves and long wool coats and carried bags of old lightbulbs to turn in to Commonwealth Edison for credit. Burney Bros. Bakery gave you thirteen cookies in a dozen. I’m sure riding the Key System lingers in nostalgia for Oakland natives the same way. Somehow, we didn’t care at the time that buses were now covering the same routes; a generation later, we noticed the smog and congestion and missed schedules. Mass transit, or the modes available, seems to be forced upon the masses, and we are sold the corporate hype to embrace this or that new idea that will save our economy. Let’s take care of what we have, as Naomi stated; we need to maintain our transit infrastructure because it is wise financially. We can still imagine ideal systems that we cannot afford.