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.
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.
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
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.
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.