quote of the week: the portlandia streetcar


"I think frequency is an overrated thing. Let's say there's a 20-minute [wait].  You can look on your phone, wait inside and have a beer."

— Portland Streetcar Citizens Committee member
Peter Finley Fry, justifying the 18-minute frequency
of the Portland Streetcar's new eastside loop,
quoted last August in Willamette Week.

Note that Mr Fry is referring to a very slow service (the original segment of the Portland Streetcar is now scheduled at around 6 miles/hr) which is useful only for relatively short trips around the greater downtown area.

33 Responses to quote of the week: the portlandia streetcar

  1. Sjdorst February 14, 2013 at 8:27 am #

    I would not have appreciated the complete stupidity of this statement had I not taken your class last week!
    Thanks again,

  2. William February 14, 2013 at 8:29 am #

    I’m glad Mr. Fry has such a forgiving employer, spouse, extended family, dining companions, clients…

  3. John Perry February 14, 2013 at 8:47 am #

    I guess you can consider frequency an overrated thing if you happen to be blessed with a stop that has digital readouts that tell you when the next vehicle is coming. And you happen to be in a place where there’s a nice bar where you can wait. And you’re willing to pay for the privilege of hanging out inside there. Oh, and you’re never, ever in a hurry.

  4. Chris Smith February 14, 2013 at 9:04 am #

    Argh… With friends like this…

  5. Ben February 14, 2013 at 9:10 am #

    I’m of the opinion that streetcars are largely useless unless you live somewhere like Boston where there’s lots of snow and ice impeding your ability to walk. Otherwise, it’s often much faster to walk or ride a bike (especially in Portland… I only took the streetcar once for a couple blocks just to try it out… it was SO slow).
    I think in the case of streetcars that don’t average above 10mph the money is better spent on improved Class 1 bike paths. Even old folks can maintain 10mph on a bike in relatively flat terrain like most of Portland is (SF is a different story).

  6. Robert Wightman February 14, 2013 at 9:44 am #

    One problem with the US political structure is that there are all sorts of capital grants to build things but very few grants to operate or maintain them. Anyone who would spend over a $100 million for a 3.3 mile system that runs every 18 minutes needs a reality check.
    How can they only run at an average speed of 6 mph? I am sure that the horse cars on the Isle of Mann can beat that. Systems like this one give street cars a bad rap as over priced and too slow. Street cars are very good at moving large volumes of people in dense urban areas as they do in Toronto and Melbourne. To build them to operate an 18 minute headway at 6 mph is a colossal waste of money. This is more like an amusement park ride that a viable transit system.
    Mr. Fry should be force to spend an entire day riding one stop, then get off and wait for the next car, ride it one stop and keep repeating this for 12 hours. Then he can see what a minor wait it is.
    Why not run it on a 20 minute headway as this would give a clock face schedule where the car would be at my stop at the 08, 28 and 48 minutes after each hour rather than at 6:08, 6:26, 6:44, 7:02, 7:20 etc. Try memorizing that schedule.

  7. Jeffrey Bridgman February 14, 2013 at 9:51 am #

    Oh dear…
    Works great if you don’t have a schedule or ever *need* to be anywhere… not useful if you just need to get from A -> B in the minimal amount of waste to your life. Sure, a beer is nice, but do you wants to do that every time you need to get somewhere?

  8. zefwagner February 14, 2013 at 11:00 am #

    Unfortunately, this attitude is all too common in Portland. The streetcar is treated as a sort of “moving sidewalk” that you catch when it happens to come by. Otherwise, you just walk. Unfortunately, it is designed as an integral part of the transit system (one of the few transit lines between downtown and NW Portland), so frequency and speed would actually be very useful. The new Eastside line is even worse, given that there are many other options for most trips that it serves.

  9. Tom West February 14, 2013 at 12:47 pm #

    zefwagner: “The streetcar is treated as a sort of ‘moving sidewalk'”
    Wouldn’t an actual moving sidewalk be better? It would have about the same average speed, but zero headway. They cost about $10 million per km, so are cheaper.

  10. Alon Levy February 14, 2013 at 3:06 pm #

    …and this is why I keep saying the effect of smartphones on transit is vastly overrated.

  11. BBnet3000 February 14, 2013 at 3:50 pm #

    If they could keep to a schedule they could post the schedule at the stops as NYC Transit does for buses.
    Its a hell of a lot better for those of us who dont want to pay for a data plan.
    20 minute frequency is still bunk for anything but a commuter express or airport bus though.

  12. Richard February 14, 2013 at 4:27 pm #

    Saying it is useful for short trips is even stretching the meaning of useful. With the low frequency and speed plus the likelihood of having to walk to and from stops, there would be very few instances that it would be any faster than walking.
    As far as weather protection goes, it would have likely been cheaper to invest in awnings or other rain protection. Building owners could pitch in making government money go further.
    Rail is great for longer distance trips with few stops. It can be much faster than rubber tired vehicles. Using it for slow trips with lots of stops in a shared environment makes really no sense at all.

  13. Zoltán February 14, 2013 at 6:21 pm #

    “I’m glad Mr. Fry has such a forgiving employer, spouse, extended family, dining companions, clients…”
    …who don’t mind him being late, but also a little drunk.
    In the real world, when the bus at the end of my street was cut from every ten minutes to every twenty, I started walking 500 metres to and from a bus route that comes every five.

  14. Zoltán February 14, 2013 at 6:38 pm #

    Robert Wightman
    “Why not run it on a 20 minute headway as this would give a clock face schedule”
    I’m thinking the same. When it’s cold or wet, I just remember that the aforementioned bus at the end of the street comes at xx11, xx31, xx51.
    On the Portland Streetcar, it has the potential to work even better. On weekday daytimes and weekends, the 6-MLK bus operates about every 20 minutes, and could be tweaked a bit to be properly clockface. Then with schedule oordination, trips on the MLK/Grand couplet, and from points on MLK going south then west to downtown, are served every ten minutes with either a train or bus.
    So, for example, a stop could be served at:
    xx00 (PS), xx10 (6), xx20 (PS), xx30 (6), xx40 (PS), xx50 (6).
    That’s unless one assumes that people are so enamoured with rail that they won’t just board the first vehicle that comes and gets them near enough to their destination. When people actually do that, it will be awfully embarrassing for the people that pushed the streetcar.

  15. Joseph E February 14, 2013 at 7:28 pm #

    “the 6-MLK bus operates about every 20 minutes, and could be tweaked a bit to be properly clockface”.
    Well, if we really wanted better transportation rather than a symbolic “rail” project, running the 6 every 10 minutes would be better than a 6 every 20 and a streetcar every 20. The 6 will actually get you all the way across the city.
    Converting the 6 to light rail (with separate right-of-way, widely-spaced stations, level boarding, POP, etc) would have been worthwhile. The eastside streetcar loop is not.

  16. Leif February 14, 2013 at 9:29 pm #

    Maybe the beer should just be served on the streetcar itself. THAT might actually make people favor the streetcar over the bus.

  17. Andre Lot February 14, 2013 at 9:35 pm #

    This kind of condescending attitude puts a lot of people from using transit and reflects a mindset that your time or comfort is not valuable.
    It is not limited to this Peter Fry though. Sometimes I come across transit managers trying to downplay deficiencies or shortcomings of their systems’ operations with similar attitudes.
    I’ve even come across someone from Australia saying that graffiti on trains was low priority on maintenance and that it should also not bother users that much because it gives certain youths a vent for their frustrations.

  18. Edward Re February 15, 2013 at 6:17 am #

    My local bus runs each 20 minutes, unless they’re on strike. Often it’s so crowded that it doesn’t actually stop to pick people up, so you can be screwed for up to 40 minutes. When its raining, the passing cars spray waiting passengers with water from the gutter. I commute to work by bike.
    This is the trouble of one eejut speaking on behalf of the majority when they clearly have no idea.

  19. CityBeautiful21 February 15, 2013 at 9:20 am #

    Part of the challenge with streetcars in America is that people conflate the vehicle (usually, a modern streetcar from Skoda) with the ROW decisions that affect speed. Yes, streetcars have limited top speeds compared to heavy rail or LRT. However, there’s nothing about the physics of streetcars that make it impossible to design a dedicated-lane in between intersections that crosses mixed traffic streets as long as there’s the political will to take road space. It’s the same challenge as getting “BRT” up to speed in downtowns everywhere.
    You need a community to decide that fast transit (which Jarrett points out saves operating costs) is more important than not angering auto owners or removing some parking. Then we can have fast streetcars.

  20. Tim Dow February 15, 2013 at 10:07 am #

    When I lived in Munich I had many vehicle choices. For one trip to a friend’s house, I could choose subway, streetcar or bus with the same start and end points. For every 10 trips I ended up using the subway 9 times (because it seemed like I was usually short on time) and the streetcar once (when I wanted to look out the windows at the people or shops and had extra time). I never took the bus due to the 20 minute headway and no real time information on when the next bus would come.

  21. Miles Bader February 15, 2013 at 3:09 pm #


    I’m of the opinion that streetcars are largely useless unless you live somewhere like Boston where there’s lots of snow and ice impeding your ability to walk. Otherwise, it’s often much faster to walk or ride a bike

    I don’t think that’s necessarily the case though… I can’t say I’ve had that much experience on streetcars, but e.g. in Hiroshima, the streetcar seems a lot faster faster than walking the same route (and of course has different tradeoffs than biking, e.g., no need to worry about what to do with your bike). The Green Line in Boston didn’t seem too bad either (perception: a bit pokey and annoying to wait for outdoors, but faster than walking).
    The problem in Portland always seemed to be that they had tons of enthusiasm and vague ideas of what’s “good,” but pretty much zero clue about the details or how to educate themselves.
    Unfortunately that combination—enthusiasm without knowledge or much will to learn—seems to have resulted in a lot of money being spent on poorly designed systems….

  22. Rico February 15, 2013 at 3:44 pm #

    While not a huge street car fan I enjoy taking trams when visiting Europe. Dedicated lanes and signal priority make a huge difference. Why invest all that money on a street car without following through on real improvements? Seems to me spending millions without any transportion improvement is a waste (the Eastside loop example has a projected ridership of 4,000 per day, easily handled by a bus, imagine that instead of a streetcar the same route got a dedicated bus lane, stations with off board payment, all door boarding and signal priority…what would be the better outcome?)

  23. Eric February 17, 2013 at 12:14 am #

    Pretty arrogant that he assumes all transit riders own smartphones and spend their time sipping beer. Perhaps this explains why frequent-network bus routes in other parts of Portland had to be cut to provide funding for the streetcar…

  24. Peter Laws February 17, 2013 at 1:52 pm #

    The PS map cleverly has no scale, but with an 18-minute headway (which, from looking at the schedule, is not actually true at many times of the day), wouldn’t it be faster to walk to your destination in many cases? 18 minutes at 3 mph is nearly a mile – why even wait?

  25. anonymouse February 18, 2013 at 5:18 am #

    @CityBeautiful21 The problem is that the vehicles themselves also aren’t that great. The streetcars in Portland get all the way up to 30 mph on the dedicated ROW sections (where 45 is a typical top speed for European streetcars), and their speed acceleration leaves much to be desired even if there’s no traffic in the way, so that they’re actually slower than buses. So, a competently designed streetcar system can work well, but unfortunately, Portland does not have such a system, and even more unfortunately, they seem to be setting the example for the rest of the US.

  26. francis February 18, 2013 at 2:04 pm #

    “In the real world,…”
    Folks, this is Portland we’re talking about here!
    But a real question here, do people from different cities place different values on speed, frequency, etc?

  27. Carl February 19, 2013 at 10:10 am #

    Portland has really screwy headways on all their rail service. I agree that a clockface schedule that one can remember would be far superior to 17 or 18 minute frequencies, which is what I think they operate all around the system.

  28. Alon Levy February 19, 2013 at 8:23 pm #

    Francis: for what it’s worth, different cities’ ridership models use different transfer penalties.

  29. Zoltán February 20, 2013 at 9:16 am #

    Joseph E,
    No disagreement. No streetcar and the 6-MLK running every ten minutes in improved ROW would be vastly preferable. Any service such as I suggested are merely limiting the damage that Portland’s investment priorities have done to the Eastside bus grid.

  30. Pete Brown March 1, 2013 at 11:42 am #

    Regarding European streetcar speeds, the following footage is of Amsterdam Line 16 in its entirety:

  31. cool math games July 22, 2017 at 12:08 am #

    Perhaps this explains why frequent-network bus routes in other parts of Portland had to be cut to provide funding for the streetcar… “In the real world,…”

  32. Run 3 November 9, 2017 at 8:31 am #

    Francis: for what it’s worth, different cities’ ridership models use different transfer penalties.

  33. slither io December 14, 2017 at 6:52 pm #

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