Streetcar systems in Portland, Seattle led to boost in development

Posted on November 28, 2018

A new study analyzed the intricate relationship between streetcar investment and development outcomes. The cities of Portland and Seattle are widely noted for their ever-increasing populations, their significant investments in streetcar transit, and the increased development activity around their streetcar lines.

Conducted by Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) researchers, Drs. Jeffrey Brown and Joel Mendez used a combination of statistical analysis of development activity and interviews with key streetcar stakeholders in their report, Examining the Development Effects of Modern-Era Streetcars: An Assessment of Portland and Seattle.

The more effective a streetcar is as a transportation service, and the more widely used it is by patrons, the more likely it is to have development effects.

Taking into consideration various developmental incentives, which aid in the stimulation of development activity within streetcar corridors, Brown and Mendez examined the development activity within the urban cores of Seattle and Portland, measuring the frequency of issued permits between streetcar service areas and similar areas not served by the streetcar.

The researchers’ key findings include:

  •     The initial Portland streetcar (west side of the Willamette River) line showed development activity to be heightened within streetcar corridors;
  •     The Portland streetcar corridor was issued roughly 45% more residential and commercial permits when compared to non-service areas that also received development incentives;
  •     Seattle streetcar corridors were issued an estimated 50% more commercial permits than non-service areas;
  •     Non-serviced streetcar areas in Seattle were issued, at minimum, 59% more residential permits than areas serviced by the streetcar.

A key lesson from the study is that the more effective a streetcar is as a transportation service, and the more widely used it is by patrons, the more likely it is to have development effects. A streetcar alone is not a guarantee of positive outcomes, as other factors such as a healthy real estate market, available land, and development supportive zoning and other policies also need to be present. More cities that are operating streetcars or contemplating making a streetcar investment would be best served by keeping these issues in mind when making their own decisions. The interviews highlight the continued importance of development as a rationale for streetcar investments.

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