Portland: Driving the streetcar renaissance

My parents fondly recall two features of Chicago life that I can only visit in my dreams: the corner bakery and the electric streetcar. Both were destroyed by the automobile.
The corner bakery was typically across the street, they tell me, from a corner grocery and a corner tavern. Anything you really needed–a klotchke, a quart of milk, a cold beer–was just steps from your front door in those good old days, not too arduous a journey even in Chicago, even in winter.
And if you needed to go further to get to work or to The Loop, a streetcar line was never more than a block or two away. So the story goes. While buses run on some of the old streetcar lines, in many neighborhoods bus lines are fewer and farther between now that many more people own their own cars.
Of course, you can buy kotchkes at any grocery story but no large corporate bakery, I’m assured, can match the klotchkes baked on the corner of your own block. And few city buses run as cleanly or as quietly–or with as much charm–as the electric streetcar.
Which is why, and here’s the good news, the streetcar is making a comeback. And Portland, Oregon is the Florence of its Renaissance.
I’m in Portland right now in part to test ride this pacific city’s swift and stylish streetcars. In 2001 Portland opened a streetcar line to link the downtown with the city’s northwest neighborhoods and southwest waterfront. The streetcars run, as in days of yore, mingled with auto traffic on city streets with electric lines strung overhead.
Next year the city plans to lay rails for a second streetcar line that will embrace the city’s eastern buroughs.
Portland also has a light-rail system, the Metropolitan Area Express (MAX), that connects the city to suburbs, to the airport, and through a deep tunnel to attractions in Washington Park like the Oregon Zoo, Portland Japanese Garden and International Rose Test Garden. MAX trains can fly past traffic in their own lanes, but they’re otherwise not much different from streetcars. They also run on electric lines, but they’re roomier, with space reserved on each car for bicycle parking (are you listening Chicago?).
MAX trains run on three routes, named, like Chicago’s El lines, for colors. Next week, the city will open a fourth, the Green Line.
Portland has fought traffic congestion downtown by allowing passengers within a designated downtown area to board for free. The area, Portland’s version of The Loop, is called Fareless Square (are you listening, Chicago?), but as far as I can tell, the whole system runs on honor. We’ve purchased tickets for every ride but no one has ever asked to see them. (That might not work as well in Chicago.)
The Infrastucturalist has a map of streetcar projects under development nationwide that have been inspired in part by Portland’s example. With so much attention focused on electric cars and high-speed rail, let’s not forget the opportunity to bring back America’s streetcars, which were clean and green out of simple necessity and long before it was cool.
Some parts of the good old days really were good. Give us alternatives to automobiles, and then we can talk about reviving those corner bakeries and their unrivaled klotchkes.

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