Transportation Deployment Casebook/2021/Oregon Streetcar

Introducing the streetcar Edit

The streetcar is a passenger carrying rail vehicle that operates on steel tracks, most commonly drawing electric power from a power grid on overhead cables. This electricity is passed from the cables through a “trolley pole” sliding along the overhead electricity source and powering the electric motor. Initially beginning as small four-wheeled carriages, the growing demand shifted design to a heavier eight-wheeled vehicle on many networks. [1]

While streetcars are still seen in many cities throughout the world, streetcars were most popular in the US from the late 1890s to the 1920s, as they grew with the ability to harness electricity and became the definitive mode of transport choice. This new technology provided many opportunities such as the ability to bring cheaper, cleaner and more efficient transport to city-dwellers. This introduction revolutionised the design of cities, enabling commuters to efficiently move in an unprecedented way. The growing middle class was now able to live in the more tranquil, urban outskirts while still working in the centre.

Streetcars have different characteristics to other rapid transit rail such as urban trains and to a lesser extent, light rail. They generally have smaller vehicles, on-street routes and relatively under-developed stations. [2] A typical early 1900s US streetcar would feature a downtown loop or shuttle route, catering to shoppers and other trips outside of commuting. The stops would rarely include a raised platform and feature only signage indicating a stop. [3]. This smaller nature was not only faster than previous modes but also far more affordable for growing cities than heavy set rail.

Before the streetcar Edit

Omnibuses Edit

Initially towns centred around walking and horses but as urban environments in the US grew outwards, they were forced to adapt and implement new public transport infrastructure for people travelling into the city centre. This brought about the beginning of the omnibus, a horse-drawn four-wheel carriage. The birth of this mode was revolutionary for public transport, pioneering the notion of public transport travelling on a predetermined route and schedule.

This mode of transport had a major advantage at its inception. As a significant step up from walking and private horses, it was the first mode that provided a reliable and predictable network of transport. This fuelled the growth of industrial centres, creating a more affordable transport option for workers. It did unfortunately have its downsides, as while the wooden carriages and horses were relatively inexpensive, the wooden wheels on bumpy roads made it uncomfortable to travel. With the introduction of rail, the omnibus failed to maintain an advantage. [4]

Horsecar Edit

By the 1860s, horse drawn omnibuses naturally shifted onto rails to begin the era of the horsecar. This efficiency of rail on steel wheels meant that not only that the horsecars would move faster and need less rest, with two horses able to carry a car of up to 20 people. Unfortunately, while horse powered transport was becoming more efficient there was still the issue of the horses themselves. The need to feed and house them was a nuisance but most notably in the public eye was the issue of health. Initially manure levels were kept in check as there was a demand for fertilizer but as more supply built up on the streets, cities became unbearable. [5]

Another major factor of the growing public desire to move away from horse-based transport was “The great Epizootic of 1872.” The over-reliance on horses was laid bare as the outbreak of equine influenza ground industry to a halt throughout North America. Beginning in September 1872 near Toronto, the US failed to get the “Canadian horse disease” under control and by early 1873 it had spread to West Coast cities, killing an estimated 2 percent of all horses and debilitating entire cities. This turned public sentiment against horse reliance. [6]

Cablecar Edit

Before the introduction of a widespread electricity network that enabled the dawn of the streetcar era, the cablecar was touted as a horse free alternative. Functioned by means of an underground pulley system that was usually powered by steam. However, it never gained full traction across several US cities due the need to dig and maintain a trench, typically low speeds and the need for the pulley to run along a straight route. This mode could climb hills, so was most suited to cities with strong undulations such as San Francisco and Seattle. [7] In this era Portland had two cable lines, the King’s Heights Line briefly in 1892 and the Portland Heights Line from 1890 until it was eventually fully electrified in 1904. [8]

Electric grids Edit

As Thomas Edison’s electric distribution company went into operation, the world of mass transit was opened up thanks to electric power. While initially focusing on light as the main destination for electricity, the ability to install overhead electrified wires paved the way for electrified streetcars. Edison’s system of large power generators (also known as dynamos), voltage regulators and copper wires were installed in the streets connecting the plant to various buildings and was a vital building block in bringing forward the new age of the street car. [9]

The invention of the streetcar Edit

The beginning of the modern day electric streetcar was brought about by Frank Julian Sprague, who has been considered the “father of electric traction,” after his work in developing electric motors enabled him to make vital breakthroughs horizontally with electric railways and vertically with early electric elevators. While working in the US Navy, Sprague met E.H.. Johnson, an associate of Edison, who was impressed with his ideas. Sprague was enticed by Edison to resign from the Navy and join, from there he learned about his electrical distribution system. [10] [11]

Sprague's DC electric motor [12]

Looking to move into power instead of Edison’s focus on light, Sprague formed the Sprague Electric Railway & Motor Company, with the aim to adapt DC current into a new streetcar technology. After forming this company, Sprague achieved the major breakthrough of an electrical motor that was able to maintain a constant speed under different loads. While this motor was effective, selling 250 motors in two years, a shift in initial design was needed to feature vital aspects such as economy and braking. This lead to the predominant technology of the time, as he adapted the initial motor to enable returning power to the main supply. The electric motor functions by electricity running parallel to a horseshoe magnet wrapping around an armature circuit, rotating the armature and driving the wheel.[11] [12]

After seventy four attempts across North America and Europe Sprague successfully trialled his electric streetcar in Richmond, Virginia in 1888. Before this trial, a cynical public had considered the mode of transport as dangerous and unreliable so this moment marked a turning point in the mode’s development. Within two years of installation in Richmond, 110 electric railroads using Sprague’s invention were built or being built in the US and overseas. The rapid uptake in demand meant a need for larger cars with greater carrying capacity so cities quickly switched from a small four-wheel car to a larger eight-wheel. [13]

Early Market Development Edit

Growing private enterprise Edit

As one of the largest growth industries of its time, a growing need for investment was met by private enterprise instead of public funding. Oregon’s first electric street railway line opened in November 1889 between East Portland and Albina. This was run by the Willamette Bridge Railway Company which became the City & Suburban Railway company in September 1891. This private company, along with the Portland Railway Co. and East Side Railway Co. (providing inter-urban services) were the three major electric streetcar service providers within the state by 1894. [14]

Access to the city centre for employment and recreation Edit

The initial market niches involved giving people greater access to downtown areas. While there had already been access to the city centre for employment in both retail and industry, the growing streetcar network provided a functional enhancement as the increased efficiency of access enabled more people to shop and work in the city. The cost efficiency of switching to electric streetcars from horse-drawn cars was roughly 20 per cent, leading to a rapid electrification of already existing horse powered lines. [15]

Real estate opportunities Edit

On the outskirts of Portland, streetcar lines enticed people out to the suburbs and so real estate developers were able to found communities such as Council Crest, Hawthorne, Mount Tabor and most notably Irvington. Privately funded by the Irving family, Irvington is considered a classic early twentieth century “streetcar suburb,” characterised by building restrictions designed to create a residential environment marketed to the middle class. These streetcar suburbs provided this middle class with the balance of access to work in the city and space in the suburbs. [16][17] This residential shift is by no means limited to Irvington as Portland’s lower density east side grew from twenty-five percent of greater Portland’s population to fifty by the 1910s. [18]

The Life-cycle of the Streetcar Edit

The Birthing Phase Edit

In the birthing phase of the industry, the franchise model was implemented as a continuation from previous horse-drawn street railways. This model was essential as the street cars would run on public streets, negatively effecting public thoroughfares. The franchise license would give a private company a right of operation on certain streets, in return for the large expense and risk involved with laying down new track. In many cases, the streetcar companies already obtained the necessary licenses through their involvement in horsecars. [19]

Portland suburban streetcar company mergers

Especially in early US history, the federal government took a policy of promotion not ownership by providing financial incentives to private companies such as charters as at the time they were pro rail development [20] The generally hands-off approach taken is characterised by the United States’ values and traditions of economic liberalism, which is believed by the general society to create greater efficiency in the economy.

A policy that was embedded by the government included the mandated standard rail gauge of 4 feet 8 ½ inches. This standardisation across the whole state was paramount to enable the building of a network and the ability for multiple companies to operate on the same tracks. Initially in the US there was some difficulty coordinating gauge between states, especially after the Civil War with a North-South divide. In 1886 standard gauge was finally agreed upon by the whole country, as the electric streetcar technology was about to take over.

While streetcar policies were generally laissez-faire, not every aspect of the industry was left to its own devices. As the franchises were handed out at a municipal level, there was more hands-on involvement. A significant aspect of control was the condition of a maximum fare, set at 5 cents. In later years, this price roof would offer little freedom to change prices if future financial issues arose.[21]

The Growth Phase Edit

Growth in the industry was funded by several private companies following the Willlamette Bridge Railway Co. such as the Metropolitan Railway Co. and the Waverley-Woodstock Electric Railway. 1891 began a period of mergers as City & Surburban Railway Co. acquired several struggling smaller companies to enable passengers to cross from one side of Portland to the other on a single fare.[22] By 1908, the vast majority of Portland's suburban lines were run by Portland Railway, Light and Power Company, enabling the city to establish a strong network, thereby enticing greater patronage. [23]

As the reach of the transport network grew, there was an increased demand to locate new residences and commercial properties near the streetcar stops. Although it was a privately operated system, the political process of granting valuable franchises meant the industry became woven in politics as well as real estate developments. In many cases, the streetcar companies would hold political influence.[19]

The Maturity Phase Edit

As other forms of transport were catching up to the streetcar, the Portland Railway, Light and Power Company diversified by investing in entertainment on the outskirts of Portland, accessible by streetcar. Both Columbia Beach and Council Crest amusement parks provided entertainment for city dwellers. At its peak, Columbia Beach would draw 30,000 on a hot day, providing places for swimming, games and dancing while Council Crest was more of a traditional amusement park, with its main attraction being the view of the city and snow-capped peaks behind. In advertising material, the necessary streetcar line and stop would be noted to guide people. [24] [25]

A major stumbling block to further growth that streetcar companies faced was the “lock-in” of their fare structure. In 1914, United Railways aimed to increase the fare for their interurban route from Portland to Linnton from five to ten cents. While this was granted by the Oregon Commission, the municipal level Multnomah County Court recognised this a breach of the 5 cent maximum fare franchise term. As punishment, United Railways were forced to tear up that portion of their track up as far as the Portland city limits, forcing patrons to take an alternate route via steam train. Ridership dropped along the remaining portion of track and the line ceased operating in 1923. [21]

The Decline Phase Edit

The early 1920s was the peak of streetcar usage in the US, with Portland running 32 lines, all of various lengths.[26] Streetcars were the chief mode of transport and had shaped cities by their ability to efficiently bring people into a town centre. However, with the growth of the private automobile, the dominance was being challenged.

In 1912, the electric streetcar began competition with market disruptors such as the mass-produced Mord Model T. These cars were still limited to the rich, so didn’t pose a strong threat to the streetcar which had a more middle to lower-class patronage. However as the cost of these cars slowly dropped, making it more and more affordable, streets became crowded in a multi-modal mess. The competition for space with private vehicles became strained as they could drive on tracks, meaning the streetcars could no longer operate efficiently. Dedicated rights of way was the key for streetcars to remain operational but this was difficult to operate in the already narrow streets of downtown Portland. [27]

The Renaissance Phase Edit

Going into the future, there are several ways that streetcars can reinvent themselves. Firstly, dedicated right-of-way rail tracks offer a solution for avoiding interference. With the prevalence of car ownership there is no turning back to a streetcar-orientated city, so the two modes must coexist without interference. This however can be difficult for cities with narrow streets and limiting space.

Various technology advances such as low cost trackless trams and a shift to entirely renewable sources of electricity could provide a comparative advantage for travellers. With a growing focus on sustainability, a shift away from the combustion engine will be necessary. Oregon is already known for its sustainable mindset, being a leader in green energy with 33% being used from renewable sources. [28]

Portland area currently sets the standard for several cities across the US that are revitalising their streetcar networks. In 2009 Portland City Council released a "Portland Streetcar System Concept Plan," outlining a framework for future streetcar corridors. Portland has a growing streetcar system, with plans to add to the current two city loop and six commuter streetcar lines. With proposed line expansions to Montgomery Park and Lake Oswego, the future looks bright for streetcars in Oregon.[29]

Quantitative Analysis Edit

Oregon state Edit

S-curve parameters

Variable Value
K 1850
b 0.104947736
t0 1923.891478

Tabulated data

Year Track length (Miles) Projected track length (Miles)
1894 106.5 78
1895 86
1896 95
1897 113.6 105
1898 114 116
1899 121.5 128
1900 162 141
1901 126 155
1902 129.5 170
1903 157.1 187
1904 196.1 206
1905 222.2 226
1906 210.8 247
1907 263.2 271
1908 303.34 296
1909 355.9 323
1910 380.8 352
1911 395.6 383
1912 397.29 416
1913 496.72 450
1914 531.587 487
1915 526
1916 566
1917 696.2 608
1918 651.33 652
1919 686.22 697
1920 670.974 743
S-curve analysis of Oregon streetcar mileage

Portland suburban Edit

S-curve parameters

Variable Value
K 400
b 0.1094925
t0 1908.171841

Tabulated data

Year Track length (Miles) Predicted track length (Miles)
1894 81 70
1895 76
1896 83
1897 81.6 91
1898 79 99
1899 86.5 107
1900 127 116
1901 109 125
1902 122 135
1903 138 145
1904 179 155
1905 181.5 166
1906 180.5 176
1907 183 187
1908 203.54 198
1909 213 209
1910 230 220
1911 237.9 231
1912 259.3 241
1913 293.82 252
1914 305.61 262
1915 271
1916 281
1917 279.05 290
1918 259.04 298
1919 292.5 306
1920 292.5 314
Portland suburban streetcar S-curve regression analysis

Regional Oregon Edit

S-curve parameters

Variable Value
K 525
b 0.198120013
t0 1915.245811

Tabulated data

Year Track length (Miles) Predicted track length (Miles)
1894 25.5 8
1895 9
1896 11
1897 32 14
1898 35 17
1899 35 20
1900 35 24
1901 17 29
1902 7.5 35
1903 19.1 43
1904 17.1 51
1905 40.7 61
1906 30.3 72
1907 80.2 86
1908 99.8 101
1909 142.9 118
1910 150.8 137
1911 157.7 158
1912 137.99 181
1913 202.9 205
1914 225.98 230
1915 256
1916 282
1917 417.15 308
1918 392.29 332
1919 393.72 356
1920 378.47 378

Data interpretation Edit

When graphing the life cycle of a transport mode, the regression line follows an S-Curve, indicating the birth, growth and maturity phases. This S-Curve follows the equation:


this is represented by:

  • S(t) is the status measure - streetcar track miles taken from the McGraw electric railway manual [30]
  • K is the saturation level for streetcar track miles
  • b is a coefficient.
  • t is time (year),
  • t0 is the inflection time - year in which 1/2 K is achieved

Portland suburban life-cycle phases:

  • Birth: 1894-1904
  • Growth: 1904-1912
  • Maturity: from 1912 onwards

Regional Oregon life-cycle phases:

  • Birth: 1894-1908
  • Growth: 1908-1916
  • Maturity: from 1916 onwards

The difference in phases can be explained by Southern Pacific Co.'s later expansion of interurban services relative to the Portland suburban system's establishment. Within Portland, the consolidation of railway companies into the Portland Railway, Light and Power Co. enabled an increase of services within the city.

Combined together, the inflection point of state-wide streetcar track mileage is beyond 1920. As the saturation point of this regression S-Curve is considerably long term, this can be interpreted to predict the potential of streetcars without policy interference and competition from other travel modes.

State-wide long term S-curve analysis

References Edit

  1. Streetcar, Cable Car: What’s the difference? Market Street Railway, retrieved 18/03/21 <,power%20from%20an%20overhead%20wire.&text=If%20it%20runs%20on%20steel,wire%20above%2C%20it's%20a%20streetcar>
  2. Jarrett Walker, 2010, Streetcars vs Light Rail… Is There a Difference? Human Transit, retrieved 18/03/21<>
  3. What Is a Streetcar? American Public Transportation Association, retrieved 18/03/21 <>
  4. Nic Butler, 2017, The Omnibus Revolution(s), Charleston County Public Library, retrieved 22/03/21 <>
  5. Kurt Kohlstedt, 2017, The Big Crapple: NYC Transit Pollution from Horse Manure to Horseless Carriages, 99% invisible,, retrieved 19/03/21 <>
  6. Ernest Freeberg, 2020, The Horse Flu Epidemic That Brought 19th-Century America to a Stop, Smithsonian Magazine, retrieved 22/03/21 <>
  7. Streetcar, Britannica, retrieved 20/03/21 <>
  8. Joe Thompson, Cable car Lines in the Pacific Northwest, Cable Car Guy, retrieved 19/02/21 <>
  9. 2012, A brief history of con edison, ConEdison, retrieved 20/03/21 <>
  10. Frank J. Sprague Electric Street Car, National Inventors Hall of Fame, retrieved 22/03/21<>
  11. a b The accomplishments and life of F.J. Sprague, Edison Tech Center, retrieved 22/03/21 <>
  12. a b The Early History of the DC Traction Motor, The Railway Technical Website, retrieved 22/03/21<>
  13. 1992, Milestones: Richmond Union Passenger Railway, 1888, ETHW, retrieved 20/03/21<,_1888>
  14. Street Railways Enable City Growth, Rails West, retrieved 22/03/21<>
  15. Garrison, W. and Levinson, D., 2014. "The Transportation Experience". Oxford University Press, USA. Retrieved 19/03/21.
  16. Roy Roos, Irvington neighborhoood, Portland, Oregon Encyclopedia, retrieved 21/03/21 <>
  17. Irvington Neighborhood, Portland’s Creative Realtors, retrieved 21/03/21 <,made%20it%20much%20more%20desirable>
  18. Historic Irvington, Irvington Community Association, retrieved 21/03/21 <>
  19. a b George Smerk, 1986, Urban Mass Transportation: From Private to Public to Privatization, Transportation Journal Vol. 26, No. 1, Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Issue, Issue Fall 1986, p 83-91, retrieved 21/03/21, <>
  20. Amritbir Kaur Brar, 2005 Transportation Culture and Policies in the US, Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 40 no.8, p733-737, retrieved 22/03/21 <>
  21. a b Cameron Booth, 2016, New Project/Work-in-Progress – Historical Map: Streetcar Lines of Portland, Oregon, 1920, Transit Maps, retrieved 21/03/21 <>
  22. Portland Trolley Chronology, Myplace Frontier, retrieved 21/03/21<>
  23. Portland Trolleys & Streetcars,, retrieved 21/03/21<>
  24. Council Crest Dreamland of the Northwest,, retrieved 21/03/21<>
  25. Columbia Beach Amusement Park,, retrieved 21/03/21 <>
  26. Portland Trolley Lines, Myplace Frontier, retrieved 22/03/21 <>
  27. Joseph Stromberg, 2015, The real story behind the demise of America’s once-mighty streetcars, Vox, retrieved 22/03/21<>
  28. Ryan Lowe, 2018, What Makes Portland So Green? Key Home Furnishings, retrieved 22/03/21 <>
  29. 2009, Portland Streetcar System Concept Plan, Portland City Council, retrieved 23/03/21<,Portland's%20neighborhoods%20and%20business%20districts.>
  30. 1894, 1897-1914, 1917-1920."McGraw Electric Railway Manual". New York: McGraw Publishing Company. Retrieved 17/03/21.