AUTHOR’S NOTE: This post was a very early iteration of what would later become the Oakland Streetcar Plan. The final streetcar plan is available at www.oaklandstreetcarplan.com.
Along with a new Bart Station in the San Antonio district of Oakland, the $522 million appropriated to the Oakland Airport Connector could do wonders to transform Oakland with a streetcar network. Oakland is the perfect city for a streetcar system–more so than any other city in the Bay Area, Oakland is a collection of individual neighborhoods, each of which with its own clearly-defined center. The majority of these neighborhoods are within less than three miles of the Downtown transportation hub and hotels, but by and large they remain disconnected from one another.
The idea of a streetcar network in Oakland is not a new one–many of Oakland’s neighborhoods were streetcar suburbs built around the Key System in the first half of the 20th century. More recently, Bart studied the possibility of a streetcar linking Downtown Oakland with Jack London Square, but it came up inconclusive since many of the options were either too limited, way too complicated, or both. Within the blogging world, SFCityscape has made a good crack at a more developed streetcar network, but what I propose is a much more comprehensive system that would reshape a diverse array of neighborhoods in Oakland.
Why Streetcars are Perfect for Oakland
The Infrastructurist has a great list of the ways that streetcars are superior to buses. Here are a few:
-New streetcar lines always, always, get more passengers than the bus routes they replace.
-The upfront costs are higher for streetcars than buses–but that is more than made up over time in lower operating and maintenance costs.
-There is a compelling “coolness” and “newness” factor attached to streetcars.
-Streetcars feel safer from a crime point of view.
-Buses are noisy. By comparison, streetcars are virtually silent.
-Low floors are standard, for easy-on easy-off curbside boarding. Wide doors allow passengers to enter or exit quickly. So streetcar stops take less time than buses.
-Streetcars create more walkable streets. This is because streetcars, as mentioned above, are more attractive to riders than buses, which in turns prompt to more mass transit usage in general, which in turns prompts to more walking–a virtuous cycle that creates more attractive city streets.
-You know exactly where a streetcar is going – but have you ever tried looking at a bus route map?
-Perhaps the most over looked and significant difference between street cars and buses is permanence. You’ll notice that development will follow a train station, but rarely a bus stop. Rails don’t pick up and move any time soon. Once a trolley system is in place, business and investors can count on them for decades. Buses come and go.
While Human Transit recently questioned the performance benefits of streetcars vs. buses, I’d argue that an improved bus system could never achieve the same transformations as a new streetcar system for Oakland. Streetcars attract a wide range of people to ride transit–including those who refuse to ride buses in the first place–along with significant reinvestment into the urban core which would otherwise not take place. A streetcar network is exactly what Oakland needs: a catalyst to create safer, more livable communities through both infill development and reinvestment into the existing framework of the city. With this proposal, Oakland could finally become an interconnected city rather than a disjointed collection of neighborhoods.
I propose a four line, 14-mile streetcar network to tie Oakland together:
(In case the individual lines are hard to make out, click on the links below)
Blue Line (Estuary-Rockridge)
Green Line (West Oakland-Glenview)
Red Line (Estuary-Grand Lake)
Orange Line (Downtown Circulator)
I also made a few extra modifications to the existing system, such as BRT or Rapid bus corridors for the 1R, 51 (not pictured), 57, and the San Antonio Bart feeder bus (labeled 11R), as well as extending the 40 (AC Transit’s third-highest ridership line) through West Oakland to Emeryville, and adding a limited service for it (giving a much-needed Emeryville-West Oakland-Downtown-East Oakland connection). In addition, this proposal would allow the elimination of the 18 line, and parts of the 12, 14, 19, and 59 lines (the latter two already slated to be cut).
The streetcar network doesn’t necessarily follow the lines with the highest ridership volume–I’m leaving the San Pablo, Telegraph-International, and Webster/Posey tube lines for BRT/Rapid Buses. I tried to connect as many neighborhoods as possible within the confines of a good streetcar network–each line is approximately 25 minutes and would have 8-9 minute headways (the Orange Line, which is a one-way clockwise circulator, would run every 10 minutes). Overlayed with current and future BRT corridors (not to mention Bart lines), the streetcar network would have a diverse ridership base and wide range of uses, connecting (just to name a few):
-Oak to Ninth (Red and Blue Lines, 72R)
-Rockridge (Blue Line, 51R)
-Glenview (Green Line, 57R, NL, 11R)
-San Antonio i.e. Merritt, Cleveland Heights, Ivy Hill (Green Line, 1R BRT, 40/40L, 11R, 57R, NL)
-Chinatown (Red Line, Green Line, Orange Line, 1R BRT, 51R)
-Jack London Square (Blue Line, 72R)
-Waterfront District (Blue Line, Red Line, 72R)
-Lakeside/Gold Coast (Orange Line, 40/40L)
-Uptown (Red Line, Blue Line, Orange Line, 1R BRT, 72R, 51R, NL)
-West Oakland i.e. Oak Center (Green Line, NL, 40/40L)
-Temescal (Blue Line, 1R BRT, 51R)
-Grand Lake/Lakeshore (Red Line, 57R, NL)
And keep in mind other integral neighborhoods, such as Laurel, Dimond, central Temescal, and Fruitvale will be connected with the Rapid Bus/BRT system as well.
Note: one of the essential aspects of the Oakland streetcar network is that the streetcars should be modern low-floor vehicles (i.e. Portland or European style). San Francisco already has vintage PCC cars, and Oakland needs to forge its own identity. Modern streetcars provide better service, and would help reshape Oakland’s image into a 21st Century city.
San Francisco's Vintage PCC cars are beautiful, but Oakland needs to redefine its own identity with a more modern image.
A streetcar network can work wonders for revitalizing a city. Merchants and property owners in Jack London square have been practically begging for a streetcar for years now, since the neighborhood is just barely out of the reach of the Bart system. This desire for a streetcar system to generate economic activity is not without precedent: Portland’s four mile streetcar has generated a 6,363% return on the initial 55 million dollar investment: approximately $3.5 billion in new investment into 10,000 new housing units and 5,000,000 sq. feet of office and hotel space in just eight years. At 14 miles, the potential for approximately $10 billion in new investment into 35,000 new units along with substantial office, hotel, and retail space in under 10 years would work wonders for Oakland. Other cities have experienced similar results–Seattle’s line attracted 2,000 new housing units even before the line opened!
Portland's 4 mile, $55 million streetcar line has generated $3.5 billion in new investment
As streetcar systems expand throughout the country, America is finally getting back into the streetcar manufacturing business. An American-made fleet of streetcars for Oakland could bring jobs to struggling automobile factories in Fremont or Milpitas, or even a new factory in Oakland or Richmond.
What if streetcars could be manufactured in the East Bay?
The Red Line in the Waterfront/Produce District would have the most similar impact to Portland, creating a thriving transit-oriented neighborhood virtually from scratch. The Red Line would also provide the impetus for an economic boom in the Grand Lake/Lakeshore/Adams Point area, which in spite of its success has still not achieved the necessary safety and vitality of a good urban neighborhood. The Blue Line could transform the Broadway corridor into a thriving urban boulevard from Jack London Square to the Auto Row and beyond. It would also give Rockridge a better connection to the rest of Oakland. Both the Red and Blue Lines would play a huge role in facilitating the growth at Oak-to-Ninth devleopment (and avert a traffic disaster that would otherwise result). The Green Line would be more of a revitilization line (except for pockets of TOD by the West Oakland Bart station and Lakeside areas) which could take dense but automobile-dependent neighborhoods in West Oakland and east of Lake Merritt and turn them into safer, transit-oriented neighborhoods. It would also be great for Glenview, an original streetcar suburb. The Orange line would tie Downtown together and be a big boost to the Lakeside and Chinatown neighborhoods. All in all, a streetcar network would spur billions in reinvestment into Oakland and facilitate cross-neighborhood economic activity and an increase in tourism.
Note: in any proposal like this, the potential negative effects on neighborhoods, such as gentrification, must be considered. Some areas, such as the Park Blvd corridor east of the Lake, are already built out and dense enough to support a streetcar line, so redevelopment shouldn’t be a priority. Others, such as West Oakland, should have clear growth plans and strict guidelines on the type of housing that could be built, emphasizing mixed-income housing and at least 1/3 of the units under market rate (projects that strengthen the neighborhood framework, such as the Fruitvale Bart station TOD, should be encouraged). Ensuring that Oakland stays affordable for everyone will need to be a priority as redevelopment occurs, but I think that there is enough potential land to be redeveloped (particularly in Jack London Square, the Produce District/Waterfront, Oak to Ninth, and along Broadway) that supply should keep up with demand and no bubble should occur.
Eight years after opening, ridership on Portland’s four mile streetcar line has tripled from 4,000 to 12,000 daily riders. My conservative estimates for Oakland’s daily ridership are:
Line 2009 2020
Blue 7,000 14,000
Green 3,500 6,500
Red 2,500 7,000
Orange 1,000 2,500
Total 14,000 30,000
A key component of attracting and increasing ridership is making the system easy to use. Fare machines should be located at stops to pay for tickets in advance, and the system should be fully integrated into AC Transit and have easier Bart transfers. I also think that a free-fare zone, such as Portland’s, should be explored (or at least make the Orange Line free with no transfer). The system could also have color-coded streetcars to make riding the streetcar as simple and user-friendly as possible.
- Color-coded streetcars would make the system both attractive and easy to use
At $15-35 million per mile, a 14 mile network (subtracting overlap) would cost $250-450 million. Parts of the system will be able to piggy-back off of the Telegraph-International BRT, and the option is there to give the Blue Line a dedicated right of way (which would put the cost on the higher end). In many cities, public-private partnerships able developers to pick up a portion of the cost in exchange for development rights. The system could also be built in phases. To break down the costs into individual segments (assuming 25 million/mile, and in order of construction):
Blue Line…..125 million (+$30 to $50 million for dedicated lane if necessary)
Green Line…..136 million
Red Line…..62 million (half of the tracks already built)
Orange Line…..22 million (40% of tracks already built, only one track required)
So, for those of you counting, we’ve got (cost, 2020 ridership):
Oakland Airport Connector…..522 million, 4,670 riders
RapidBart…..52 million, 6,130 riders
San Antonio Bart Station…..100 million, 10,000 riders
Oakland Streetcar Network…..345 million, 30,000 riders
57/NL MacArthur Rapid Bus…..30 million, 8,000 riders (1,000 new)
51 (Oakland half) Rapid Bus…..5 million, 12,000 riders (1,000 new) (costs shared with streetcar network)
Total…..532 million, 48,000+ riders
Therefore, a complete streetcar system, multiple Rapid Bus lines, and a San Antonio Bart station could be built for the same price as the Oakland Airport Connector while potentially attracting 10 times the riders and completely transforming Oakland.
With this proposal for a 14-mile streetcar system, Oakland would become America’s streetcar capital. At $345 million, a streetcar network would induce billions of dollars in investment and reduce emissions, oil consumption, and traffic congestion in Oakland. Most of all, a streetcar network would tie together Oakland into a unified city, reinvigorating Oakland’s economy and creating safer, more livable neighborhoods.