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Back in 2008, when gas prices were peaking and employment hadn’t yet collapsed, transit ridership was positively soaring. In a single year, transit ridership rose 5 percent across the US and 3 percent across Canada. In the Northwest, Seattle ridership rose 8 percent (see p. 17 of the linked pdf), and Portland and Vancouver also notched ridership gains.
But since then, a slowing economy and falling gas prices have pulled transit numbers back to earth. In Portland, for example, about 9 percent fewer riders boarded the bus in mid-2010 than in mid-2008, according to the preliminary monthly numbers.
You can’t blame transit agencies for these trends—they’re caught in the same macroeconomic tides as everyone else. In fact, a faltering economy can hit bus ridership with a double whammy: fewer riders going to work and stores, coupled with declines in traffic congestion that lure some bus riders back into their cars.
But there’s at least one transit system that’s bucking the trends: Portland’s streetcar. The most recent numbers show that the streetcar notched its highest-ever spring ridership in 2010, while total streetcar ridership in the first half of the year is up by 11 percent over the same period in 2008. And as far as I can tell, the streetcar achieved these ridership gains with essentially no increase in service hours.
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I truly have no idea what’s fueled the streetcar’s gravity-defying ridership stats. Neither, apparently, do the folks at the Portland Streetcar. In their view, nothing significant has changed in or near the streetcar route that would explain the increase. The areas serviced by the streetcar were fully developed by 2008; there haven’t been major new employers on the route; the streetcar hasn’t increased its service; and nearby transit has basically remained the same. You can’t attribute the gains to effective marketing, since the streetcar doesn’t even have a marketing budget. It’s a bit of a mystery—but it’s a good sort of mystery to have.
Of course, it’s possible to argue that you’re seeing similar results with Portland’s other major train transit service, MAX. As the chart to the right shows, light rail ridership has risen since mid-2008, even as bus ridership fell. But these statistics are clouded by the MAX Green Line, which opened just last fall; and new service gave rail ridership a boost, possibly at the expense of buses. But the streetcar got a ridership boost even without any new service.
Regardless of the reasons behind Portland’s streetcar success, other cities seem to be taking notice, and—even in this economy—considering streetcars of their own. Which is good news for PDX, since the nation’s only modern streetcar manufacturer is located just outside Portland. Lucky for them, the ridership growth of Portland’s streetcar makes for good advertising.