Examining the Development Effects of Modern-Era Streetcars: An Assessment of Portland and Seattle

Most U.S. cities pursuing streetcars are doing so primarily for their purported development effects, as opposed to for their transportation role, yet there is little evidence about the nature or magnitude of these development effects due to a scarcity of rigorous, empirical research. Most available work simply presents descriptive information about development outcomes (typically measured as changes in population, employment, land values, or permit activity) within streetcar corridors as indicators of the streetcar’s development effects. Alternate factors which may have influenced such results are often not considered, placing into question the validity of such measures.

This study examines the development effects of streetcar investments in two U.S. cities that implemented streetcar service between 2000 and 2010: Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington. The authors explore the development outcomes (here measured as the number of permits issued) through a combination of statistical analysis of development activity in the streetcar corridor and interviews with key streetcar stakeholders. The statistical results indicate that areas around Portland’s initial streetcar line experienced higher levels of development activity (more permits issued) than areas not served by the streetcar, although the differences in activity between served and not served areas since the opening of the second line have been insignificant. In Seattle, the areas around the streetcar line in the South Lake Union neighborhood experienced greater commercial development activity (commercial permits issued) but less residential activity than nearby unserved areas. The interviews provide important local context for the interpretation of the empirical results and highlight the continued importance of development as a rationale for streetcar investments, as well as to the limitations of the streetcar as a transportation service.

Mineta Consortium for Transportation Mobility
Principal Investigator: 
Jeffrey Brown, PhD
PI Contact Information: 

Mineta Transportation Institute
San José State University
210 N. 4th St., 4th Floor
San José, CA 95112

Funding Source(s) and Amounts Provided (by each agency or organization): 

U.S. Department of Transportation, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology – $24,994.80 

Total Project Cost: 
Agency ID or Contract Number: 
September 2017 to October 2018
Project Number: 



Contact Us

SJSU Research Foundation   210 N. 4th Street, 4th Floor, San Jose, CA 95112    Phone: 408-924-7560   Email: mineta-institute@sjsu.edu