The Streetcar Comeback and Its Development Effects

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Streetcars in the two largest cities of the Pacific Northwest bring not only passengers, but also increased levels of development activity
November 19, 2018
San José, CA

The cities of Portland and Seattle are widely noted for their ever-increasing populations, their significant investments in streetcar transit, and the increased development activity around their streetcar lines. Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) researchers, Drs. Jeffrey Brown and Joel Mendez, seek to better understand the intricate relationship between streetcar investment and development outcomes through a combination of statistical analysis of development activity and interviews with key streetcar stakeholders in their report titled Examining the Development Effects of Modern-Era Streetcars: An Assessment of Portland and Seattle.

Taking into consideration various developmental incentives, which aid in the stimulation of development activity within streetcar corridors, Drs. Brown and Mendez examined the development activity within the urban cores of Seattle and Portland, measuring the frequency of issued permits between streetcar service areas and similar areas not served by the streetcar.

The researchers’ key findings include:

  • The initial Portland streetcar (west side of the Willamette River) line showed development activity to be heightened within streetcar corridors;
  • The Portland streetcar corridor was issued roughly 45% more residential and commercial permits when compared to non-service areas that also received development incentives;
  • Seattle streetcar corridors were issued an estimated 50% more commercial permits than non-service areas;
  • Non-serviced streetcar areas in Seattle were issued, at minimum, 59% more residential permits than areas serviced by the streetcar.

A key lesson from the study is that the more effective a streetcar is as a transportation service, and the more widely used it is by patrons, the more likely it is to have development effects. A streetcar alone is not a guarantee of positive outcomes, as other factors such as a healthy real estate market, available land, and development supportive zoning and other policies also need to be present. More cities that are operating streetcars or contemplating making a streetcar investment would be best served by keeping these issues in mind when making their own decisions. The interviews highlight the continued importance of development as a rationale for streetcar investments.


At the Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) at San Jose State University (SJSU) our mission is to increase mobility for all by improving the safety, efficiency, accessibility, and convenience of our nation's’ transportation system through research, education, workforce development and technology transfer. We help create a connected world. MTI was founded in 1991 and is funded through the US Departments of Transportation and Homeland Security, the California Department of Transportation, and public and private grants. MTI is affiliated with SJSU’s Lucas College and Graduate School of Business.


Jeffrey Brown is a Professor and Chairperson in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Florida State University. His research explores the role of public transportation in contemporary cities; transportation finance; the interplay between the finance, planning, and use of transportation systems; the relationship between transportation and the built environment; and the history of planning. His most recent work includes an examination of streetcar systems in U.S. cities and an assessment of strategies for transit to better serve aging populations, particularly those residing in rural areas and small communities.

Joel Mendez is an Assistant Professor in the School of Public Affairs and Administration at The University of Kansas. His research interests lie in the intersection between transportation, economic development, and social justice. His most recent work includes the examination of development outcomes within new transit service areas via an equity perspective.



Irma Garcia, MTI Communications & Workforce Development Coordinator



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