Reconnecting America People * Places * Possibility

Resource Center

Streetcar Economics

Michael Powell explains why he’s become “evangelical” about streetcars

In this 17-minute video, Michael Powell of Powell’s Books talks about why he led the effort to convince property owners in Portland’s Pearl District to tax themselves to build a streetcar line, and what that streetcar has done for economic development in Portland. He calculates the benefits this way: The number of pedestrians in the crosswalk in front of his store numbered three an hour before the line opened in 2001, he says, but when he counted again in 2008 there were 938 pedestrians. Meantime, 400 new businesses opened in the Pearl, 90 percent of which are locally owned – the vast majority by women and minority entrepreneurs. In the meantime, property values have increased more than tenfold.

Michael gave this talk at a day-long national streetcar workshop last May in Los Angeles, which has begun environmental work on a streetcar line in downtown. The workshop was based on Reconnecting America’s book, Street Smart: Streetcars and Cities in the 21st Century. Michael’s perspective is interesting because business and property owners are increasingly being asked to step up to the plate to help fund the construction of streetcar lines. Streetcar projects are increasingly being viewed not as transportation projects, but as “economic development projects with transportation benefits.” Property owners in Seattle’s downtown-adjacent South Lake Union neighborhood put up half the money used to build a $52 million streetcar line that opened last year.

Michael Powell is also featured in the March 27 New York Times, in a story about the economic downturn and how it’s affecting cities.