Streetcars Could Return to Oakland as a Broadway Shuttle Upgrade

Far from settled, the play would cost 10 times more than improved buses, but its permanence might spur business development.


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Rendering Courtesy of Joe Jeong

City planners are considering adding a new jewel to booming downtown Oakland–a streetcar that would string together the thriving districts along the Broadway corridor like pearls on a necklace.

The city is in the middle of a $300,000 study about beefing up the urban transit system, either with streetcars or an enhanced bus system. At an estimated $205 million, laying streetcar tracks is 10 times more expensive than an improved bus line, but some cities have seen significant economic development because they can bank on the permanence of tracks.

The East Bay, of course, is no stranger to streetcars, being the longtime home to the successful and intricate web of transit known as the Key System. The privately owned commuter rail system linked streetcars and bus lines from San Leandro to Richmond and on to San Francisco, first by ferry, then via the lower deck of the old Bay Bridge. Ultimately, General Motors, Firestone, and Standard Oil of California bought up the nation’s electric railway systems, including the Key System, to make way for cars and buses, and pulled the plug on the Key System in 1950–a crime that will live in infamy.

The new Oakland system would run from Jack London Square, along Broadway to the MacArthur Bart station, much of the same route covered by the free Broadway shuttle bus line, the B. It would pass near Chinatown, City Center, Uptown, Valdez Triangle, Koreatown and, ultimately, Temescal.

“Oakland is fortunate,” says Zach Seal, an economic development specialist who heads the project. “We have thriving districts with their own identities. We want to find a way to stitch the neighborhoods together.”

Sparked by federal funds and environmental concerns, a dozen cities have revived streetcar systems across the country, including Portland, Seattle, Tucson, Cincinnati, and Phoenix. Proponents say the city rail lines encourage businesses to put down roots near them. Opponents answer that in tight economic times buses could be a better buy.

“If you want to attract the best and brightest employees, your office has to be somewhere where employees can leave their cars at home and take public transit,” says Seal. Modern streetcars are smaller and ride more smoothly than their historical counterparts. They also have large windows that connect riders to the businesses around them–the “blockscape,” as Seal calls it.

Portland’s streetcar system drew $3.5 billion of investment from businesses that wanted to be near the line, starting even before ground was broken, says Seal. Amazon chose to build its Seattle headquarters only after the company was guaranteed that a streetcar line would run by it, he added.

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