Portland, Not Detroit, Positioning to Lead Mobility Innovation

As the City of Detroit wraps the 2007 North American Auto Show this weekend, and the State of Michigan desperately clings to the hope that a new kind of automobile will somehow help to revive its reputation for innovation and economic might, the City of Portland is preparing to announce its own transportation initiative that is all but guaranteed to generate jobs, diversify the local economy, and establish Oregon as leader of advanced mobility technology in the 21st century.

On Friday, January 26 Portland and Oregon Iron Works, a major US defense contractor, are expected to announce a joint project to manufacture a protype American-made streetcar. Dozens of cities across the United States currently are planning to add streetcar systems to enhance access to, and the convenience of, their downtown cores. But no companies in the country currently build modern streetcar vehicles.

Portland, for instance, bought the vehicles for their streetcar system, launched in 2001, from a firm in the Czech Republic. Now there patnering with the European company to bring the technology to the domestic market.

"We think there's something like 50 or 60 cities around the US looking at streetcars," said Chandra Brown, vice president of business development at Oregon Iron. "So we decided it could be a lucrative niche market we wanted to pursue."

"If we can build 10-20 cars a year," Ms. Brown added, "that would require 100's of new employees trained specifically on how to build the vehicles. We may even build a new facility specifically for production."

Brown said Portland alone will soon need 8 cars; Albuquerque, NM will be looking for as many as 8; Miami plans to build a streetcar system. Cities in the Midwest, too, right in Big Auto's backyard, have jumped into the streetcar revolution as well. Minneaopolis, St. Louis, Chicago, Dayton, all are in some stages of developing a streetcar system. Kenosha, WI already built one. Grand Rapids, MI recently unveiled a preliminary plan to construct a network of 6 vehicles.

But, even as they forfeit hundreds of millions of dollars in profits, lay off tens of thousands of workers, and cede their authority and stature as the world's leading transportation innovators to the competition, the American car companies seem to be oblivious to the rapidly emerging mass transit market because they see themselves as just that, car makers, rather than mobility providers who innovate, design, and manufacture a range of mobility options.