Student proposes streetcar plan for Oakland

July 15, 2010, 12:38 a.m.

Correction: This article originally stated that Jacobson believed the city of Oakland could have a streetcar system implemented in 15 years. In fact, he believes it could happen in five years.

A downtown streetcar line could be the key to getting the city of Oakland back on its feet, says Daniel Jacobson ‘12, a Stanford undergrad who authored a study to revitalize the city’s struggling economy.

Jacobson, an East Bay native, spent his sophomore year conducting independent research in urban studies, and has produced a detailed plan to breathe life back into downtown Oakland. His proposal entails building a 2.5-mile streetcar line that runs through the heart of the city, connecting Piedmont and Upper Broadway to Jack London Square — an initiative that could add over 20,000 new residents and create 20,000 new jobs in the downtown area.

Student proposes streetcar plan for Oakland

“This would translate to as much as $800 million in annual sales, bringing $5 million in annual sales tax revenue — all of this is just within three blocks of the line,” Jacobson said.

While the proposal links the newly redeveloped areas of uptown Oakland to the city’s waterfront, Jacobson indicates that the real hub of the project lies in the downtown area, where the two BART stations are located.

“They’re really trying to revitalize the area, which is soon going to be the home of the Jack London market,” he said, adding that the addition of a “dining and entertainment area” and the potential relocation of the Oakland A’s stadium to the area could provide a boost to one of the most economically depressed regions of the city.

While his proposal has received public support from many quarters since its publication last month, Jacobson was quick to note that his project sought to improve on a similar study done by the city of Oakland from 2003 to 2005.

“The 2003-2005 study was based on a similar concept, but it had a number of shortcomings and didn’t really hit on the number of points to best utilize street cars to boost economic development,” he said, explaining that the study looked at streetcars solely as a mode of transportation.

Jacobson conducted his research on $987 from a departmental grant from the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education. According to Fred Stout, a professor in urban studies, Jacobson’s project distinguished itself through its focus.

“What makes Daniel’s project different was that he really did his research and really studied Oakland’s core issues,” Stout said.

Student proposes streetcar plan for Oakland

Chris Miley, administrative director for Oakland at-large Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan’s office, emphasized that Jacobson’s study laid the groundwork for a potential streetcar system and improved upon past studies by “looking at the whole picture.”

“Daniel took a good approach at looking at streetcars in not only a transportation perspective, but from the economic impact it could have,” Miley said. “He proposes something that has a transportation function, but can also help spur economic development in the Broadway Corridor — it hits into a lot of the issues Oakland is dealing with.”

Jacobson explained that his inspiration for this independent study arose last summer, when controversy unfolded over the proposal for an Oakland airport connector, which would have linked the BART station to the Oakland Airport.

Citing the $6 cost per fare of the proposed connector, low potential for economic development and uneven socioeconomic benefits, Jacobson said that he began to think about a project that could benefit Oakland as a whole — including what the city could do to reduce its emissions and increase its economic development.

“The more and more I thought about it — I grew up around Oakland and have a lot of experience with the area — the idea of using street cars as a transportation method just made sense,” Jacobson said.

“In the climate of last summer, I figured that going to Stanford, I had a network to build off of to give the city the kind of study it should have had in the first place,” he added. “And things slowly started to come together.”

At a cost of $87 to $92 million, Jacobson’s plan would, in theory, create approximately 37,000 construction jobs over a 15-year period and reduce CO2 emissions by roughly 100,000 tons per year, which translates to a reduction of 4.9 to 5.7 million gallons of gasoline saved annually. The study based its calculations off of similar streetcar projects in Portland, Ore., and Seattle.

Citing the Bay Area’s congested infrastructure and issues like the state’s water crisis, health care, gasoline dependency and climate change, Jacobson argued that a streetcar system and migration out of the Central Valley could create a more sustainable Bay Area.

“If you compare a suburban sprawl home in the Central Valley to a nice apartment or condo in the Oakland/SF/Berkeley area, the oil consumption and CO2 emissions would be half about what they would be in the suburbs,” he said. “The best thing we can do is to have a more sustainable Bay Area, and this is a right step.”

The next step in creating a streetcar line for Oakland involves a series of feasibility studies.

“Daniel did his project almost as a gift to the city,” Miley said, “and where the city is, is we’re moving forward to try to line up the funding to do a lot of studies that need to happen. There’s an environmental study and an alternative analysis that needs to be done before we get to the point where we can put a shovel in the ground … We also need funding, whether it’s a private fund or a federal grant, and we’re several years away from that now.”

This summer, however, the city of Oakland plans to run a new, free shuttle that follows the same alignment outlined in Jacobson’s proposal. The Broadway Shuttle will link Jack London Square to 21st and Broadway, and provide much of the numberical data needed for the feasibility study, according to Miley.

“I think if Oakland takes this on and gets some strong leadership, there’s nothing stopping them from having a streetcar system in around five years,” Jacobson said. “The momentum, the interest and the need is there, and it’s a matter of the city’s officials really pushing for it.”

One of the new features about this project is that the construction for this project spans two blocks in two weeks, runs in fixed traffic and will not consume too many parking spaces, according to Jacobson, who has also devised means to fund the project.

Student proposes streetcar plan for Oakland
Jacobson's proposed streetcar line will run through the heart of downtown Oakland, connecting Piedmont and Upper Broadway with Jack London Square. (Photos courtesy of Daniel Jacobson and Karsten Lemm)

“The design is fairly simple, and the next part is the funding section — construction and operations —  where we ask, what different funding sources can be put together without breaking Oakland’s budget?” Jacobson said. “There’s also an interest in federal funding for this project, but the funding scenarios I’ve come up with are mostly privately driven, and when people ask if Oakland can fund it, the answer is very much yes.”

The impact of this proposal could be huge for the city of Oakland, according to Stout.

“Urban planning bureaucracies tend to be very heavily laden and impenetrable, so [having student projects picked up] hardly ever happens,” Stout said. “But the importance of it being a Stanford student and a citizen in general is essential to our democracy. It shows that there are people out there who are willing to come up with ideas to be considered.”

“At Stanford, we have a great tradition of community service, and this is an example of community service at its highest form,” he added. “It’s outstanding.”

To learn more about Jacobson’s Oakland Streetcar Project, please visit

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