Before you lament once more that everything these days is made overseas, Chandra Brown and United Streetcar (a branch off company of Oregon Iron Works) are surging ahead into the future of modern, efficient manufacturing and creating a lot of green jobs in the process. Chandra will keynote tomorrow’s GoGreen Portland and we cannot wait. Her enthusiasm is absolutely contagious and her company is a model for green companies looking to compete in the global market. We know you’ll walk out of this session inspired to continue pushing the sustainable movement for US businesses.
GG: How did you come to United Streetcar? What are your personal motivations for working in a field that is so plugged into the sustainable business community?
CB: How I came to be involved with United Streetcar actually starts a while back. I began working with Oregon Iron Works— which is a large, traditional metal manufacturing company—in the early 1990s. We built boats, bridges, and now wave energy devices. I’d been a vice-president at Oregon Iron Works for several years doing outreach and business development. One of my jobs was always to be on the look out for the next growth opportunity.
So it all started when I was sitting around, actually talking about the city and the old Portland Streetcar with some friends. I live in Southeast Portland and had loved the streetcars. One of the women I was speaking to was Lynn Peterson from Clackamas County, although at the time I believe she was with Lake Oswego, and Shelly Parini, who at the time was with Clackamas Country Economic Development team. We were chatting and they told me there were no modern streetcars built in the United States. I couldn’t believe it. It just didn’t seem correct—I mean streetcars were founded here. I knew that Portland had imported their streetcars from the Czech Republic, but I didn’t know that was because there was no US made option available at the time.
I went back and did a bit of research and found out that, indeed, my friends were correct. There were no modern streetcars being built in the United States. I thought it was a great opportunity. I absolutely believe streetcars have revolutionized downtown Portland and I think they are a great model for other urban centers across the United States. It’s a very green industry and I knew that [Oregon Iron Works] could build them. We had built much more complicated and larger scale products in the past. I was confident in our workforce here and that if I could figure out a way to get the project funded, they could figure out a way to get the cars built. So that was how United Streetcar came to be.
That was four years ago, and the course of these past four years, we have built a prototype—a gorgeous red, white and blue, “Made in the USA” streetcar, which was opened up by US Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, in July of 2009. People always ask where that streetcar is these days and it will eventually be running on the streets of Portland—right now we have it back in our shop in Clackamas, Oregon, because we’re making the car have a greater level of US made content. We have a great commitment, not only to the green community and the sustainable movement, but also to the US manufacturing sector and to creating US jobs. We don’t think just being green is enough. We also want to have all the requisite jobs and work happening here in the United States.
Our first “Made in the USA” car was around 70 percent US-content. That’s instead of a 100 percent European content car. We made it using over 200 vendors in 20 states across the US with a huge amount of local vendors in the Northwest. So it really is the creation of this nation’s new green industry. And the big reason we have the car back in is because we’re changing out one of the largest pieces that was not US content—the propulsion system. Thanks to the Federal Transit System and excellent work by our congressmen—particularly Congressmen DeFazio and Blumenauer—we received an FTA innovation grant, which is allowing us to take out that foreign propulsion system and put in a US made propulsion system. Once that is completed, it will take the car up to around 90 percent US content. After that it will need to be tested for months and hopefully before the end of 2011, the car will be back on the streets of Portland and we’ll all be riding a US built streetcar.
GG: There’s the obvious reasons why streetcars are more sustainable than individual auto transportation due to the increased numbers of people they carry. Tell us about the deeper levels of sustainability United Streetcar is building into its product, whether its actual physical components or on the operations side of things.
CB: The streetcar itself is inherently more green. It runs on electricity, so there are zero emissions, but it’s a lot more than that. It’s a catalyst for economic revitalization downtown, which helps increase the overall density of people living there and allows Portland citizens to walk, bike or ride a streetcar to work instead of driving in from a suburb. One statistic that many people don’t know about is that the current Portland streetcar line currently reduces total miles traveled by over 70 million miles per year. That’s people getting out of their cars and taking these short trips on the streetcar—it makes a huge difference. And the density along the streetcar line is much higher, so you’re getting a much more advantageous use of land. In addition, as many people know, there was over $3.5 billion of investment within three blocks of the streetcar line in downtown Portland. So there are a lot of things that make it very sustainable.
Within the vehicle itself, since we’re building an American made streetcar, we do things very differently than they do overseas. We’re much more efficient in our shop. We’re lean, we use highly efficient machines that use much less electricity and draw, we put in things like LED lights and design the car in a different way so that we can use fixtures. That allows us to build hundreds of thousands of things out of the same fixture and every one will be the same and repeatable.
Also, we use a lot of steel. Most people don’t know that the most recycled product in the world is steel. That means everything that we do here has a huge amount of recycled content. It’s recycled much more than paper and plastic, because steel can be melted down without losing any of its properties. In addition, we’re doing things like putting in different flooring that will make the car quieter and decrease the overall noise. We consider noise pollution a green issue as well.
There’s a whole variety of other small tweaks we’ve been making to create a car that is as green as possible. However, I think the biggest thing, which often gets overlooked, is that we source locally as much as possible. There are a huge number of parts and pieces that go into each streetcar, many of which we don’t build. We don’t make seats and wires, etc. here at Oregon Iron Works. We integrate all of those things and put them together, but we don’t actually make them. Our commitment to buying local means that we heavily decrease transportation costs and emissions on the shipping of products. We work very closely with all of our supplier networks. I think that’s a huge advantage versus others manufacturers that buying parts from Europe and have them shipped over here.
GG: How have Oregon Iron Works and United Streetcar managed to be competitive in the green manufacturing space versus foreign competitors? Is it important to keep green, manufacturing jobs in the US?
CB: We think it’s absolutely critical to keep good, green manufacturing jobs in place in the US for a wide variety of reasons. It’s something we have a huge passion for. People don’t often think about it this way, but many times it boils down to being green because of national security and where we’re going as a nation. If we lose the capability to build things here in the United States, we are going to become more and more dependent on foreign companies and countries. We can’t just trade our oil dependence on the Middle East for a manufacturing dependence on China and Korea. It doesn’t make sense. We’re still not helping the country in terms of being in charge of its own security and its ability to move forward in the more sustainable direction we want to take. So it’s absolutely critical to have US manufacturing here.
A simple example is bridges. If we lose our capability to build bridges here, if something were to happen—if an earthquake in San Francisco collapses the Oakland Bay Bridge—we would have to wait months and months to get that bridge back in place. The pieces area so big and so heavy that they cannot be air freighted. They would have to go on a long flow ship that’s large enough to carry the weight of these huge bridge pieces. In terms of damage to a green economy, think about the impact of shutting down the city of San Francisco for months. All the alternate transportation would be less accessible and there would be millions of extra miles added onto commutes as people have to go around while you wait for those ships.
If things can be done here in the United States, you could get a new bridge in weeks. So keeping manufacturing in place is something that’s related to most everything, especially transportation and infrastructure. And transportation is one of the largest issues we have in terms of building a green economy here. That’s just one example of why we think it’s so important.
We’re fortunate that we’ve been able to be really successful—and people always ask us how we continue to compete internationally. The US manufacturing worker is still the most productive in the entire world. So what may take 20 people to do outside the country, because the labor rates are low and they don’t have the same insurance and healthcare, etc., takes one or two people here. Our one person is 10 times more productive. So as long as we’re investing in state of the art equipment and machinery, we’re able to get a sufficiently high amount of efficiency out of our workers that we still can be competitive.
Also, when you take into account decreased shipping costs—because if it’s going someplace in the US, you don’t have to ship the material half way across the world—building it here allows us to use our entire vendor network and reduce the miles things travel. That saves a lot in the costs of transportation and emissions, both for components and final products.
GG: What do you think the role is for alternative transportation options like streetcars in maintaining a sustainable city?
CB: I like to think that streetcars are one piece of an important puzzle to keep our downtown urban centers going. Streetcars can’t do it alone, but I think they’re a critical component, because they produce zero emissions and decrease the total amount of miles traveled to get people from point A to point B. Even more than that, they are catalysts for the downtown areas. They have increased economic development along the entire line, which is even different than the light rail, where you see development around stops, but bigger, less developed areas between them. So streetcars are piece of it. Do you need buses? Absolutely. Do you need light rail? Absolutely. We are big believers that for urban centers to survive and thrive, you need a variety of types of transit infrastructure to achieve the greenest and most efficient way to move people where they need to go.
GG: How do you think supporting streetcars and other alternative transit options help businesses in general? What’s in it for the average business-owner in Portland to get behind these initiatives?
CB: Well if you’re a good business person, you’re interested in decreasing your city’s emissions. We should be supportive of these kind of initiatives because they’ll decrease pollution. We should also be for more alternative transit, because it decreases congestion, which is bad for business because 1) it can delay my workforce and 2) it’s creating pollution and 3) congestion is inhibitive to any business that ships or does any type of product transport.
It can also be a benefit, because depending on where your business is located and what industry you’re in, it brings you customers. That’s why there is so much investment along a streetcar line. All the developers, whether it’s for housing or retail, are thrilled because it’s going to help their bottom lines and increase overall profitability. It’s a little bit different if you’re a suburban businessperson, but you would still want it because it enhances the quality of life of your employees. Higher quality of life is a part of a crop of advantages that can lure talented and skilled workers to your city and therefore your company.
GG: What do you see as some of the biggest challenges cities face as they develop alternative transportation systems? Do you have any insights as a leader in your industry on what we, as businesspeople and citizens, can do to conquer those challenges?
CB: Sadly, the biggest challenge facing pretty much any local, state and federal government, is funding. Obviously, we’re in the middle of a federal crisis in terms of funding infrastructure and transit—even roads—across the United States. So each city has to struggle with the prioritization of where to put their limited resources. It’s very challenging. And anytime you’re talking about any kind of transit investment, you’re talking about a long and big investment. It pays off so much over time, but it’s hard to remember that. Our streetcars can last over 35 years. So while there may be a lot of upfront costs, as time goes by, cities recoup all of that back and get other benefits as well. It’s just a difficult thing to put in a new infrastructure project, when it’s fairly expensive for most cities.
Money really is the biggest challenge and fixing that is difficult. Awareness is a tough one too. Citizens really need to understand the benefits, so they’re willing to let some of the city’s or the county’s or transit agency’s resources go towards these improvements. There have been other things that have been pretty successful for renewable energy, like incentives. We’re always looking to see incentives for streetcars, light rail and buses—anything that’s going to decrease miles traveled and emissions. Should we be rewarding that and incentivizing that? Especially in polluted cities? We think so. It’s one of the ways we think the challenges could be met over time, but it’s a complicated equation, no doubt about it.
GG: What are you most excited to share with GoGreen attendees about the work United Streetcar is doing and the success that you’ve had?
CB: I think one of the best things we can do is to show that the US green manufacturing and industry is alive and well. If a traditional, metal manufacturing company that builds boats and bridges, can eventually be building wave energy devices and modern streetcars, it’s a pretty huge compliment to the innovation and ingenuity of the American public and the American worker. To me, that’s so incredibly exciting. We’re creating jobs for this new economy and if we can continue to get the right kind of support, hopefully this could turn into a pretty big piece of the United States’ industry fabric. That’s something I really love sharing. It’s not just about United Streetcar and Oregon Iron Works. Yes, I love my company, and we’ve invested millions to take a leadership role in this, but it takes all these other suppliers succeeding as well to create an industry here in the United States. And I think that’s something we should all be proud of supporting.
Chandra Brown is the CEO of United Streetcar and the keynote speaker at the GoGreen Conference in Portland, Oregon on October 5, 2010. The conference is this Tuesday + GoGreen 2009 sold out, so register for GoGreen Conference 2010 Portland soon to join us: http://www.portland.gogreenconference.net/registration.
To learn more about Chandra and United Streetcar, visit: http://www.unitedstreetcar.com