in Portland:

PORTLAND ā€” The question comes as I’m whisking 55 mph on a standing-room-only light-rail train in this city’s west suburbs.

“What is wrong with Seattle?” It’s not me who asks it. It’s the woman next to me, Debby Fehrenbach, of Hillsboro, Ore. She is commuting 15 miles on Portland’s MAX electric light rail to her job at a Portland software firm.

Fehrenbach lived in Seattle for 25 years. She moved here two years ago. Part of the reason, she says, is because of how stuck Seattle is.

“I love Seattle, but I kind of gave up on it,” she says. “It’s a bus city. In Portland it’s so easy and fast to get around, you feel like you don’t even have to have a car anymore.

“Seattle really, really needs one of these.”

He points out a few of the really important parts of rail transit being different that bus transit. First, frequency:

It didn’t take more than two minutes for me to be impressed. That’s how long I waited to catch my first train in downtown Portland.

In two days of riding the rails, on 14 different trains, the longest I waited for one to come was eight minutes. That was at 11 on a Sunday night.

Anyone who rides a crowded bus knows about “bunching”, where no bus comes for a long while and two or three show up at the same time. That’s impossible with trains because they have their own right-of-way. So, the longest you wait is 8 minutes.

Next, boarding times:

The longest any of my trains spent stopped at a station was 25 seconds ā€” even when 75 rush-hour commuters tried to board a crowded train at once. I’ve waited much longer for a single rider to get on a Seattle bus, fumbling for change or arguing with the driver.

Trains are flush-against the platform, buses are usually raised and slightly in the street. Buses have only two narrow doors, trains have two or three per car. Buses can only be paid for in the front, trains can be paid on the platform, and then boarding is instant.

Trains are faster:

The trains are surprisingly speedy. Well, not in downtown Portland, where they run on the street like streetcars. But outside the core of the city, on their own grade-separated tracks or in the medians of arterials, the trains routinely reach 40 to 55 mph. (Seattle’s system is slated to be faster than Portland’s, because none of it runs in street lanes. All of it is planned for medians, tunnels or elevated tracks.)

Because they are separated from car traffic.

Finally, Mr Westneat sums up the argument on prop. 1 nicely is his own way:

All I’m saying in this column is that if we build more light rail, we will love it. As Portland plainly does. It’s pricey. But it’s reliable, quiet and, when designed so the tracks aren’t right in the street, fast.

So maybe we’ll start acting like a big city and build some real rapid transit.

Or, maybe we’ll go on as “Seattle: Bus City, USA.”

Forced to forever face that awkward question from our smaller, smarter friends to the south.

8 Replies to “Danny Westneat Likes Light Rail”

  1. Danny Westneat has had a column for years. And he just NOW gets to Portland and rides the Max? Pathetic. Transit has been a crucial Seattle issue forever. Tell you what, Danny, take your next vacation in Europe, and include “since 19xx” dates in your column, OK?

  2. I agree with Eric. This article, while about a passion of mine, is… oh 7-10 years behind the times. I lived in PDX for 2 months a year ago this month. Their light rail isn’t so impressive.

    I’m all about RTS though, just if PDX is impressive to you, you haven’t been anywhere.

    Also, they’re not necessarily smarter. There’s a long standing debate with the way they’ve allowed their city to grow. Also, a friggin’ sky bucket?! Come on, that’s worse than the S.L.U.T., and yes it goes to it’s largest employer… the hospital (eep!)

    I feel sad for PDX.

  3. Better late than never indeed, but yeah, I’m surprised he’d never been on it.

    I wonder if he’s been to Europe or Japan?

  4. As a Portlander I have to disagree with troyjmorris and return the sentiment: Seattle is in sad shape!

    The debate about how Portland directs its growth is over and the awards just keep piling up: best bicycling city, best walking city, best transit system, most livable city, cleanest city, least fat ass city, you name it.

    This ‘sky bucket’ Portland calls a ‘tram’ between the hilltop OHSU medical school main campus and an extension on the waterfront provides a 3-minute zero-emission ride instead of a 20-minute bus ride spewing fumes.

    Still, I’d rather see Link LRT run a spur through Southcenter to Renton; an expansion that should have been in the ballot measure.

    On the other hand, the road-builders are masterbating each other over how they’ll profit from cars they sell, finance, insure, fuel, and from building war machines for fuel and world trade luxuries. Screw that!

  5. Anon,

    Absolutely. I was born and raised in Seattle, and so of course, I will glare in the direction of PDX. Not for any substantial reason, other than historical rivalries. Take all I saw about PDX with a tub of salt.

    However, the “list of awards” are slightly bloated. Boston is far more walkable than Portland (perhaps due to size, rivers and far too much rain).

    My main point is, although Seattle is in a sad, sad shape, Portland isn’t much better. In certain aspects yes, it is. But it is far from a golden gem of the Northwest.

    In fact, I would be hard-pressed to find a golden gem of the Northwest.

    I’m sure you can agree that Portland has somethings to learn from Seattle and Seattle certainly has some things to learn from Portland.

  6. anonymous, by what measure should a “spur” to Renton have been seen in the ballot measure? If you look at the long range plan, a loop connecting Kirkland, Bothell, Renton and Burien will be in a later phase.

    Before just randomly saying “We need to serve this!” – one has to look at the relative need, which Bellevue and Tacoma take before Renton, and the other investments, which include upgrades to highways in Renton. Also, consider what trains would go where – we’re running six minute peak headways to the airport and southward, which will probably drop to 5 minute as ridership increases. We can’t really run trains more often than that in the Rainier Valley. We also have Sounder service to Tukwila, and Boeing connector service would be very cheap to improve in the meantime.

  7. Troy, Boston is more walkable very simply because it has a more mature mass transit system. Portland is much younger, but it’ll get there eventually.

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