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I visited Portland last week and checked out the current state of transit and the city. Lines used: MAX Blue and Green; streetcar North-South and A Loop; bus 8 and 14; aerial tram. I’ll describe the transit trips first and then circle back to other impressions. Thanks to Glenn and Poncho for ideas on what to do during my trip.

I took Amtrak Cascades down Saturday morning. The train was 100% full on a three-day weekend. We walked to Powell’s bookstore (15 min) for a Portland map, then took a streetcar to the South Waterfront. The fare is $5 for a day pass on all MAX/bus/streetcar. At the South Waterfront we took the aerial tram ($4.50 round trip), which goes up a steep wooded hill to a hospital complex on top. Just before the upper terminal it stopped and wouldn’t move. The station was just one tram length in front of us but no way to get to it; we’re a hundred feet in the air.  I pondered how they’d evacuate us if they couldn’t get it moving. Far below was a multistory parking garage but it was offset from us so you couldn’t run a ladder from its roof; you’d have to start from the wooded ground next to it. I don’t know if such an extremely long ladder exists. But after twenty minutes they fixed it and we were able to get into the station. Going back we waited awhile with no tram in sight, and there was maybe a tramful of people before us, and I was afraid it might get stuck again for longer. So we took a bus down instead. The #8 runs every 15 minutes, and it’s actually a short distance to downtown, and a one-seat ride to the Lloyd District where my hotel was.

That evening I took another streetcar from the Lloyd District to Hawthorne Street, and walked to the Bagdad Theater (2 miles). By then it was 10pm and I didn’t know how frequent the north-south buses were so I took the 14 Hawthorne bus back downtown and transfered to MAX. On the following days I took MAX west to Hillsboro and east to Gresham, and walked twice across the Burnside Bridge.

SOUTH WATERFRONT IMPRESSIONS: Portland’s streetcars are much more useful than Seattle’s because they pass many downtown destinations. But they’re as damned slow as the SLUT, stopping every block for a light, with no signal priority. The South Waterfront is a narrow strip sandwiched between the river and a freeway. Portland demolished one freeway but its four remaining freeways cast severe scars in the middle of the city. There’s a cycletrack in the narrow strip but it hardly compensates how the freeway slices the area into almost nothing. But there’s a food truck pod next to the streetcar stop, and its six vendors blow the pants off Seattle’s food trucks: I had an excellent pulled pork sandwich and Japanese ramen. Later I learned there’s an great science museum there but by that time I was gone. The aerial tram goes up to a multi-hospital complex built on top of the hill with skywalks, which reminds me of the research complex on the moon in “The Multiplex Man”.

LLOYD/HAWTHORNE IMPRESSIONS: MLK and Grand Avenues are four-lane one-way streets with an Aurora feel. Hawthorne Street has an eclectic bunch of things that feels like a lower-key University Way, with a lot of pre-WWII buildings and a few nightclubs. Industrial, commercial, apartments, and single-family houses mix randomly in both areas as if zoning doesn’t exist. But everything is short, 1-2 stories. MLK and Grand have vast infill potential for housing and TOD if it’s wanted someday.

WEST SIDE IMPRESSIONS: the only other time I’ve taken MAX to the west side was in 1998 just after it was built, when it only went to Beaverton. What I remember was the train leaving stations and waiting for a light at level crossings, and surrounded by empty fields. I’m happy to report it has gotten much better: the train doesn’t slow down at crossings except right in downtown Portland and Hillsboro. Westbound it goes through a tunnel, then alongside a freeway, then another tunnel, then its own right of way with only a half dozen crossings. Beaverton has a lot of car dealerships, but then there’s lots of TOD in western Beaverton and Hillsboro. We went straight to Hillsboro center, which I thought Glenn said was a TOD showcase, but it’s mostly pre-WWII two-story buildings with a 9-5 schedule like downtown Kent. Finding nothing for lunch, we went back to Orenco Station to a French patisserie we’d seen. Here is exemplary TOD: multistory mixed-use buildings, a wide pedestrian plaza, and an excellent French sandwich. And the address is Beaverton, not Hillsboro. As we took the train back east, we saw much more TOD in Beaverton that we hadn’t noticed before; it’s mostly on the north side of the train. We alighted at Washington Park and went to the zoo. I wanted to go to the Japanese Garden but was told it’s a 2 1/2 mile walk or a 20-minute shuttle away so we deferred it.

EAST SIDE IMPRESSIONS: The Blue Line runs alongside a freeway from the Lloyd District to 90th Street, then in the center of Burnside Street to central Gresham, then in its own right of way in Gresham. Burnside Street is like Seattle’s MLK but with two car lanes instead of four. The other thing is it’s mostly single-family houses, with just a few two-story apartment buildings. So the two commercial areas of Portland and Gresham are connected by several miles of single-family neighborhoods.

BURNSIDE BRIDGE: The bridge is from the same era and construction type as Seattle’s University Bridge. It’s much bigger since it has several car lanes and a longer distance. The sidewalks are wide and comfortable. The bridge goes in one swoop over Naito Parkway, the Willammette River, a freeway, railroad tracks, and two small streets before landing at MLK Avenue. In the middle is stairs down to the East Bank Espalande, a walkway along the water  which has part of it separated from the shore, like the breakwater at Shileshole Marina but only a couple feet from the shore.

Returning home Wednesday evening, the Cascades train was pretty empty. Fewer people than a Greyhound busload got on in Porland, and my car had only ten people. More people got on later. My southbound train had been state of the art, with electric outlets between the seats and USB-charging outlets. My northbound train had worn vinyl seats like a 1960s automobile, but it did have a few electric outlets around. I timed Auburn to King Street with my stopwatch and it was a blazing 20 minutes. The total time from Portland was 3 hours 25 minutes, which was 15 minutes shorter than scheduled.

The most interesting thing about Portland’s transit is the number of destinations the Blue Line and the streetcars connect. The one Blue Line has Hillsboro, the Tualatin nature park (which we didn’t have time to visit), the Orenco patisserie, Washington Park, downtown, our Lloyd District hotel, and theoretical (if we lived there) Beaverton jobs. It reminds me of what some people say about Seattle’s route 2: everything they need is along it.

3 Replies to “Portland Trip Report”

  1. Thanks for the report.

    Hillsboro isn’t a TOD example of much. It’s just better than downtown Beaverton. This isn’t saying much.

    I’ve not been into the Bagdad since the rebuilding was finished a year or so ago. Next time you’re down here you might think about the Hollywood Theatre or Laurelhurst or a couple of others.

    Yes, Portland has worse zoning Amber than Seattle. It shows in our housing prices too.

  2. Oh, and to your last paragraph: the eastside lines including blue intersect a bunch of busy bus routes.

    Other things along the blue line include a Fred Meyer at Gateway that, while auto centric, at least has a sidewalk and entrance facing the transit center. There are a lot of transit shoppers that go there. It’s a decent example of making suburban anti-transit development somewhat transit friendly.

    Hollywood and Lloyd areas have built up a lot since MAX started. They have a Trader Joes (not transit friendly enough to add a sidewalk to the transit center) and a bunch of small stores. Parts of it have gone a bit upscale so I don’t know the new restaurants very well as they are too expensive for my taste.

    There are a fair number of stores and things within range of east Burnside too, but you have to walk a couple of blocks north to Halsey in many cases. For some reason Hslsey got upzoned or commercialized but not much of Burnside.

    Burnside used to be a five lane ML King style road, but there are enough five lane roads in east Portland they figured nobody would notice if they chopped a couple out of Burnside.

    There was actually an effort at redeveloping some of the land into higher density housing. However, the school system on the Far East end of things is overcrowded and has no money to expand. Therefore, they rejected a couple of apartment complexes (despite commenters here complaining about families not being able to live in apartments, economic reality in east Portland means many families can’t afford houses).

  3. I’d say the Blue Line is a real success story. When it was built, they really made an effort to focus dense development along it with Orenco as the showcase. This was literally 20+ years ago, and was at the forefront nationally for this kind of planning. Orenco Station is now getting close to build out with its biggest and most urban projects coming now right next to the station (this was the plan to build the low density stuff furthest from the station and then build the urban stuff closest to it last).

    MLK and Grand are such awful streets, its crazy to me that the streetcar was put on them. Just the street design of them repels pedestrians and street activity that is what the streetcar is all about. The NS Streetcar line (the original line) I think is really a great streetcar line, yes its slow, but hits everything, runs on great tame urban streets, is frequent and runs all the time.

    Actually the north-south crosstown bus on 39th is frequent and with a long service span. That would have been the way to go transferring at Hollywood to MAX, though I don’t blame you in being cautious of crosstown service late at night. Portland definitely is not as late night of a city as Seattle, 10pm in Portland and the streets roll up, save for inner Burnside on east and west, plus to say nothing of lack of owl service in Portland.

    On a future trip I would recommend N Williams and SE Division. Two inner neighborhood bus corridor streets that are seeing a ton of urban 4 story mixed use infill and that had almost nothing in the way of retail/restaurants and urban housing less than a decade ago. Portland is more “neighborhood-y” than Seattle and there are a lot of little former streetcar main streets/nodes than have rejuvenated… N Mississippi, NE Alberta, SE Belmont, NW 23rd are some of the most noteworthy to a visitor. Also the Willamette Shore Trolley is back after Sellwood bridge construction and soon will return to running to South Waterfront

    If you are up for trying the tram again, there is the 4T trail… 4T as in Train, Tram, Trolley, Trail… its a loop by MAX from Downtown to the Zoo, Trail from Zoo to OHSU, Tram downhill to South Waterfront (free direction), Streetcar/Trolley from South Waterfront to Downtown.

    FYI I used to live in Portland and still keep my eye on what’s happening there.

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