Portland: From the Passenger Side

I was at JFK airport and ten minutes from boarding my plane when the proverbial light bulb lit over my head - I realized I hadn't thought to arrange a ride home from the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport.  I scurried to the nearest payphone and called my folks.  It was the first Thanksgiving since I started college in New York City.  Apparently, it had taken me all of three months to start taking the subway for granted.

But even as a long-time consumer of the expansive mass transit that is elemental to New York life, it was a recent business trip to Portland, Oregon - the model of 21st-century streetcar-driven development - that saw me observe and experience public transportation with a particular interest.  What made the streetcar work there and how might those attributes factor into my hometown's case for its own modernized transportation?

In so many ways, Portland felt familiar to this Cincinnati native: nestled beside a river, ripe with bridges, breweries, and hills, and home to a metro population of 2.15 million.  But unlike Cincinnati, I found a public transit system in Portland that was absolutely integral to neighborhoods throughout the city.  After experiencing the city by car, by public transit, and on foot, it became evident that a major piece is missing from the local conversation about Cincinnati transportation: the importance of breadth to any system of public transit.

I quickly discovered that for Portland, "diversity" describes modes of travel and travelers, alike.  In the span of one week, I rode its smooth, whisper-quiet streetcars over a dozen times and on every single trip, I witnessed passengers with wheelchairs, scooters, walkers or canes, taking advantage of the enhanced accessibility offered by the streetcar's curb-level floors, and multiple, wide entryways.  I witnessed a multiplicity of ethnicities, of ages, of reasons for travel.  And I was surprised to see several stops on the western end of the streetcar route actually share physical stops with bus service.  Yet with identical fares and free intra-system transfer, riders showed no apparent discrimination between streetcar and bus, most often taking whichever happened to arrive first.  Portland expanded "Frequent Service" bus routes by 300% within a year of launching the streetcar, after system-wide usage increased by the millions, suggesting that the streetcar has brought more riders in contact with the bus without creating an elitist, "streetcar-only" ridership.

Truly, Portland is a prime example of how the visibility and permanence of rail-based transit actually adds value to the rest of the system by attracting new riders and increasing the awareness of existing bus routes.  To wit: I first began considering New York's MTA bus routes as a viable means of transportation while looking at route maps posted on subway platforms as I waited for trains.  In fact, I began using MTA buses only after I developed a degree of familiarity with the more intuitive, concrete, there-for-all-to-see subway system. And this from someone who grew up with Cincinnati public transit in his young life - my dad riding the Metro for his daily commute, and my mom taking us kids on the bus for the occasional downtown day trip to the Main Branch of the Library.  I am not ignorant of the pushback that has labeled the local "new ridership" argument as "elitist," but consider: in order to change the way people think about getting around the city, might we need to first change the options offered?

In seeking that change, Cincinnati has wisely taken a cue from the set-up of Portland’s TriMet's Max system, where the streetcar running on a loop functions as counterpoint to the spoke-and-hub bus and light-rail routes.  In talking with several residents from large, outlying communities such as Beaverton, I learned that the suburbanite would travel along a "spoke" into the city center, where this single looping streetcar route offered the car-free commuter access to virtually every area of interest in Portland: its arts district; the UC-like urban campus of Portland State University; the shops both chic and mom-and-pop that sit in the foothills at the western edge of downtown; or the Pearl District that is blossoming on the riverfront, with sleek new mixed-use developments and park space that quite literally did not exist prior to the streetcar. 

To me, Pearl seemed an uncanny twin to our own riverfront aspirations - The Banks plans, brought to life - and it was but one example of a Portland neighborhood buttressed by a diversified system of mass transit.  Neither bus nor streetcar nor light-rail alone would have made Portland the pedestrian paradise that I got to enjoy for a week, exploring the multiplicity of coffee shops, brew-pubs, gelato stands, boutiques and public parks that have taken root in the dozens of areas where I joined the already ample foot traffic.  But in Cincinnati, the modern streetcar is a simple opportunity to begin diversifying our city’s offerings - and with a roughly $128 million price tag that, for a significant capital investment, is rather modest.

And the opportunity for Cincinnati goes beyond any new concrete and steel, or the additional value to be found in a more varied system.  In both New York and Portland, public transit draws on the willingness of its citizens and visitors to be part of a shared public experience, by creating a meeting of the City’s capital with the personal decisions of its people to walk, bike, or share a ride with neighbors: in essence, to be open to and engaged in one’s community.  

Even with re-imagined urban pockets such as Fountain Square and the Gateway Quarter bringing people out into public spaces to connect more than ever, there is still a part of our local identity that is reactionary and stubbornly parochial, at the expense of a more vibrant Cincinnati. With streetcar plans connecting our most pedestrian-friendly areas, development along the route will further our ability to call ourselves a city that, block-to-block, engages its visitors and residents.  And, given the vitality of the outdoor squares that anchor neighborhoods such as Hyde Park, Oakley and Mt. Lookout, and our pride in a pervasive sense of local community, I would think that Cincinnati would warm to a more expansive "shared public experience."  A streetcar may not be the magic bullet, but after experiencing public transit in both New York and Portland, the Cincinnati streetcar certainly seems to be an opportunity for us to start redefining our city's core as a place that provides a shared urban experience more friendly toward businesses, residents, tourists, and the environment. And if Oregon’s City of Roses is any indication, the possibility of a stronger urban core is pregnant with more than just good feelings.

In fact, on my final morning in Portland, the tangible, far-reaching ripple effects of such an undertaking were readily visible in that beautiful city of hills, bridges and breweries, up in the Pacific Northwest.  On my way to the airport, I used each of the transportation options at my disposal, stopping in the parkland of the Portland riverfront, at the foot of the dramatic Steel Bridge, replete with bikers and joggers, and right on the doorstep of the Portland Trailblazers' arena, before continuing on past the striking glass spires of the Oregon Convention Center.  And, as I approached the second-to-last stop before the PDX airport, I saw something cast in relief to the charming, tree-lined urban streetscapes of downtown Portland: acres and acres of shiny new retail space, all of which had been developed in lockstep with the streetcar’s creation and the expansion of the TriMet light-rail

Here, seven miles from city dwellers and the nearest streetcar, the ripples of that investment still reached, their produce complementing Portland's vibrant, cultural core. Beneath the clear, bright sky, the bold blues and yellow of Ikea and Best Buy stood out like beacons of the suburban good-life.

Take a ride on Portland's Streetcar in this week's original Soapbox video.

Photography provided by Jeremy Mosher and Portland Ground
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