Eric D. Snider

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Portland’s light rail, and grumps who oppose it

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The Oregonian published a letter to the editor on Monday that I want to address. First, though, a warning: This letter contains references to towns such as “Happy Valley” and “Boring.” Those are the real names of these places, not sarcastic nicknames.

And now, the letter:

Every time I sit in traffic on Interstate 205 through Clackamas into Portland, my blood begins to boil. You see, construction work has begun to bring light rail to Clackamas Town Center. Precious land is being wasted on something that will never reduce congestion on I-205 (just look at the Interstate 84 corridor through Portland).

The urban growth boundary expansion into Happy Valley, Damascus and Boring will add a significant amount of growth to an area that is primarily serviced by I-205. All of these cars will end up on I-205, creating another traffic nightmare like we see on Interstate 5 every day.

Light rail will cost hundred of millions of dollars for approximately seven miles of track. With that kind of money, I-205 could easily be expanded to four lanes in each direction. This would be smarter growth and money well spent.

People will never give up the comfort and freedom of their cars in favor of public transportation, especially in a climate where it rains seven months a year.

Happy Valley

Regarding this statement:

“People will never give up the comfort and freedom of their cars in favor of public transportation.”

1. Well, not if you don’t even give them the chance, they won’t! It’s true, some people may never use light rail instead of their cars. But if that short-sighted attitude is made into public policy — “No one’s gonna use it, so let’s not even build it” — well, that’s sort of like saying that since a lot of people litter anyway, we might as well not even put garbage cans on sidewalks. Mass transit needs to be a viable option for people. Eventually, with cities growing the way they are, it will be the ONLY option for convenient, fast travel.

2. What Mr. Grosso really means, of course, is that HE will never give up the comfort and freedom of HIS car. A lot of other people will do so and have done so. Grosso seems to think that since I-84 is still crowded during rush hour, that must mean the light rail track that runs alongside it was a waste of money. But the trains on that track are full of passengers — passengers who would otherwise be on I-84, making it more crowded than it is.

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This sign warning bicyclists of light-rail tracks in the road makes me laugh every time I see it.

As a matter of fact, Portland’s light-rail system, called MAX, carries about 100,000 passengers every weekday. (Many of those are duplicates, of course, with passengers making round trips.) There are 32.6 million MAX trips taken per year. It’s the fifth most ridden light-rail system in America, after Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego (and it’s neck-and-neck with San Diego).

You’ll notice that all four of those cities have much larger populations than Portland. Now look at some of the cities that place below Portland in terms of light-rail ridership: Dallas, Philadelphia, Houston, Denver, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Baltimore. All have larger metro populations than Portland, yet Portland beats them all for light-rail use.

The bottom line? When you compare the number of residents to the number of mass-transit users, Portland’s ratio is better than nearly every city in America. TriMet reports that 43 percent of adults in the area use TriMet (bus, MAX, or Portland Streetcar) at least twice a month, and that 26 percent of the afternoon rush-hour commuters are traveling by TriMet rather than driving.

It’s true that I-205 should probably be widened, but not INSTEAD of putting light rail next to it. The reality is, it would be impossible to make I-205 (or I-84, or I-5) wide enough to accommodate all the cars that might want to drive on it. Eventually you get to the point where the freeway is as wide as it can possibly be without leveling every home and business on either side of it. And when that happens, your only option is mass transit — which Portland should be praised for having the foresight to work on now, before it becomes a crisis.

Maybe this is weird of me, but I’m fascinated by matters of civil engineering and city planning and traffic patterns and all that. My logical mind enjoys problem-solving, so when there’s a situation like congested traffic, I like to think of ways to fix it. This is the first place I’ve ever lived that had a good mass-transit system, and I use it regularly. I hardly drive my gypsy-cursed car at all. I fill up the tank once a month, on average, compared with the once-a-week system I had when I lived in Utah. So I’m delighted that Portland is expanding its light-rail system, and I’m glad not everyone thinks as narrowly as some locals do.

25 Responses to “Portland’s light rail, and grumps who oppose it”

  1. Chrystle Says:

    You’re right about cities that get large enough that public transport becomes easier to use. I lived in London, England for two years, and very few people drove; most used the tube, trains or buses because a) petrol was very expensive b) the transit system is less confusing than the streets, throughways and roundabouts, c) parking was at a premium, and people were often fined and d) two words – Congestion Charge. It’s good to see cities looking ahead. I live in Edmonton right now, and they’re trying to catch up to a huge population boom with a light rail system.

  2. Slash Says:

    Preach it, brother.

    Portland has one of the best run and most successful mass transit systems in America.

  3. Bridget Says:

    You’re going to send this in to the Oregonian as a guest op-ed piece, right? Because it’s awesome, I agree with it, and it would be good for lots of Oregonians to read it.

  4. David Cornelius Says:

    “Maybe this is weird of me, but I’m fascinated by matters of civil engineering and city planning and traffic patterns and all that.”

    You do realize that this was also Ethan Hunt’s cover story in Mission Impossible III. Yeah, I’m on to you, Eric.

    If that is your real name.

  5. Fiery Darts Says:

    I am also fascinated by issues of public transit and traffic flow. Unfortunately, the situations that cause traffic jams are very difficult to avoid due to the rubbernecking phenomenon and the tendency of drivers to act in ways that they feel improve their situation while slowing the overall traffic flow.

    One interesting thing about public transit is that if the infrastructure isn’t there, then it won’t be used, and if it isn’t being used, it isn’t as likely to get expanded. Between that and inequitable pricing, public transit has been severely stifled in my area.

  6. Lowdogg Says:

    Too often mass transit is seen as the either/or to highway expansion, and the truth is that many mass transit supporters would vehemently oppose road expansion, thinking it undermines the cause, and supporters of road expansion think their cause will be sufficient and that mass transit is an extra and unnecessary expense.

    It’s all about density. Mass transit is great when you have it, but without sufficient density it often languishes, and all goodwill disappears. Portland seems to be doing quite well. The guy just seems like a grumbler.

  7. Argus Skyhawk Says:

    Eric, I am also hoping you send this to The Oregonian.

  8. Andrew D Says:

    I can only think of two possible explanations for Mr. Grosso’s (*giggle*) claims:

    -He’s truly worried about the project costing the community millions and millions of dollars from increased taxes and re-directed public funding.

    -He’s upset that no one asked him what Oregon should do about the impending transportation problem first.

    As for construction work causing his blood to boil, could it have something to do with assigning eight workers to dig one hole (two to dig, six to watch)?

  9. Steven Gardner Says:

    If I, myself, am included in the “people” category, then Mr. Gross is full of crap by one when he writes, “People will never give up the comfort and freedom of their cars in favor of public transportation, especially in a climate where it rains seven months a year.”

    People have and people do.

  10. whome Says:

    Fiery Darts, I’m not sure how familiar you are with Portland drivers, but my experience when I lived there was quite interesting. When the freeway bottlenecked, almost everyone took turns. If someone turned on their blinker, people would politely make a space for them. Granted, this was ten years ago, but I doubt it has changed all that much (correct me if I’m wrong, Eric). Portland drivers were among the most courteous in any major city in which I’ve lived or visited. It’s even stranger in Eugene where almost everyone follows the speed limits. But these practices really do help traffic flow in these Oregon towns.

  11. stephkitten Says:

    I just have to say, in regards to Baltimore, I lived there for about two years, and it is almost impossible to get anywhere useful in Baltimore using their public transportation. The light rail doesn’t go to useful places, and with the crime rate as high as it is, you are likely to get mugged or murdered or something at a light rail stop. It always freaked the hell out of me anyways. Also, the buses are unreliable and the subway is completely useless…I think people don’t even know Balto HAS a subway because it goes pretty much nowhere. The most useful public transportation I ever used there were the shuttles operated by the university I attended. (To be fair, the MARC train was one useful means of public transportation) This goes along with Fiery Dart’s comment about infrastructure…if you don’t make the public transportation useful and convenient, people won’t use it. If they do, people will if it gets them out of traffic.

  12. Uptown Girl Says:

    I lived in the Portland area for an entire summer without a car. This of course, was only possible because of three things: the MAX, my bicycle, and my ability to purchase a year-long MAX pass for $10 from my employer. I’m happy to see that Portland is expanding the system. I wish more cities would expand their public transport systems and patter them after the Tri-Met system in Portland.

  13. Shumway Says:

    Wow, lightrail. Fascinating.

  14. shib Says:

    Sweet. You have now fully submitted to the temptation of using your website for political purposes. This should make for some good future debates. May I point out that you don’t have any numbers to show that additional light rail will be the best use of public money to reduce traffic. All you have, as you say, is logic. That’s enough for citizens to form opinions but it shouldn’t be enough for leaders to make decisions. When the roads get too crowded, there are other options besides mass transit. Ever heard of carpool lanes or toll lanes?

  15. Markk Says:

    “People will never give up the comfort and freedom of their cars in favor of public transportation.�

    Can we get that nominated as the Most Moronic Statement Of All Time? Mr. Grosso should know that I use public transport regularly despite owning a car, as do many, many other people.

  16. Carrie Says:

    (Did I spy Mr. Cornelius? THE Mr. Cornelius?)

  17. Karen Stout Says:

    Does anyone know how to remove a gypsy curse on a car? After I ran over the guy’s chicken, I offered him various gold coins, essential oils, and home-made banana nut bread, but he was not moved.

    I’m sorry, Eric. Good thing you live where Miss Folsom is not really needed.

    By the way, I’m not sure I understand shib’s objection. This IS a blog, isn’t it?

  18. David Cornelius Says:

    “(Did I spy Mr. Cornelius? THE Mr. Cornelius?)”

    Well, you spied A Mr. Cornelius, at least.

  19. Jonathan Says:

    I’m glad they’re adding the light rail, but don’t know why they’re putting it on the bus mall going through downtown. I saw a rendered video of the final thing and it has trains, buses, and cars all weaving in and out and around each other. It looked rather comical.

    The only other concern I have is that the light rail at rush hour is already maxed out. Every train is bulging at the seams with people. And they can’t increase the length of the trains since Portland blocks are so small. So if a million people really move here in the next 20 years like they say, we will need even more public transit than this.

  20. Lowdogg Says:

    I wasn’t aware that transportation debates were political in nature.

  21. Matt Says:

    What about this is political? A guy wrote a dumb letter to the editor and Eric pointed out the flaws in it with some real data. There is no reason why public transit should be a political issue. Why is it that every time people disagree about something we have to assign a political party to their view?


  22. Lance Armstrong Says:

    I am in favor of mass transit. But I do not approve of any light rail system that instantly and unexpectedly turns my front tire into a big stick.

  23. shib Says:

    Matt, when an issue is decided by government, it is political. I didn’t say anything about a particular party. Unless this light rail is being put in by a private company with no government funding or approval (unlikely), then it has to go through the political system. That’s just what the word “political” means. We had politics even before Dems and the GOP.

    I don’t see how public transit could not be a political issue. Do you want there to be only one government leader who makes all the decisions without being accountable to anyone? Probably not. Then any policy that needs to be debated is a political issue.

    Eric wrote a blog entry and I pointed out some flaws in it, why is it that when people disagree with Eric we have to assign “dumbness” to their views?

  24. Matt Says:

    Because it was dumb.

  25. Tammy Says:

    That sign where the cyclist is eating it on the lightrail tracks is my favorite. It also makes me laugh. Every time.

    I lived downtown for 5 years with no need for a car because of Portland’s mass transit. Now I have to sit in traffic because I live and work in suburbia … and it sucks.

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