new, but not improved a whole lot

Here in Portland, a city known for its forward thinking urbanistically, successful and growing mass transit system, and famous rejection of proposed and existing freeways in favor of parks and light rail, is in the process of “improving” its light rail and bus hub in downtown by throwing them all together, along with a “business” mandate that cars driven by nincompoops from Washougal, WA be allowed to share the scant three lanes with them.

Predictably, the architects and promoters of the original bus malls, which occupied the one-way couplets of 5th and 6th Avenues in a leafy, tree-canopied pair of streets, almost completely free of cars, that provided transit users with an easy, intuitive and relatively quick way to traverse either the fareless downtown or the still inexpensive routes outward, protested the idea of adding so much new traffic to these lush arteries.  Wide brick sidewalks and sometimes double rows of trees joined fountains and sheltering, mushroomlike bus shelters that with their curving glass, bronze metalwork, and handy phone booths and video monitors, were a great combination of Paris Metro meets Starship Enterprise.  During commuter hours, the malls flooded with people and succeeded much better than similar redevelopments of the era (completed 1977) and still looked and worked pretty beautifully until they decided to “fix” it.

Now, the historic lamp posts which also carry the overhead wires, elsewhere painted deep bronze with bright gold accents, are sprayed filing cabinet gray, to match the cold steel and grey of the new urban furniture, occupying much less space than before due to the widening of the streets.  The cozy shelters have been replaced by a typical, high fashion architect’s  Jetson’s thing that offers less protection than an umbrella turned inside out, which nonetheless appears to have been its model.

The worst part, though, is the effect on whether traversing from the south end of downtown, say CHNN headquarters, to the train station at the other end, takes longer than a trip to the airport, which it could at rush hour in its old configuration, owing to too-frequent stops and abundant cross-traffic in a city where all blocks are a mere 200′ square.  So naturally the answer was to add light rail, SUV’s driven by Clark County residents, and trucks to the already slow bus mall, and that would enable the Downtown retailers to sell more Cinnabons or something.  The result is a bizarre weave of train and bus, complex signaling, and a million dumb suburban drivers who had apparently received aTwitter to come to town the day it opened, but yet, it was actually faster.  To compensate for the absurd complexity of the lane configurations, the fact that the light rail trains are about 3″ shorter than the blocks, and the whole idea was balderdash, Trimet, our transit authority, finally decided to make all bus stops four blocks apart instead of two, thirty years late.  Four blocks is less than a thousand feet, people!  Can we PLEASE make this light?  Unfortunately, such speed comes entirely from the fact that light rail has not yet joined the buses and cars on the transit mall, as they will this Fall.  Whole blocks of bus lanes will be hopelessly blocked when a train is present, as one can easily see when stuck waiting for a lane to clear of buses before moving, and noting that a track for a block-long train lay beneath.

I have a feeling I’ll continue walking to the train station, rain or shine, unless I’m really early.  More’s the pity…  here in Portland we’re too polite to insist that these things move quickly, and that always should be the point of mass transit; convenience for its users, and beating any competition for speed and comfort  Here, we’ve made it “good for business” at the expense of its users, as this “improvement” illustrates, unflatteringly.


  1. Excuse, please, but the first sentence of the second paragraph seems to lead nowhere. (I figure I probably know where it’s headed, but maybe you could confirm by adding a destination?)

    Otherwise, my condolences. Even in paradise, it seems, eternal vigilance is still a useful watchphrase.

    • cocktailhag says:

      Thanks, WT… I fixed the offending sentence. Sometimes the new thoughts rush in before the old thought are fully laid out. I blame liquor and old age, in that order.

      • Oh, I know. I’m still pounding away on my latest, and I’m shocked — shocked, I tell you — at the sheer guile of non-sequiturs, dangling participles, inadvertent double-entendres, and offenses against good sense generally.

        Perhaps I should take up golf? My performances won’t be any sillier, but at least I’ll be able to trade my old terry cloth bathrobe in for a pair of plaid plus-fours.

        • cocktailhag says:

          My heavens, you put a lot more work into this than I do. I type twice, read once, hit publish, and let the brickbats fall where they may. (Except under ideal circumstances where a trusted compadre like yourself jumps in and corrects me right away, before anybody sees…)
          Thanks for that. My mother used to say I was “often a boor, but never a bore,” not unaffectionately. But she’d have been horrified had I been a boor speaking in incomplete sentences. She thanks you from her grave.

          • Never a bore, dahlink, much less a boor. I think of you more as a passacaglia and fugue, sometimes allegro, ma non troppo, but more often allegro vivace. Either way, a welcome antidote to the Great Toad of the mass media, and her uncountable brood of social-climbing acolytes.

  2. rmp says:

    They tried a mall on the famous south end of State Street in the loop. It only lasted a couple of years and they gave it up. Part of the problem was that the Magnificent Mile on the North end of downtown Michigan Ave. was a much more popular shopping area. Major Daley has put in some old fashioned bus stops and subway entrances on both State and Michigan and elsewhere that give a Parisian feel. It happened shortly after a trip to Paris. The mayor likes to steal good ideas. He has really made downtown much more attractive through strict codes when anyone remodels or builds new.

    I saw a 16th Street Mall in Denver that ran about 14 long blocks and with one end a bus terminal and the other a train station. It was not all that attractive although they had a lot of street vendors down the middle. No cars were allowed. No doubt due to complaints of people who didn’t like walking too far, they had a constant flow of buses that only went up and down 16th Street. The poor horse carriages didn’t seem to get any business. Maybe they do at night when the lovers come out. I feel quite certain the buses ruined their business and the aesthetics. At least they could have done what Chicago did and modify small tram cars with wheels that perform as buses.

  3. sysprog says:


    The subject of streetcars reminds me of “Corporate Crime Comics”.

    On a related note, dig the last photo in this 1888-to-1954 sequence from the Minneapolis Public Library.

    • cocktailhag says:

      Our streetcars came from the Czech Republic, since no American company makes them. Every time the rip up a street, there are tracks underneath the asphalt, where “progress” left them, to be expensively reinstalled later. In another 50 years or so we might have a system close to what we had before WWII. Maybe.

  4. harpie says:

    I was in Portland [too briefly] several years ago…a very intriguing place. I recently picked up a book about rainwater reclamation projects, in which the city figured prominently. I don’t have the book at the moment, but there is a Professor at University of Oregon [or is it Oregon State?] that’s a leader in the field. Reclaiming rainwater keeps it out of the sewer systems and makes it available for many other uses. There was also a gorgeous series of photos in the book of a village near Chicago which was built with rainwater reclamation as one of its main goals.

    • cocktailhag says:

      I’m a remodeling contractor, and therefore have numerous dealings with the city, and on-site disposal of rainwater is strongly encouraged; homeowners who disconnect their downspouts from the storm system are given a break on their water/sewer bills. In residential construction, the percentage of lot coverage with impermeable surfaces (roofs, pavement) is strictly regulated toward this end.
      In commercial and high-density residential, “green chic” has definitely taken over; everybody is putting in green roofs, capturing rainwater, capturing waste heat, using awnings (some with solar collectors!) to control heat from the sun, along with other old-fashioned improvements like opening windows in office buildings.
      Not sure who your professor is, although I attended U of O in the Pleistocene era, when said professor was probably spitting up strained carrots.

  5. dirigo says:

    Hag, maybe you can do some research and write a sarcastic remembrance of how, sometime in the twenties, General Motors may have deliberately destroyed trolley service in Los Angeles to make room for its belching diesel buses.

    You could give it a nice Chinatown turn or two.

    • cocktailhag says:

      Great idea, Dirigo… I have a half a shelf of books on just that subject, and even lived there for a while, which is an utterly infuriating experience, given the history. The Hag Theory of California is that the sheer amount of car-devoted pavement, visible landing at LAX, contributed mightily to the property tax revolt in 1987 that has turned the Golden State into a 3rd world kleptocracy. The little habitable land left must carry that which had to be paved over for cars, and now all that tarmac must be policed and maintained even as it contributes nothing except frustration for those stuck on it, and degrades the value of land within eye and earshot.
      They paved paradise and put up a parking lot, 600 square miles of it. Smart.

  6. dirigo says:

    I don’t charge any of my friends for my brainstorms. Run with it.