There is probably no other U.S. city as bold and brash and pioneering in mass transit as is Portland, Oregon. The latest display of transit brash in Portland is an aerial tram, which opened in late January, and which I rode last week when I was there visiting family.
The Portland aerial tram is one more original puzzle piece in the city's transit picture. It all started twenty years ago this year, when Portland opened its first light rail line. That first line has seen three additions. Six years ago, the Portland Streetcar got every other city in the U.S. talking about streetcars. And the tram will probably get cities thinking about ways to put the sky into their public transit systems.
On the west bank of the Willamette River, cliffs that are almost mountains rise up and perfectly frame the city's downtown. A little south of downtown, in a former industrial area called the South Waterfront, these cliffs rise up fairly close to the edge of the water. On the side of one cliff sits the crystal highrises of the Oregon Health and Science University campus. The cliff doesn't provide a whole lot more room for the campus to expand, so they are expanding down below, on the waterfront, where dense high rise housing is also going in.
The aerial tram takes you from the south waterfront up to the 9th floor of a building on the OHSU campus. The tram is composed of two silver pods held in the air by an overhead wire. Terminals down below and on the 9th floor of a building are connected by the cable, and there is one tower between the two terminals that gets the pods up into the air. As one pod goes up, the other goes down.
Riding the tram is a little like riding in Willie Wonka's glass elavator. There are big windows that let you look down at the rooftops and out to gorgeous volcano views (on clear days). I rode with my nearly four year old nephew, and his eyes lit up with the magic of the ride.
The ride is only a few minutes long, but you are soon up on the side of the hill. We rode the ride just to take it, and had lunch up at the hillside campus.
Portland is a place that takes transit seriously. They could have built a small parking garage for the money spent on it, or a road, but instead they built a bold gesture that you don't need a car to use.