Wednesday, February 28, 2007


This past weekend we got about a foot of snow. It sounds like more snow is on the way. At times like this, I am more happy than ever that I do not own a car.

From the car owners that I know, I have been hearing one complaint after another. On Sunday I watched my neighbors spend an hour or more digging their cars out of the snow drifts on the side of our street. I have talked to friends whose cars were towed so that the streets could be shovelled. They had to wait in line for an hour to get their car back, plus pay a fine and towing charge. Drivers have had accidents, they have had to dig their cars out of road sides, they were stranded for much of Sunday. But I got around pretty much as usual, taking transit and walking.

Snowplows do plow snow onto sidewalks, which don't always get shovelled for a few days. But stepping over a pile of snow in your snowboots is something I'd much rather do than dig my car out of a drift or shovel a whole driveway to park it in.

It is at times like these that I really have to count my blessings, and one of the chief blessings I have is the absence of car.

Monday, February 19, 2007

portland aerial tram

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.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

portland, oregon

i was in portland, oregon this last week visiting family members there and walking and taking transit to get around. there were signs up around town that it was the 20th anniversary of the first max line. twenty years ago, portland opened the first leg of its light rail system. there have been four expansions since then and another line is now under construction. they have a popular streetcar, and a couple weeks ago, the latest addition to their transit system opened. it is called the portland aerial tram, and it is a wire suspended gondola that takes you from the portland south waterfront up to the campus of the Oregon Health Science University, on the hillside above the city.

portland may only have one professional sports team, it might not have as a high a profile as some other metros, but it is often one of the only U.S. cities i see on international lists of first class cities for walkers, bikers and transit users. twenty years of light rail have made the city see that alternative forms of transportation work, and the city and metro have committed funds and dreams to making it possible for people to get around well without a car.

i walked all over the city, and always saw other people walking around me. the weather was much warmer there than here in the upper midwest. spring was starting, and bulbs were popping out of the soil. but walking goes on in portland year round. it seems that people there walk not only for health, but to get places, and also for the sheer entertainment of walking.

saturday night i walked down broadway street after spending some time at the Oregon Historical Society. Altho some people looked like they might have been walking to get someplace, and some folks were walking their dogs, many people had that look on their faces that they were walking just to walk, that they were walking for the sheer entertainment of it.

there were many cars in portland, many people driving, but there are almost just as many not driving. there is a transportation balance in portland that doesn't exist in many or even any other U.S. city of that size. sure, people drive and park in parking lots. but many other people don't drive. they find that they live a great life walking and taking transit and biking. and the city has reshaped itself over the last twenty years to make those alternative modes competitive to the car. it seems to me that this could only be seen as fair. minneapolis doesn't have this balance. i hope it gets there someday, and the sooner the better, as far as i am concerned.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

cold and a walk

it was quite cold last night but i had a nice long walk to the california street building to see an art show and sale of a friend preparing to move and casting out his past work. on the long walk there i went completely inside. i was aware of car traffic and of the snowy mess on most of the sidewalks, i saw the texture change sometimes to ice and made adjustments to my walking but my concentration and energy was all on myself, on keeping my heat inside. i think it was a little bit below 0 degrees F but the walk was tolerable, brilliant and amazing.

it took me a while to adjust to the changes, the heat and light and crowd inside the gallery space. outside, it had been just me and the cars. here were the people, and the paintings and drawings and prints. i looked hard at the images. i saw my friend thru his paint and ink and the patterns of his thoughts and eyes on the walls around me. i picked out an image of the inside of a bus, seen from the back, and almost floating up, out of body. there was one silhouette on the bus with the seats and windows in japanese black ink over white. it was very like my walk to there, my walk back home.