Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Mass Transit That Isn't

Portland, Oregon just built an Aerial Tram -- yes, a streetcar that is suspended by cables in the air -- connecting the Willamette waterfront to the Oregon Health and Science University. The cars and stations look stunning; the trip sounds like a fantastic tourist experience; and in some ways, the fact that the route is so limited and the cars so few -- just two 78-passenger cabins, probably less than the number of people I was jammed in with last week in one car on the Market-Frankford line in Philly -- just adds to its charm.

One woman, according to the New York Times, said that she'd "like it even more if it was 20 times slower and they served cocktails.” And apparently, so many people wanted to ride it when it opened to the public this weekend that the city decided to make the tram free of charge for every Saturday in February.

The regular fare is $4, roundtrip; an annual pass is $100.

The aerial tram seems to solve some of the problems of mass transit in already crowded cities, like how to create private-right-of-way without digging tunnels or closing streets. But in some ways, this little leg of Portland's already copious transit system isn't concerned -- or at least isn't primarily concerned -- with the typical problems of mass transit at all. The tram shaves ten minutes off the commute by car, but shortening a fifteen minute commute isn't a problem that demands that a city and school make this kind of public outlay. Instead, the goal seems to be principally aesthetic: "Some say it will give eminently livable Portland an aesthetic exclamation point it lacks, something like the Golden Gate Bridge or the Space Needle in Seattle."

Portland may well be the only city that I've never visited that I often think that I would very much like to live in someday.

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