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Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Where you can get by walking

I had another in-the-flesh encounter with a Portland-area blogger today. This time it was ace observer Chris Snethen, whose wonderful blog with the unfortunate title "Undecided Resident" graces the OregonLive.com website.

A while back, Chris had challenged my assertion that "you can get there faster by walking" than by waiting for, and riding, the Portland Streetcar. He had conducted his own test of that proposition, and had asserted that it was faulty. He had tried to race the streetcar from Northwest Portland to Portland State, and the streetcar won hands down. I took exception to his methodology -- I thought he should have put himself in the place of someone who had just missed a streetcar -- and so we arranged to conduct further empirical research together.

We met at the OregonLive offices, where Mr. Velveeta and the Velvelettes were hard at work on their site. Alas, the Big Cheese could not join Chris and me for lunch as planned, because all hands were on deck to pitch in on coverage of the Nawlins disaster. So Snethen and I scored a Baja Fresh and headed out on our own.

Our test began at NW 18th and Lovejoy, where we waited briefly for a streetcar heading downtown, and let it go by. Once it was a block away, we put ourselves in the position of a hypothetical rider who was trying to decide whether to wait for the next one. How far could we get before the next one passed us? Wherever that was, we would get there faster by walking.

We headed east. The time was 1:15 p.m.

"Of course, I'm stacking the deck against the Streetcar," I confesssed as we meandered down Lovejoy. "Once you let one pass you by, you can always get somewhere faster on foot. The real question is how far you can get."

I knew we'd never make it to Portland State before the next streetcar did, but I was convinced we'd make it to about the Central Library. And so along the streetcar route we walked, at a normal pace, obeying traffic signals more or less.

It was a beautiful day -- brilliant sun, temperatures in the mid-70s and climbing. Snethen and I continued the conversation that had been going nonstop since we met in Velveetaville an hour and change before.

We see eye-to-eye on many things. And we know a lot about each other. This is why blogger "meetups" can be so intense: There's no need for much preliminary factfinding about the person you're with. You already know tons about them from their blog. So you can dive right into topics that you would never touch with a real stranger.

It was only 1:26 p.m. when the next streetcar caught up with us. We had made it to NW 11th and Glisan -- a mere 12 blocks. I had to admit, we hadn't gotten too far before The Toy had matched us. "Well, they've got ideal traffic conditions right now," I harrumphed, and they did. It was a sleepy late summer day in the Pearl, and there were few cars on the streets.

We kept going, just for kicks. We covered all sorts of topics as we walked -- blogging, careers, the Portland power structure, bosses, The O, both of our radio days, sports, the San Francisco cable cars, the 'Couv. The day grew a little hotter, and we got a little sweatier, as we sauntered south on 11th.

We made it only as far as Main when the next streetcar caught us. It was 1:43. And so if you had just missed the car at 11th and Glisan, you could have gotten to 11th and Main faster by walking than by waiting for, and riding, the next one. But 13 blocks -- that's not that long a stretch.

"Oh, well. I guess it's my week for apologies and retractions," I sighed. "I was just wrong again."

We headed back to our starting point a different way, back past the Mallory Hotel and the Oregonian printing plant. "There's my first apartment," Snethen pointed out, a block off our path, in the direction of Lincoln High. Great memories, except for the cockroaches.

"There go the Civic Apartments," I mused as we passed the bulldozers and crane at the demolition site across from the Civic Stadium. "Those babies were quite the eyesore, but I don't think I'm going to like what's going up in their place much, either."

"I remember going to a game at the stadium and seeing drug deals going on out the window of that place," Snethen recalled. "It was a drive-through."

On our way from there back to 17th and Northrup (where we had stashed our two cars), it dawned on me what a good time I was having, and what a great place Portland still is for goofing off and taking a nice long walk. My whole attitude about the city had taken an optimistic shift. We have spent way too much money on toys and Californication, but if you're just wandering around, not thinking about how it's being paid for, it looks and feels quite fine.

There's a real danger of getting too negative after blogging for a while. Look at how many journalists suffer from alcoholism, family problems, depression. The activity of writing about public affairs attracts intensely critical minds -- minds already inclined to look for what's wrong -- and it has the distinct tendency to kill the spirits of the writers as they stay professionally focused on society's warts.

And as technology enables us to engage in such activity in our own little cells, there's an isolation that makes the internal challenges even harder than in the days when the reporters all sat together smoking cigarettes and pounding out the stories on manual typewriters in big newsrooms. We now have all the heartbreak, and little or none of the face-to-face cameraderie -- not a good formula.

Racing the streetcar on a gorgeous day with a great guy like Snethen is the perfect antidote.

Comments (17)

Ha! I am trying sooooo hard not to say "I told you so."

Chris Smith: Ha! I am trying sooooo hard not to say "I told you so."

JK: Did you ever find the cost of the streetcar on a per PASSENGER-MILE BASIS?

Does it cost less than taxi fare or more? Or about the same, like MAX?

BTW, am I still banned from your blog, portlandtransport.com?


Chris Smith: Ha! I am trying sooooo hard not to say "I told you so."

JK: Hi Chris! Did you ever get data on the streetcar cost per passenger-mile?

Is the streetcar more expensive than taxi fare? Or less expensive than taxi fare? Or about the same as taxi fare, like MAX?

BTW, am I still banned from your blog, portlandtransport.com?


That's quite an entertaining story. It strikes me as interesting that Portland's public transportation is so extensive that you can quibble about the benefits of "yet another mode" (and I mean that in a good way, about the quibbling) when, in another month or so, the majority of Snethen's own Clark County may have no public transportation at all. What a difference a river makes.
On the bright side, the more transit we lose in the 'Couv, the higher the Max ridership gets.

As a soon to be (again) grad student at PSU, coming in from the westside by MAX, I can still beat the streetcar by foot from the Library to PSU.

the problem with the streetcar is that it is only useful for a very small number of people. and the problem with max is that if you have to go more than a few miles, it just takes too damn long - if i wanted to ride it to work in hillsboro i would take an hour and a half

Rodney, where the hell do you live? Unless you count a long trip to the MAX and you live in Gresham, there are very few trips for which it will take you an hour and a half on MAX. Even in rush hour, the Blue line makes the whole trip, start to finish, in 94 minutes. Google Maps says that would take 55 minutes to drive, even without considering snails pace traffic on 84 and 26 at that hour.

i was counting the entire trip. i live in north portland -

a. so I walk down to interstate to catch the max and wait for it to arrive - 10 minutes
b. ride it downtown - 15 minutes
c. ride it out to hillsboro airport stop - 40 minutes
d. wait for shuttle to work - 10 minutes
e. ride shuttle to work - 10 minutes

Same situation here. I can get into my car and drive to work, door-to-door, in 25 minutes. Coming home, it takes 30 because traffic is heavier. If I took Tri-met, it would involve taking Max from Elmonica to downtown, then transferring to a bus. Total time door to door with mass transit: 75-80 minutes. Time is money, and I don't have the time to do that - nor do I have the inclination to stand up on a MAX train all the way from Elmonica to Portland (and back in the afternoon) shoved up against the door because everybody's already got seats.

I can sit in the comfort of my car, listen to my own tunes (versus the tunes of sixteen other people on the train), and get to work in around a third of the time. It's a no-brainer for me. I don't care how high gas prices go, I'm not going back on Tri-Met.

I don't think anyone is compelling you take Max. Your 30 minute commute would be significantly worse if there was no transit.

And of course, not everyone has the option of choosing to drive into the face of a spike in gas prices. Heck, not everyone can afford to own a car, period.

I'd much rather see some competition, like privately-owned transit service. Why does Tri-Met get to the only purveyor of mass transit? I'd much rather someone give the government transit agency a run for its money.

Anyhow, their promotion of train service (a 19th century fixed-route technology in 21st century America) runs completely counter to common sense. We had perfectly fine bus service in those areas, which Tri-Met cancelled in order to force people to take their trains. Busses can go *anywhere*. Light rail has to stay on its little track.

id like to see an express train.

privately-owned transit service

Without massive public subsidy, you're dreaming. There isn't a transit system anywhere that doesn't lose money on every single rider.

I'm sure for the right price, the Usual Suspects of Portland would be glad to run you one.

Portland Publius: Your 30 minute commute would be significantly worse if there was no transit.

JK: If we had of built road capacity, instead of MAX we would have little or no congestion there.

Space for those extra lanes? They are the same size as tracks.

All rail does is move people from buses to rail. NO MORE. Cost: ONE BILLION.

"JK: If we had of built road capacity, instead of MAX we would have little or no congestion there."

That's an amazing stretch of cause and effect. Soon enough, Clark County will be as big as Portland. How many lanes would you need to handle all those commuters? Enough that Jack wouldn't have to commute to the freeway; it'd be right outside his front door. Cars and trucks are not a sustainable method of mass transit (period)

JB: "There isn't a transit system anywhere that doesn't lose money on every single rider."

Probably because they're all run by the government.

There used to be a lot of privately run, for-profit transit systems all over America.

They all went under. If privately operated transit systems could still make money, we'd still have them.

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