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A free ride, but no free parking: Portland's Swiss Alps

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Location: Oregon

PostPosted: Tue Jan 30, 2007 11:54 pm    Post subject: A free ride, but no free parking: Portland's Swiss Alps Reply with quote

Portland has joined the fraternity of places that have their own aerial tram.

Much has been written of the progress of this project that got us to this point:
OHSU's inability to expand in its hilly, isolated location; the dream of a
biomedical campus; the original $15 million projected cost, and the
ulitmate $57 million price tag; the objections of neighbor beneath the tram
(not a problem in the Swiss Alps).

What strikes me though, after all the noise dies down, is how this aerial
tram is both a stunning success and a stunning failure.

The success is easy to see and experience. Free, even, if you show up
on a Friday night or Saturday during February 2007. Or, if you are an
OHSU employee. I don't know this, but patients shuttling between the
two sites probably get a free pass too, but that seems like a high price
to pay, ultimately.

Even with a $4 round trip ticket cost, every Portlander will be well-advised
to take the trip. The view, of course, is incomparable. The only other
view of Portland available to the public that even comes close is from
the bar on top of the BankAmerica building ("Big Pink"). Unlike the tram
which gives an ever-changing view of Portland, the bar at big pink
(I'll always think of it as "Atwater's", though it'll probably change again
before I finish typing: apparently it's 'location, location, something else')
gives just a static view (unless, perhaps, you've had too many of their
overpriced martinis).

The ride is, in a word: fun. I probably rode the tram at its worst,
packed full of gawkers, and I mean full. The cabin is spacious enough
to hold 40-50 passengers, and on the ride I took they were doing
everything but employing Tokyo Subway crowd squeezers to fit folks
in. I doubt it will ever be so full again on a Sunday afternoon. A nice
little note: one woman was concerned that they didn't count the people
entering the tram; they count the weight, not the people.

It's an E-ticket ride all right. A steep rise to the first tower, and then
a surprise (spoiler alert!): upon cresting the tower, the tram rocks enough
for you to want something to hold on to (or room to shift your weight
to adjust - like surfing or riding a bus while standing). In what seems
will become a Portland tradition, the audience, I mean the passengers,
let out a collective "Whoo!". From there, it's clear sailing: an ever-
expanding panorama of east Portland and a portion of downtown.
Oh, and the Williamette River, and the sundecks of the Lair Hill
neighborhood. Don't forget your binoculars! Whoo-hoo!

As a tourist, I couldn't escape the curse of tourism: the anomie of arrival.
A true tourist finds it easy to endure a few hardships (a long line,
a bit of physical discomfort), amortising the cost of getting there
against the reward of being where you are going. But there's a
moment, the moment of arrival, where you wonder: "what do I do now?"
Wander around, look at things, take pictures to prove I was here, and
go back. In retrospect, the journey becomes not a cost to amortise,
but a reward in itself, while the destination ends up just as boring as
every other.

Of course, patients, doctors, and the staff will have their own version
of what it means to arrive at the top of the hill, having something to
do with the progress of a disease, or a career.

But Portland's Aerial Tram has a big advantage over its brothers
in other places: a place worth going to. OHSU is truly a city on a hill.
Coffee shops and cafeterias abound. A skybridge (to the VA) that
looks out over the city and the tram. A building (Doernbecher) that
is nothing but a skybridge, over the valley that bisects the campus.
ATM machines, a library open to the public (probably the best medical
library for hundreds of miles), lecture series (best to get on the mailing
list), plaques, even a medical supply store (need a new stethoscope
or model of a skeleton?). It might be easy to think of OHSU as
just a university, or even a mall, if it weren't for the sick and those
waiting on them. A little humility serves the tourist well in this case,
gratitude for one's own well-being the reward.

If you turn right, just as you arrive at OHSU, a long, sunlit hallway
has been used as an art gallery, with artworks that caught my eye
and that I still think about. Just be sure to view them from several
angles, because the glare from the windows can wash them out
from some perspectives.

There's a guard station there, but a seasoned traveller should not
let them stop you from exploring beyond the lobby. There's a pretty
good Reuben sandwich that awaits the intrepid who keeps training west,
and homestyle meals with veggies, meat and starch, for less than
$5 for those who seek and find a more distant cafeteria.

For adventurers without webbed feet or excess stamina, it is interesting
to note that it is possible to go from nearly any point on the campus
(spanning 20+ stories from valley basement to mountaintop penthouse
and covering tens of acres of real estate) to any other point, without
using stairs or going outside in the rain. Such is the nature of the
OHSU campus.

Still, at some point, it is time to go. And the tram is just as fun going
down as it was going up. Even better, the surprise (see above) is near
the end ("Whoo!") and ,for the tourist, returning may be the sweetest

The tram itself is sleek, slightly aerodynamic, and attractive. The
towers have a grace and strength that is comforting to someone
entrusting their safety to a couple of steel cables. The whole thing
looks like Ikea furniture in stainless steel. Not a bad look.

So, you could, and probably already have, count me as a booster.
The tram is a fantastic engineering success, a great tourist attraction,
and a must-see for any Portlander who has even a little civic
patriotism (civiotism?). What could possibly be wrong with such
an achievement?

The failure of the aerial tram lies in what it isn't and what it doesn't do.

To understand this, you need to know a bit more about OHSU and
it's campus. OHSU was built on land donated by a railroad company
that bought the land sight unseen when Portland was first being developed.
On early maps, it looked like a good place for a railway switching yard.
Of course, hills are not great places for trains.

The campus is constrained both by buildable space (witness the
Doernbecher building ostentatiously built *over* a valley) and
access (only a few two-lane roads leading in). With over 11,000
employees, and some 2,000-3,000 parking places, parking is an
intense activity, and probably the biggest indication of status in
a status-heavy organization, as ubiquitous a topic as who has a
private office, and whose nameplate is by the door.

There's a kind of European emphasis on mass transit as the solution,
and entry-level employees find it nearly impossible to justify the
expense of parking, even if it were available, which it is not. There
is a 5-year waiting list for monthly parking passes, and daily parking
is often not available at any price. Of course, everything is done
to make it possible for patients to park, but even they have troubles.
The access roads are narrow and winding, and often getting off
"the hill" takes 30 minutes or more, even for buses, even though
the distance is only a mile or two. Even if the University built
more parking, the milllionaire neighbors would protest (and probably win)
in a fight to limit the traffic through their neghborhood. In bad weather,
even the buses won't attempt the dangerous climb.

If there were any place that cried out for an alternative transit solution
it would be OHSU. Unfortunately, the Portland Aerial tram is not
that solution, and was designed to not be that solution from the beginning.
The waterfront site could've been an excellent park and ride location
for OHSU commuters as well as for patients. Why it wasn't I can only
guess. Maybe there isn't room on the trendy waterfront site for a
ten-story parking garage. I don't know. But a great opportunity
has been lost, and I can only shake my head at what is arguably
the most transit-oriented city in the US missing this chance to connect
the city's largest employer with the people that make it work.

Which brings me back to the beginning. Last Sunday I went to the
opening weekend for the public for the tram. Rides were free, but
when I went to park in an open parking lot, some fellows walked up
and wanted $10 to me to park. I guess I should've been pleased
they weren't hawking tram tickets and souvenir balloons.

On Sunday, rides were free, unlike the bumper sticker you sometimes
see ("No Free Ride"), but parking wasn't, unlike the monopoly board,
where theres at least one free place to park. Portland has a great
new asset, one sure to show up on many postcards, but "Pill Hill",
now Portland's answer to the Swiss Alps, is still just as inaccessible
to the masses of OHSU employees as it ever was. I expect that
tourists will be enjoying the ride ("Whoo!") for decades to come, but
OHSU staffers will be fighting over parking and a place on the bus
for even longer.

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