tracking our future

Trimet’s yet unnamed transit bridge along with the majority of infrastructure for the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail project is nearly complete (Trimet)

The Pacific Northwest is known for its spectacular natural environment and its rather progressive culture, but it is also a place of strong political division. For the most part the politics line up as both conservatives and liberals want to protect the forests, farms, and the freedom of individuals, albeit for different reasons. The real fight in Oregon and Washington is not between urban and rural though, for as liberal and urbanist Portland and Seattle are, both are completely surrounded by a thick layer of Anywhere, USA suburbia. That is where the real cultural battleground is. I bring this up because both Portland and Seattle are expanding their transit systems with new light rail projects, and both had to endure extremely long and drawn out fights in the suburbs. Mind you, Portland and Seattle are very different, and comparing them is textbook apples and oranges, but the difference in placemaking between the two transit agencies’ design outcomes is extremely fascinating.

Quick background: Seattle’s Sound Transit is in final design for their 10 station light rail extension called East Link, and Portland’s Trimet is already constructing its 10 station light rail extension called the Portland-Milwaukie or Orange Line. Compared to Seattle’s, Portland’s extension is about half the overall scope; half the length (7 miles vrs. 14), half the cost ($1.5 billion vrs. $2.8), half the ridership projections (23,000 daily boardings vrs. 50,000 by 2030), and about half the travel time if you consider that both have 10 station stops (20 mins vrs. 32 mins including boarding times, 15 mins vrs. 27 mins without). Other than the station spacing the two projects are relatively comparable.

More info and specific station designs and area planning: Sound Transit and Trimet.

Here are two videos made at around the same level of design, regardless of graphics, compare the language used to describe the environs and specific places they are creating…

The glaringly obvious difference between the two projects is the chosen infrastructure and how it interacts with the built environment, even though fundamentally they use the same light rail technology. East Link is designed for optimizing automobile transportation with an almost entirely grade separated mix of massive viaducts, walled trenches, tunnels, and roadway improvements whereas the Orange Line is almost entirely at-grade with a focus on pedestrian and bicycle improvements. Michael Andersen over at posted a thorough investigation into the Orange Line improvements last week. [3/29 edit: has new coverage of two East Link stations here] It appears that where Trimet is trying to connect itself to the existing urban fabric, Sound Transit is trying to completely ignore it. The Orange line actually minimizes its impact by blending itself with the landscape and improving neighborhood connectivity and streetscape, but East Link’s desire for separation actually makes a far bigger impact on its surroundings creating a bigger divide than was there before. Take a look at a few examples:

East Link’s South Bellevue 3-story elevated station and unattached 1500 car parking garage with station access barriers in every direction: a highway blocking unconnected cul-de-sac neighborhoods on one side, a massive nature park on the other side (Sound Transit)

The Orange Line’s Tacoma station has a similar preexisting landscape to the South Bellevue station, but includes multiple pedestrian, auto and bicycle connections to the surrounding neighborhoods, and Trimet reduced the total car parking from 800 originally planned to 320 with an additional 120 bike stalls (Trimet)

East Link’s deep trench at the historic Winters House will have the most expensive driveway in Bellevue, with no pedestrian connections across the highway-esque boulevard to the surrounding neighborhood (Sound Transit)

The streets around the Orange Line’s Clinton station have already seen numerous pedestrian, auto, freight rail, and bicycle improvements, a welcome change to an area notorious for bad connections (Trimet)

Both designs have positive and negative aspects, of course, but the impact on the human environment is like night and day. East Link looks like 1960’s highway planning compared to the Orange Line’s urbanist approach. Trimet did tear out a huge swath of Southeast Portland in order to stitch it back together, but the end result of Sound Transit’s unwillingness to integrate into the suburban neighborhood appears to encourage auto-dependance rather than improve alternatives. I feel that this is a prime example of the politics that drive our infrastructure decisions today. Our national mortgage laws, taxation, and economy are still geared toward endless suburban growth, a growth that is entrenched in peoples minds as culture. Seattle itself has had a great urban renaissance in the inner city, it is a shame those lessons did little to disprove the anti-rail narrative already in circulation around Bellevue. The vocal minority can achieve great things in our society, for better or for worse.

In Portland, the vocal minority of the region found ways to discourage future transit into the suburbs by drafting suburban-only legislation that restricts such projects shortly after this project started construction. This backlash of urbanization is widespread across the United States, and can be seen as a natural reaction to the end of a way of life. Over the past generation suburbia has already changed, and American central cities are now thriving once again mostly due to a rejection of the suburban form and its psychological and sociological effects on people. Admittedly that is a generalization and oversimplification of national trends, but the next generation already drives less, bikes and walks more, and prefers purchasing homes in the streetcar suburbs rather than the post-war suburbs.

All East Link stations are never far from plentiful auto parking and the elevated design allows for slightly faster service, and unlike other stations the Bellevue Hospital station has a pedestrian path (Sound Transit)

The Bellevue East Link station was originally slated as either street running or as a subway near the city center, but was moved to the edge of downtown next to the freeway further from residences and businesses making the expensive tunnel component a moot point (Sound Transit)

The overarching point to this is that the Orange Line looks to make unique places out of all of the spaces it touches and encourages redevelopment, whereas the East Link project appears to be far more utilitarian in moving people from existing destination to destination without changing development patterns. Since there are subjective benefits to each project, I am in favor of both, but I do feel that Trimet’s choices are more in line with the livability and long-term sustainability goals needed in our modern age. Only time will tell of course…


9 responses to “tracking our future

  1. Thanks for your thoughtful and interesting writing – you are filling a void in Portland for architecture/design writing. I juts moved from Portland to Seattle and spend a fair amount of time comparing the two and have several small observations about your post. One is that tri-met may be hitting a home run on this project, but on the red/blue line through the suburbs and the new green line not a lot of place-making occurred. For the most part they, like Sound Transit followed the path of least resistance and threw the line on highway right of ways isolated from the neighborhood they are supposed to serve. My other observation is that while Seattle is in many ways behind Portland is bike/ped/transit development, many of its suburbs have embraced urban density more successfully than Portland’s have and as such could benefit from transit more. Downtown Bellevue has a skyline that rivals Portland’s and thousands of residents (even if the street still have a few too many lanes), downtown Kirkland feels like a real walkable neighborhood and downtown Redmond has 1,000 plus apartments in the works. I think is is great that you are comparing the two as they both have so much to learn from one another. Keep up the good work.

    • Thank you, I tend to appreciate the slow city approach, and Trimet has certainly had the benefit of time as each new extension is added years after the previous. The older Blue Line has some elements that Trimet will never replicate again. I fear that Sound Transit, having only the Central Link portion completed, will not have the same hindsight benefits, but the Seattle area has the momentum and funding right now to create a regional network, an exciting opportunity that smaller Portland has never had. If all cities grew the same, what makes them unique?

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  3. Grade separation means higher train speeds, which makes transit more competitive with driving. The #1 reason people give for taking/not taking transit is travel time and how many errands they can fit in a day. That means trains need to run at 55 mph, not 35, and not waiting for lights to change as MAX does when leaving western stations. MAX is crippled by a downtown surface segment, as well as by the Steel Bridge which is grade-separated but is as slow as if it weren’t. A downtown tunnel and new bridge would make it much more effective and gain more riders, and make me more willing to move to Portland. East Link and Lynnwood Link have some unfortunately isolated routing and stations, which is due to compromises with the City of Bellevue and with those who wanted an I-5 alignment. Yes, they are basically anti-train and pushed the train away from its ideal location. But I’m glad that Link is more grade-separated than other light rail systems because it makes it more usable and effective.

    • “Grade separation means higher train speeds.” Does it? According to Trimet and Sound Transit the Orange Line and East Link will run an average of 28 and 31 mph respectively between stations. This surprised me, as I was always told grade separation was much faster (even NY Subway averages 25-30 mph!). A subway route through downtown Portland would be faster for sure, but the ridership number increases still don’t pen out for tunneling costs (versus the cost of other expansions into the suburbs). A tunnel would allow for longer trains like Link, something Portland’s small blocks will never allow. A lot of people will only ride transit if its faster of course, even if only by minutes.

      • I think both of you reiterate one of the best points of your article; namely, different transit systems somehow indicate different ambitions for the cities they serve. I share your admiration for both of them and, as you also point out, for the opposite reasons.

        The MAX contributes a sense of integration between all forms of transit (everything from pedestrians to cyclists to trains all at grade). The point of light rail, for the ideal MAX customer, is to facilitate reliable rail service between neighborhoods while somehow becoming a fixture of those neighborhoods. People who love “portlandesque” light rail care as much about the journey as the destination, which is poetic.

        Yet, that sort of poetry is a luxury Seattle can’t really afford. Portland’s population growth is impressive at +3.31% for the city proper and +3.8% for the metro between 2010 and 2013 (courtesy of Wikipedia…don’t judge). And while Portland’s city proper population only tails Seattle’s at the moment (603,000 vs 634,000, respectively), Seattle is enjoying a growth big enough to trick one into thinking it was located in the Sun Belt (a metro growth of +4.95% and city proper growth of +4.25%). Everyone knows that the denizens of Portland want to “keep Portland weird”, but the only thing weird for a growing number of Seattleites is how their city has become the 15th largest metro in the nation with a city proper population bigger than D.C., Baltimore, Atlanta, Miami and Cleveland (and only 2,000 people shy of Boston) and lacking what they all enjoy. You can probably see where this is headed. All of the aforementioned cities possess bonafide heavy rail/metro lines.

        And THAT is the niche Sound Transit is charged with filling. They have been burdened with finding a way to lay out a framework for future high-capacity train service with only light-rail level funding. Portlanders often lament Sound Transit for having so much grade separation. Call me crazy, but I lament Sound Transit for not having enough. By that, I mean that they have hurt themselves by getting SO close to an actual metro system only to have a handful of grade crossings on each line (but just enough to slow down train speeds; I’m talking to you, Rainier Valley), giving tax-payers the illusion of uber-expensive LRT when Sound Transit should instead be marketing it as prescient pre-metro. Sorry, but if you’re going to have viaducts, open-cuts, and tunnels, that shit better be traffic-segregated.

        I know this statement may nauseate MAX fanboys, but LRT is not a panacea for every city’s traffic woes and sometimes you just can’t expect a light-rail system to do a heavy-rail system’s job. The best thing about Seattle’s light rail system…is that it’s not all that light. It’s raison d’etre is to show residents that rail transit is efficient and aesthetically pleasing in ways bus service is not so that eventually we can make a concerted investment in quick, reliable fully-fledged metro service (a cause beautifully championed by Seattle Subway). This should by no means imply I’m a fan of highway median extravaganza but grade crossings are not something to be celebrated in Seattle, they’re something to be settled for. Both systems have their ambitions, but LRT is quickly becoming a band aid on a broken arm for Seattle, a city that at times seems better suited looking North (at the success of Vancouver’s SkyTrain) than South (at MAX). Separating trains from other traffic doesn’t only benefit cars- it benefits every city dweller inhabiting neighborhoods and streets as dense and busy as Seattle’s are (and are continuing to become). And, as it has already been mentioned, the suburbs of Seattle (Everett, Bellevue, Tacoma) are urban cores in their own right.

        Yes, metro systems are a larger financial investment than LRT, but that shouldn’t discourage cities like Seattle from making them.

        Side note: I think most of the reason average train speed is low on the New York subway is simply that both the tracks and the trains that use them are old. The older they are, the more hazardous it is to allow them to barrel along at +40mph. Also the stations on the NYC system are only blocks apart through most of its expanse, whereas close stations are only evident in their relatively confined central business districts in Portland and Seattle.

    • It can’t reach full speed except in longer stretches. And they probably counted it in a way I don’t believe in, by including time stopped and acceleration. That’s how they’re able to come up with ridiculously low numbers like 8 mph on a downtown street that’s speed limit 30. You don’t measure a car’s speed by counting time spent at stoplights, you count it by how it’s moving between stoplights after it has accelerated. So we should count trains and buses the same way.

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  5. It’s worth noting a few things:
    East Link’s in Bellevue, not Seattle. Bellevue is no more Seattle than Vancouver, WA is Portland.
    Bellevue had a lot of input in the alignment, and their unbridled enthusiasm for light rail is rivaled only by Vancouver. It’s hard not to laugh when agency in decision making about the station alignment is given to Sound Transit.

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