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.
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 BikePortland.org posted a thorough investigation into the Orange Line improvements last week. [3/29 edit: SeattleTransitBlog.com 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:
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.
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…