Travels Northwest

Photos from a trek northwest earlier this month are online at Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. I have outed myself as a transit geek, so please don’t be surprised that twelve of the fifteen pix are of people movers.  Why photograph something that yearns for meaning in life when you can point the camera at a Bombardier?

I stand strongly by my view that transit agencies are best judged by unannounced ghetto bus rides at rush hour, but made no attempt to ride any such thing while up north.  I was a tourist.  I traveled like one.

My sightseeing impressions follow.  Please note: I didn’t interview anyone, didn’t study local history, have done absolutely no checking to insure that this post’s observations are off base or on the mark.  Regard these impressions as worth every penny I’ll earn for them.

* * *

(•) Portland TriMet maps insist that a ‘transit mall‘ can be found downtown, but I found nothing mall-like in the two dozen blocks so indicated.  The blocks are exceptionally well served by transit, true, but they ain’t no mall.  The Galleria is a mall.  Malls have muzak and food courts.

If Portland can get away with this kind of linguistic puffery, why can’t PR flacks in other cities?  Why not drape a sign over a snoozing inebriate in Pershing Square and declare him part of the downtown transit esplanade?  ‘Esplanade’ has a nice ring to it, and no one knows what it means; perfect combination.

DC Vegetarian food cart
DC Vegetarian food cart

(•)  Portland seems to have dealt with the great food truck controversy by confining such jalopies to specific blocks downtown.  The trucks cluster in pods, like lonesome elephants, as mapped at Food Cart Pods in Portland.  I let Yelp steer me to the excellent DC Vegetarian.

(•)  Portland’s Aerial Tram is not a tourist toy, as much as it might look like one from afar.  I rode it twice, saw for myself.  The proof was in the bleary-eyed early morning apathy of many riders, who never would have stood so calmly for the ride-over-the-freeway shown if they didn’t take such rides every work day.

Portland Aerial Tram
Portland Aerial Tram crosses the freeway

NPR just posted a nice article about the tram.  I’ll let the author tell you about it; after all, NPR presumably cut her a check.  I will include another shot, though, of the capacious bike racks next to the tram’s South Waterfront terminal.

Aerial Tram bike racks
Bike racks at South Waterfront terminal

(•)  The Seattle Monorail is a tourist toy, albeit a pleasant one serviced by agreeable staff.

(•)   Twenty-three years ago, Seattle completed a 1.3 mile, five station, $455 million transit tunnel downtown.  They must not have figured that we tourists would want to tote our Brownies into a long hole in the ground to ride belching buses, because they did little out-of-the-area hollering about the tunnel once it was finished.  Or at least I didn’t hear any of the hollering.  I would have left Seattle entirely ignorant of the tunnel if I hadn’t happened to spot a sign downtown, and scurried off to investigate.

Train in transit tunnel
Airport bound train at Westlake Station in Seattle Transit Tunnel

The tunnel serves both trains and buses, as these shots will attest.  I wouldn’t call it a showpiece, but it was clean and attractive enough, and had plenty of customers.  I doubt many tourists would trade a visit to the Space Needle for a ride in the transit tunnel, but a visiting transit geek just might.

Bus in Seattle Transit Tunnel
71 bus in Seattle Transit Tunnel at Westlake Station

(•)  With mixed feelings, I confess that the transit highlight of my expedition was certainly my ride on Vancouver’s SkyTrain.  I have met many agreeable train operators over the years, and doubt they would regard such a conclusion as welcome news.

SkyTrain, you see, is an automated, driverless system, the world’s oldest and one of the biggest.  The tram at Los Angeles’ Getty Center is similar, but does nothing more ambitious than haul museum goers up and down a short hill. The SkyTrain’s Burrard-to-King-George run is thirty-seven minutes long.  It is a transit artery, like BART or the Red Line.

Vancouver TransLink SkyTrain
Canada Line SkyTrain approaches the BridgePort station.

I thought it worked exceedingly well, although one online scribe notes that SkyTrain gear is aging, and breakdowns have become more common.  Peak hour ‘headways’ — e.g., the time between trains — are a mere two to four minutes.  Imagine waiting only two minutes for the next airport BART!  Tourists can looky-loo out of front window seats, and enjoy views ordinarily reserved for train operators.

(•)   And finally: I am depressed to report that bus and train interiors in all three cities were in much better shape than what I’m accustomed to in S.F., and also superior to what I remember in Los Angeles.  SFMTA has deployed some new buses in the south end of the city, where I live, but the 14s on Mission are as vile as ever.

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