Boston and Portland compared (public transport and cycling)

This is an article that I wrote for the Cambridge Cycle Campaign’s newsletter that I thought I should post here (with a few added photos), as I’ve recently posted separate pieces on Boston and Portland – if you’re not interested in public transport and cycling, read no further.

Boston and Portland compared

Editing Tom Culver’s article on San Luis Obispo, I was reminded that I was in North America over the New Year and by chance experienced what seem to be among the best and the worst US cities for cycling. On the cool, liberal West Coast (well, close to it) Portland, Oregon is doing a good job of boosting both cycling and public transport use with a continuing programme of infrastructure improvements. But on the East Coast, Boston, Massachusetts seems stuck in a primitive mindset, not just preferring cars to bikes, but also assuming that public transport users simply want to travel in to the central business district and go home again.

Boston – sticking with the old

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA, known as ‘the T’) transit system looks fairly good on paper, or on a map, with subway and ‘commuter rail’ lines covering a wide area, but timetabling and ticketing are very poor, and the trains are old and unattractive. The subway and buses provide a decent all-day service, but the commuter trains basically run into the city in the mornings and out in the afternoons (although other American cities are far more extreme cases) with virtually no service in the evenings or at weekends. Modern cities need frequent services all day every day, and not just to the central business district. They also need a fare system that encourages multiple trips and off-peak travel – in Boston a single ticket costs $2.25—$2.75 and a day pass costs a stonking $12, which is basically telling people they’re not wanted beyond the basic commute (weekly and monthly passes are a better deal, though). A day pass should cost little more than two singles. In November 2017 a contract was signed with Cubic and John Laing to introduce a new smart fares system, so this may be sorted out in the 2020s. The T does at least carry bikes outside the peak times on most routes, and more secure cycle parking is being provided at stations.

Cycling is more or less invisible in Boston (less so in Cambridge, home to Harvard and MIT), and facilities in the city centre are largely limited to white paint on the roads, along with a good riverside route. Notoriously, from 1991 to 2006 Boston spent $24 billion (almost ten times the original budget, and it was eight years late too) on the Big Dig, the project to put I-93 – the Interstate highway through the heart of Boston – into a tunnel and didn’t even manage to put a cycleway on top where the highway used to be. In fact there’s still a dual-carriageway there with a linear park, the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, in the middle, i.e. patches of grass and a footpath between the cross-roads, and signs telling cyclists to use the on-road lanes. There’s a bike-sharing scheme but the docking stations seem few and far between, and there’s no dockless sharing scheme yet. Ofo Bikes launched in September 2017 in nearby Worcester and Revere, but can’t operate in Boston or Cambridge because the operator of the bike-sharing scheme there has an exclusive contract until 2022.

Boston’s Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway. [Source: Wikipedia Commons. Author: Hellogrenway. This image file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.]
It’s true that some decent segregated infrastructure is being provided in Cambridge and the suburbs, and the city authorities are beginning to make the right noises, but it’s a dreadfully slow and sclerotic process.

Boston drivers are much pushier than those on the West Coast, honking and cutting up pedestrians on crossings; at these crossings, lights change to Don’t Walk ridiculously early, and change to Walk ridiculously late, legitimising bad behaviour by drivers; the result is that pedestrians tend to ignore them. In central Portland, in contrast, I was impressed by how short the traffic light phases were at intersections, disadvantaging drivers but meaning that pedestrians were happy to wait the relatively short time till the green phase. (This was less the case slightly further from the centre.)

Portland – trying something new

In the 1960s the I-5 Interstate highway was rammed along the east bank of the Willamette River through Portland, but since then Portland has worked consistently to create a sustainable city, and not just in terms of public transport. It had the first electric trolley system in the US which opened in 1907. This closed in 1950, but then in 1986 the first Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) light rail line opened, the first half of what is now a 33-mile east-west route. There are now six routes, including one to the airport, and it’s a popular, modern regional express system (and it carries bikes). In 1975 the Transit Mall was created, two parallel one-way streets in the city centre largely reserved for buses (and from 2009 light rail); also in 1975, the Fareless Square was introduced, a larger downtown area in which travel was free (this was abolished in 2012).

In 2001 the Portland Streetcar system began operation with smaller, lighter cars running on more tightly curved tracks. A north-south line through downtown (parallel to the Transit Mall) was extended in 2005-7 to the South Waterfront regeneration area, and in 2012 the new Loop line was opened. This is a massive extension to the east of the Willamette River that crosses on the modern Tilikum Crossing bridge, opened in 2015, that carries light rail and streetcars as well as pedestrian and cycle paths, but with no access for cars and trucks – a major statement in the USA.

It’s not quite a turn-up-and-go service, with streetcars every 15 minutes, but they’re more frequent on the shared section downtown. The details have been well thought out, with intersections where cars in all directions have red lights so that the streetcars can cut through on the wrong side of the road; in some places doors also open on the ‘wrong’ side. Although MAX and the Streetcar are owned by separate municipal bodies they (and the buses) are operated by TriMet and tickets are valid on all systems. All in all, it’s a good example of how public transport can bring organic growth to the city centre and especially to regeneration districts (even though it’s become hipster central, Portland still has plenty of formerly industrial areas to be developed as residential property).

It’s also worth mentioning the Portland Aerial Tram, a cable-car which opened in 2006 linking two parts of the Oregon Health & Science University (the city’s largest employer) in the South Waterfront district.

In the early 1990s Portland had a Yellow Bike Project, providing free community bikes (just as Cambridge (UK) did around the same time), and it also turned out to be comically disastrous, lasting just three years before the bikes fell apart or were stolen or dumped in the river. However it did, for better or for worse, fix cycling in the Portland mindset, and since 1999 Portland has invested heavily in bicycle infrastructure. By 2009 traffic fatalities in Portland had declined six times faster than the national rate. In 2016 a modern app-powered bikesharing system opened, sponsored by Portland-based Nike – it’s called Biketown, pronounced Bike, not Bikey as in Nike. One interesting aspect is that you can lock bikes for a brief stop and unlock them again with the same PIN.

Another interesting innovation is mini-sharrow markings at traffic lights to show where the magnetic sensors are, so cyclists don’t just sit like lemons until a car arrives. Helmets are only mandatory for under-16s, but there’s strong pressure from the city to wear one.

Traffic on the century-old Hawthorne Bridge increased by 20% between 1991 and 2008 – but only 1% of that was cars, the rest being cycles; the bridge would have had to be replaced otherwise, at great expense. There’s now a cycle counter here, showing that 5,000 cyclists a day cross the bridge on an average weekday, which I think is pretty good, although in London, about 5,000 cyclists cross Blackfriars Bridge in the morning peak alone.

Clearly Portland provides a better model for us in Cambridge to follow, with its cycle-friendly bridges rather than car-clogged tunnels, but I’d hope that Boston is also paying attention and able to move in a more sustainable direction.

The road above Boston’s Big Dig tunnel, with cycle facilities of a sort…
The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, above Boston’s Big Dig tunnel – they created a meaningless bit of park and tell cyclists to use the roads.
The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, above Boston’s Big Dig tunnel – the sign says that they don’t clear the snow in winter.

 

Sharrow and bike-sharing station, Portland OR.
Cycleway on the Tilikum Crossing, Portland OR.
Cycleway to the Tilikum Crossing, Portland OR.
Cycleway and rapid transit stop, Portland OR.

Portland (Oregon, not Maine)

I’ve been to Seattle and the major Californian cities a few times over the last couple of decades, but I hadn’t been to Portland since 1984. Then I spent my university vacation hitchhiking around North America and didn’t pay for a single night’s accommodation. This time I travelled by train and the odd plane and stayed in HI hostels, and I have to say, I’ve changed far less than Portland has. I recall that my main reason for visiting the city was a few showpieces of postmodern architecture, notably Michael Graves’ Portland Building (1982) and the KOIN Centre (1984), which failed to thrill me. I assume I did visit the Portland Art Museum because I remember being impressed by the wealth of Asian art in the museums up the West Coast from San Francisco to Vancouver – but now I can state that it must be one of the dozen or so best art collections in the USA (see below). It has expanded since my first visit, having marked its centennial in 1992 by expanding into a former Masonic temple next door – the two buildings are currently separated by a walkway, with a tunnel linking them, but the plan is to build a new pavilion to fill the gap.

Liechtenstein at the Portland Art Museum (see below)

Across the Park Blocks from the Art Museum is the Oregon Historical Society, with an excellent modern museum on the history of the state and the city which totally (alas) dominates it. As a fine port where the Willamette river (Goddammit Janet, it’s Willamette, if you’re having trouble remembering how to pronounce it – the original Clackamas name is Wal-lamt) meets the mighty Columbia, Portland developed as an industrial city but was then overtaken by Seattle and Tacoma; after a flurry of World War II ship-building it declined (apart from Nike being established here in 1964) and by the 1970s was marked by post-industrial decline, especially along the waterfront. However the city planners began a process of restoring historic buildings and converting rail yards into parks and museums, while also encouraging modern (and postmodern) developments, and creating a pedestrian-, cyclist- and public transport-focussed city centre. The Old Town/Chinatown area, largely warehouses and commercial buildings on reclaimed land along the Willamette, has been gentrified, and in the area just inland (south of Union Station), former railway sidings were developed into a residential zone known as the Pearl District from the mid-1990s; at the district’s north end are some modern parks such as the slightly Zen Tanner Springs Park (2005), and at the south end are the Brewery Blocks, now housing hip loft-style apartments as well as boutiques, bars and restaurants. On the less attractive east bank of the river, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and the Oregon Rail Heritage Center are also on former industrial land.

So Portland had a reputation for being fairly green, liberal and arty long before hipsterdom was invented. Then came a TV series called Portlandia in 2011, which the locals, looking back, say is when the city was ruined for them; the series is coming to an end in 2018. Its satirical sketches, mocking a fantasyland of nerdy liberal narcissists, perversely led to everyone wanting to move to Portland, or at least to Portlandia, forcing rents up and driving the boho artists out. Bars were replaced by artisanal candle-makers, and something of what made Portland one of America’s most liveable cities has  been lost. I saw hardly any lumberjack shirts or fixed-gear bicycles, but the city still seems a good place to be. That, plus the rising property prices, may partly explain the high numbers of homeless people on the streets – disproportionately African-American as one might expect.

In fact I was staggered to find that the original constitution of Oregon decreed that the state was to be a whites-only paradise (although, to be fair, slavery was banned too), and it was known as a racist city until at least the 1970s, with regular police shootings that of course couldn’t happen nowadays – could they? Minorities have grown from 3.6% of Oregon’s population in 1960 to 16.4% in 2010, and as the state grows from 4 million now to perhaps 6 million by 2050 the number of Latinos in particular is expected to increase disproportionately.

Food and drink

There’s been craft brewing here since the 1980s, and Portland now boasts both the highest number of breweries per capita in the US and the highest expenditure per capita on beer. There are now at least 70 craft breweries (plus 16 urban wineries!) – the oldest is the Bridgeport Brewery, founded in 1984 and now a pretty huge concern. I’ve visited the Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon, which has a pub in Portland, and that’s also a pretty big operation now. They’re fine, of course, but I’d like to try something slightly more adventurous – one contender is Zoiglhaus (quite a way east of the centre, unfortunately), adapting German brewing techniques to hops-forward American tastes (they’ve even created a ‘German IPA’). You can take a pub tour with Brewvana Portland Brewery Tours. But don’t bother looking for downtown Portland’s oldest microbrewery, Tug Boat Brewing Company (founded in 1989), which closed in mid-2017, due to a never-ending saga of damage caused by businesses upstairs, apparently.

By the way, what is with the American puritan idea of having to be over 21 to even look at a brewery (or winery) website?? They’re legalising cannabis all over the place and the web is awash with pornography, but you might have to lie about your age to see a picture of a beer? Wineries in Georgia (the country) are adopting the same ridiculous idea, alas.

Food is a big deal here too – since 2012 Feast Portland has put on not only a huge annual food festival but also meals, classes and talks, and raises money to tackle child hunger. While there are lots of cafés, I spotted surprisingly few grocery stores downtown; but the Pine Street Market, opened in 2016, is a food hall in a historic (1886) building near the river – it has stalls with communal tables and more formal restaurants. I was also taken with the food stalls between Southwest Alder and Washington at 9th & 10th, including Ethiopian, Lebanese, Chinese and even a Russian-Vietnamese fusion offering, which I wouldn’t begin to know how to tackle. I also noticed quite a few Andean and Peruvian restaurants. I don’t like coffee, but that’s huge here too – the heart of Portland’s third-wave coffee culture is Stumptown, with various branches in town; its founder also owns the Woodsman Tavern, a log-cabin-style pub serving locally sourced food. Kingsland Kitchen, a British-owned brunch and sandwich place, opened in 2015 and is horribly meat-focussed but otherwise enjoyable enough, with fried eggs and toast from just $4 and a full English breakfast for $16.

Art, indoors and out

There’s a lot of public art in Portland, thanks to a tax on new developments – usually this is a recipe for bad art, but most of what’s been produced here is not too cheesey. A lot of it is along the Transit Mall (Southwest 5th and 6th Avenues). For me, the most interesting public art is the stumps of two pillars that supported the Lovejoy Ramp, a road bridge across the rail yards, which have been preserved because of the murals painted on them by railway worker Tom Stefopoulos between 1948 and 1952 – they’re definitely worth tracking down on Northwest 10th Avenue between Everett and Flanders. There’s also The People’s Bike Library of Portland, at Southwest 13th and Burnside, which looks more like the city’s abandoned bikes piled up randomly. There’s quite a bit of real (really good) sculpture outside the Portland Art Museum, notably Roy Liechtenstein’s giant Brushstrokes (three swooshes, in a way) and some rough steel by Anthony Caro (there’s more by him inside).

Inside PAM (this is the dull bit), the collection starts with Greek bowls and kraters, funerary heads from Palmyra (c150-200 BCE) and Etruscan ceramics; then there’s a Nativity (1335) by Taddeo Gatto (Giotto’s closest disciple), a cut-out Christ on the cross by Botticelli (from his weaker late Savonarola-esque period), a few more from the Italian Renaissance, a Brueghel and a Cranach, then a graphic circumcision (prefiguring the Passion) by Jacob Cornelisz Van Oostsanen, the first notable painter in Amsterdam, who was new to me. I guessed that van Dyck’s calculating Cardinal Domenico Rivarola (c1624) was from Genoa (see my post from there), and I was right. There’s a representative range of mainly French 18th- and 19h-century art, by Fragonard, Greuze, Boucher, de Largilliere, Bougereau, Monticelli, Ziem, Diaz de la Peña, Corot, Daubigny, Millet, Courbet (a mirror image of himself as a cellist), and Alexandre Calame (1810-64), who lost an eye at 10 but became the leading Swiss landscape painter of the 19th century. Upstairs, there’s a striking modern portrait by Kehinde Willey on the landing, then American art, starting with Gilbert Stuart (a pupil of Benjamin West, the American-born co-founder of the Royal Academy), Thomas Sulley, Rembrandt Peale, Daniel Huntington, George Inness, Sargent, Albert Bierstadt (a rather exaggerated version of Mount Hood, which Portlanders can see in the distance), Childe Hassam (who visited Portland in 1904 and 1908) and then more radical art in the 20th century, by Julian Alden Weir, Robert Henri, John Sloan, Milton Avery and Moses Soyer, as well as Diego Rivera.

There’s a great blend of traditional and contemporary Native American art and a good little room on Mesoamerica and Peru, Chinese funerary goods from the Warring States period, and Japanese prints. Through the tunnel in the Mark Building there are Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings by Monet, Gauguin, Pissarro, Degas, Sisley, Renoir, van Gogh, van Rysselberghe, Cézanne, Utrillo, Vlaminck, Rouault, Derain and van Doesberg. There are also photos by Eugène Atget and Julia Margaret Cameron and sculptures by Rodin and Brâncuși, and then slightly later works by Kokoschka, Kirchner, Beckmann, Léger, Lipschitz, Gabriele Münter, Naum Gabo, Philip Guston, Osip Zadkine and Josef Albers. In the ground-floor lobby are sculptures by Hepworth, Moore, Archipenko, Hans Arp, Calder and Isamu Noguchi, and a polyurethane car by Claes Oldenburg. The more contemporary work on display includes Warhol, Stella, Kenneth Noland, Helen Frankenthaler, Judy Chicago, Don Judd, Dan Flavin, Basquiat and Kiefer; there’s glassware by Lalique, Tiffany and William Morris, and ceramics by Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada. All in all, there’s a hint of collecting by numbers (we need one by him, one by her…) but the end result is certainly an impressively broad collection.