From the Light Rail Now folks – Portland: The freeway city that might have been A?ai??i??ai??? without light rail


The following is from the Light Rail NowAi??Ai?? folks in the USA and gives an interesting insight on how Portland’s LRT stopped highway expansion in the city, giving some valuable lessons for those advocating the return of the interurban.

Portland, Oregon is certainly a model of the benefits a good light rail transit (LRT) system can bestow A?ai??i??ai??? but that attribute also lifts Portland high in the target sights of dedicated rail critics, who relentlessly try to portray soaring success as abject failure.

Because of the MAX interurban LRT system, installed in 1986, and the Portland Streetcar, installed in 2001, central-city Portland is today an exceptionally livable urban environment, with clusters of retailers, restaurants, inner-city housing, small shops, sidewalk cafA?Ai??s, and other amenities.

So it’s relevant to consider what Portland would have been like if it had followed the typical American city’s freeway-focused path of development, rather than the rail transit-focused path it took A?ai??i??ai??? in other words, the kind of development pattern favored by anti-transit, pro-sprawl advocates such as Randal O’Toole, Wendell Cox, and Portland anti-rail activist John Charles and his Cascade Policy Institute.

Such a vision of Portland as a “might have been” freeway city was resuscitated in a Feb. 16th article by Elly Blue on the website, titled The Portland that might have been.

Elly refers to the map shown further below A?ai??i??ai??? which she says she rediscovered recently A?ai??i??ai??? describing it as “the map that might have sealed our fate, developed by Portland city planners in 1966 in response to freeway guru Robert MosesA?ai??i??ai??? vision for the city.”

Robert Moses (in case you don’t know, or need reminding) is the planning consultant and official who basically devastated swaths of New York City with his freeway-development plans A?ai??i??ai??? forcing the destruction of the city’s once-extensive urban electric light rail (street railway) system in the process.

As a Wikipedia article (20 May 2009) describes him,

Moses was arguably the most powerful person in New York state government from the 1930s to the 1950s. He changed shorelines, built roadways in the sky, and transformed neighborhoods forever. His decisions favoring highways over public transit helped create the modern suburbs of Long Island and influenced a generation of engineers, architects, and urban planners who spread his philosophies across the nation.

The article further notes that “his works remain extremely controversial.”

His critics claim that he preferred automobiles to people, that he displaced hundreds of thousands of residents in New York City, uprooted traditional neighborhoods by building expressways through them, contributed to the ruin of the South Bronx and the amusement parks of Coney Island, caused the departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants Major League baseball teams, and precipitated the decline of public transport through disinvestment and neglect.

His career is summed up by his sayings “cities are for traffic” and “if the ends don’t justify the means, what does?”

Robert Moses is perhaps best remembered for what he did to “motorize” New York City, but his efforts on behalf of private automobile-based, sprawl-oriented urban development touched other cities as well A?ai??i??ai??? including Portland.


The green lines are planned freeways, and the Mount Hood Freeway was the first of these that would have been built. It was stopped by a strong grassroots effort, with the support of local political leaders. After that, none of the other projects got rolling, and much of the money that was appropriated for the freeway instead went into other transportation projects like the first MAX light rail line.


4 Responses to “From the Light Rail Now folks – Portland: The freeway city that might have been A?ai??i??ai??? without light rail”
  1. David says:

    Portland was one of the first cities to have an urban freeway and, interestingly enough, one of the first to decommission a freeway and turn the space into park land. The citizens and leadership have been very active in promoting projects that are good for the livability of Portland. The City of Vancouver, on the other hand may be famous for preventing a cross town freeway and waterfront “parkway” to UBC, but hasn’t done much since then. Of course most of the blame has to fall at the feet of successive “blacktop politics” politicians in Victoria who insist on imposing mega-projects on the city.

    I’ll probably be accused of being anti-development, but Vancouver was a much more livable city and certainly suffered from a lot less sprawl before the powers that be decided we needed to become “world class”. The push to relax development rules and host international events pushed our young people into the suburbs and contributed to the ghettoization of the downtown east side. When I was a child in the early 1970s I frequently walked the dark alley between Woodward’s and the Army & Navy store, sometimes without adult accompaniment.

    Zweisystem responds: Sadly, I think you are correct in your assumptions. I operated a store in downtown Vancouver from 1984 to 2005 and saw great change. My tourist customers slowly changed from families visiting Vancouver to ‘accidental’ tourists who had some time to kill before leaving the city. 9/11 changed all that.

    The sad fact is, even though Vancouver stopped the freeway, their support for very expensive metro (RAV subway – UBC subway) construction may force a freeway into the city yet! There is a daft plan to pave the Arbutus Corridor and operate express buses “Oh can’t build LRT there anymore ‘coz we have RAV!”. When and if Valley politicians wake up from their collective stupor and see their tax money being spent on Vancouver and not on them, then we may see some change in the direction of transit planning, but I’m not holding my breathe. I so seldom venture now into Vancouver, simply because it is too crowded, to expensive, and so, so visitor unfriendly.

  2. Richard says:

    I see why you like the LRT and Portland. When I have visited there, the downtown seems like one of those movies from the 70′s where everyone died. The downtown does not have buzz that Vancouver does. Here, the sidewalks crowded with people. In Portland, I could not find anywhere downtown that had the same feel. The streets with the LRT were especially dead. Even with Granville Street all torn up, the street is still very lively with people pouring out of the SkyTrain station. If you like a quiet relaxing downtown, Portland is for you.

    Vancouver has changed for better or for worse. It is obvious that you want it to be a kind of city which it is not. If you like a downtown with few people, then LRT would be a good solution. If you want a vibrant downtown, obviously SkyTrain is working very well and so will the Canada Line. The problems in the Downtown Eastside, however, have nothing to do with transportation.

    The “daft plan” to pave the “Arbutus Corridor” was likely done years ago. I don’t know of any planner or politician that would even dream of such a scheme. The outcry would be deafening. Even Falcon has given up on plans to twin the Massey Tunnel because there would be no point as Vancouver will not increase auto capacity into the city. Anyway, if there is demand for more buses into the city, Granville is a great place for them.

    Massive amounts of money are being spent in the in the Valley on roads and the Valley politicians are responsible for this. They could have chosen to improve transit rather than wasting money on roads, but didn’t. They have nothing to complain about.

    Zweisystem responds: I was going to delete this message, but then I wanted everyone to see how biased you are. Obviously you did not use the light rail in Portland, for if you had you could have taken it to the Exhibition Centre or the world famous Portland Zoo; or indeed to the Saturday/Sunday open street market which the trams actually run right through.

    Unlike Vancouver, Portland doesn’t have the “West end” downtown population and like most American city downtown’s, is quiet after business hours. The Portland streetcar is changing that, connecting the downtown core to large Condominium and Garden Apartment projects which were made possible, in part, with the streetcar. Before MAX, Portland’s downtown was in decline, not now and in American terms, the downtown core is quite vibrant.

    For Vancouver, SkyTrain has nothing to do with it, rather it’s the 100,000 or so population that mostly walks everywhere that has made Vancouver’s downtown what it is. What about the notorious Vancouver east side, that cancerous carbuncle that everyone chooses to ignore, its close to SkyTrain as well, but I would never think of saying that the downtown east side was a product of SkyTrain or as it is locally called the “crime train”.

  3. Richard says:

    I had heard great things about Portland’s LRT and streetcar and when down there expecting to be impressed. The lack of ridership on the weekend, the lack of people in general in downtown and the lack of development along most of the line, did not impress me at all. Then there is the speed or lack there of through downtown. I came back convinced that SkyTrain is a better option for here.

    Compared to Vancouver’s downtown, Portland’s is really sleepy. Now some people may like that. It is rather relaxing I must say.

    Zweisystem replies: You have made an apples and oranges comparison with Portland and Vancouver. You do ignore the vast West End population, which was there long before SkyTrain and of course Vancouver’s east side is always full of panhandlers prostitutes and hypes, lots of action there as well. Who takes SkyTrain on weekends? Kids traveling cheap to ‘hang’ in the malls – wonderful.

    Again, why hasn’t anybody bought into the SkyTrain dream, certainly if fewer stations serving the downtown is your version of good transit, so be it. By the way is a $500+ TransLink property tax your way to pay for more SkyTrain?

  4. David says:

    Vancouver’s downtown has always been more lively than American cities because we have always had a lot of people living there. When most American cities were bulldozing inner city neighbourhoods and building freeways through them, Vancouver was building high rise residential buildings in the West End. We’ve carried forward that legacy and something like 80,000 people now live downtown.

    I know all places change over time and we can’t go back to the past, but things were definitely better when I was growing up.

    Vancouver was a more friendly city back then. Nobody put a fence in their front yard or a steel gate across their front door, kids played in the streets and even 7 year olds walked by themselves to school. Back then people said hello to strangers and even the down and out in the downtown east side were nicer. Ever had a panhandler offer you money? I have.

    Young families used to flock to Woodward’s department store, Wosk’s furniture, Fields and the Army & Navy. Woodward’s built two multi-story parking garages to handle all the traffic and thousands walked east Hastings in the evenings and weekends to get from one store to another.

    It wasn’t Utopia and this isn’t just fond recollections of “the good old days”. We had plenty of problems too. Davie Street was world famous for its street prostitution, there were drunks on every curb east of Seymour, and organized crime controlled most of the bars and strip joints. Even West Point Grey, the “pristine” neighbourhood our Premier grew up in, was home to a serial arsonist who kept the VFD busy for a decade and several gang members, one of whom lived just 4 doors up the street from me.