Somewhere along the way, America traded Tocqueville for Taco Bell and Walt Whitman for Wal-Mart and became a prison industrial complex where everything contains High Fructose Corn Syrup and everybody is about to be foreclosed out of their tract home. But not all is lost, because there is a medium-sized city where the romanticism of turn-of-the-century New England communitarian democracy and civic pride has run away and nestled itself among the sylvan hills of the Pacific Northwest. Portland is living the alternative American dream, and it has a strange mix of McSweeney's meets Leave it to Beaver about it. I was there for 4 days and I could have stayed for 4 more. Other than the biggies like New York, LA, Chicago and San Francisco this is the best American city I've stepped foot into, and the only one where I didn't feel like I was surrounded by inequity.
One of the secret ingredients to Portland's success is its extremely short blocks (200'). Hopefully this image, which was not zoomed in in any way, captures this aspect of its streetscape. It does wonders for the city's walkability in two ways: it makes it easy to zip down a side street, and it prevents mega-scaled buildings from dominating the landscape.
This is about as oppressive a facade as you can get with 200' (60m) block lengths
The small blocks also allow little public squares to be plopped down, like this one:
or this one, in the practically new Pearl District
...or Pioneer square, built on a former parking lot in the 1970s, and now the de facto centre of town. It was rainy and 4 degrees when I took this, but normally it was quite bustling
Portland is quite a midrise city, and has a lot of Edwardian apartment blocks like this:
And a giant warehouse district to the north
Infill is generally well-scaled with its surroundings while maintaining an urban feel. Also, they seem to be able to attract stores beyond a Rabba's or dry cleaners at their base (this was true even in areas that were as new and masterplanned as Cityplace)
Other than DC, Portland has the most midrise downtown of any North American city I know (well, maybe Quebec City). However, these streets are lively and have varied retail.
Portland has used formed on-street parking space as an opportunity to try out a variety of streetscaping projects including bioswales
...and bike parking
Newer bike parking utilized the full bump out
Speaking about bicycling, Portland had an excellent bike infrastructure. I don't know whether it's intentional or not, but traffic lights seem to be synchronized for bike speed. I traveled 20 blocks without hitting a red when I rented my bike.
It's good that the bike infrastructure is so good, because it makes up for the awful transit experience. Let's deconstruct the myth of the Portland streetcar, shall we?
$109 million for a 3 km loop that gets 10,000 daily riders is ridiculous. Those numbers don't lie. But did I mention how slow it was? It took 20 minutes to travel about a kilometer and a half, and that was not including the wait for a streetcar that has a ten minute frequency. Getting stuck in mixed traffic should not be a strange phenomenon to Torontonians.
You buy your fare onboard from one of these deals which I've only seen in Europe. Luckily, most of the system travels in the "free" zone. If it wasn't free, I wonder how many people would ride it?
The MAX LRT is marginally better. In the suburbs where it's mostly grade separated it apparently is very fast, but running on the surface through the core it takes 30 minutes to clear downtown. A transit planner I met with said that surface running was one of the biggest impediments to growth, because it restricts headways and, because of the short block length in Portland, restricts the length and capacity of the trainsets. Here you can see the length of a 2 car train which is conveniently the same length as a Portland city block:
The LRT tends to run in the right-most lane of a vehicular street in its own ROW
If you think Toronto's fare media was antiquated, their day pass is basically a receipt!
Now on to some cool stuff. Portland has dozens of these little food carts peppered around town. I ate at three different ones and each time, it was cheap and satisfying. Each of them has its own character, too and it's quite the contrast to the nanny state fiasco that was "Toronto a la cart".
Some cool nabes:
Hawthorne is the Queen West of Portland, complete with rotting wooden poles festooned with crap.
Inside the Bagdad, movies are $3 and they serve beer (also $3)
Some shots from the Alphabet district, so named because the streets are named in Alphabetical order: Ankeny, Burnside, Couch, etc.
Street names here include Flanders, Lovejoy and Quimby...Simpsons' creator Matt Groening lived in Portland.
And here is the Matlock expressway...just kidding. A freeway does rip through the middle of town, unforunately
The very cool and muscular "Steel bridge" which you can bike across on the lower deck bikepath
Well, that was Portland. As a farewell to y'all I leave you with a box of Voodoo donuts.