Boston and Portland compared

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.]
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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.

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. 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. 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.

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

Sharrow and bike-sharing station, Portland OR.
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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.

Tim Burford