Seattle is bigger, wealthier and more cosmopolitan. It has better scenery and weather. But Seattleites can’t stop looking enviously at Portland. Whenever today’s Seattle seems overbuilt, over-amped, overpriced and overcrowded, Portland beckons as a Rorschach image of the Seattle that used to be or might have been.
You know the tropes: Seattle’s rich; Portland’s creative. Seattle knows how to make money; Portland knows how to do everything else. Portland has Portlandia. Seattle has 20-year-old recollections of Almost Live (which never played so well outside its home town) and John Keister emceeing corporate parties. Portland has Powell’s Books. Seattle used to have Shorey’s, and even it never came close. Seattle cafés crow about serving Stumptown coffee from Portland. Portlanders resign themselves to Starbucks just like everyone else.
Portland is where young people go to retire; Seattle is where they go to become lavishly paid, socially and culturally starved 80-hour-a-week tech drones. It has more and bigger hometown companies: Microsoft, Amazon, Boeing (sort of) and of course Starbucks. But their products are all about huddling — over your latte and laptop or Kindle, in your sardine-can seat, waiting for UPS to deliver whatever you ordered. Portland has Nike and used to have Jantzen. Their products are all about getting out in the fresh air.
Seattle has vituperative bicycle politics. Portland has cyclists and bike trails. Portland builds relatively cheap light rail and streetcar systems that go everywhere. Seattle builds pricey light rail and streetcar lines that take longer to go a few places than the buses that formerly served them, then insists it needs to build whole systems to justify those initial lines.
And so it was flattering but surprising to see a Portland writer celebrate Seattle’s rail transit last week. Terry Richard, the Oregonian’s veteran travel writer and a conspicuous rail enthusiast, praised this city for finally getting “aboard the train” and cheered that “it doesn’t look like that train is slowing down.” He noted several distinctions that this new Traintown will soon be able to claim:
- What appears to be the only tunnel in the world in which buses and trains share the same stops.
- The first light rail line on a floating bridge.
- A rail stop for Husky stadium – the University of Oregon can’t claim that! (Then again, UO is in a city just a quarter the size of Seattle.)
Richard didn’t note several of Seattle’s other notable rail achievements:
- A three-mile, half-billion-dollar train tunnel (under Capitol Hill) with just one station.
- A particularly redolent disparity in the sort of light rail that different neighborhoods get: a subway for the more white and affluent North End and a wall of surface rail, with enduring blight, down MLK Way.
- A 1.8 mile gap along that surface route between the Othello and Columbia City stations, stranding the busy Graham Street junction and thousands of residents, shoppers and temple goers. Portland’s Max system tries to place stations every half mile in similarly dense districts.
- A train that takes five minutes longer to get from downtown to the far end of the Sea-Tac parking garage than the express bus it displaced took to get to the actual terminal.
- A streetcar that will take about five minutes longer to get up First Hill than a trolleybus would.
- A popular waterfront trolley line that cost chump change, ran reliably for 23 years, and could easily be extended to fast-growing Interbay or the Sodo stadiums and Starbucks headquarters. Or rather, could have been; the city “suspended” it nine years ago and cut the tracks.
Still, Seattle can claim one real transit bragging right over Portland: According to U.S. Census data, about half again as large a share of Seattle workers commuted by transit as did Portland workers in 2009. That was mostly before Seattle’s first light rail line opened.
How many more might take transit if the billions spent on lightrail and streetcars had instead gone to expand, upgrade and grade-separate Metro’s perennially threatened bus system?