In the Spring 2002 issue of Oregon‘s Future, the article by Jerry Schneider, “Had Enough of Auto-Dominance Yet?“, warrants a contrary opinion. Jerry describes as skeptics, those who don’t agree that transportation systems known as Personal Rapid Transit, Group Rapid Transit and Dual-mode Transportation, (PRT, GRT & DT), are viable. There is good reason for skepticism.

Readers should be especially concerned that contrary opinion is heard because advocacy for such systems can strengthen opposition to expansion of Portland’s MAX light rail system. Jerry has been living in Seattle and watched, no doubt with dismay, the unraveling of Seattle’s LINK light rail project. It’s not that light rail technology is obsolete, as much as its implementation has become more costly and difficult to avoid severe impacts. Light rail is still very appropriate technology for metropolitan regional transit and smaller townships as well. In the case of Seattle’s light rail, the engineering difficulties are numerous but not insurmountable.

To understand the shortcomings of all transport systems, we must consider how they act in correlation with land uses. The typical development pattern of the 20th Century was to separate housing from other elements of an urban economy. This made sense when city centers were heavily polluted with industrial activity. Electric streetcar and interurban trolleys introduced suburban development where families could live in healthier surroundings. But, it was the development pattern, not the popularity of automobiles, that doomed the trolleys, because its travel demand cannot be practically met with transit nor roadways. Our future transit system choices must be able to incorporate important land-use considerations. The transit systems advocated by Jerry Schneider will not suffice in this regard.

Transportation and urban planning professionals now agree that all modes of urban travel must be incorporated into the development pattern. That is, the infrastructure for walking, bicycling and mass transit must be added to, or even supplant, auto-dominated roadway infrastructure. And, the development pattern must revert from the modern “divided-use” to the “mixed-use” patterns that predates the introduction of automobiles. Personal and Group Rapid Transit systems, aside from their monumental construction costs, operational difficulties and labyrinth impacts, simply lack the capacity to serve the travel demand of the development pattern that can incorporate all modes of urban/suburban travel.

Oregon land-use planning law establishes an urban growth boundary, (UGB), around every city in the State, not to be sprawled beyond with due process. The Portland Metropolitan “regional” UGB encompasses 24 cities. The travel demand within this region, like that of all metropolitan regions, is out of control and cannot be managed by expansion of roadways, nor mitigated with transit systems alone. Long-term, regional development patterns must create opportunities for citizens to decrease their need for long-distance travel and commuting, (for occupation, for institutional services, for shopping, dining, entertainment, etc).

The Portland Metropolitan 2040 Regional Plan designates 30+ districts within the UGB for “mixed-use” development of historic townships and other sites like shopping malls and their parking lot acreage. By concentrating development in select sites, farmland, wetland and forest are preserved and the environs and natural habitat of ill-used urban land can be restored. While travel demand is thus reduced overall, between these districts, it is way beyond the capacity of PRT and GRT. Dual-mode Transportation is just another form of “auto-dominance”, with all the impracticalities of PRT and GRT, because it consists of still more automobiles that theoretically run on elevated guideways AND surface roads, detracting from the potential of these regional developments.

The fundamental problem with these impractical transit systems is they do not address important land-use considerations. In fact, the shortcomings of all transport systems result from making this same error. This is the distinct problem that we must better understand. Seattle’s LINK makes a good example of how light rail can excel or fail, depending upon how ii is incorporated into land-use and development.

From downtown Seattle, LINK runs south 14 miles to Seatac Airport. The last 5 miles has 4 stations, (3 park-n-rides and the airport). The stations on this last segment lack the development potential to attract sufficient ridership and the lack assures the growth of commuting. By design, LINK will be overwhelmed at rush hours and underutilized the rest of the time, especially in the reverse-commute direction. The growth of commuting will continue to overwhelm the roadways. Even the airport station best serves those who can travel light - the business traveler commuting by air. There is no reason to go to any of these stations other than go somewhere else.

It is critical that LINK include a real destination on this segment and it is possible to route LINK through South Center District. A station there assures sufficient ridership and marvelous potential to develop its wasteful parking lot acreage. South Center will attract riders at all hours and in the reverse-commute direction. Development there will create opportunity for area residents to work closer to home, reducing their need to commute. Missing South Center is LINK’s one fatal flaw and a clear indication that planners still do not understand the importance of land-use considerations.

The toy transit systems which Jerry Schneider advocates cannot reduce auto-dominance. The mass transit mode with the most potential to reach such a lofty goal is light rail, (interurbans and streetcars), but it must incorporate regional land-use guidelines and development patterns that guarantee sufficient ridership while reducing the need for long-distance travel and commuting.

Art Lewellan
(The Seattle Circulator Plan)
3205 SE 8th #9
Portland, Oregon 97202
503-239-4075
Lotilive@msn.com