July 30, 2007
As noted in a recent headline in The Oregonian, city Commissioner Sam Adams envisions "a web of streetcars" in Portland's future. Indeed, it's a good thing for Portland that Adams and others want to expand transit and bicycling opportunities. But no one is talking about the more obvious: What would Portland look like if we made the incredible Willamette River our most visible and sustainable public transportation mode?
Talk about disparate parts getting connected. Talk about opportunities for many more carless trips. Talk about a great place to meet a colleague for a business conversation or a friend for lunch. Talk about a way to make the river the authentic heart of what is now only a bridge town.
It has long puzzled me that so many of us are willing to let the river exist mostly as something we observe from afar or as a speedy thoroughfare for powerful big-wake boats. We talk of moving the freeway on its east bank while treating the river like one. The wonderful dragon, crew and outrigger boaters from the Portland Boathouse notwithstanding, the Willamette could be so much more to our residents and a much more accessible attracter for visitors as well.
The feasibility study that Portland's Office of Transportation commissioned a year ago (available on the River Renaissance Web site at www.portlandonline.com/river) found that a "central city circulator" -- another term for a river-based bus line connecting what are now disparate close-in neighborhoods -- is feasible right now. River buses could readily circulate from Oaks Park, Ross Island and South Waterfront to Union Station, the Pearl and Swan Island, crossing the river at key places and times. Later, as more people were able to use the system for travel and commuting, it could stretch to Milwaukie and St. Johns or beyond, spurring transit-friendly development.
Creating a public-private system like the streetcar's requires only that the city set standards for docks, begin including sustainable river transit in political visions and plans, and agree on ways to go after the same available dock and shoreside facility funds that other cities are using.
Given at least 10,000 years of river transport in the Northwest -- certainly the first public transit in Portland -- we deserve a web of transportation that includes green river transit as well.
Peter Wilcox is a sustainable developer in Portland and is a board member of RiversWest Small Craft Center