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Amtrak

Transit-Oriented America, Part 2: Three Cities

9:38 AM EDT on August 21, 2007

This is the second installment in a five-part rail travel series that began yesterday.

In between all that fun Amtrak travel I described yesterday, my wife Susan and I stopped on our honeymoon at six great cities with an eye toward observing their built environments and transportation systems (but mostly just being plain old tourists). Below are photos and brief observations from the first three, in the order we visited.

Chicago 

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The railroading capital of the United States is a great, great town, loved by New Yorkers for generations. We love it too, right?

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Chicago had a lakefront exhibit of great big globes encouraging people to adopt environmentally friendly but inoffensive habits, like setting one's washing machine to cold or switching to compact florescent light bulbs. But next to the exhibit, when we tried to hail a pedicab to take us downtown, we were told that pedicabs are not allowed in the Loop. Ouch. Our recently imposed pedicab restrictions were bad enough, but this takes it to a whole new level. On the plus side, Chicago has the coolest-sounding train-related terminology that we found: the Metra Electric District.

Seattle

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We had hoped not to get into a single automobile on the whole trip, but in Seattle (and only in Seattle), that broke down, mostly because we had a friend in town who owned a car and was putting us up at his place. This city has what seems like hundreds of bus routes, but the one we needed never came, even though two drivers on other routes and other passengers all swore it was running on the Sunday we arrived. After we got off the train we waited and waited for our bus. Then we took a different bus to a more central stop to try our luck there. Then our friend Matt offered to pick us up from the bus stop. We accepted because he said he completely understood our motivating principle, but was downtown anyway and would be burning the same amount of gasoline either way. He drove us again a few more times, including to Lake Union go kayaking, which was worth it.

However we still wanted to explore Seattle on foot, so we walked through downtown, adjacent Belltown, where new condos are going up like mad, and residential Queen Anne Hill. Somewhere in there we noticed the signs all around Seattle encouraging people to ride transit. They have sayings like "Take the monorail, Abigail," and "Take the bus and relax, Max." Slogans aside, Seattle already had what Ted Kheel knows is a better incentive. At least downtown, its buses are free.

Portland

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Like Seattle's downtown buses, Portland's downtown light rail does not charge a fare. Our hotel was in the free zone, and we felt a little guilty riding so much for free, so we vowed to spend our extra money in various Portland businesses, like the worker-owned bicycle cooperative where we rented bikes. The bikes were great, as they allowed us to really see the city and its nearby bike trails up close and personal. As I stood watching cyclists pass by on a fully-separated bike lane next to a light rail line and a aerial tram depot, I realized why it is said that Portland has the most diverse multimodal transportation network in the country for a city its size. One of those modes is the automobile, which in places is catered to as much as any suburb. On the way to the rail, we'd pass curb cuts used by cars and SUVs in the drive-thru restaurant and drive-thru Starbucks across from our hotel, engines idling as their occupants awaited their morning venti mocha frap. Portland leads the nation in many ways, but hey, it's not perfect.

And even in Portland, we learned, bike and transit networks are under attack. This newspaper article described the efforts of one Craig Flynn, a local activist and one-time city council candidate who "thinks city transportation funds should go toward relieving congestion on freeways and other main roads, specifically adding lanes or building new freeways." He told the paper: "I feel like honking my horn going over a speed bump to irritate the people who want them there."

In tomorrow's installment, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New Orleans.

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