This is a guest post by our most august regular reader Warren Sanderson.

Over many years I have developed a dislike for what the concentration of motorway/roading only expenditure is doing to our cities and particularly Auckland. This heavy concentration on roading expenditure with ever widening multi-lane roads is promoting unsustainable car dominance and frequent severance of neighbourhoods from parts previously closely aligned. In other words, it is not doing much for “quality of place”.

I have been reading Transport Blog regularly for some years now because of my interest in architecture and city design and why some cities have so much more appeal as places to visit and live in than other cities.

And over the years Portland is frequently mentioned and photographed in Transport Blog as one of those desirable urban places for living.

So seeing that Portland was the only North American west coast city of any significance that I hadn’t visited, it was time for my wife and me to go.

But first I have to confess to recently attaining 80 years of age. I didn’t aspire to reach this age – it just crept up on me. And going forward there can’t be many advantages in reaching 80 but the reason I mention it is twofold:

When entering the U.S. this time they did not want to fingerprint me or make me take off my belt and shoes when going through security. The terrorist potential of 80 plus’ers must be considered low. My ‘young’ wife however, who in any event would cause far less trouble than me, got the full treatment.

The second advantage, although one only needed to be 65 for this, was one of nomenclature. We were not merely ‘pensioners’, not even ‘senior citizens’ but were ‘Honoured Citizens’ (Generation Zero take note!) and as such were entitled to half cost of the already modest cost of public transit on the TRI-MET System.

Upon arrival the volunteer information staff at Portland Airport quickly provided us with a ‘Journey Plan’ to the Benson Hotel in Downtown Portland. Other volunteer staff watched over our ticket machine purchase and another directed us to a substitute bus – all so friendly.   Because the light rail line was undergoing maintenance a free shuttle bus took us to Kenton N Denver where we transferred  to light rail for the remainder of the journey.

And wow!  The cost for each of us was $ US 1.25.  Unhonoured citizens pay double. If you choose to go by taxi I am told the cost is $ US 39 – 40.

On this basis, Auckland Airport, New Zealand Government policy, NZTA and AT together, have enormous scope/margin for improvement and it is fair to say that the travelling consumer with the lack of alternatives in Auckland, is being totally ripped–off, both financially and by insipid policy.


Our hotel was the Benson Hotel.  It was well located on the corner of SW Oak and Broadway. I am not sure when it was built but it is impressively Edwardian in character and especially in the lobby area.

From the picture you can see that a considerable portion of the façade is red brick and visually set on a solid base. It was designed to impress which is nothing less than you would expect from Simon Benson, the original owner.

The Benson name crops up frequently in Portland. Benson made a fortune in the timber trade and then moved on to other ventures, activities and also to philanthropy.  He gifted land including impressive waterfalls for state parks along the Colombia River Gorge. In Portland itself, he donated the ‘Benson Bubblers’ (a complete water system) that you can see on so many street corners. See picture below –


Portland’s street pattern is mainly organised on a grid system. Because each block is of fairly small dimension the city is reasonably pedestrian friendly. Most crossings do not have a beg button but don’t let your attention stray as there is no pedestrian buzzer. As a pedestrian you need to keep watch or you will miss your turn.

With some notable exceptions the buildings are not usually more than 5 or 6 storeys in height. Many are pared back Louis Sullivan Chicago Style which I find aesthetically pleasing – c.f. our General Building on the corner of Shortland and O’Connell Streets.

And yes, in Portland there are many buildings both older and more recent that are faced in brick. Portland has a high winter rainfall just like Auckland and brick certainly evokes the feeling of shelter and warmth far better than ever grey concrete can do.  See pictures below –

On my return to Auckland I am pleased to note that Ockham’s new Bernoulli Gardens apartment development at Hobsonville Point will offer a European brick façade with some white relief and contemporary detailing. I hope this is a trend and that architects and builders stop trying to con us all, that we are part of the Mediterranean.

Let us return to the reason for visiting Portland – that is to use and explore their light train transit system.

Well wow!  It is so easy to use – even for strangers. We walked three short blocks up to Pioneer Courthouse Square and purchased a number of HR (remember Honoured Citizen) Day Pass tickets at $ US 2.50 each. They need to be validated before use, at the little machine at the train stop. In the centre of Portland itself the trains run each way a street apart but with the aid of the TRI-MET System Map you soon get used to it.

For our first trip we took the Beaverton train westwards which soon enters a long rail only tunnel under the Washington Park hills before arriving at the Beaverton Transit Centre. We then took the Hillsboro train which comes on the same route but continues much further out to Hillsboro where Saturday Market was in full swing.

The light rail train goes fairly slowly on its tram style rails in the city but goes much faster on its railway style rails once it is on its own dedicated way a little further out.

On another occasion we went south crossing over the Willamette River on the much noted Tilikum Pedestrian and Rail only Bridge to Milwaukie.

On our final day we returned to the airport, initially part way by bus because of the maintenance and the rest of the way by light train from the Gateway Transit Centre – again the cost was $ US 1.25 each.

TRI-MET advertise that 45% of commuters and 45% of students use Transit every day and I understand that in Portland 6% of commuters bike to work each day compared with  .5% of commuters in the U.S. nationally.

Not everything in Portland is perfect however.  On the eastern side of the Willamette River there is a plethora of freeways flanking the river. You only have to go to the 30th floor of the U.S. Bankcorp Building to obtain a great view of the city and of these motorways including entries and exits snaking and weaving on the far river bank. Many are elevated like our motorways in the sky at Auckland’s Waterview and frankly all are rather ugly.


And then there is the question of stigma – the belief among some that only lower status people use transit.  For example, when checking in for our departure at the airport, I commented that we had used Portland’s excellent public transit system to reach the airport and the attractive airline girl replied “Yes, it is very cheap but you get some funny fellow travellers”.

I thought about this comment afterwards and to a very limited extent had to agree with it on that particular route. In the other direction to Beaverton and Hillsboro all passengers had seemed ‘very normal’ so I guess in large measure, passengers are reflective of areas transit serves. Furthermore the latter route goes through a long tunnel because of the natural barrier of the Washington Park hills which may make driving at peak over more winding roads a less attractive alternative, thereby upping the patronage.

Maybe too, the overcoming of the significant natural barrier of the Washington Park hills, would in turn, appear to be an indicator of success for light rail from the new Aotea Station under Auckland Harbour to the populous North Shore.

So bring it on.

I can’t wait !!

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    1. Bryce – A wrong assumption on your part.
      No intention to adversely heckle Generation Zero and I have been a strong supporter of their initiatiives with regard to public transport and some other matters. You could confirm that with Niko Elsen if you wish. Just a little fun.

      1. Just the way I read it, I guess, with ‘Generation Zero take note!’ especially the exclamation mark. More than happy to take you at your word that it was not intended this way. 🙂

  1. Excellent contribution Warren. I congratulate you on your observations. Should give some excellent ‘thought food’ for us all to ponder.
    1) Airport link – yes we are getting ripped off in Auckland with the failure to even plan properly for it.
    2) Tariff costs – how much does Portland subsidise PT users? Anyone know?
    3) Our insistence (as does this web blog) to double track every tracked link. This gold plating is not required. Single track can do the job if designed right with passing tracks.
    Portland’s method of running light rail up direction on one street and down direction on the street a block away is a brilliant way of increasing the passenger catchment area, and reducing the area for clashing with road traffic. This is enabling within the existing road plan footprint.
    4) I note your observation Light rail (trams) are slower than heavy rail……..80 kph down Dominion Road is an AT pipe dream.

    Thank you for going to Portland and making some very worthwhile observations that contribute to the Auckland debate.

    1. Don. Thanks for the comment. Regretfully, I have no information regarding the amount of PT subsidy but I am always mindful of the common mirage here in Auckland that motorists pay all their own costs which of course, is not the case.

    2. I don’t think anyone (even AT) deny that light rail on streets is slower than a dedicated rail corridor, there are no plans for 80km/hr down dominion road. But the speed difference over say 6km of dominion road does not add up to a huge amount of extra time – the difference between 60km/hr average and 30km/hr average is only 6 minutes.

    3. “Portland’s method of running light rail up direction on one street and down direction on the street a block away is a brilliant way of increasing the passenger catchment area, and reducing the area for clashing with road traffic.”

      That actually reduces the catchment. If you assume that people will almost always want to arrive and depart at the same place, then moving the arrival and departure stops a block apart means the catchment that is within a given walk of *both* the stops is actually a block smaller than if they were both in the same spot.

  2. Thanks for this excellent dispatch Warren… you’re an Honoured Citizen in Auckland as well. Sounds like an interesting holiday; enjoyed your observations on the aesthetics of mid-rise brick construction. (Bit of a concern with earthquakes though…)

    1. The interesting thing Peter is that Vancouver, Seattle and Portland all have many brick buildings – even modern ones – and they are on the Pacific Rim just like we are. I have some photos of really modern brick buildings as examples, which were intended to be part of this post but were left off. Maybe another post some time – its really all about ‘quality of place’.

      1. If they can be done safely, I’m all for them! I often think it’s a shame that Auckland doesn’t have more old brick warehouse / factory areas for conversion into apartments. But I’ve always liked the brick houses scattered around the west side of the city.

    2. Analysis of outcomes of the Christchurch earthquake has revealed the earthquake risk of taller brick buildings is actually not nearly as bad as commonly thought. As a result they have changed the building code requirements, and my five story apartment building near K Rd is actually now going to be reclad in brick as a result.

  3. Portland is lovely city to visit but you need to be mindful of its very racist history. Free black people were prevented by law from living in Oregon and even once that law went the banks and housing authority did there best to keep it that way.

    1. I was not aware that that free black people were prevented by law, at some stage, from living in Oregon but I understand that even today it is the US city of reasonable size with the smallest percentage of blacks.

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