Transit-Oriented America, Part 2: Three Cities

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.



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


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.



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.



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.

  • I’m still SHOCKED by all of those free rides we had. That was amazing. No swiping, no handfuls of quarters, you just get right on. I felt like I was getting away with MURDER.

    Also, although there are no pedicabs in Chicago’s loop, there were tons of people on bikes. The city is SUPER FLAT and easy to bike. I saw people in suits with those goofy leg clips on bikes, messengers, students etc. Chicago has the same bike parking problem as NYC: bikes locked to every piece of street furniture. I felt right at home.

  • Tell me this Craig Flynn guy lost the election.

  • Rainy

    Re: Seattle – Yes, buses are free in the downtown area. Supposedly its to help shoppers, tourists, and workers on lunch break get around in the downtown core area. It encourages people to take the bus instead of walk. Homeless people in transit to other areas frequently hop on downtown, making the ride very unpleasant for paying riders. Why not charge downtown riders a low fee instead, say $0.25, with a transfer for the return trip? Nothing in life is free, and probably for a good reason.

    As a former Seattle resident, I remember the bus system with revulsion. Stinky, filthy buses, and late, slow buses. Buses that blew by stations without stopping. Drivers who were entirely too tolerant of fare dodging and disorderly behavior. I hope it has gotten better.

  • OMG, you’re friends with WHERE THE HELL IS MATT? I was just watching his stuff on youtube the other day – he’s like a youtube juggernaut.

    Sounds like you had quite a trip – I look forward to reading future installments.

  • Aaron,

    I think you have gotten us all wanting to travel somewhere by train!


    As much as we all want to support transit, in some instances, when we ask what we are trying to accomplish with a tranist investment, it just does not make sense to charge a fee.
    The free downtown Seattle transit services helps people use it for short trips getting peole to move around downtown(the downtown is unfortunately not much for walking) and to prevent long loading processes at the busier stops. It would probably cost more in time to collect a $.25 than it generates in revenue. It is also very tourist friendly.

    Last month, I was in Seattle for a “Great Places Symposium” that we helped organize. It was a symposium of the leadership of Seattle, including the mayor, dept. commissioners, coucilors, developers, advocates, etc. all gathered to make creating “great places” a primary agenda and a core strategy for addressing the environmental crisis regionally and globally.

    Seattle is really taking a leadership role on these issues… at least in rhetoric.

    An article about the event:

    The declaration:

    We are planning a much larger public conference and “great places” celebration for next year:

  • great reading! i also went on a similar trip earlier this year; read about it at

  • Matt was out “best man” he’s a great guy. I think he’s working on a new video project now.

    Thanks for the links, Ethan!

  • Broken link

    Oops, Dave KCMO, your link does not work (because of extra “.” at the end).

  • v

    Rainy – How about helping the homeless get into homes? Seems like a major (and fiscally silly) inconvenience to everyone else just to avoid folks who are down on their luck. Just a thought.


  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Yes, but this link does work for Dave KCMO’s blog. Nice story!

  • The key in Seattle is to know where to walk (duh). But really, it makes a difference because of the hills and the town layout.

    If you walk the waterfront in Seattle, definitely consider taking the ferry to Bremerton (2+ hour RT) or Winslow (1+ hour RT). Fare is about $6 outbound and return is free. You can get reasonably good food and beer on the ferry.

  • Dave KCMO: That is a great set of posts. You lived the dream that I could only aspire to: You liveblogged your travels. I wanted to liveblog the trip but decided in the end to wait until it was over because A) Susan said “you just wanted to say the word ‘liveblog’, and B) it was hard to live through the travel and blog it at the same time. Excellent, excellent work on your part – the trains you rode look to have been a lot of fun as well.

  • Jen

    I’m in Chicago for the Labor Day weekend to take in the Jazz Fest. and the biking here is sweeet! Puts NYC to shame. People ride the bike lanes and cars actually respect us! The path along the lake is crowded in places, but really beautiful. Bikes are locked up everywhere and my sources tell me that commuting here is a breeze because many buildings actually have showers and places to lock your bikes inside. Hey NYC, you know I love you, but, I think it’s time the DOT take some notes!


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