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Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Loathing and Loating on the Portland Streetcar

A few years ago, I interned for a certain local publication of note. Among my duties at this certain local publication of note was an occasional field trip to Powell's Books, where I would sell promotional copies of novels and biographies that would occasionally arrive on the book review desk from parts unknown. One morning I had to haul a heavy box of unwanted tomes down there. On my way towards the stairs, the Editor in Chief, stuck his head out of his office and loudly suggested that I "go by streetcar!"

I can only assume that he was being sarcastic but, given his publication's still-to- this-day's support of a certain transportation commissioner/streetcar cheerleader, I couldn't be sure. I once vowed that I would never take a ride on the Portland Streetcar, mainly because the system is incredibly costly, slow, ugly, in my opinion, and completely worthless for 99% of the city's population. Instead of waiting five minutes to board the next passing streetcar and determined not to break my vow, I hauled the box of books down there on foot and managed to beat it to Powell's front door.

I'm still very proud of this accomplishment and wish someone had given me a ribbon for this impressive feat.

Today, seven years after the streetcar debuted, I finally broke the vow but I had a very valid reason, dammit. I recently made the mistake of going on a overnight backpacking trip despite a sore muscle in my right leg. This resulted in a fairly serious sprain and I've been hobbling around Portland ever since. I'm on doctor's orders to rest the leg but, being the stubborn fool that I am, I haven't been doing that at all.

I had enough common sense to sit out this year's Bridge Pedal but not enough to avoid a hike around downtown and the Pearl District this afternoon. The leg gave out on me near Powell's on a return trip back to my car. This left me with two choices: call a cab or take the streetcar.

I opted for the streetcar. During a ten minute wait for the next train, this gave me the opportunity to find out who rides the bloody thing. After all, most people can get to their destination on foot faster than the streetcar can take them there. An elderly woman with a cane wandered up to my stop, decided not to wait and kept walking, which made me feel positively fantastic about myself. I was later joined by two tourists, a guy with a Woody Woodpecker tattoo and his girlfriend. First-time riders like me, they couldn't quite make sense of a map at the stop indicating where the streetcar's "fareless square" ended.

With no idea how to pay for fare and with no ticket machines nearby, we opted to risk it. Of course, seven blocks later a fare inspector named Randall jumped on board our streetcar. He politely lectured us all on how to use a ticket machine located in the middle of the train and suggested we make use of it. As he headed down the car inspecting other riders' fares, I hobbled down to the machine.

Struggling to balance on the moving streetcar with a bum leg and a heavy messenger bag as I fumbled through my wallet, I looked up expecting to find the two tourists waiting to use the machine. Nope. Instead, they had opted to ignore Randall's spiel and steal my seat. After several minutes of frustration, I managed to buy a ticket, get it validated and find another seat...only to discover that I had missed my stop.

  • Total trip time, including the wait: 25 minutes.

  • The amount of time that it would have taken me to walk back to my car if my leg wasn't injured: 15 minutes.

  • Cost of fare: $1.75

  • Ridership on my streetcar: overweight people and tourists under the age of 30 that have Woody Woodpecker tattoos for some reason, presumably because they lost a bet with someone who can correctly identify Woody Woodpecker.

  • So now I hate the Portland Streetcar more than ever and I'm prepared to declare it my Official Arch Nemesis.

    Do you hear me shaking my fist at you, streetcar, you overpriced, traffic-clogging, bike-tripping, engineering nightmare?! Do you?!!


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