This is a draft I saved back in November and then forgot about. I figure I must’ve accidentally published it for a few minutes, because more than one person has emailed me asking where it went. So, here it is.
So here’s the east approaches to the Marquam Bridge, in Portland.
Roll up to a long-range planning meeting and you’re liable to hear idle talk about tunneling or removal or somesuch. It doesn’t matter what the actual likelihood of this happening is. Dislike of the Marquam bridge is sort of a litmus test for serious Portland movers-and-shakers. Not only is it a freeway, it’s ugly. Or that’s the official line anyway. What’s not ugly? The Streetcar.
Cute. With a cutesy sign in the background to emphasize the cuteness. But, not particularly useful. The streetcar is actually slower than equivalent bus routes (though the existence of rail bias produces a decent amount of ridership) and is best thought of as a land development tool. What does a useful, modern urban rail line look like?
Super useful. Carries nearly 800,000 people a day. Trains reach 60mph between stops. The Metro is the very key to the District’s success; without it, you simply couldn’t have continued to locate major government and office buildings inside the Beltway, and the residential blocks would not have followed either. But note that we’re way outside of “cute” now, and into 70’s modernism. Exceedingly well-executed modernism, which has held up surprisingly well. But not cute.
What does an even higher level of service look like?
That’s the Sanyo Shinkansen, a couple of miles outside of Shin-Osaka. That’s about a 1km radius curve, acceptable only in close proximity to stations where all trains stop. Get a bit further out and the curves are substantially broader. But now we’re back to the Marquam bridge, we’re back to the “ugly.” The sort of thing that right-thinking NIMBYs would oppose as a blight on the landscape.
When you read criticism of urban highway networks, you see a fair bit of criticism that highways and cars are “out of scale” and “don’t fit” in an urban context. This kind of talk is synonymous for “highways are not cute.” Well, quality rail infrastructure isn’t cute either. If you’re triggered by the sight of a multi-deck freeway interchange, you’re not prepared for high speed rail either. Cuteness shackles you to forever move at the speed of surface light rail.
So you need to have the ability to rise above cute. Houston does. Vancouver and Toronto do, but Montreal doesn’t appear to. New York used to, but whether they can still go big and brutalist remains to be seen.
To keep improving the transport network, you need a citizenry that’s cool with concrete. And it’s this reason why I’d wager we’ll see at least three true high-speed rail systems in operation (California, Texas, and a third – maybe Florida, maybe NC, maybe DesertXpress, maybe electrified Cascades) before we ever see major capacity expansions in the Northeast, such as an inland route from NYC to Boston via Hartford. Beyond the capital and political issues, you have a citizenry that isn’t equipped to appreciate the aesthetics.