Urban Tribe - Ride with your kids in front.

One Aerial Tram or America’s best bike network?

Posted by on October 31st, 2008 at 3:14 pm

The Portland Aerial Tram — $57 million…
(Photo: Dat Nguyen)

As we move into the 2009 legislative session, and with an update to our Bicycle Master Plan finally on the horizon, I’ll be covering the future of bikeway funding a lot in the weeks and months to come.

One of the over-arching themes that should seal the case for more aggressive funding of bike projects in Portland is that it’s such a “cheap date” (in the words of PDOT’s Roger Geller). For a tiny amount of financial investment in biking, Portland has reaped vast benefits. Biking offers the best return on transportation investment our city can make.

During a presentation I watched yesterday, one fact I heard really drove that point home.

Since the 1980s, PDOT estimates they’ve spent a total of $55 million (in 2008 dollars) on bike-specific infrastructure citywide (stuff like bike lanes, signage, etc…).

Portland’s current, 274-mile bikeway network — $55 million.

In comparison, the Portland Aerial Tram — which was built to shuttle commuters and patients between residences and offices on the riverfront to the Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) hospital campus atop a nearby hill — cost $57 million (the Tram was built with 85% funding from OHSU).

If you don’t like the Tram analogy, how about; $55 million is the cost of about one-half of a standard freeway interchange.

I realize transportation funding is a complicated game — with pots of money from a myriad of sources — and I realize this comparison isn’t apples to apples. I also think the Tram is an important part of our transportation system (it’s considered a success by many) and this comparison is not meant as Tram-bashing*.

I share this this comparison in hopes that it provides a simple mental picture and context for future discussions about funding. Despite our Platinum platitudes and superstar-status in the world of bike-friendliness, our city has invested very little in biking (bikes currently account for only 0.7% of PDOT’s capital budget).

Hopefully the Adams administration will help bring more money to bike projects. It’s a great political strategy; there’s nowhere to go but up.

[*Note: As commenters below have quickly made clear, the Tram is a sensitive subject in Portland. Its cost (which was way more than initially planned) was a punching bag in the Portland media. I want to reiterate that I’m using the Tram merely as a tool to help draw a comparison between the cost of that one project and the estimated cost of Portland’s entire, 274-mile bikeway network. Also please note that Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) (a private institution public university) paid for 85% of the Tram.]

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Thank you.

  • Dillon October 31, 2008 at 3:45 pm

    The Tram is part of the Portland bike network. It shuttles hundreds of bikes up and down the hill everyday.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • cyclist October 31, 2008 at 4:14 pm


    OHSU covered 85% of the expense of the Tram, the public was only on the hook for about 8.5 million dollars. I know you made a disclaimer that the comparison was overly simplistic, but considering that OHSU would not have given the 48.5 million to the government had the Tram failed, I think it’s misleading for you to quote the full price of the Tram rather than the government’s actual outlay.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Bjorn October 31, 2008 at 4:16 pm

    While the dollar values are nearly equal much of the money spent on bike projects occurred much earlier in time. What this means due to the effects of inflation is that the Portland bike infrastructure and the tram probably are not nearly as similar in net present value as they are in straight cost. Overall though I agree with Roger that the money spent on bikes goes much further than money spent other places.


    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Bob October 31, 2008 at 4:19 pm

    I agree with cyclist’s point. The pot of money for the tram largely came from OHSU. 8.5 million in government funds is nothing to sneeze about, but it is not like this money was taken from bike funding to pay for the tram.

    I also agree with Jonathan’s larger point that we’ve gotten a lot of bicycling bang for not a lot of bucks. Hopefully a new administration in DC and a further commitment both at the city and state level will lead to increased funding and increased bike facilities.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • bahueh October 31, 2008 at 4:20 pm

    Thank you Dillon!
    a MAJORITY of the price tag was also paid for privately by OHSU….so the comparison between PDOT expenditures and the cost of the tram is apples and oranges…

    I am tired of the tram bashing that goes on in this town…OHSU is a state run hospital there for ALL OF YOU in case your life takes an unplanned medical emergency (say while riding your bike!)….it has some of best trauma physicians in the NW and some of the best facilities available….if the tram is one piece of the operation that assists OHSU in growing and effectively organizing their health care delivery, than quit using it as an example of what not to spend money on. It, in fact, was the sole reason hospital employees could even get to work on the hill two winters ago during an ice storm that effectively shut this city’s bus and road system down in the West Hills…heaven forbid it happens again when one of your relatives/loved ones is undergoing care at that location this winter.
    please, find another scape goat, Maus.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Jonathan Maus (Editor) October 31, 2008 at 4:23 pm

    folks. perhaps I wasn’t clear. My story has nothing to do with Tram-bashing.

    I am setting up this comparison so people have a sense of how little has been spent on bikeway infrastructure in Portland.

    I also understand inflation.

    please take a step back and take this comparison for what it is… a tool to help us think about the vast under-investment in bike infrastructure.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Paul Cone October 31, 2008 at 4:55 pm

    OHSU is not a private institution — it’s part of the state public university system.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Slick October 31, 2008 at 5:09 pm

    A better comparison would be the new Sauvie Island Bridge.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Roger Geller October 31, 2008 at 5:10 pm

    Our (preliminary) estimate is based on 2008 dollars. In other words, were we to build our bicycle-specific infrastructure at today’s cost, it would cost us approximately $55 million.

    This is just for the bike portion of things. We split the cost of pathways in half (other half attributed to pedestrians–a typical method for assigning costs), and reduced it even further when pathway also had park-like elements.

    Again, this is a very rough estimate. It’s a ballpark. But the interpretation doesn’t vary even if the cost were to increase: 1) investing in bicycling is a good transportation buy (likely the best) in terms of what you get for your investment, and 2) relative to other modes of transportation, we’ve invested very little in bicycle transportation.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • John Reinhold October 31, 2008 at 6:13 pm

    OHSU is not just a university, or just a hospital. It is also a network of doctors and clinics, and the city’s largest employer.

    The Tram was not just to get people up the hill.

    The Shnitzer campus of OHSU which will be kicking off construction soon, will have more square footage than the campus on the hill. And the only thing connecting them will be the tram.

    Why not pick the Columbia River Crossing for comparison? We could build our entire 200+ miles of bikeway 80 times for the price of the one CRC project.

    We could build all of that bike infrastructure 12 times over for what Portland alone has paid for the war in Iraq.

    Or you could say that we could build our entire bicycle network using just 12 hours of Exxon Mobil’s net profits.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Eileen October 31, 2008 at 8:08 pm

    Hmmm… if only that “cheap date” logic worked to convince people… It can be applied to so many different things like education vs. prisons (did you know they can project the number of prison rooms they will need in 10 years by looking at 3rd grade reading scores?), humanitarian aide vs. wars, etc. but the expensive projects are the ones that happen because contractors and politicians are having lunch together.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Eileen October 31, 2008 at 8:13 pm

    One more thing – sometimes it feels like Portland’s own bike community is anti-infrastructure. There is so much in-fighting about how to do it and it seems like for many, the idea of separate bike paths is completely repulsive (how dare we suggest there be a safe option away from cars?). Sometimes, when every idea is shot down, it almost sounds like the only solution that people will accept is to just ban cars in the city and give that infrastructure completely to bicycles. But since THAT is never going to happen, nothing happens.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Andy B from Jersey October 31, 2008 at 9:16 pm

    One of the best examples of spending options for transportation choices was made in Berlin after the reunification of the city and the country in the early 1990’s. The city realized that it could not afford to update the subway in the former eastern half of the city to western standards.

    So instead Berlin decided to keep the old street cars that predated the division of the city and invested heavily into biking. By heavy I mean they spent around 5%(probably more like 2% or 3%) of the amount of money they would have spent on updating the subway. Literally pennies, pfennigs or Euro-cents on the dollar, DMark or Euro.

    So what did they get? Well in a city that is unusually sprawling by European standards, today (2007) Berlin enjoys a well developed bike network and a 12% mode share. There interactive online routing map is considered one of the best the world; giving options for walking, biking, all forms of transit and any combination of mode mixing.

    Remember pennies on the dollar and today Berlin moves 400,000 of its residents by bike every day!

    NJ TRANSIT where I live in New Jersey moves 970,000 people on a weekday but the entire assets of this system costs many tens of billions of dollars

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Madspeller October 31, 2008 at 10:18 pm

    Also please note that Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) (a private institution public university) payed paid for 85% of the Tram.]

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Zaphod October 31, 2008 at 10:59 pm

    I like the comparison. It’s tangible. You can ride the tram to the top, get out and gaze upon our city. With 55 million in your pocket, you can have *this* [look at the amazing engineering and architectural marvel of the tram] or *this* [gaze out over the city and think about the paths, lanes, green boxes and green lanes. Then think about the big red arched bike/ped bridge on the springwater, the springwater itself, then all the 1-5 crossings, the esplanade on both sides of the river, the fresh Rose Transit link (which is totally kewl btw)…

    It’s a lot of stuff. The “cheap date” idea is good. I think an even more powerful story is what bike infrastructure does for the >80% who drive. It’s the most cost effective way to ease *your* commute. When you [driver] see a long line of bikers on the Broadway bridge, you’re waiting *less* as a result. Found a parking spot? Thank the guy/girl locking their bike in the corral.

    Even if when you’re stuck behind one or several of us, smile because you know we’re making your life better most of the time. And if you get a wild hare to borrow a bike to see what the fuss is all about, you might just surprise yourself with what happens next.

    It’s that story that’ll sell to the majority. I’d like to see this idea of the “cycling special interest” be put to rest already. It’s irrational to be against this “cheap date”. It’s like a corndog vs. sushi.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Jonathan Maus (Editor) October 31, 2008 at 11:03 pm

    thanks Madspeller. i fixed the typo.

    And John (#10), thanks for those other comparisons. I liked this one:
    “…we could build our entire bicycle network using just 12 hours of Exxon Mobil’s net profit”

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • LoneHeckler November 1, 2008 at 7:31 am

    I understand the comparison you’re making, but I thought it woud be interesting to point out that the OHSU Tram is *part* of America’s best bike network. Dozens, if not hundreds, of OHSU bicycle commuters use the tram every day, either to avoid busy downtown traffic (opting instead for a leisurely roll along the waterfront) or to avoid sweating their way 500-600 feet of elevation up Marquam Hill.

    On the ride up, the tram operator punches their OHSU Bicycle Commuter Card–a rewards program for bike commuters.

    I know for a fact the tram has encouraged a lot of Pill Hill workers to switch to bicycle commuting. I say money well spent!

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • eileen November 1, 2008 at 8:27 am

    Loneheckler – that is an interesting point and one that isn’t often explored. I remember a while back when there was an article about electric bikes and the “purists” were just offended at the idea. But if you think outside the box about what REALLY will get people bike commuting, having a little assistance here and there would make a huge difference. The idea of riding up a steep hill is enough to scare off many newbies and I imagine knowing they could park their bike and ride the tram up would help a lot.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • John Reinhold November 1, 2008 at 10:23 am

    No one starts out a “purist”.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Icarus falling November 1, 2008 at 12:23 pm

    While the whole idea of the “Sham Tram” infuriates me, (along with future plans for ridiculously expensive and woefully inadequate streetcars) and I definitely do not see it as a part of the bike network…( what a laugh), I do however think that Jonathan’s comparison makes a very valid point.

    That, combined with Roger’s explanation of the division of funds, or more correctly what the $55 million towards cycling really means, shows where Portland’s priorities still stand.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Jessica Roberts November 1, 2008 at 12:36 pm

    Wow, people around here are really touchy about the tram, aren’t they? I think this is a very enlightening way of expressing how much we’ve gotten for so little…now only imagine if we could build ten tram-worth of bicycle infrastructure!!!

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Mark Allyn November 1, 2008 at 9:01 pm

    I took the tram once, going downhill from OHSU to the waterfront, just to try it.

    I had my bike (I had ridden from Hillsboro to Portland as my commute).

    An interesting thing is that the tram does not do much good for me because it only goes half way up the hill to Councel Crest, which is where I go through the hills to get from Portland to Hillsboro.

    If they had built the tram to go all the way up to the top, I would use it. Right now, it saves me from the easy half of the hill.

    I still have to climb the harder part . .



    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • John Reinhold November 1, 2008 at 11:26 pm

    thanks for those other comparisons. I liked this one:“…we could build our entire bicycle network using just 12 hours of Exxon Mobil’s net profit”

    Yeah, that one is particularly impressive. Unfortunately – I erroneously calculated that figure using 2007 numbers.

    Using Exxon Mobil’s most recent quarter – it would only take 8 hours to earn enough money to build our entire 200+ mile bicycle network.

    8 hours.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • John Reinhold November 1, 2008 at 11:28 pm

    Shoot, the blockquote didn’t get closed. That post should be formatted like this:

    thanks for those other comparisons. I liked this one:“…we could build our entire bicycle network using just 12 hours of Exxon Mobil’s net profit”

    Yeah, that one is particularly impressive. Unfortunately – I erroneously calculated that figure using 2007 numbers.

    Using Exxon Mobil’s most recent quarter – it would only take 8 hours to earn enough money to build our entire 200+ mile bicycle network.

    8 hours.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • bobcycle November 2, 2008 at 7:02 am

    Noteworthy is what can be achieved per dollar to improve/encourage bike commute safety. I can think of numerous projects that can be done for next to nothing. Such things as changing traffic signal timing, lane striping, and improved traffic signs. OK I realize even simple city projects like traffic signal timing can take lots of money for study, review, proposal, and execution But these projects can accomplish much for low cost compared to auto lane additions etc. I would like to see a venue where ideas of this type could be posted and discussed and perhaps forwarded to officials. I think Sam Adams should strive for 100 improvements in bike traffic flow within first 100 days of office, just to demonstrate what is possible. I believe if we think outside the box dollars can be stretched further than ever thought possible. I think the general public beyond those that see this site should be informed as to how much is accomplished with so few dollars.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Coyote November 2, 2008 at 8:33 am

    Money is not the largest challenge to improving bike facilities, space is. Space is the resource that never gets airtime. Space can not be loaned into existence, nor can it be increased with taxes and bonds.

    Space is the resource that drives the cost of transportation improvements up more rapidly than any other factor. The tram is unusual because it utilizes space that was not being used for transport. I am not sure I am completely behind the use of sky as a road, but can you imagine how much a surface solution would have cost for a direct dedicated route from the waterfront to OHSU? It would be many times the $55 M.

    20 to 30% of a city’s footprint is devoted to the storage and movement of cars. “Cheap Dates” in self propelled transit almost always are a re-purposing of the car space to other uses. Before we prohibited large portions of our city’s space to uses other than cars, we had all the “bicycle infrastructure” we would ever need. The implication is that much of the bicycle improvement spending is really car spending.

    We gave cars our land, spent billions so cars could move faster, now we are having to spend even more to get even a little bit back. Sadly the irony is lost on most us.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Joe November 2, 2008 at 1:53 pm

    Unfortunately, The $55 million or so spent thus far was for the lowest-hanging fruit, so to speak… (ex: adding bike lanes on already wide streets, putting in bike directional signs and pavement markers, etc..) Many of the remaining bike infrastructure improvements are significantly more costly projects. For example, (and I’m sure some will disagree with these..) I think we need more signalized crossings of major arterials on bike boulevards, bridges and grade separated paths (like Sullivan’s gulch trail and improved I-84 crossings), and removal of street parking in some places (like NE 28th). We also need major attention paid to intersections where bike lanes often end abruptly and cause confusion and safety issues. Some of these improvements can be done cheaply by removing auto capacity or more expensively by widening intersections and adding bike specific traffic lights.

    We will probably need to spend lots more money to get a more complete bike network, but however much it ends up being, the total cost for bike infrastructure will likely be many times more cost effective than for any other mode of transportation in this city.

    It’s also important to note that other transportation projects help bicyclists… The Portland-Milwaukie light rail project adds bike lanes in places and new bike facilities over the Willamette Bridge while regular street repaving improves the comfort of bike riding throughout the city. So it’s not exactly an us vs. them competition for the city’s scarce transport funds; a more nuanced look at transportation projects is required to determine cost effectiveness for all transportation modes.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • joe November 2, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    It would seem to be an obvious point to note that, per mile, bike infrastructure is the most cost effective way to invest in our transportation system.

    In a time where investing in infrastructure is going to be of utmost importance to the Feds, it is time for our city to do more and to do it faster. While the $55million figure was, at best, a shot in the dark, it gives us something to start with. If the PDOT draft report is correct, “Portlandís Bikeway Network is approximately 45% complete.” This implies that, for another $50 to $70 million, we can have the bike network that was previously envisioned. Let’s ask for that funding at the first possible moment.

    With a city council and a mayor that was supported by the bike community and a favorable Sec of Transportation in Washington, DC. now is the time to build our our bike infrastructure.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Eileen November 2, 2008 at 4:16 pm

    It seems that you all are functioning under the assumption that these types of decisions are based on what is most cost-effective. Remember all the scandals with government contractors? If only that were the exception…

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Opus the Poet November 2, 2008 at 10:56 pm

    It used to be that it was a joke:”We have the greatest bike path system in the world, now if we could just get the cars off them.” It’s no longer a joke, our best payback for the $ is educating road users on how to share. That includes teaching drivers to share with cyclists, and cyclists to share with cars. After that it’s bike parking. Imagine our road system without parking for cars. Outside of places like Portland that’s the situation now for bicycles, we can get there by bicycle, but there’s no place to lock a bike when you get there.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Zaphod November 3, 2008 at 10:54 am

    Opus (#30) brings up an often overlooked element of infrastructure. With the recent bike corrals, hats off to creating a new paradigm here. But when I go to places where most of the clientele drive, I’m often flummoxed on where to put my bike. If there is a bike rack, it’s hidden and/or out of the way. If not, finding a solid pole or whatever can be a challenge.

    An example of such is Cash-n-carry, a business where restaurants pick up supplies. I often pick up a substantial load on the Xtracycle but I’m locked to a nearby telephone pole support cable. I’m not picking on this one business, just using it as an anecdote. We’re actually kind of lucky in that there are things not designed as bike parking that do double duty as such. I find it ironic that a car parking sign can be used to lock up a bike.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Icarus Falling November 3, 2008 at 2:21 pm

    I recently have visited my mom in the hospital after her total hip replacement.(she is doing great by the way)

    The hospital is SW washington Medical. It is a big facility.

    When arriving on my bike, I was amazed to find the bike parking was no where near the entrances to the buildings, and in fact was located on the back sides of only the old buildings.

    With the huge amounts of money being spent on these facilities, it is apparent that no thought has gone into the arrivals of anyone other than drivers of automobiles.

    Even though I was warned that it might be removed and was considered illegal parking, I locked my new bike to a tree right within sight of the front doors. I was also told it would have been removed quicker had I locked it to a pole in the same area. Luckily for my bike, the poles were even to wide to fit a U Lock around.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Matt November 3, 2008 at 3:58 pm

    The tram thing has been beaten to death, but it is worth pointing out that the city’s share of the expenses came out of a large federal grant that was awarded to redevelop the south waterfront. Without the tram, OHSU would not have signed on and the grant would not have been secured. Lots of people in Portland love to make these either/or comparisons with the tram, but they’re just false.

    Why people in Portland (especially cyclists and public transit advocates) get so indignant about the tram, which has attracted many hundreds of new bike commuters, is beyond me.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • joe November 3, 2008 at 5:40 pm

    Matt – I think the comparison is meant to illustrate what the city of portland could get for a certain amount of money. It is not meant as an either or.

    Love the tram or not, it is incredible to think that the amount of money spent on it is equal to almost 30 years of investment in cycling infrastructure.

    is the rewrite of the Bike Master Plan still going to be finished by july 09?

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • BikeR November 4, 2008 at 12:04 am

    The comments about bikes on the Tram reminded me of the 2006/2007 discussions re: OHSU’s poor planning for secure bike parking. If I remember right, OHSU did not provide sufficient or adequate long-term secure bike parking for the estimated 600 bike commuters that work at OHSU.

    Has OHSU addressed these concerns? Or are more bikes riding the Tram just to be parked in an office?



    Recommended Thumb up 0