All eyes will be on the Portland Aerial Tram as the beloved transit mode turns 10 years old this weekend. While the Tram deserves all the attention, a big part of its coming-of-age story is the symbiotic relationship it has had with cycling.
The tram and bicycles were an unlikely couple at the start but in the past decade they have become inseparable. At a lunchtime presentation in City Hall last week, Art Pearce, the City of Portland staffer who managed the project for the Bureau of Transportation, credited the Tram for putting bicycle access front-and-center in the South Waterfront District. He also confessed that no one expected the Tram and cycling to be such a perfect pair.
Pearce (who I interviewed before the Tram officially opened in 2006) is now PBOT’s manager of policy, planning and projects. He said the aim of the project was to “knit together” the “island” of the South Waterfront to the rest of the central city. “At the time, you wouldn’t imagine biking or walking from South Waterfront to downtown. It seemed so far away.”
“As a cycle commuter,” Pearce recalled, “It was literally the wild west down there at the time.”
Even so, Pearce advocated for bike parking at the base the Tram from the start. The design manuals called for eight spaces. Pearce said he had to “fight hard” to get 16 spaces. That was nowhere near enough. “From day one there were bikes everywhere… the demand surprised even me.”
When I paid a visit in those first days of the Tram the bike parking situation was clearly a problem. Almost immediately it attracted hundreds of bike users who parked their steeds to every imaginable surface: fences, trees, benches. Pearce said the lack of parking caused upwards of 200 people a day to take their bikes inside the Tram pods, which led the City to consider banning them. “But we ultimately felt like that was the wrong direction to go.” (You can still easily wheel your bike into the pods.)
Instead of fighting against bikes, the City embraced them. “It was a pivotal moment,” Pearce recalled. “As a planner, seeing this demand reinforced for me that we needed to make the areas around the Tram as high-quality [for biking] as we can achieve.”
Pearce said demand for cycling due to the presence of the Tram led to bicycling (and walking) becoming a major priority in the 2009 South Waterfront Concept Plan. That plan set into motion the cycle-track on SW Moody Avenue, all those bicycle traffic signals, bike share stations, the carfree Tilikum Bridge and so on. There will also be high-quality bicycle access from the base of the Tram to the upcoming extension of SW Bond Avenue. (We took a deeper dive into the success of this multi-modal infrastructure surrounding the Tram in 2012.)
Looking back, Pearce says the lesson here is that, “Quality infrastructure can impact behavior. If you build the right infrastructure, people’s behavior will respond to it.”
No one is more familiar with that response than Kiel Johnson. Johnson owns and operates Go By Bike, the bike shop and bike valet service at the base of the Tram. Since he started the valet in 2012, the average number of users has doubled from 165 to 328 in 2016. And according to OHSU Transportation Options Coordinator John Landolfe, 24 percent of all Marquam Hill’s 10,000 or so employees who take the tram bike to campus. That’s just five points fewer than the number that take transit or drive alone.
Today the amount of bicycles parked at the base of the Tram is larger than anywhere else in America. Johnson’s record is 420 bikes at his valet alone — not to mention the hundreds of other bike parking spaces around adjacent buildings managed by OHSU. Johnson says he has space for 600 bikes in a space where you could only fit 20 cars.
Would all those bikes be there without the Tram to whisk them up the hill in just 180 seconds? Would the Tram be such a success (no one ever talks about its $57 million price tag these days) without being so easy to bike to?
And don’t forget, without the Tram there would be no OHSU in the South Waterfront to begin with. It was the promise of this “ski-lift in the central city” (Pearce’s words) that Portland used to woo OHSU to the area.
The Tram serves mostly employees, staff, patients and visitors of Oregon Health Sciences University. As the largest employer in Oregon with 17,000 employees, OHSU paid for the bulk of the $57 million project (the City of Portland paid only 15 percent of the cost and it’s currently the only form of public transit they don’t subsidize). The hospital and educational campus has 29 buildings 500 feet above the base of the Tram atop Marquam Hill. Since the Tram went in they’ve built five new buildings and have another three under construction — about $1 billion in total investment and 4,000 new jobs. Pearce said if it weren’t for the Tram, OHSU would have expanded their campus in suburban Beaverton instead.
If OHSU was in Beaverton the Tram would likely not exist. Neither would the Go By Bike valet.
Johnson from Go By Bike sees the bikes — and what he calls their “integration into the tram experience” — as a powerful force that transcends getting from A-to-B. “You have tourists in the Tram who look down and say, ‘What is going on down there? What’s the deal with all those bikes?’ Their first thought is never that all these people rode to work.”
“The biggest thing I want to celebrate,” Johnson continued, “Is the Tram’s ability to inspire people. It inspired me. It inspires all these tourists. That inspiration says, ‘This place is different, and it works.’ It’s this change of reality that’s important. You’re like, ‘Oh, maybe people can bike if we build this kind of infrastructure… As a city we need to continue to focus on building these places. Places that people want to talk about. It’s those places and experiences that give a city its vibrancy.”