Even to Portland, Ore., natives, the view from the top of the Portland Aerial Tram’s upper terminal on a sunny day is stunning. To the right is majestic Mt. Hood standing at 11,250 feet. To the left you can see the cratered Mt. St. Helens (recall the 1980 eruption), and to the far left is Portland’s thriving downtown. In the foreground are the Willamette Rivers’ many bridges crisscrossing the river separating Portland’s east and west sides. The view at the bottom terminal is perhaps even more remarkable, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
The $57 million tram was built because Marquam Hill, where most of the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) campus sits, is landlocked and accessible only by two 2-lane roads. OHSU is Portland’s largest employer and medical destination. To accommodate nearly 20,000 visitors to campus each day and allow OHSU to grow, creative thinking and a huge transportation investment were needed.
The tram’s two cabins–named Jean and Walt–each carry 79 passengers 3,300 linear feet at 22 miles per hour from OHSU down 500 feet to Portland’s South Waterfront; 980 people per hour in each direction make the trip. As spectacular as the view is at the top, an equally impressive sight comes into focus as the tram car crests the mid-span support and tilts back like a gentle roller coaster ride on the way to the bottom. What comes into focus may be the most multi-modal spot in the U.S. if not the world.
The lower terminal is served not only by tram but by streetcar, bus, and shuttle. There are also extensive bicycle facilities for renting and parking bicycles (free valet) and yes, there is also a bit of car parking. What’s more, the tram has promoted considerable development in the area where many people now live, and walking is a key travel mode supported by the facility. Light rail will soon be added with the completion of a new bridge nearby that will carry light rail trains, buses, cyclists, and pedestrians and, in the future, streetcars (sorry, no private cars).
Most universities and hospitals may not have the same constraints as OSHU, but that university’s results offer a best-in-class approach to promoting all travel modes that is paying off for the hospital and community alike. What’s more, the tram is a tourist destination and people pay the fare to see one of Oregon’s most magnificent views both from afar and up close.