Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Watch the Swing!

The aerial tram leaving Koehler Pavillion for the downhill trip
Happy Rose City Wednesday, friends. In today’s feature we’ll be looking at what is not only a distinctive feature of the Portland cityscape, but also something I make use of every week—the Portland Aerial Tram.

If you are a regular follower of Robert Frost’s Banjo, or if you know me personally, you know that I have a chronic respiratory condition—actually, strictly speaking, a genetic enzyme deficiency that almost always leads to chronic respiratory problems, as it has in my case. The condition is known as Alpha1-antitrypsin deficiency, & the most common treatment for it is regular enzyme replacement via IV infusion, using one of a few name brand plasma-based drugs. As a result, I go to the hospital weekly—it’s a routine with me that actually started in the spring of 2002, & likely will continue the rest of my days.

A view of downtown Portland from the tram (looking north)
Here the procedure is done at the large teaching hospital on Marquam Hill in the Southwest, Oregon Health & Sciences University. It’s a large & renowned medical center & medical school, as well as being the largest employer in the city of Portland (per the Wikipedia article cited below.) So the fact that it sits atop a hill that could only be accessed by winding streets & just one of the Trimet transit bus lines obviously presented some challenges. In addition, OHSU’s footprint on the hilltop is limited, & it began expanding down by the South Waterfront in the early 00s.

As a result, the city & OHSU partnered in constructing the aerial tram, a tramway that not only connects the South Waterfront section of OHSU with Marquam Hill, but which also provides a more convenient mode of transportation for a number of staff, patients & visitors, as well as some tourists—on a clear day, the views during the ride both of the Portland skyline & also of the mountains to the east & north can be breathtaking.  You can not only see Mt Hood but also Mt St Helens, as well as getting a rare bird’s eye view of the city itself.

The tram just past the tower
The tram ride last only about 3 minutes, & during that time it travels a horizontal distance of 3,300 feet (1,000 m) and a vertical distance of 500 feet (150 m) [per Wikipedia.] When you’re ascending from the Waterfront toward Marquam Hill, there’s a tower that’s reached by a steep initial ascent; as the tram goes past the tower there’s always a bit of a “swing”—hence the post’s title, which the operator invariably announces to the passengers. Following that, the ride levels out considerably, tho the tram is certainly climbing at all times.

The tram docks at Koehler Pavillion. The ride “uphill” is $4.00 for the general public, but free for hospital employees, patients & patient visitors.  There’s no additional charge for the ride downhill, however.

Mt Mood, the South Waterfront & the Willamette River viewed from the tram (looking east)
The tram hasn’t been without controversy. Although initial estimates put the project’s cost at a bit more than $15 million, the final cost was around $45 million. In addition, the tram’s route does go directly over a residential neighborhood for a significant portion of the trip. At one point a homeowner placed a sign on his roof stating “Fuck the Tram,” & it wasn’t removed until he’d negotiated with the city. The homeowner aimed the sign so it couldn’t be seen from the street, but only from the tram overhead.

I’m a newcomer to the city, & as such, I can’t really speak about the controversies with any depth of experience. At this point, the tram is an integral part of my week, forming as it does the final leg of a trip that uses—tram included—four types of public transit: also bus, train & streetcar. Despite the fact that I have a fear of flying & a fear of heights, the tram ride is always relaxing & usually enjoyable—occasionally it can get a bit packed, but usually there’s plenty of room in the cabin.

Just watch the swing!  


  1. You get some great views on your tram ride! Although I'd probably have problems with that ride; I have a bad fear of heights and would probably spend the bulk of the trip huddled in the exact center of the car, looking at the floor, especially when the car starts swinging.

  2. It's a pretty amazing thing to be making a weekly run on a tram over a beautiful city. Does the child in you feel that "Disney World" experience? I think I would, although I'm not much of a one for heights and would probably be busing it.

    Great photos! I feel as if I've experienced the exhilaration of that ride.

    I'd no idea you'd been afflicted for so long. Glad to know that you have the resources you need fairly close to hand.

  3. I love the idea of a tramway up to the hospital. It must be unique. You are providing us with a fascinating introduction to your new home. I, for one, am thoroughly enjoying it.

  4. Wow, John, that's some tram ride! However, I might feel a bit edgy if it was running above my home.

  5. Hi Roy, Kat, Alan, & Martin: Once again, I'm running behind, folks--sorry!

    Roy: It really is a pleasant ride, & the swing isn't pronounced. If you really weren't paying attention ti would be possible to lose your footing.

    Kat: Yes, it is amazing. I enjoy it--I like looking at the barges on the Willamette & even the traffic on Interstate 5, which the tram passes directly over. & yes, just the view of the city from the air is kind of magical.

    Alan: It's certainly unique in the states, as there's only one other urban tramway over here, which is in New York City, & is not connected with a hospital! Glad you're enjoying the Portland posts!

    Martin: It would be disconcerting, wouldn't it! Thanks.

  6. You live in such a cool city. I had no idea Portland had a air tram. Very very cool. Lovin your blog. Cheers my friend,

  7. Portland is a rocking city. Thanks for all your posts. And I dig that Air Tram, I wanna go on a ride on that thing. Super cool.

  8. Hi Caroline: So nice of you to stop by! Yes, Portland is a cool place. Hey, come on out here & we'll go for a tram ride!

  9. I love the photos. And that your trip has four different kinds of public transportation involved - I'm sure it has its hassles, but it's still interesting. I take subways a lot, which can get claustrophobic (especially express trains that don't stop at every station) so the idea of having wide open views like that is pretty amazing.

  10. Hi HKatz: Thanks! As the weather begins to get better, I can cut that to 3 types of transportation, because there's a train stop not all that far from here, so the bus won't be necessary every time. No subways in Portland really--there are a few underground stretches on the Max light rail line, but not extensive. I did ride BART & the Muni underground in San Francisco a lot, however, so I can relate to what you're describing! Thanks!


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