OPINION: Portland and the importance of public transportation


headshot_Cameron Gorman

Cameron Gorman

For spring break this year (Ah, a distant memory now), I traveled to Portland, Oregon, for the AWP conference — the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. On my radio show, my hosts and I, who had all been to the gathering, challenged ourselves to come up with one sentence that best described the whole shebang. Mine? “A bunch of writers, wearing writerly fashions, buying way too many books.” Clearer picture? I’ll give you a hint: lots of blazers, lots of emailing. Lots of red lipstick, strangely enough.

In reality, of course, it’s much more than just that. AWP was a really eye-opening experience for me. I got to hear some writers I really respect speaking on panels, listen to talented poets at readings, and even did some networking at the book fair. And Portland itself was wonderful, too. Perfectly weird, Portland, my first West Coast city, was rife with cool coffee shops, delicious grilled cheese and balmy weather. And, surprisingly enough, a well-connected public transportation system.

The hotel my group stayed at was right across the way from a train station. We took the TriMet every day to and from the convention center, and it was almost always on time. We were able to figure out the system pretty quickly, and it was efficient and clean. It reminded me of my days in New York — not that the subway was on time or clean, necessarily. What I mean is that it reminded me of being able to get where I needed to go, sans-car and pretty conveniently.

If there’s one thing that I really miss about city living, it’s that. Need to meet someone across town? Hop on the train. Need to get to the store and don’t have a car? No problem. Been to the bar? Well, there you go. And sure, you can take a rideshare like Uber instead. In Portland, that was no problem. The city’s small compared to other major destinations.

But in New York? Sometimes, none were available. Sometimes, there were so many that I didn’t know where to be picked up from. Sometimes, I was afraid to get into a car for fear it wasn’t my Uber after all.

In 2016, The Atlantic published an article by Alana Semuels titled “The End of Public Transit?” In it, the writer explores the idea of public transportation versus ridesharing. “By using services like Chariot, after all, I’m depriving the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency of my dollars, and losing interest in a public process that might improve the transportation services I have been avoiding,” Semuels writes.

In places like Kent, though, there’s no hope of a subway system popping up overnight to patronize. The choices are basically car or Uber, and so, aside from the times when PARTA loops out to where I am going, I drive myself. But I’m conscious of how much I like being able to sit on a train or bus and read, or listen to a podcast, or just look out the window. There’s something calming about being able to get where you’re going while being able to let your mind wander.

There are so many reasons to call public transportation important. Environmental reasons. Why drive your own car when you can conserve by sharing seats? (The Federal Transit Administration says “By moving more people with fewer vehicles, public transportation can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”) There’s the cultural reasoning. (Taking the subway in NYC is practically part of the experience of being there.) And, of course, there’s the way people who don’t have cars can get places.

But the thing I liked the most about Portland, about New York — about everywhere that I could get somewhere by hopping on the train — was the way it made me feel free. There was practically nowhere I couldn’t go — to eat, to walk around, to see. In I would go, through the self-closing doors. Time would pass, and out I would get. In a new place, all of a sudden — and back again.

Cameron Gorman is a columnist and an illustrator. Contact her at [email protected].