Walkable Portland

I was relieved to look back at my last post and see that I had written that I wouldn’t be walking “tomorrow” (i.e., June 25) because we’d be flying to Portland. My recollection was that I’d said I wouldn’t be walking for a while because we’d be on vacation, and my reaction was “What was I thinking?!” I was fervently grateful that I’d thrown my walking shoes in the suitcase at the last minute, as I walked my little tootsies off!

We didn’t have a car in Portland, and I have to say, if you have to be somewhere without a car, Portland is a great place to be. There are other cities that have good public transportation but possibly none with so much respect for and encouragement of walkers and cyclists.

We were staying in a hotel near the Convention Center, on the east side of the Willamette River, chosen specifically because it is right on the MAX (light rail) line, which provides easy (and free) access to downtown Portland. We could hop on the MAX behind our hotel and ride to town without a ticket. Portland has a “fareless square” within which all the MAX trains, the streetcar, and buses are free, which greatly facilitates travel to and around town. The only time we needed to pay a fare was when we took the MAX to the airport.

The trains, buses, and streetcar don’t go everywhere, of course, but even when you are reduced to shank’s mare, travel is a pleasure because there are sidewalks, crosswalks, and (most important) rigorously enforced laws about stopping for pedestrians. Although the laws may be meant to apply only at crosswalks, we found that motorists stopped and waited for us any time we wanted to cross a street (even once when we were guiltily jaywalking). In fact, on a previous visit, when we were exploring the South Park Blocks, we found that we had to be careful not to stand too close to the curb while consulting a map and dithering over where we wanted to go, as motorists would stop if we even looked like we might be considering crossing the street! Quite a contrast to Fairhope, where drivers seem bent on running you down if at all possible.

Cyclists are equally well treated, with marked bike lanes on many streets and hooks on the MAX trains for hanging bicycles during transit. And people do actually walk and ride bikes downtown. There are enormous parking lots at the outlying MAX “transit centers” to encourage commuters to park and ride, as many evidently do. I’m sure many people also drive to work if they have a guaranteed place to park, but I wouldn’t want to be looking for a parking place just for shopping or sightseeing.

In our case, we were combining shopping and sightseeing. My son-in-law was in search of shirts with French cuffs, which entailed visiting many stores (he finally lucked out at Macy’s), and my daughter had never been to Powell’s Bookstore (a must-see attraction for anyone visiting Portland), so of course we had to go there. At one point we found ourselves within easy walking distance of Washington Park, so we decided to go see the International Rose Test Garden (which was at its peak); our map lied, and we were pretty footsore by the time we got there. We later learned there’s a MAX stop in the park (and free shuttle buses around it), which the kids took advantage of later when they went back to visit the Japanese Garden. We also strolled along the riverfront in Governor Tom McCall Waterfront Park. And we wandered endlessly (on foot and by streetcar) looking for REI, which was not on the map and about whose location various members of our party had varying opinions.

We also did a fair amount of walking in the area of the hotel—to the hotel several blocks away where our daughter and son-in-law were staying and to the Lloyd Center Mall (which I’m told is the largest in Oregon). My husband made repeated trips to the Barnes & Noble store at the mall, to succumb each time to at least one more book than he had intended to buy. Also, there was a Mac Store between our hotel and the mall, and after browsing there one day, he went back the next and bought an iPod (and later sort of wished he’d gotten a laptop as well). Shopping in Portland is such a delight (and a novelty for us) because there is no sales tax, which makes a considerable difference on big-ticket items such as these.

All in all, we did enough walking each day to offset the effect of a Grand Slam breakfast at the Denny’s across the street from our hotel, but I was not sorry to return home and hit my familiar streets to check on the progress of the local housing construction, which adds interest to my daily peregrinations.

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