Tram on a Hot Summer Day

Over at, a new post is up about the high level of ridership on the Portland Aerial Tram.

Last December, in another conversation over there, a number of critics made dire predictions about the future of the Tram, not only in terms of ridership but also about hot weather.

With those criticisms in mind, I rode the tram yesterday, making a point to note temperatures (on a record-setting 100+ degree day) and make a few observations.

(More about the experience and my conclusions after the flip)

In the December, 2006 Tram discussion, some critics were making predictions of people expiring from heat in tram cars while “packed like sardines”. At least one critic had predicted the city would be forced to spend further millions retrofitting an air conditioning system into the tram.

Observation 1: Ingenuity Prevails

Each tram car already has 8 on-board fans plus passive vents near the floor at the front and rear.

To augment this, tram operators have employed a low-tech solution: Large fans, the kind you can find easily at Costco, sit at the lower landing and blow air through the tram cars every time they open their doors, bringing the temperature quickly to ambient levels. I estimate the cost of this system to be well under $300.00, that’s “hundreds” not “millions”.

Observation 2: Shade is on your side

The lower landing, at 3PM when I rode, was shaded by the nearby OHSU Center for Health and Healing. This resulted in lower ambient temperatures, and in combination with the lower temperatures usually encountered near the river, this helped considerably.

Observation 3: Wind helps, too.

At the upper landing, temperatures felt considerably cooler, and there was a brisk breeze going. Every time I’ve ridden the tram there has been at least a mild breeze at the upper landing.

Observation 4: The actual temperatures

KGW’s official temperature for Portland when I rode, recorded at 2:53pm, was 101 degrees. In each tram cabin, a small digital thermometer had been installed near the ceiling, to record the hottest temperature in the cabin.

The tram operator said that typically the cabins run about 3 degrees hotter than the ambient air by the end of the 3 minute trip. I took a round trip, using both cabins. The final recorded temperature in both (and this is at the ceiling), was 97.7 degrees.

Observation 5: Other People

Riders were not packed in “like sardines”. In fact, as I predicted elsewhere, tram ridership is well distributed and frequent departures mean there is no overcrowding, even with the high level of ridership. (The Tram can move 1,900 people per hour total at full load, which if sustained at peak could carry the entire daily ridership in well under 3 hours.)

On the trip up, several riders were conversing with the operator about temperatures. None expressed the desire to have air conditioning installed, although two were discussing the idea of having windows in the cabins that could open. Somebody made a joke about replacing the glass with chicken wire. Nobody expressed that the temperatures were too hot compared to the outside, and nobody expired of heat exhaustion.


Riding the tram is no different than waiting for the bus on a hot, low-wind day. The lack of air conditioning is an inconvenience on the few days of the year that get this hot, but not life-threatening. If you are able to be out and about in the ambient heat, you won’t have a problem on the tram.

Note: This was originally formatted as a shorter comment to be posted at, but people (including me) have had difficulty posting over there lately… some receive error messages, some receive dropped connections, etc., so I’ve chosen to amplify my remarks over here.

18 responses to “Tram on a Hot Summer Day”

  1. Do hope you rode the bus to the top, and rode the tram down, a free ride… I have done it a few times…

  2. Do hope you rode the bus to the top, and rode the tram down, a free ride… I have done it a few times…

    I have an annual streetcar pass, which covers tram admission. Other that that, I don’t look for ways to get a free ride on the tram — I usually have one or more out-of-town guests with me (doing the tourist thing) and I buy them cash roundtrip fares. In fact, I estimate that my own personal activity has inflated tram usage by .005%. :-)

    – Bob R.

  3. Over at, a new post is up about the high level of ridership on the Portland Aerial Tram.

    Bob T: How many cars is this taking off
    the road?

  4. Bob, the answer is very few. But it’s the wrong question.

    As a transit, bike and ped advocate, I’ve given up on trying to take cars off the road. As long as there is capacity, cars are simply too attractive for most folks.

    The question is how we add new capacity and what are its dollar costs and non-dollar costs (environmental, social, health, etc.).

    So the question I would ask about the Tram is how much access, mobility and economic development does it add. The answer is quite a lot!

    OHSU will develop its new campus in SoWa because of the Tram. If they put it in Hillsboro it would generate far more auto trips and probably in the long term require much more investment in auto capacity (or alternatively generate much more additional congestion) than what the Tram cost.

  5. Bob Tiernan asks: “How many cars is this taking off the road?”

    That’s a difficult number to quantify. The tram replaces the role of shuttle buses, and does so quite well. It also anchors a major development and (soon) a new campus. Those developments may not have happened, at least not on the same scale, had there been no Tram. If the OHSU expansion were in a totally different location, many new auto trips would be generated as well.

    The tram also functions as a vehicle for small parcel delivery and delivery tasks such as food vendor carts, maintenance workers, janitorial, etc. (I have personally witnessed food service carts being moved on the tram — think hotel-style room service carts, not big hot-dog stands.)

    But, let’s consider a hypothetical best-case scenario: This assumes (for purposes of discussion) that every tram passenger would have travelled by car if the tram did not exist, and all other development patterns remain equal —

    Using the tram’s monthly ridership figures and the fact that the tram was only open 6 days per week during the sampling period, that’s an average daily ridership of 4,200 boardings.

    If those people travelled by car at the Portland-area average vehicle occupancy of 1.27 (ODOT figures), then that would be about 3,300 automobile trips up and down the hill each day.

    In reality, I think what the tram is doing is carrying a huge chunk of new trips that would not have existed… it is facilitating a major new development, new economic activity, and increased productivity for OHSU and related activities while minimizing the number of new auto trips.

    Despite the well-publicised major cost overruns, the service the Tram provides would have been very expensive in the long run using shuttle buses. Approximately 12 full-size buses would be required to offer the same capacity and departure frequency as the Tram, and 24 full-time operators plus supervisors, and the trip would still take up to 30 minutes, rather than 3, which would greatly reduce the utility of the service.

    That level of operating cost (operators, fuel, maintenance) would approach or even match the Tram’s annual operating cost, but at an initially much lower capital cost. But the City’s $8.5 million capital investment in the tram (OHSU is paying for most of the tram), amortized over the life of the tram, amounts to less than the operating cost of a short, low-frequency bus route.

    – Bob R.

  6. I should add to the above thought experiment that the 3,300 automobile trips would need to park somewhere. Assuming all the trips are round trips, that’s 1,650 cars. Most of OHSU is still at the top of the hill, and has nowhere to build except up, which requires elevated parking. If 2/3 of those hypothetical cars need to park up there at peak usage, that requires 1,100 spaces, and recent estimates for structure parking in Portland are clocking in at over $12,000 per space in construction costs, so that garage would cost a minimum of $12 million.

    (Source: PDC Estimate of $8.5 million for a 700-space above-ground parking structure.)

    – Bob R.

  7. As long as there is capacity, cars are simply too attractive for most folks.

    I think it would be better put “As long there is subsidized oil defense, pollution cleanup, (most) parking, (some) roads, etc…”. Capacity is useless if the price to use it is higher than people are willing to pay.

  8. its time to stop the obsession with the transit aesthetic, really, seriously. this website is about ‘access and mobility’ not fashionable economic development and trains for tourists. if there need to be some disneyland elements in portland’s transit scheme, fine, but dont talk about the streetcar and the tram as useful things — who is commuting between any of these locations? just check out the number of parking lots at the bottom of the hill and the shuttle buses between the lots — are people serious? is it impossible to walk half a mile to your car? its ludicrous to speak of the new developments on the waterfront and in northwest portland as important in the mass-transit movement as the affect only a marginal fraction of the region’s predominantly suburban population.

  9. “CD” lays down the law: dont talk about the streetcar and the tram as useful things

    I’ll talk about them as useful things, because I think ample evidence shows that they are useful, thank you very much.

    who is commuting between any of these locations?

    About 4,200 tram boardings daily, about 10,000 streetcar boardings daily.

    just check out the number of parking lots at the bottom of the hill and the shuttle buses between the lots

    Just check out the full bike racks at mid-day (multiple bike racks, hundreds of bikes) or watch where all the pedestrians go after disembarking from the Tram at the lower landing (I have). The majority either walk to the nearby streetcar stop, the OHSU Center for Health and Healing, or off toward the residential towers. Only a minority head for the parking lots.

    are people serious?


    its ludicrous to speak of the new developments on the waterfront and in northwest portland as important in the mass-transit movement as the affect only a marginal fraction of the region’s predominantly suburban population.

    The Portland Streetcar alone carries over 3% of all transit boardings (bus, light rail and streetcar) in the entire region. Add in the tram and you’re at 4.4%. That’s significant, and not at all “ludicrous” or “marginal”, especially given the density of boardings.

    – Bob R.

    PS… The Portland Streetcar’s operations funds from TriMet constitute about 2% of TriMet’s general fund operations budget, but the streetcar (as I mentioned) carries over 3% of all transit boardings. That means that the streetcar performs way better than average from an operations cost perspective.

  10. thank you for the figures bob — but, by WHO i did not mean how many. i am not at all surprised that the FREE streetcar service in the DENSEST part of the city carries a ‘significant’ percentage of ridership — what i am interested in is the significance of those boardings relative to commuting. what is the average distance traveled by a rider on a streetcar? do you have any statistics relating to efficiency? it takes 30 minutes to travel between good sam and the south waterfront. what percentage of the metro population commutes on a streetcar? i think it is important to be honest when describing this aspect of our transit system — it is an aesthetic, a slow moving aesthetic which only a handful of people have access to and an even smaller handful use at a meaningful level. its time to stop crowding the streets with good faith projects and take major strides in extending commuter rail to outlying areas — of course this will take more funding, but in a state of crisis [NOW!] we should be pooling funding and action towards more inclusive projects, even if the operating budget of the streetcar is minimal, its construction and maintenance are not.

    sorry about the tram accusations bob, its just that yesterday i had the pleasure of seeing someone dismount from their jeep and head towards the tram — their bumper sticker took a shot at the president’s speech writing abilities but not his oil policies.

  11. “its time to stop the obsession with the transit aesthetic.”

    Why limit ourselves to transit, why worry about anything aesthetic? We should insist that everyone wear burkas to start with, they are a lot cheaper than all these fancy clothing and easier to clean too. And all this obsession with color should go right out the window, I mean, think of how much cheaper your computer would be if it didn’t need a big fancy graphics card that could handle 4B colors, but instead only had to worry about 2, (black and white, the colors of the actual text on this website.) Likewise, color TV, (and most TV actually,) is all about aesthetics, get rid of it. Cars certainly aren’t very important either, there should only be a two types of cars in the world: Big ones that carry a lot of people, and small ones that carry a few people. Everything else about cars isn’t important. Likewise on houses, we could save a lot of money on our heating and cooling bills if they were all right next to each other, preferably underground. Why don’t people want to move underground? Something about windows I think, but who cares, it is all just aesthetics. Likewise, do you have any idea how much money people spend on fancy looking/tasting food that has exactly the same nutritional value as really really cheap food: For instance, if you really don’t care what you food looks or tastes like, you can eat for about 25 cents a day by going to any feed store and just buying chicken food in 50 pound bags. It may be kind of bland, but it is everything your body needs…

    On the other hand, maybe people actually care about aesthetics, maybe it is kind of important…

    Or actually, maybe your point was that the tram doesn’t need AC. Never mind, I agree.

  12. matt — you will DIG this guy:

    with the exception of the last two hours or so, i typically do not use my computer as a typewriter — although i am very happy for you that you have never needed 4 gb of ram, it is not fun to have your computer die because it cant process your files.

    yes, food in the pearl must look and taste good, it is expensive. however — food on the street, though not as expensive and not presented on a blue plate may taste equally, if not superior [thats transit food — bus mall style].

    try going to another country where cars are not understood as status symbols, see how much they pay for gas and then reconsider the auto aesthetic.

    i dont watch tv — though i generally judge movies on their content and craft, which is certainly aesthetic, but often independent of the color.

    i couldnt resist sending the malcolm wells link — hes just too crazy, sorry about all the other stuff.

    oh, and its portland — you dont need ac, ever.

  13. what i am interested in is the significance of those boardings relative to commuting

    Well, based on the raw boarding counts that I have seen, about 15% of the boardings occur between 6AM and 9AM, while about 21% of the boardings occur between 3:30PM and 6:30PM.

    I’m pretty willing to declare those early AM boardings as nearly entirely commuter/student/local resident, unless there are a lot of “early bird” tourists out every weekday.

    If we assume those same people are completing their round trip in the evening peak, then we have about 30% or more of the boardings in the non-tourist, non-shopper category.

    The rest of the ridership seems pretty evenly distributed throughout the rest of the day, except for comparatively low ridership in the 5AM hour and after 11PM. There is a higher-than average (not counting the peak) cluster of activity between Noon and 2PM. This suggests a number of lunchtime riders and people going to meetings, in addition to tourists and shoppers, which is what one would expect from a circulator system like the original Portland Streetcar route.

    When I ride the streetcar, I see a lot of people with briefcases, ID badges, textbooks/backpacks, and shopping bags, even groceries, and overhear a number of conversations related to work/school, local news, etc. I do see a fair number of tourists (sometimes they even ask me for directions), but from my anecdotal experience the overwhelming majority of streetcar riders are using the system for traditional transit purposes.

    I find your comment about “crowding the streets” interesting, especially since this topic was originally about the Tram, which in fact goes over the streets and introduces no barriers or crowding at all, and because the streetcar in the downtown area runs in exactly the same ROW that a bus would use, but boards and accelerates faster than a bus.

    It is also interesting to juxtapose your comment (criticism?) of a “free” streetcar service (the Portland Streetcar has 43% of its stops outside of Fareless Square) against proposing more commuter rail:

    It costs well under $2/ride (I think even under $1.50 but I’d have to check) to serve Portland Streetcar riders, but Sound Transit’s commuter rail system costs $11-15 per boarding ride. The operating cost of the Aerial Tram is less than $2/ride as well.

    Given that Sounder fares are $1.25 to $4.75, Seattle-Area taxpayers are subsidizing those riders to the tune of $6.25 to $13.75 per boarding. The entire Sounder system delivers just over half as many rides as the Portland Streetcar, and less than half as many the MAX Yellow Line.

    Also, the region is in fact building a commuter rail line, as well as extending MAX to the Clackamas County suburbs, those projects accounting for 10X the capital spending over what has ever been spent on the Portland Streetcar — perhaps the priorities aren’t so far out of whack as you may think.

    – Bob R.

  14. That is very useful information Bob, thank you for the anecdotal information, despite the sarcasm of my last post I am in fact utilizing this forum to understand the issues that face downtown, specifically the I-405 corridor.

    That said, the comparison you make between the Sounder and the Streetcar seems a little absurd (perhaps that was the intention, I don’t know). Again, returning to the question of distance, the Sounder truly is a commuter rail line that covers serious mileage in a short period of time (which I’m sorry, the Streetcar does not do). Though the future of the Streetcar looks bright, with the plans for expansion to the Lloyd district, finally starting to cover some of the ground of the old trolleys which were significantly more inclusive than the current Streetcar (granted of course that the Streetcar has not had time to mature). Good for the Streetcar, make it happen.

    Leaving the streetcar behind for a moment, I am extremely interested in the development of the green MAX line as it finally starts to intersect the area that was simultaneously saved and abandoned by the city when it short-circuited the Mt.Hood Freeway and diverted funds to the development of MAX in the 60s. Forty years later, the southeastern section of the city, though saved from a superhighway, has not reaped any of the benefits of the MAX which it so adamantly supported. This I find extremely troubling in the wake of unwavering support for development in the South Waterfront, the aerial tram, and the Streetcar, whose major beneficiaries are not the citizens of greater Portland, but what I understand as a select few (which you have already proven to be not so true, so I suppose thats the end of that.)

  15. That said, the comparison you make between the Sounder and the Streetcar seems a little absurd (perhaps that was the intention, I don’t know)

    Yes, it was my intention to make that comparison a bit absurd, but it was to illustrate a point: Your arguments seem to be coming from a viewpoint of equity and inclusion regarding the streetcar and tram, but then you advocate for commuter rail, which serves relatively few people clustered around a few stations, at a comparatively high cost.

    Regarding the Mt. Hood freeway and MAX, your decades are a bit off. The freeway was cancelled in 1974, and the 1st MAX line did not open until 1987. The span of time from the 1st MAX line until the opening of the Green Line will be 22 years. In the intervening time, I-205 was built specifically to have a transitway, which is the foundation of the current Green Line project.

    As for my own efforts regarding SE Portland, I’ve been advocating for a Hawthorne Streetcar to improve service over the current #14. Although several route possibilities exist, I personally favor extending the line out to Lents / I-205 along Foster, just like the #14. This would provide good connectivity to the Green Line as well as stimulate development along SE Foster.

    – Bob R.

  16. “Forty years later, the southeastern section of the city, though saved from a superhighway, has not reaped any of the benefits of the MAX which it so adamantly supported. ”


    Where did you learn your history of Portland?!

    People in SE (and I have lived here a long time) didn’t want a freakin highway through our neighborhood. Full stop. It had nothing to do with supporting light rail.

    It disturbes me how the anti-rail crowd is so willing to distort facts to fit their preconceptions.

  17. Hawthorne — apologies if I am clear or putting words in the collective mouth, I know that the intention of the residents of SE all along was to prevent the highway from happening. What I intended to communicate was that the people of SE by saving their neighborhoods from the freeway ultimately reduced the potential for connectivity to downtown via a high-speed artery. I don’t think that the solution to this problem should ever be a freeway at any scale, but I do think that Moses had good intentions when he presented a model for a more connected Portland.

    Now, if the intentions of Goldschmidt and company were indeed about clean and connected transit, then they could at least draw on an aspect of the Moses plan (connectivity). The promise being of course, that MAX would present the appropriate substitute for Moses’ reckless urban renewal attitude, but perform in terms of producing a more holistic view of the city, transit wise.

    The negligence of the Mt.Hood Freeway was inexcusable in terms of its destruction of communities, but its intentions were ultimately for the greater good of the city. MAX was a way of promoting the (hidden) good intentions, coupled with better intentions to produce clean, mass-connectivity.

    Again, I apologize if I seemed to be falsifying information or presenting something that is untrue — this is just speculation on my part, but ultimately drives at the larger issue of inclusiveness.

    I am not anti-rail, my seeming short-sightedness is only an indication of a sense of urgency.

  18. cd… i think your point about the SE neighborhoods and the mt. hood freeway are interesting.

    as i see it, the majority of people in those hoods did benefit. as inner SE was an area in east portland that was relatively well off in the 70’s and 80’s…. and kept the infrastructure that allowed it to return very quickly in the 90’s to a prosperity.

    outer SE did indeed not fare so well. the bizarre traffic mitigation on powell between 82nd and foster certainly didn’t help that hood much!

    lents obviously was pretty trashed in that period, but the 205 alignment i think was the main culprit there. when the green line opens, if lents returns, i think what we will see is (finally) lents getting its due.

    the 205 ROW was created with expansion for other modes in mind… and its nice to see it actually get used for that (besides the bike trail).

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