In fact, I should. I used the OHSU Aerial Tram for my commute today:
In recent weeks I’d noticed a new commuting pattern: some OHSU employees were getting off my inbound bus at the first stop on the west end of the Ross Island Bridge. I realized that they were walking around and down an on-ramp’s sidewalk to the OHSU Center for Health and Healing, and the lower tram station right next door. It finally dawned on me how much that makes sense: the tram lets them bypass the bus transfer, which happens downtown instead of at the foot of Pill Hill due to current construction, and the winding trip up Terwilliger Blvd. and Veteran’s Hospital Hwy. to Pill Hill’s hospitals. This morning I decided on the spur of the moment to take the tram, figuring it’d likely cut down on my commute time. (One other factor in my decision: I’d left for work later than I like.)
Off the bus, over to the sidewalk, down to the new walk alongside the base of the Lower Tram Tower looming above I-5 and Macadam Blvd., across a street and a streetcar line, and voila: I was at the station. I used my debit card to get a ticket (I don’t have a current OHSU employee’s ID, which lets you ride the Tram free), so I couldn’t get the tram car that was leaving that minute, but I only had to wait a few minutes for the other car.
The car (actually kind of pill-shaped; I’ve heard people suggest painting it to look like an aspirin) entered the lower station almost gingerly, lightly bumping the angled-out bumpers that guide it to the correct position within the station. It settled – as the other car was doing at the same time, at the upper station atop the Upper Tram Tower, but that’s a long distance away and harder to see – and opened one set of doors to let out the passengers. They unloaded quickly; we loaded quickly through the same set of doors. All but one or two people stood; each car has about six seats. The doors closed, we heard a gentle beeping inside, we heard (muffled) a louder beeping outside, and the car got going.
It climbed several stories quickly, reaching the arch near the tower’s top and then beginning the easier climb towards the hill. Before reaching that arch, the operator told us to prepare for the car to swing as its direction changed, and yes it did swing, but the adjustment was gentle. Soon the car was moving at about 22 miles per hour, a decent clip.
It was very quiet in the car, augmented by the way no one talked. It’s well sound-proofed; I could hear none of the freeway traffic below. I looked around – at some of the homes below, at the hill approaching, at the buildings of downtown, at the various Willamette River bridges – and I realized something:
This first time I was headed towards the hilltop, I was more comfortable looking east, towards the river and East Portland, than I was looking west. Of course! The eastward view is more familiar: it’s not appreciably different from what I see several times a week from campus. Looking westward from this vantage point as much as 175 feet above the ground: that’s the new perspective, and it’s still a little alien to me. And either direction, it’s easy to angle your view so you don’t see the cables holding up the cars, so when looking towards that upper station it really feels – as I heard someone say last week – that you’re about to dock at Cloud City. Or the Death Star.
The car slowed one more time – another set of bumpers guiding it into place, after the operator warned us of the bumps – and finally stopped, opening its doors. And I was back in familiar territory. (Definitely becoming more familiar: I often walk over to the Upper Station on breaks.) I headed for my office, three buildings away on the hill.
I wrapped up my workday about 5:20, and felt it’d be nicely symmetric to leave work via the tram. I also wanted to get more used to how it operates; I can see what scares and unsettles some people about it, and I want to be sure I don’t get unsettled by it.
I knew the tram was operating under less ideal conditions at that point: drizzle versus the dry air this morning, and wind that was gusting up to 30 mph versus the calm conditions at 8 a.m. The cars can operate in winds up to 50 mph, so I was pretty sure the wind wouldn’t be an impediment. It wasn’t, but it added a new angle to the experience: slight sideways swinging. This happened a little bit for about the first minute-and-a-half of the eastbound trip; then, when we were passing over Barbur Blvd. and I-5, with a straight shot south not blocked at all by the southern end of Pill Hill, the car moved side to side a little more in the now more steady wind. We angled down at the tower, still with the extra motion, and then slowed to a crawl when we were less than a tram car-length away from the lower station.
I flashed on the scene in Top Gun where Cougar’s shakily bringing his F-14 in for a landing. “Cougar, you’re well below glide path, three-quarters of a mile, call the ball…”
“We’re going to feel the bumps more this time,” the operator told us. (He’d been more talkative than the guy earlier; so were we, asking him several questions during the trip.) We weren’t going to wait for the extra motion to go away – I pictured us running side-to-side inside the car to counteract it, and knew that that would look ridiculous and probably not help – so it was more a bumper-cars feeling at that point, like we were shimmying into position. Finally we settled. The doors opened, and we left. Turned out my co-worker D. (in his off-work coat and San Francisco Giants ballcap) was waiting for that very same car, to take him back to the main campus. D. commented on the wilder-than-normal ride I’d just had, then boarded the car as I left the station and walked up and around to the bus stop. I watched the cars do their next trip. I noticed during this walk that, once the cars finished that trip, getting D. and others back up the hill, the cars stayed parked in the stations for several minutes. I wonder if they were riding out the strongest wind.
So. The Tram route works. It can be done. It’s not as convenient for me to ride it off the hill, so I’m not sure how often I’d do that, but this gives me another commuting tool. And the latest reason to finally get my OHSU ID replaced…