Yikes. The day’s transit news is getting ahead of me. I was in the middle of writing a hand-wavy, big picture post about Portland and, via Zweisystem, I get the news that Portland’s transit authority has picked the next two routes for its expanding light rail system. That’s obviously a good thing.

But I want to flag a downside of Portland’s decision to go with light rail. Check out these two grafs of Yonah Freemark’s post about the new lines:

Though light rail has brought intense development to downtown and a few isolated spots along the routes, it hasn’t been enough of a game-changer to reorient the auto-centered lifestyle that’s still present in much of the area. Part of the problem is that many of the light rail routes — including the soon-to-open Green Line — are located adjacent to or in the median of grade-separated highways. This makes them less than ideal places for transit-oriented, walkable neighborhoods.

But Powell Boulevard and much of Route 99, by virtue of their tighter girth, are connected to the neighborhoods around them, unlike I-205, for instance. It’s easy to imagine them transformed into urban boulevards, with four and five-story buildings facing the street and commercial districts situated around light rail stations. As downtown reaches its developmental limits, these corridors could become extensions of that core, adding a bit of mixed-use urbanity to neighborhood around the whole region.

There’s a tough trade-off that often seem to come with surface rail. Once Portland’s blue line gets out of the downtown core and starts heading east, it follows along the I-84. The upside? It goes fast along this part of its route. Really fast. When I was down there a couple of weekends ago, I paced it in my rented Subaru at about 50 miles per hour. (That’s still not as fast as the heavy rail on my old commute, Philadelphia’s weird and charming R100, which I saw get up to 70 miles per hour. But still, 50 miles an hour is nothing to sniff at, especially when rush hour traffic along the 84 goes, like, 10 miles an hour.) But there’s a downside of the blue line’s route once it gets out of the city. It runs along a freeway, which is just about the crappiest environment you can imagine for pedestrians. The line isn’t integrated into a walkable space. It’s integrated into an space where crossing the street would mean taking your life in your hands and playing Real Life Frogger. Just as bad, transit nodes give up valuable space to parking lots, rather than high density mixed use development.

So what happens when you integrate surface rail better into a walkable, high-density environment? Well, that’s exactly what the blue line is when it’s downtown. It slips nicely into downtown by taking up its own lane on 1st Ave. When there’s no train coming, anyone can skip across the road just as easily as if there were no rail there at all. It’s great. But there’s a downside here too. When the blue line is downtown, it’s molasses slow. It feels like being on a B-Line. I’d be willing to bet that part of why it’s so slow is that there isn’t enough distance between stops to let it really wind up. But it’s also got to go slow so that it can brake in time to avoid creaming cars that drive into the wrong lane. Going slow is just a consequence of sharing the streets with people, bikes, and cars.

Back to Freemark’s comments. When he imagines new light rail lines running through more neighbourhood-y corridors and transforming them into urban boulevards, he’s imagining a really slow train. Really slow.