Abstract: Restructuring Transit for the Post-Industrial City: The Case of Portland, Oregon, 1958-1986

Gregory L. Thompson


Political scientist James A. Dunn (1998) explains the dominance of the automobile in the US transportation system as a result of a powerful coalition of interests that in one way or another economically benefit from pro-automobile government policies, particularly road building. This coalition Dunn calls the automobile regime. Arrayed against the automobile regime is another regime composed of ideologically based interests believing that pro-automobile policies harm the collective public welfare. This coalition Dunn terms the vanguard. Since the 1960s, according to Dunn, American transportation policy has been forged in a war between these two regimes. This paper is a history of that battle in Portland, Oregon. It starts with the completion of Portland's first freeway and abandonment of its last electric interurban railway, both of which occurred on the same weekend in January 1958, and it ends with the restructuring of its bus system and completion of its first light rail line in mid-1986. The paper focuses on how the pro-automobile environment of the late 1950s gave way to a huge reaction against freeways a decade later as the vanguard emerged victorious. It then examines how the automobile regime regrouped and joined forces with the vanguard in a deal that involved construction of the light rail line, a new interstate freeway that had been stalled, and the rebuilding and doubling in size of the freeway alongside the light rail line. While this deal making was going on, the vanguard also penetrated the bureaucracy of the transit system and restructured it, a move unseen by the deal making above it but ultimately responsible for much of the subsequent success of Portland's transit system. The paper is based on newspaper accounts, planning documents from the period, and interviews with key participants from the period.

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