Why the West should copy Swiss transit

by Bill Cook

This winter, my family discovered that Oregon’s Mount Hood is known for more than dramatic mountain rescues. Would you believe it could also be home to the mother of all traffic jams? Taillights for as far as the eye can see, gridlock for nearly an hour: That’s what the highway through the Mount Hood National Forest becomes on a snowy winter weekend. With five lift-served resorts and numerous backcountry trails within striking distance of the Portland metro area’s 2 million inhabitants, the mountain teems with skiers, boarders, snowshoers and sledders when good snow and fair skies coincide.

As the five of us squirmed cheek to jowl inside our compact sedan, my thoughts gravitated toward two seemingly unconnected subjects: Oregon’s congressional delegation, and the Swiss transit system.

The leap of consciousness from a traffic jam to our local congressional worthies really wasn’t such a stretch. Last year, representa-tives Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland, and Greg Walden, R-Hood River, crafted the Mount Hood Stewardship Legacy Act, which included a provision directing the Forest Service to work with the state to develop “an integrated, multi-modal transportation plan for the Mt. Hood region.” Planners would look for non-car alternatives such as gondolas and other ways of moving lots of people efficiently to key recreation destinations.

That was promising news — especially if the bill gets anywhere — and it also made me think about my family’s recent trip to Switzerland. Two years ago, when our daughter was attending a Swiss university, we spent Christmas in the Alps. During our entire 18-day stay, we never entered an automobile. Using the nation’s integrated transit system, we relied entirely on buses, trains and cable cars to visit cities, villages and world-class snow resorts. It was heaven.

Back home in Oregon, a day trip to the slopes means grueling hours behind the wheel, struggling amid a surging tide of SUVs. But while in Switzerland, we zipped from the lowlands to the heart of the Alps on an ultra-modern train, all the while stretching out comfortably and sipping Schokolade.

We also spent a week in one of Switzerland’s famous car-free mountain resorts, of which there are nine. Some simply can’t be reached by auto; everyone arrives by train or cable car. Others can be accessed by vehicles, but cars and buses are left at the town limits, with the streets reserved for pedestrians and tiny electric taxis. In either case, the towns draw snow-sport enthusiasts from around the world, and in the summer, they cater to tourists, hikers and climbers.

Could the Swiss model — or something like it — be replicated at Mount Hood and other resort areas close to Western American cities? A few mountain resorts in North America — in particular, Whistler, in British Columbia — have incorporated pedestrian-friendly elements in their town planning. At least one Western resort, Winter Park, in Colorado, can be reached by train, and most larger resorts sponsor a few buses to bring some of their clientele to the slopes. Coloradoans also talk about a train linking Vail to the Denver area, but when state transportation planners talk about mass transit costing upwards of $4 billion or more, the conversation shifts to expanding the Interstate instead.

Nowhere on our continent is there really an “integrated, multi-modal transportation plan” that comes close to what the Swiss have achieved. In the American West, going skiing or boarding almost always involves an uncomfortable, unsafe, gas-guzzling, environmentally unfriendly drive. And that assumes the roads are even open. This winter, avalanches repeatedly closed Interstate 70 and other roads feeding Colorado ski resorts, and a massive debris flow over Oregon’s Highway 35 isolated Hood’s largest resort for weeks.

We of the Portland area pride ourselves on being pioneers in environmentally sound urban transit, with an integrated web of buses, light rail, streetcars and an aerial tram, as well as efforts to encourage walking and cycling. Looking to the Alps for successful planning, why not translate their approach to Mount Hood and similar Western resort areas? Why do we say we can’t afford to do what’s right, when spending huge amounts of money only perpetuates what’s wrong?

Bill Cook writes in Lake Oswego, Oregon.

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