Monday, August 29, 2011

Introducing new blog series "The Portland Transit Authority"

Blog Note:
While TCC is a Washington non-profit that works to increase transportation choices for people across the state, we also recognize that we do not live on an island. The impacts of transportation and land-use policy decisions do not end at arbitrary political lines. We cannot advocate for high-speed rail if it doesn't extend into Vancouver, BC and Portland, OR. It is impossible to talk about growth and traffic in Spokane unless you acknowledge a lot of people commute from Idaho to Eastern Washington. In this vein, we are starting a new series on the blog looking specifically at transit issues in Portland titled "Portland Transit Authority". The author is Zef Wagner, a former Seattleite and TCC intern who is living in Portland studying urban and transit planning. His blog series (which we will generally post every other Monday ) will get past the broad statements that transit in Portland is perfect and will dive into transit issues in the Rose City with a level of nerdyness that many of you will enjoy and hopefully with enough explanation that the average reader can understand. So regardless of where you live, we encourage you to join us as every couple of weeks we put our soccer rivalries aside to explore the world of Portland's public transit. Thank you Zef for contributing to the blog and I hope you all enjoy!

We all know Portland has an amazing public transit system, right?:

"US News ranks Portland No. 1 for public transit"
--The Oregonian

"Portland is widely considered one of the nation’s leaders in public transit."
--US News and World Report

"Portland’s transit system is held up nationally as a model network, as it should be."
--Wired Magazine

These breathless exclamations of Portland's transit excellence are commonplace, but many dispute this rosy image:

"Was that u.s. news 10-best transit cities list based on anything?"
--Human Transit

"Bus service hours fell 13.3 percent from October 2008 to October 2010."
--Portland Afoot

"These cuts result in a heavier burden on the growing number of people who depend on public transportation."

"Many TriMet riders have seen their service degrade over the years, despite billions of dollars being spent on new investments."
--Portland Transport

So who is right? Let's take a look.

Portland certainly does have an impressive rail system, with over 50 miles of light rail, a downtown streetcar line, and a commuter rail line carrying people all over the 3-county region. Portland's 11.5% transit mode share, meanwhile, is quite high compared to most other cities of similar size (though notably far below Seattle's 19.5%). TriMet, the sole transit agency for the region, has invested billions of dollars in rail expansion over the last 25 years and has recently started construction on yet another new light rail line. A major streetcar extension is also under construction, with another in the early planning stages.

This flurry of rail expansion contrasts with a series of major bus service cuts over the last several years. Like most public transit agencies, TriMet has seen a decline in projected revenue due to the recession and has cut service accordingly. Both bus and light rail have seen major cuts in frequency, reducing the value of Portland's normally excellent grid-based network, which relies on easy connections between transit lines to function as designed. The cuts have also forced TriMet to redefine their lauded Frequent Service network from its previous level of "every 15 minutes, all day, every day" to "every 15 minutes during morning and afternoon rush hours on weekdays." That's a major shift from a network designed for people using transit for all kinds of trips to one designed mainly for downtown commuters.

The latest blow came late last year when voters rejected a $125 million bond measure meant to replace much of TriMet's aging bus fleet and improve bus stops throughout the region. This rejection may be a sign that TriMet is in the grips of the infamous "transit death spiral," in which service cuts lead to reduced public support of transit, which in turn leads to lack of funding and further service cuts.

Since my recent move from Seattle to Portland I have been fascinated by the contrast between this city's outsized transit reputation and the reality of the actual transit system. Portland is a transit leader in many ways, with its willingness to make major capital investments in both long-distance light-rail and local-circulator streetcar, but like many cities it has been plagued by a lack of operations funding and a loss of public trust.

My goal with this series will be to explore the reality of public transit in Portland and highlight major transit-related projects and issues that Portland is wrestling with during these difficult economic times.

Buses in need of replacement are a huge part of Trimet's system. Picture Courtesy of

1 comment:

  1. As someone who travels frequently between the two cities and is often bus/rail dependent, it's a great to have an opportunity to learn more about these issues. Thanks, Zef!