Lessons Learned from the Transit Mall

Over the last few weeks I’ve been reporting on developments in the Transit Mall saga, and posing questions for discussion. Of course, I’ve also been integrating this in my mind and have reached some tentative conclusions. So here goes one transit advocate’s take…

It’s going to happen

TriMet has scheduled another Steering Committee meeting for March 16th, and from the agenda items (“Moving Forward”, “Ramping Up for Construction”) it’s pretty clear TriMet is not having second thoughts. And I also think it’s pretty clear that none of the governments that endorsed the Locally Preferred Alternative is going to change its mind at this point. It is possible that the Federal Transit Administration could use some of the noise and heat to slow things down, and I think that would be unfortunate.

It’s a compromise, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing

There’s no question in my mind that this plan is far from perfect. I suspect that the business community will not get as much benefit from the auto lane as they hope, so the costs of this approach may exceed the benefits. But it’s necessary to have this important constituency (and funder) buy into the plan. It also seems pretty likely to me that this plan puts a cap on the number of buses that can operate on the mall.

But it’s not like we haven’t compromised before. The whole design of Light Rail downtown, where it operates more like a streetcar than high-speed commuter service is a kind of compromise, but the system still works.

As a transit advocate, it seems to me the overall goal is to keep expanding the network, and yielding the network benefits. Remember, the value of a network grows as the square of the number of nodes. Even imperfect nodes increase the value of the network. Waiting until we can fund a subway is not the answer. This is a case where the perfect can definitely be the enemy of the good.

And in the end, I am not worried about TriMet being able to operate it safely. I am confident they can figure out the operating procedures.

Citizen participation is more effective the earlier it happens

I learned this when I served on a City Club committee in the ’90s, studying ways to create residential density. One take-away was that a lot of energy goes into stopping or altering individual projects, when it would be much more effectively applied at the time when zoning was being established. There is a tendency for citizens to focus on the immediate: “they’re going to build what in my neighborhood?”, when they key parameters were determined much earlier.

A friend recently asked me “when was the mall alignment really decided”? Technically it happened when the City, County and Metro adopted the Locally Preferred Alternative. But in reality it happened in phases much earlier. Some of the decision making goes back to the South-North project, some goes as far back as the Downtown Plan. And each of these decisions has ripples. For example, one early concept might have put light rail on 10th and 11th, but when that was discarded as a preferred option, Streetcar was put there, eliminating that decision from reconsideration. The result is that when the time came to finalize the choice two years ago, many of the alternatives to the Mall were no longer feasible, either because they are not fiscally viable (e.g., subway) or have been precluded by other decisions.

So my perspective: it’s not perfect, but it’s still a very good thing for the region, and if you want to have an impact get involved early and often in regional planning decisions. The upcoming Regional Transportation Plan update is likely to be one of those watershed opportunities. And it would be an excellent venue for thinking through the real bottleneck in our light rail network: the Steel Bridge.

10 responses to “Lessons Learned from the Transit Mall”

  1. wow–agreement all around, Chris. Strong analysis.

    Even two years ago would have been a good time to object to the alignment plan. Pretending to be surprised now as (eg) DNA has done is a little lame, IMO.

  2. What I’m most concerned about is the letter from AORTA which says that due to the limited number of trains which can cross the steel bridge per hour, the number of Hillsboro bound trains would be less than use will demand.

    Unless their is a max train car storage facility built on the west side of the bridge, I sure hope the steel bridge capacity increases.

  3. Well Chris, its hard to disagree with your analysis. But I think its important to realize that the vast majority of people heard about LRT on a revitalized Mall and thought, “wow, sounds great”.
    But those same people did not find out about the infamous “weaving” design until the point of no return was reached.
    This Mall plan, as you mention, has been in the works for a long time, decades even. But the Mall plan is not what most people are opposed to. Its the brand spanking new weaving concept that’s got people saying, “STOP!
    There are comprises that work. And there are compromises that don’t.

    This ones not gonna work, in my opinion. I hope I’m wrong….

    And if we are setting the bar at the level of current LRT service downtown we might as well give up now.

  4. Nathan,

    I hope you’re wrong too.

    But I think it’s a reasonable strategy to say that for the moment we’re going to funnel the dollars into more corridors rather than more efficient downtown operation. To use a networking analogy, I’d rather wire more rooms than replace the router right now. Of course, eventually the increased traffic will require us to upgrade the router.

  5. Re: Chris Smith

    Very good analogy. In networking and the associated bandwidth considerations, the analogy can be drawn almost issue for issue with the plans in place.

    The difference being, a router can be yanked out and another inserted. The weaving LRT line cannot be.

    I’d have to say as other alternatives are brought into use such as this new mall alignment, the DMU Service from Wilsonville & Beaverton, etc… there are still two huge concerns that are not really being dealt with at all. These are the most common concerns of people that would use public transit but don’t.

    The issues that I always here being discussed are, “I can’t take transit because it takes too long” and “I won’t ride the streetcar/bus/MAX” downtown because of the hours I have to commute and the people on said vehicle at that time.

    The time issue is harder to deal with the the “bum” issue.

    The time issue though does not seem to be getting the progressive strides forward that it should be.

    Hillsboro -> Downtown is a 45+ minute trip on MAX. 20 -> 35 minutes depending on traffic in a car.

    If Tri-Met and the city continue to build these systems they really need to start taking into account what the vast majority of people need and want vs. what the few of us transit advocates want.

    To return to the network analogy, if a person is surfing the internet and working with good bandwidth, they’re a sold customer. But if delays and bandwidth overload start causing delays, they’re very likely to go sit in front of the boob tube. Something that is paramount to public transit users returning to their cars.

    It doesn’t take much, but this plan, as several on the table, need to take these things into much more serious consideration.

    Just my 2 cents to throw in.

  6. Adron, the equivalent of replacing the router would be tunneling a subway under downtown. To extend the analogy, as an ISP can I get more new customers by wiring a new neighborhood, or by increasing bandwidth in the existing neighborhoods? I don’t think it’s unreasonable for TriMet to say that for now the answer is the former, while recongizing that at some point the latter becomes necessary.

  7. Great analogy Chris…

    My personal preference would be to spend 200 mil on some new streetcar lines and improvement of existing chokepoints, as Adron mentioned, such as the Steel bridge, crawling speeds, unecessary stops, etc.

    I know of course that we’re talking about the real world here with its real problems. Federal funding, for example.

    But let’s face it, whether the “weave” works or not, we should put transit money where it will do the most good. A new Mall, especially considering the substantial compromises it require, is not where the money should be going IMO.

    I’d love it if TriMet was like, “let’s bag it and spend all that funding on two new streetcars to serve the inner eastside.”

  8. I have gone to many mall meetings since 2003 and testified at the October 2003 mall hearing. That being said, I wish that I had done a better job at preparing the speech, including perferably collecting signatures showing that people (including Metro Pres. David Bragdon) think MAX is too slow.

    As for now, I would be OK-but not happy-with an alignment in the present car lane and having cars use the middle lane off peak. I just hope that the Steel Bridge/Rose Quarter has been studied.

  9. Chris asks whether rail on the Mall is essential for Milwaukie. During the 1980’s, Portland and Metro resisted the idea of light rail to Milwaukie because destinations were too dispersed — there was not a large enough percentage of potential riders headed to downtown Portland. For this reason, it makes considerable short-term sense to route a Milwaukie rail line across the Hawthorne Bridge (which had its east approaches rebuilt to support rail) then along First avenue, then across the Steel Bridge, interlining with the existing Yellow line. This would provide excellent travel times to a larger proportion of potential Milwaukie transit patrons, and without the “wye” at the west end of the Steel Bridge, there would be less delay than the current plan. Once a future subway is planned, the Hawthorne Bridge tracks would be available for a streetcar. This accomplishes the most for the least cost, is the least cost to operate, and would have higher system ridership than the Mall rail proposal.

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