The interfaces between different transit agencies

Travelling between transit agencies, especially for trips located within a metro area, can be an inconvenient experience for many reasons. Timetables may not be aligned, fare policies may be hostile (requiring additional tickets as one crosses the agency boundary), different agencies often run vastly different equipment, and interchange points are often on the periphery of a service area.

Is it possible, even given tight budgets, to do better for the transit rider.

Presently, TriMet interchanges directly with the following other transit agencies (Portland Streetcar is considered to be part of the TriMet system for purposes of this dicsussion):

  • C-TRAN (serving Clark County)
  • SAM (Sandy Area Metro)
  • CAT (Columbia Area Transit) serving Hood River and The Dalles
  • SCTD (South Clackamas Transportation District), serving Molalla
  • CAT (Canby Area Transit), serving Canby–yes, that’s two transit agencies with the same acronym
  • SMART (South Metro Area Rapid Transit), serving Wilsonville
  • YCTA (Yamhill County Transit Area), serving Oregon’s wine county
  • TCTD (Tillamook County Transportation District, aka “The Wave”), serving the north-central Oregon Coast
  • Ride Connection, serving rural Washington County
  • CC Rider, serving Columbia County

TriMet also has a direct connection during the weekday commute hours with Cherriots (serving the Salem area) via WES; though neither agency’s services reach the territory of the other (one can transfer between them at Wilsonville Station, in SMART territory). In addition, the following agencies allow transfer to C-TRAN; but don’t interchange directly with TriMet.

Frequent commenter Jason McHuff prepared the following graphic, which illustrates the connections between TriMet and its neighboring agencies (including a few distant neighbors not mentioned in this article). Click on the picture for a larger version of the map.


While all these connections are useful, in many ways, they could be better.

Arms-length agreements

One thing that is evident from the chart, is that in some cases, transit agencies do the minimum to reach another’s service. TriMet presently sends zero busses north of the Columbia (more on that in a moment). TriMet sends only one peak-hour bus (the 96) and WES, a peak-hour commuter train, into SMART territory; and only the latter reaches a primary transfer point in Wilsonville. C-TRAN sends express busses into downtown Portland, and local service to connect with MAX at Delta Park and Parkrose. SMART sends a bus as far north as Capitol TC. Some of the rural transit agencies reach downtown; but others only interface to the TriMet system in places like Gresham, or Oregon City, or Hillsboro.

This state of affairs is probably the best we can hope for as far as the rural services are concerned. Many of these agencies provide only bare-bones social service transit on very tight budgets, and expecting them to provide service into downtown Portland isn’t realistic. But for the neighboring urban agencies–chiefly C-TRAN, SMART, and (to a lesser extent) Cherriots, we should strive for better inter-agency linkage.

Many trips between Portland and Vancouver points, for instance, may require 3 or 4 hops. If you want to get from Beaverton to SW Washington Medical Center, for instance, and the 199 or 105 services aren’t running, then you have to take MAX or the 20 from Beaverton downtown, the Yellow to Delta Park, a C-TRAN local (such as the 4 or 44) to downtown Vancouver, and the C-TRAN 37 to the medical center. Ugh. While it’s too much to ask for an arbitrary trip across service boundaries to be a one-seat ride, or even 2…four different vehicles is a bit much. And the big problem is the Portland-Vancouver segment–a ten-mile trip between two major cities downtowns ought to be served by a one-seat ride, but the trip today requires a transfer (again ignoring C-TRAN’s express routes, which require a more expensive fare than the rest of the system).

There is a good technical reason in this case, along with hope that the state of affairs is only temporary: MAX only extends to the Expo Center, thus any trip involving MAX will require a transfer. Running redundant frequent bus service parallel to MAX would be a bit of a waste (though more on that later). If and when the CRC opens, however, MAX will provide a one-seat ride between the downtowns, and direct transfers to far more C-TRAN services then the handful of lines which presently descend into Oregon and call at Delta Park

But a good principle that ought to be followed for adjacent transit agencies (those sharing a common border and serving the same urban agglomeration) is the following: There should be a continual, transfer-free service between key transfer points in the two systems. It’s harder to do, both politically and technically, than decoupling service at a border transfer station (most of which aren’t key transfer points, though some may become so), but it’s far more beneficial to riders.

There are many ways to accomplish this:

  • One agency can contract with the other to provide the service. This works best if it is a smaller agency interfacing with a larger one; then the often makes sense for the larger agency to operate the connecting service. In practice, however, it seems that the opposite occurs–larger agencies have larger overheads (and in some cases, attitude problems towards their neighbors), and routinely are reluctant to send busses outside of their service boundaries–or demand on levels of compensation that the smaller agency can’t afford.
  • Two agencies can jointly operate the service in some fashion–either both running their own branded services on the same route (offering up to double the frequency), or otherwise agree to share in the operations. (The 1X line between Wilsonville and Salem is an example of this; both SMART and Cherriots operate the service under a coordinated timetable).

Removing the arbitrary transfer at the service boundary isn’t the only important consideration, though. Fare equity is another. Often times, crossing service boundaries requires paying an additional fare; those who want to cross system boundaries on a regular basis may find themselves having to purchase passes on both systems. Ideally, one system will honor the other’s passes and transfers (and better yet if they share fare infrastructure); but many pretend the other does not exist. One compromise is for fare media of either system to be valid on boundary routes, even if not valid throughout the remainder of the system. Switching to distance-based fares also helps deal with the equity issue, though it may still be present if the system(s) have minimum fares that must be paid to both agencies on a cross-agency journey.

Political roadblocks

One helpful thing is that C-TRAN and TriMet are reasonably good terms with each other. Their boundary is dictated by the river and the state line; thus there’s no grounds for a turf war. The same can’t be said for the relationship between TriMet and SMART; the latter seceded from the former back in the 1980s, and while relations have improved, there is still a some bad blood between the agencies to this day. And while service connections have improved, particularly since WES opened, there still is a lot to be desired:

  • TriMet sends no full-time services into Wilsonville; the only services which enter SMART territory are the peak-hour express 96, stopping at Commerce Circle, and WES–both of which only operate during weekday rush hour. Were the former to travel about three miles further south, it could serve Wilsonville Station, including supporting transfers to the aforementioned 1X line to Salem.
  • The SMART 2X goes as far north as Capitol TC; like all of the SMART system, it does not run on Sundays.

Of course, it’s probably premature to talk about improved service to Wilsonville when decent service to Tualatin, a city wholly within its service footprint, seems to be a difficult proposition for TriMet. No frequent-service lines come anywhere near Tualatin’s downtown core (12 skirts the NW corner of the Tualatin city limits between Sherwood and King City, but this isn’t useful for the vast majority of Tualatin residents). The 76 is often talked about as an upgrade for frequent service, and Beaverton-Tualatin is a priority corridor for future rapid transit service, but at the present time, TriMet’s service south of the Tualatin River is abysmal. And east-west connections are an even bigger issue; with no direct lines connecting Tualatin with either Sherwood to the west, or West Linn to the east.

What about Cherriots?

Besides SMART and C-TRAN, Cherriots is the other urban transit agency located within 50 miles of TriMet. However, getting from downtown Salem to downtown Portland (or vice versa) is an presently an inconvenient 3-seat ride. The fastest trip between Wilsonville Town Center and downtown is often WES to Beaverton and then the Red or Blue Line downtown; this trip avoids having to pay a separate fare for WES (the journey from downtown to Wilsonville or vice versa still takes about an hour, however). As noted above, having the 96 meet the 1X in Wilsonville would make this trip more convenient, assuming coordinated schedules–but given the distance between the town centers (45 miles), Salem-Portland isn’t really an appropriate trip for local transit. The distance involved is more appropriate for commuter services–and given the size and importance of the two cities, probably calls for commuter rail rather than express busses that get stuck in freeway traffic. Planners recognize the need, but at this point any such project is a long way from becoming reality.


Again, I would like to offer tremendous thanks to Jason McHuff, who not only prepared the graphics, but also previewed and proofread the article. Any errors are my responsibility, of course; not his.

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12 responses to “The interfaces between different transit agencies”

  1. Having visited the Portland area about a year and a half ago, I can certainly comment on the transit situation in Tualatin. My wife and I stayed at the RV park on Pac. Hwy., which advertises “bus service”, a selling point for RVers who don’t tow a smaller vehicle behind the motorhome. Unfortunately, the park is about a mile south of where half of the bus runs turn back, giving it half-hourly service. Maybe this was just bad luck, but the first day, I was coming back from Portland and the bus had an air-suspension failure at one of the transit centers. So we had to wait for a replacement to show up. A few days later, I was waiting outside the RV park for the bus downtown. Two other “intending passengers” were already there. We waited, and waited, and waited, until the next bus on the schedule showed up. Turns out “our” bus never made it out of the suburban terminal.
    Regarding service to Vancouver, WA: When I was in Portland some years ago to check out the MAX Yellow Line construction, the #5 bus went across the river to Vancouver. Supposedly, when the 5 was replaced by the Yellow line, another bus route was going to cross the river, but apparently that’s not the case. I remember thinking how cool it was to take a common city bus into another state.

  2. If the goal is reducing transfers, I think there are other initiatives that could be undertaken as well. there are alot of routes that go from downtown to somewhere in the burbs. it seems like a lot of these spoke routes could be connected across downtown instead of requiring transfers to every other line.

  3. Is there any standardization (on paper or in real life) to try to establish interoperable electronic fare media? I imagine that would enable and encourage better agency-agency interfacing.

    Lets assume that over the course of a weekend or two, a working group forms, a standard will be drafted, accepted by all transit agencies, is finalized, and is implemented by all the agencies. Next, they all roll out distance-based electronic fares. Now I’ve got them right where I want them: I persuade them all to agree to a roaming agreement of sorts, where after a rider transfers from one system to another, the originating system continues to receive some percent of the fare per-distance for the remainder of the trip. The point is, provide incentives for transit organizations to build good connections to the competition.

  4. Well, other west coast transit agencies are doing the interoperable electronic fare thing. Los Angeles has the TAP card, the Seattle area now has the ORCA card, and San Francisco has the Clipper — all working toward universal acceptance among area transit agencies (although not there yet).

    Tri-Met, C-Tran should get around to it one of these days (and perhaps SMART and Cherriots as well), but I’m fine if they let other agencies around the country experiment with these cards for a few more years until all the bugs are worked out.

  5. As a transit historian, I studied the pre-1969 Portland situation and found it to be far worse than the problems you guys are talking about.

    First, there was the Rose City Transit Company, which didn’t go outside the Portland city limits.

    Second, there were several independent suburban bus companies, which didn’t give or accept transfers to or from Rose City (or probably even each other but I’m not sure).

    Third, there was another independent bus company that ran from DT Portland to DT Vancouver, another separate fare, no transfers to or from anything else.

    Fourth, there was the Vancouver city bus system, again with a separate fare.

    Now imagine a commute from a Portland suburb to Vancouver… or to somewhere in Portland not directly on your suburban bus route.

    What you have now may not be great, but hey, it’s better than 42 years ago…. It’s a good thing Henry Huggins wasn’t into exploring by bus. His 25-cent weekly allowance wouldn’t have gotten him very far…. ;-)

  6. Being able to easily plan trips between agencies is important too. C-TRAN told me months ago that they were going to roll out Google Transit support in the first week of June. I hope they didn’t give up on the idea.

  7. and while relations have improved, there is still a some bad blood between the agencies to this day.

    Really? I’ve never heard even a peep to suggest this. All the work from both agencies in putting together the connection from their service to WES, the park and ride in Wilsonville, steps toward trip-planning . . . all very friendly and civil.

  8. I’ve always gotten the impression of some hard feelings and bad attitude. Last year, when TriMet was considering WES service cuts, there were quite a few rather pointed and snide remarks out of Wilsonville casting aspersions on TriMet’s finances and managerial competence. I’m not an insider for either organization, so I won’t dispute your characterization of the relationship (and your report is good to hear)–but certainly there are some in Portland with uncharitable attitudes towards Wilsonville and vice versa.

    That said, I must re-emphasize that TriMet has little to complain about concerning SMART, when the service it provides to Tualatin is so poor.

  9. That said, I must re-emphasize that TriMet has little to complain about concerning SMART, when the service it provides to Tualatin is so poor.

    Again, any complaints must be in tiny voices, and it’s certainly not widespread. Keep in mind that there are few, if any, upper administrators who were even here when Wilsonville walked away.

    In terms of interfaces, btw, there are ongoing discussions about getting SMART data into the trip planner. Since they provide service into Marion County, the further connection to Cherriots is the obvious next step.

  10. Is there a way to create a bi-state agency that could either oversee both, or work with them? Maybe we could call it NorthWest Area Regional Transit System, or NoWARTS?

  11. Correctly the TC where the 2x stops is called Barbur, not Capitol.
    The 96 interchanges with the 2x and the 5 at Commerce Circle. It’s not bad except for being limited to commute hours.

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