The Electric Trolleybus: a Sustainable Choice for Portland

One thing I noticed my years living in Seattle was how much that city loves to copy Portland’s innovations. Government officials were constantly taking tours of Portland and bringing back ideas, many of which have borne fruit. Seattle now has a streetcar line, for example, and has just recently decided to start working on Neighborhood Greenways. I always wondered if there was anything Portland could learn from Seattle, and now I think I have found one. I refer to the electric trolleybus, which is not an innovation but rather an old idea that deserves new life.

The venerable electric trolleybus, once ubiquitous before the era of cheap oil, is now rare in North America. Cities across the continent traded overhead wires for diesel fumes during the decades after World War II. A few notable cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver, BC, chose instead to keep a core network of these vehicles, recognizing the benefits of quiet operation, zero tailpipe emissions, and the ability to easily climb hills. Anyone who has ridden a trolleybus knows they are far more pleasant to ride than diesel bus, and a modern trolleybus can approach streetcar levels of comfort.

In addition to these advantages, the electric trolleybus is inherently more environmentally sustainable than the diesel bus. Most electricity generation is only partly generated from fossil fuels, and in many cities like Seattle it is made up entirely of renewable energy like hydroelectric and wind power. The electric grid is also a much more efficient way to deliver energy than an internal combustion engine, so less energy is being wasted overall. A transit system that uses more electric vehicles can reduce its carbon footprint significantly. King County Metro in Seattle recently did an evaluation comparing the impacts of trolleybuses and diesel buses, and found that on virtually all measures the trolleybuses performed better.

What does this all mean for public transit in Portland? TriMet touts the sustainability of its light rail lines, but its bus fleet is almost entirely made up of aging diesel buses. Given that buses will always be an essential component of our transit network, it is essential that they be targeted for improvement. I would argue that the best way to make the bus system better and more sustainable would be to start building out a trolleybus network, starting with the Frequent Service Network.

Installing the wire costs about $3 million per mile, and the buses cost somewhat more than diesel buses, but given the many advantages it seems worth it. In addition, here’s an important and little-known fact: the federally-funded New Starts grants can be used for electric trolleybuses, not just streetcars and light rail. Rather than immediately build yet another light rail line after the Milwaukie project, TriMet could use federal funds to instead embark on a transformative modernization of its bus system that would have a positive effect all over the region.

It is worth noting that $3 million per mile is also a small fraction of the cost of building a streetcar line. I like streetcars as much as the next transit nut, but I think they should be specifically targeted towards focusing development in “urban renewal” areas, not built along areas where zoning is unlikely to change much in the future. The development impact is really the only thing streetcars seem to do better than a good bus, and even then the results are mixed. I’ve seen many fine developments tout their location on a major bus line.

It might make sense extend the streetcar to Hollywood, since it’s a designated growth center and could use the help, but perhaps we should build out some other corridors with a high-quality, modern, electric trolleybus network as seen in many European cities and a few American ones. Then we just need to wean Oregon off coal and TriMet could eventually reach carbon neutrality. This would make our transit system more sustainable, more comfortable, and cheaper to operate in the long run as oil prices rise.


55 responses to “The Electric Trolleybus: a Sustainable Choice for Portland”

  1. Having just come back from Vancouver BC and being a Boston native (still a few trolley us routes in Cambridge) I recently started thinking about the trolley bus myself. I love it but one thing I’d be worried about is how do they interact with MAX and the Streetcar? As far as I can tell the wires are incompatible and I just don’t see how they can safely cross the overhead wires for them unless they can operate on batteries and easily reconnect to wires on the other side of the tracks. Can this be done and has it been done elsewhere?

    If it can’t be done then it makes it almost impossible to serve downtown in any meaningful way which would greatly hurt the effectiveness of such a system.

  2. Hello Tom –

    Yes, it actually is possible and (in the cities that have them) not uncommon for trolleybuses and electric rail vehicles (trams/streetcars/light rail) to cross paths and even share the same route.

    Close to us, you can see this in San Francisco where certain MUNI light rail, streetcar, and trolleybus lines cross or operate on the same road.

    It’s not without complications, and the overhead wiring can look rather unsightly at intersections, but it is done.

    The secret is A) running at the same voltage and on the same basic power type (AC or DC), and B) the ground wire is at a slightly different vertical level than the hot wire. (For rail vehicles, “ground” is literally the rail in the ground, although that rail is usually jacketed with an insulator and grounded at specific points to avoid disturbing other below-surface utilities.)

    A rail vehicle can have a pantograph (horizontal solid bar) or single trolley wheel that rises to touch the hot wire only (and be grounded by the rails), while a bus will have two parallel trolley wheels, one which tracks the hot wire and one which reaches higher to touch the ground/return wire.

  3. Regarding choosing streetcars or trolleybuses for a particular corridor, it should be noted that recently during the city’s Streetcar System Concept Plan public process, the SE Corridor Working Group (of which I was a member) recommended trolleybuses for corridors where upgraded high-quality transit was desirable but streetcars weren’t practical either for cost reasons or reasons of topography etc., 39th Ave/Chavez being a specific case in point. Trolleybuses offer some degree of the touted advantages of streetcars (route permanence, quiet operation, no local emissions) with reduced up-front costs and slightly reduced operational costs.

  4. I lived in Seattle at the time they decided the old trolleybuses and infrastructure were obsolete. I loved the fact that Seattle decided not to rip it all out in favor of diesel buses but rather to expand the area served and buy new trolleybuses.

    The old vehicles had their charm, if you didn’t mind being stuck for awhile when the trolley poles popped loose from the overhead wires and the operator fiddled with ropes in order to re-attach them.

  5. Back during this years’ interviews with Trimet GM Neil McFarlane, McFarlane had this to say on the concept of trolleybusses (from Part 3 of the series):

    You know, I have always been a fan of electric trolleybuses. But, to be honest with you as I’ve sort of studied bus technology over the last year, become more familiar with some of the technology, there are some really advancing bus technologies – electric bus technologies – that I think we need to keep our eye on, and may be able to offer some of the advantages of the trolleybus without the capital expense of installing the overhead wire and the electrification systems.

    An example of that, that I think is out in the industry, is the Protera electric bus, which has been used in down southern California, beginning to be manufactured in this country. It uses battery tech and capacitor technology, basically to charge for 10-minute quick charges at the beginning and the end of the line, and then run for some distance, simply on batteries.

    Those are the kinds of technologies I think we really want to keep our eyes on. As a progressive region I think we’d really, frankly, accomplish a lot of what I think trolleybuses would hope to accomplish, but do it perhaps at a more reasonable cost.

  6. Anyone who has ridden a trolleybus knows they are far more pleasant to ride than diesel bus, and a modern trolleybus can approach streetcar levels of comfort.

    Actually I think they are more comfortable because of the rubber tires vs the steel on steel wheels, much smoother rides as far as I am concerned.

    But the trolley bus with wires is probably not necessary any longer, THIS TECHNOLOGY is really making strides right now.

    Of course its still a “bus” with all its negative connotations of the lower classes of society, hence in class conscious Amerika it can’t attract the “choice” riders etc etc.

    It all makes sense if transit was for people and cost is a consideration.

    Once again, this is Amerika so don’t expect anything like this showing up here in Portland. There are a few LOCATIONS in this country experimenting with this technology.

    But around the world there are all sorts of innovations happening in providing cost effective transit to the citizens.

  7. I enjoyed riding the trolley busses in San Francisco and Seattle; they seem like a great option for cities that still have a trolley bus network installed. However, I don’t think it would be financially prudent to install the infrastructure, given the rapid advances in battery and hydrogen fuel technologies.
    “The BE-35 bus uses an electric propulsion system from UQM Technologies, and it has a lightweight composite body. Proterra has designed the vehicle to operate for up to three hours and juice up within 10 minutes at inductive fast-charging stations installed along the bus route.”

    Seattle and San Francisco are lucky that they have the option to buy cheaper trolley busses. The rest of us will have to wait until the price comes down on the battery electrics.

  8. I used to live in San Fran, right near a bus line. I certainly appreciated the quiet of an electric motor. Really, the main source of noise on those things is the contact thingies clattering against the overhead wires. Not all the time, but sometimes (and always when they went by my house). You can hear a little bit of it in this video someone did about electric trolleys:

    Not a terrible racket, but why not do without the wires altogether and go battery-powered like Al M says?

    And why not, while we’re at it, have fleets of battery-powered delivery vehicles and taxis? And battery-powered any-vehicle-that-only-travels-short-distances?

    And this is nit-picky, but the aesthetics of overhead wires aren’t great. I’d like to see fewer cables of all sorts chopping up the sky. (They do it right in Ladd’s Addition, with the power lines in the back alleys only.)

    But overall, they have a decent bus system in San Fran. Walk to any point on the peninsula, and you could usually find a bus home.

  9. One difference between Portland and SF/Seattle is we have very few places where main streets (and the busses which run thereon) are climbing very steep grades. Both SF and Seattle’s downtowns are built on steep hillsides, and a diesel-powered bus would have significant difficulty climbing up Broad Street in Seattle with a crush load. While Portland has lots of hills, the street grid is not overlaid on top of them; where principal streets do climb hills, they climb sideways at a more gentle gradient FTMP. There are exceptions to this rule (Oregon City to mind), but the big advantage of electric busses over fuel-burning busses (besides emissions) doesn’t really apply here.

    One intermediate solution might be overhead charging stations, located at intersections or transit centers, which busses can use for quick charges using infrastructure similar to trolley poles, but which don’t require installing large amounts of overhead wire. (With the low-voltage DC systems used by TriMet and Streetcar, energy loss due to resistance in the wires is a significant problem; which is why quite a few transit advocates I know prefer 12.5kV systems. If you are simply operating charging stations rather than catenary systems, you can hook to the power grid and convert to the supply voltage locally).

  10. (Devil’s advocate)

    Every ton of reduced emissions on Portland streets means 800 lbs. of emissions in places like Boardman due to Portland’s reliance on Coal. It also helps to maintain destroyed salmon runs via hydropower reliance, and further necessitates the need for more 250 foot wide 300 mile transmission lines touted as ‘green jobs.'(even though the example I’m referencing connects to the Boardman Coal plant).

    Our electricity needs ruin other places in Oregon. We seriously need to work on our power supply before we add any more large electrical demands. Just sayin’.

  11. I would argue that the best way to make the bus system better and more sustainable would be to start building out a trolleybus network, starting with the Frequent Service Network.

    The trolleybus network works best on close-in routes so rather than saying “Frequent Service” lines, look at the inner-city Portland routes:

    4-Division (to S.E. 100th)
    8-NE 15th
    9-Powell (to Powell Garage)
    12-Sandy (to Parkrose)

    And so on…basically any route that operates in Portland city limits and west of I-205, but not the routes in the west hills or southwest Portland (the 44-Capitol might be an exception though, it has good enough ridership and isn’t a long route. The 12-Barbur wouldn’t work simply because of its length to Sherwood and its need to operate at 55 MPH.)

    Ironically, I think that the 14 Hawthorne and 15-Belmont lines should actually be streetcar routes due to the narrow streets and high transit volumes…but Portland’s too damn busy building streetcars that go around in circles rather than providing an actual transportation service. This isn’t Disneyland and I’m not looking for a one way ride from Tomorrowland…to Tomorrowland.

    Our electricity needs ruin other places in Oregon

    Absolutely correct…Seattle and Vancouver have us cornered in the electrical supply department – Seattle is almost 90% “green” compared to Portland’s less than 50% (only if you count hydro, which many folks, and Oregon law, do not.)

  12. Ironically, I think that the 14 Hawthorne and 15-Belmont lines should actually be streetcar routes due to the narrow streets and high transit volumes

    I’m glad you share this view. Although you dismiss the current and under-construction circulator route as going “around in circles”, please note that the Streetcar System Concept Plan sponsored by the city does incorporate the Belmont and Hawthorne/50th/Foster corridors. The SE District Working Group very specifically identified and evaluated those corridors among others. (The higher-level system advisory committee (SAC) combined those two corridors into one odd route, which I think is a mistake, but nonetheless Hawthorne and Belmont are considered high priorities.)

    (Approx 12,000 rides per day suggests that the current alignment does provide an “actual transportation service” to someone. And the currently-operating corridor is over 5X longer than the entire Disney park, including California Adventure, so I would certainly hope that it goes further than “Tomorrowland to Tomorrowland”.)

    Ironically, considering that you mentioned narrow streets, the reason the SAC modified the Hawthorne corridor to share space with Belmont is the insistence of the consulting project engineers that our narrow modern streetcars (8′ wide) require 10′ lanes and therefore cannot fit in the 9.5′ lanes on Hawthorne. There may be a value in some handbook somewhere, but it seems to me that two 8′ vehicles on fixed rails can be made to safely operate in 19′ of street.

  13. It is encouraging to see my friend Ray Polani’s long-time promotion of electric trollies being seriously revived after so many years.

    For those new to transit advocacy in our region, Ray is the great originator. His C.I.A.T., “Citizens for the Immediate Adoption of Trollybusses,” got the ball rolling, then morphed into C.B.T., “Citizens for Better Transit.” And so it goes.

    We all owe Ray a tremendous debt!

  14. If trolleybuses are to be built in Portland, I see it spearheaded by an organization other than Trimet, much like the Streetcar or WES. Trimet has mixed reviews on adapting new modes; lightrail was a hit, but most others have been lukewarm to the agency.

    Portland may be convinced to do trolleybuses on less-redevelopment-potential Streetcar corridors such as the 14 and 15 mentioned above to continue their network plan. Overhead wires, and any future street improvements, can be designed to be Streetcar-ready, and the trolleybuses can follow existing Streetcar routes through/around the central city. Overhead wire construction would also be less disruptive to those vocal businesses on Hawthorne than digging up the street to lay track.

  15. Proposed TriMet Trolley Bus System Map in 1982:

    I’d say give Hawthorne regular 11′ lanes with streetcar replacing the entire #14 out to Lents and make Hawthorne 2 lane two-way with buffered bike lanes or protected cycle track on either side of the street.

  16. Between 1995-98 I designed and advocated a trolleybus proposal titled “LOTi” (Loop Oriented Transit-mall Intermodal) as an alternative to the S/N MAX route for the transit mall. LOTi had ETB extensions N,NE,SE,NW,SW.

    The eventual design for MAX on the transit mall turned out better than many expected. I lent support the later MAX design based on the asssumption that ETB ‘could’ operate alongside MAX there.

    Since then, my studies of the Seattle ETB system lead me to conclude they are most effective for steep hill-climbs. Thus, Tri-Met has only one route (#15 Tabor) that justifies an ETB line.

    Seattle would do well to improve it’s ETB system with low-floor models and routes especially arranged to navigate steep downtown hills at more frequent intervals. Instead, Seattle is cutting back its ETB system to operate them the same as diesel buses, signaling more cutbacks to come. Portlanders should be skeptical of transit design advice Seattlers offer.

  17. Wells, you are incorrect about Seattle ETB system. In the next couple years Metro will be completely replacing the ETB fleet with new low-floor vehicles that can go off-wire for a few minutes so they can get around obstacles or wire maintenance. They are also expanding the network, not cutting back. Just recently they announced electrification of the 48, and they are also adding some wire to allow the 36 to be electric full-time, rather than just every other trip. If the $60 Vehicle License Fee passes next month, part of the funding is specifically earmarked to ETB expansion. Between ETBs, extensive use of hybrids, and the new light rail, I would say Seattle is much closer to carbon neutrality, especially given the lack of fossil fuel power in Seattle’s electric generation.

  18. I have to say, I’m disappointed that so many people are falling for the idea that fully battery-powered vehicles are a reasonable technology to wait for. Much like the never-quite-ready fuel cell, this attitude allows agencies to keep putting off improvements for as long as possible. I am very skeptical of battery-powered buses for many reasons.

    First of all, batteries are extremely heavy. When you get to a vehicle as heavy as a bus, adding enough batteries to give it a decent range will increase the weight by so much that any benefits are cancelled out. This was a major problem in early hybrid buses. Now they have found the right balance where the extra weight doesn’t cancel out the efficiency gains.

    Second, batteries are extremely expensive and will remain so for a long time. Electric cars are only halfway affordable because they have a very low range and have tax subsidies. Transit agencies are going to have very difficult time justifying the huge cost of a fully-battery-operated bus, especially when hybrids and ETBs are available at a much more reasonable cost.

    Third, the cost of charging infrastructure could easily equal or exceed the cost of installing ETB infrastructure. Most pilot projects of battery buses involve either a quick charge at every single stop, or a charge at every layover point. Either one would be very expensive to install, not to mention the operational problems. What if a layover is cut short to keep on schedule and the bus doesn’t get charged enough?

    I could go on, but in any case I think this is a case of TriMet avoiding any meaningful attempt at energy reform by pointing to a far-off technology. This tactic is used all the time by agencies and companies afraid to take risks. Most automakers pushed hard for fuel cell research by the feds because they knew it would allow them decades more of making the same old cars. Thankfully wiser heads have prevailed and now more federal money is going towards electric car research and development. ETBs are a great technology, even when hills are not an issue. Vancouver is about as flat as Portland, and they use ETBs, presumably for energy efficiency, noise, and environmental benefits.

  19. I have to say, I’m disappointed that so many people are falling for the idea that fully battery-powered vehicles are a reasonable technology to wait for. Much like the never-quite-ready fuel cell, this attitude allows agencies to keep putting off improvements for as long as possible. I am very skeptical of battery-powered buses for many reasons.

    Just out of curiosity, did you follow the link provided by Chris I?

    How is it “far-off technology” when the vehicles are actually in production?

  20. Our quick charge station ( is about $200,000 for 100kW, or $350,000 for 200kW. One station can serve up to 8 buses, so it isn’t as bad as it looks. With a 200kW charger, you can add about 20kWh of power in 6 minutes. A bus needs more or less 2-3kWh per mile, so this might be 10 miles before recharging again. AltairNano batteries (Proterra uses these as well) can be charged very fast and last a long time. While Proterra uses a fully electric bus, I prefer a fast charged hybrid, like the just-announced Volvo 7700 “Plug-In” Hybrid. If you run out of power, the hybrid genset turn on, and you continue on as a hybrid. Very reliable, very easy to install the charger, almost 100% electric, but with the reliability of diesel.

  21. Using Roger’s quote, $3 million (the cost of one mile of ETB overhead wire, per Chris I’s link) could buy nine 200 kW chargers, with money left over.

    If those chargers were installed at a few key “end of the line” transit centers where buses lay over anyway, you could probably convert a fair percentage of Tri-Met lines to full electric (for shorter routes) or plug-in hybrid (for longer ones).

    So: where to put nine chargers? Off the top of my head:

    Beaverton TC, Gateway TC, Milwaukie TC, Clackamas TC, Gresham TC, Willow Creek TC, Hillsboro TC, maybe a charging station in St. Johns. And Lents TC — reroute 17 and 19 to end there.

    And then start buying plug-in hybrids to serve lines that run between any two of those points, or simply run a short loop. A non-exhaustive list of possibilities, based on the stations above: 4, 17, 19, 20, 22, 23, 25, 28, 46, 47, 48, 71, 75, 80, 81, 82, 88, 152, 155, 156.

    I’m sure that a bit of analysis could come up with a more strategically focused list of “starter” charging points that would serve more buses and more routes. Potentially, I expect that twenty well-placed chargers, and a bit of tinkering with current routing, could serve at least half of Tri-Met’s lines and the majority of their buses.

  22. Before you all go gaga for the Proterra Ecoliner rechargable bus, wait until it is in regular daily service. These buses were “presented” with great fanfare over a year ago; I frequent their intended route, and I have yet to have seen them in service.

  23. Yeah, to echo Erik a bit, companies produce prototypes all the time and convince transit agencies to test them out. That does not tell us anything about whether it is a viable technology. All we have to go on so far is marketing. I guess I see climate change as enough of a problem that we should go ahead and use existing technology now, rather than wait for a possible technology in the future that doesn’t seem to have much added benefit. I don’t think wires are a big deal, and batteries have plenty of environmental problems inherent in their manufacture and use. I think grid-connected vehicles (rail, bus, and even cars and trucks) are the best bet for future sustainable transportation. Batteries are better for smaller objects like cell phones, bikes, scooters, and small cars.

  24. Actually many people get motion sickness on buses that lurch around in traffic and swing over in curb-cuts to pick up passengers. I didn’t used to, but am starting to as I get older.

    I do prefer streetcars and electric trains/LRVs.

  25. My wife is one of them. She cannot read on the bus (even the #20, which is has a mostly straight route through Portland). But she has no trouble reading on MAX. I can read on either, but I find MAX to be more comfortable overall.

  26. Please let me know about electric trolleybus planning email me at I need know what TRIMET planning department stated. In addition, I would like to know about electric trolleybus plans in Portland, please, what do TRIMET doing with electric trolleybus assigns to which garage? short-term or mid-term or long-term on electric trolleybus. which TRIMET decide choose bus routes for electric trolleybuses? Please help me! Thank for helping me!

  27. Seattle’s Metro this year announced their intention to downsize or eliminate all ETB lines. An outpouring of public support for ETBs has only stalled that intention. According to Metro’s latest system changes, ETB overhead wire along 1st Ave will be removed. I’ve heard nothing about low-floor ETB purchases. The last time Seattle’s ETBs were replaced, Metro pulled the electric motors and reinstalled them in new, but the same model high-floor coaches.

    Seattle’s Link LRT is the nation’s worst performing new start. Expansion is necessary, but massively expensive (the subway north) or mired in controversy (east through Bellevue). Expansion south to Federal Way and a spur through Southcenter to Renton are simple and productive, but not awarded priority by Seattle’s corrupt political powers.

    The Lake Union Streetcar Line operates below expectations. The simplest extension to cross major n/s transit lines and reach 1st Ave’s popular Pike Place Market is ignored.

    The separate First Hill Streetcar Line is a complete redesign of Broadway Street which requires an act of blind faith to believe the line, the bikeway and traffic there will function adequately.

    Seattle is only good at PR whereby its citizenry is misled to believe the worst is the best. Case in point: Seattle’s Sculpture Park, adored by the press, is classic form-over-function. No seating, gravel walkway, sparsely landscaped, neglects the view of Puget Sound and instead highlights bizarre sculptures. Sculpture Park represents mankind spitting on nature.

  28. Wells is incorrect in pretty much every way. Here is the final ETB evaluation report:

    As you can see, they conclude that ETBs are better on pretty much every metric, and end up costing significantly less on an annualized basis. This is in large part due to the federal funding I mention in the original post. Here is another useful explanation:

    It is very doubtful that the King County Council would vote the other way when the report is so clearly in favor of keeping the ETB network.

    Metro, like most agencies at this point, has a policy of only buying low-floor buses. Wells’ example of them retrofitting existing high-floor buses is from a long time ago and doesn’t have any bearing on the future. Specifically, Metro has been looking at Vancouver’s new ETBs that can go off-wire for a period of time. You can read about it here:

    I won’t argue that ridership hasn’t been low on Link, but on the other hand once it opens to the U District and Capitol Hill in 2016, ridership is expected to skyrocket. The very expensive tunnels to do that segment got a huge amount of federal money because they have very high confidence in the project, connecting the densest neighborhood in Seattle to both downtown and to the University of Washington.

    The South Lake Union Streetcar is actually performing above expectations by a large amount:

    It is so successful that area employers are kicking in funding for increasing headways to 10 minutes during peak times:

    The First Hill Streetcar project was redesigned with the help of myself and several other members of the Capitol Hill Community Council. We successfully lobbied to keep the streetcar 2-way on Broadway and to include a cycletrack. I have seen the plans in detail and there are no anticipated traffic problems. Most of the way they were able to remove parking on one side of the street, so it was not difficult to carve out the ROW. In other places they simply went from a center turn lane to just using pocket turn lanes. Left turns are limited in a couple places, but they are on lower-traffic streets and will not have a big impact.

    Lastly, I agree that the sculpture park is a stupid waste of space.

  29. Please let me know about electric trolleybus status and urging support on electric trolleybus in Portland as tell all Portland Regional Radio Addresses endorses electric trolleybus & WES Commuter Train expansion to Woodburn with Phrase One. I would like to know about TRIMET and Electric Trolleybus developing news! Let me know!

  30. Zef won’t admit potential problems with the First Hill Streetcar on Broadway. Seattlers never admit mistakes during planning nor after as the mistakes become plain to see. How embarrassing for them. Lake Union Streetcar ridership absolutely falls far short of expectations principally because it has no major destinations along its route. There are many more major destinations along Portland’s initial streetcar line and extensions compared to Seattle’s Lake Union line.

    Seattle’s Link LRT has the same problem. Seattlers were warned that bypassing Southcenter would result in low ridership, but activists like Zef ignored the warnings and now deny Link LRT falls short of expectations.

    How could Seattle’s rail system be screwed up so badly? Answer: those who know better don’t want it to succeed and enlist clueless groupies support much lower standards.

    Crank up the facetious PR to defend Seattle, Zef, but the inconvenient truth won’t be ignored. Everybody recognizes Seattle traffic as a nightmare, its transit poorly arranged, its sidewalks and crosswalks decrepit, and its bicycling an afterthought. Transportation planning doesn’t get as bad as it is there by happenstance. [Moderator: Personally-directed remarks removed–ES]

  31. David –

    What is the deal? Every time this topic comes up, you post similar comments, and yet when we follow up (even going to the point of asking the question of TriMet’s general manager, and producing a complete written transcript of the entire interview), you never respond to our follow-ups. Do you read these comment threads after posting? Please reply. Thank you.

  32. “Zef won’t admit” … “activists like Zef ignored” … “clueless groupies” … “Crank up the facetious PR to defend Seattle, Zef”.

    Woah, Wells… I haven’t looked at what Scotty already removed, but that’s getting too personal. Dial it back a notch. Feel free to disagree and post supporting facts for your position.

  33. Wells,

    If Seattle’s transit is such a disaster, how do you explain the fact that it accounts for 20% of commuter trips, whereas Portland accounts for 12% (or so, these are just off the top of my head)?

  34. Despite Seattle’s (questionably) higher number of “commuters” using transit, traffic there is far worse than Portland. A main measurement of transit effectiveness is how acts as an alternative to driving. Seattle transit fails comparatively in that main regard.

    Zef’s linked article indicates the Lake Union Streetcar ridership is high only during the afternoon rush hours as, Hutchison Center and other area “commuting” employees leave their workplace. The rest of the time, it is woefully under-utilized.

    The Portland Streetcar system has greater ridership all day, evenings and weekends mainly because its route serves many major destinations. The Lake Union Line has inconvenient connections to transit corridors, both terminus and few major destinations.

    The First Hill Streetcar Line is not a simple track arrangement like Portland. The cycletrack, the narrowing of Broadway from 4 to 2 lanes, curb parking etc, may work out okay, but one shouldn’t ignore its complicated arrangement as if severe problems and controversy won’t arise as they have with the Lake Union Line & Link LRT. That’s why I complain about Seattlers consistently ignoring reality are also unwilling to accept the high probability that their precious bored tunnel project will first destabilize then destroy Pioneer Square and leave the Mercer Mess corridor more jammed with traffic than it is now.

  35. I’m insufficiently familiar with Seattle transit to comment on the merits of the various projects and agencies in the Emerald City (so I won’t), though a few things to keep in mind:

    * Many transit advocates in Seattle oppose the DBT. It is, in many ways, analogous to the CRC here in the Portland area–with many powerbrokers considering it a reasonable compromise which advances urbanist and alternative transportation goals (the CRC gets MAX and a reasonable bike/ped route across the Columbia River; the DBT gets the Alaskan Way viaduct off the waterfront), and many activists considering it a betrayal (and a project which primarily benefits motorists and road construction interests).

    * Anytime one speaks of a project as a “success” or a “failure”, an important question to ask is: compared to what goals? TriMet, for example, considers its MAX lines to be successful, though many critics do not–often cases the critics are employing different criteria than TriMet is. (Many critics note that congestion is still present on parallel freeways, and brand MAX a failure for that reason; even though TriMet has never considered congestion elimination to be a project goal, and congestion would be far worse if it weren’t for MAX shuttling thousands of commuters per hour into the city from multiple directions).

  36. Well South Lake Union is a neighborhood in transition; the streetcar was designed to help support the transformation. The Pearl is now fairly mature, so it’s a bit silly to use it to pronounce SLUT a failure. Check back in a few years.

    As for Seattle’s ‘questionably’ higher pxt of transit committed, that comes from the census. I be a little surprised if they’re too far off!

    I’m not as pessimistic about the fate of Pioneer Square. The tunnel will be built; the land that is opened up will make a spectacular park with amazing views of Puget Sound and theOlympic mountains. People will wonder what all the fuss was about.

  37. Zef,

    I think you’ll find that there are lots of questions about the probability that low-floor buses will high-center on the quick transitions from steep to flat on streets like Queen Anne, Madison/Marion, and James.

    I hope it’s proven false, but it is a concern.

  38. The DBT route is through watery soft fill and unstable soils directly beneath several hundred downtown Seattle towers, the most vulnerable in historic Pioneer Square. Wsdot claims any voids created by drilling will be filled with grout, but say nothing about underground waters naturally altering flow around the grouting, inevitably siphoning away soils and creating voids regardless. In an earthquake or natural settling, these voids collapse undermining building foundations. Underground pressures also increase alongside the tunnel and thrust soils upward buckling surface sidewalks and streets and utilities.

    The current design for Alaskan Way locates stoplights at the 13 intersection between Pike & King streets. Motorists failing to find that illusive curbside parking spot are forced back into thru-traffic which incidentally triples from 12,000 to 35,000 daily. This side-street traffic conflicts with pedestrians as well as the thru-traffic.

    The current design for Waterfront park amenities does not include a median for safe crossing of Alaskan Way. Parkland is artificial turf located atop a new ferry terminal with views of the parking lot and the city towers to the east.

    The Alaskan Way design for managing traffic is absurd. The new parkland is as odious as Sculpture Park. Seattlers are too self-centered to see how their planners fail miserably.

    Seattle’s new Alaskan Way will be a disaster memorialized with another Seattle nickname like The Mercer MESS or the SLUT. The DBT may be derisively regarded as the Seattle Sh*thole.

  39. Wells,

    I’m quite certain that Seattlites (not Seattlers), just like Portlanders, do not think with a hive mind; as noted previously many Seattle activists oppose these and other proposals.

    Please tone it down a bit. While constructive discussion of the relative merits of the two cities and their approaches to planning and transportation is appropriate and welcome here, a pissing contest is not. The tone of your commentary is heading in the wrong direction. (And yes, I’m aware that Seattle Transit Blog contains more than a few commenters who like to take gratuitous potshots at Portland; that’s their problem and not ours).

  40. I’m a frequent reader of the Seattle Transit Blog, and I just don’t see more than a small handful of anti-Portland comments. (some do criticize MAX as being slow (due to number of stops) but that’s a stretch to call that anti-Portland!

    In fact, there seems to be a general respect of what Portland’s managed to do. For example, I don’t believe Seattle would have built SLUT had PDX not shown what an asset modern streetcars can be.

    The point of the original post is that Seattle’s electric trolleys were something PDX might want to consider. Sure, Seattle has it’s issues but to pretend there’s NOTHING positive about the place is silly. It would be as silly as Seattlites pretending the achievements of Portland had no value to their larger urban area.

  41. Just to clarify my position: I have utterly nothing against electric trolleybusses, and wouldn’t object to their deployment in Portland. OTOH, I don’t consider converting existing diesel runs to ETB to be a high priority, either–I’d rather spend the money on other capital improvements such as advancing the replacement of the aging fleet (including the purchase of hybrids), a modern ticketing system, or other infrastructure improvements to make the existing bus system run faster and more reliably, particularly through known traffic bottlenecks.

    And to clarify the remarks on STB: The blog itself is an excellent resource for Seattle, and I’ve no quarrel with its articles or editors (just a few commenters). And I agree that technical comparisions between MAX and Link–particularly the merits of street-running rail vs light-metro operation–are perfectly legitimate to make.

  42. Maybe Seattlers (the term Seattlite is undeservedly too modern for the sluggish citizenry) will one day take contientious warnings seriously, but I doubt it. The failure of Seattle’s transportation system as a whole is intentionally orchestrated by automobile-related business interests who don’t care who is harmed by dreadful damage their rapacious profiteering incurs. Progress falls short of expectations because Seattlers are unwilling to admit abominable error neither before nor after it occurs. Pasting a happy face over abject failure does not lessen the hardship of living with it. Seattle’s bored tunnel project is a treasonous crime of catastrophic consequences. It’s not too late to save innocently clueless Seattlers from their mendacious business community.

  43. Everybody recognizes Seattle traffic as a nightmare, its transit poorly arranged, its sidewalks and crosswalks decrepit, and its bicycling an afterthought.

    Wells, have you been to downtown Seattle lately? Every time I go I can’t help but marvel over the smoothness of their concrete streets, and contrast them with the asphalt patchwork quilt that is much of downtown Portland. Try riding a bike down salmon st sometime and you’ll see what I mean.

  44. I bicycle all around Portland daily and all around Seattle whenever I’m there. Seattle is far behind Portland in every aspect of transportation infrastructure; walking, bicycling, transit and managed traffic.

    Seattle’s bored tunnel and Mercer West projects are outrageous crimes, whether clueless bicyclers there or here ever see beyond their own special interest needs or not. Sensible bicyclists are wary of concrete as slippery when wet and reduce speed. Others like to cry foul when their own reckless behavior on the road knocks them senseless onto any hard surface.

  45. So Wells, I can’t figure out what point you’re trying to make. You seem to be all over the place. Are you angry at clueless, wreckless bicyclists, sluggish, un-modern(?) Seattlites, or the perils of concrete paving? And what does any of that have to do with the viability of electric buses in Portland?

    Personally, I think it would be a good idea to have electric buses on the highest volume frequent routes. Those are routes that won’t change over time and a capital investment in them would net significant savings in operating costs over time.

  46. I’d rather spend the money on other capital improvements such as advancing the replacement of the aging fleet (including the purchase of hybrids), a modern ticketing system, or other infrastructure improvements to make the existing bus system run faster and more reliably, particularly through known traffic bottlenecks.

    ~~~>What he said!

  47. Good post, and cost comparison between streetcar, diesel bus and trolley bus.

    One thing to add – –
    “Anyone who has ridden a trolleybus knows they are far more pleasant to ride than diesel bus…”

    I might add that anyone who has lived next to a trolleybus route also knows they are far better citizens of the street than diesel buses.

    I once lived 30′ away from a trolleybus stop in Vancouver BC. At midnight, the city was pretty quiet. When a trolleybus would pull up I’d hear the whirring, then complete silence after it stopped, then the air pressure releasing the doors, a few footfalls, and the door closing and bus purring away.

    Compare that complete silence with the idling of a 500 hp diesel engine…

    Ted Buehler

  48. Actually many people get motion sickness on buses that lurch around in traffic and swing over in curb-cuts to pick up passengers. I didn’t used to, but am starting to as I get older.

    My wife is one of them. She cannot read on the bus (even the #20, which is has a mostly straight route through Portland). But she has no trouble reading on MAX.

    And my wife refuses to ride MAX, especially through the tunnel, because it makes her want to throw up every time. When I rode Sound Transit’s Central LINK line a year ago on the viaduct off of MLK along Marginal, SR 99, I-5 and SR 518 – all I could think of was how badly the train was hunting and that my wife literally would have exploded. (Fortunately it was just a dad-and-son trip, my son wanted to ride LINK and Sounder. He much preferred Sounder and even talks about riding it again, even though we live less than a mile from a WES station he could care less about it.) However, my wife now rides the 94 bus into work each morning and has no problem reading her eBook.

  49. Since then, my studies of the Seattle ETB system lead me to conclude they are most effective for steep hill-climbs. Thus, Tri-Met has only one route (#15 Tabor) that justifies an ETB line.

    TriMet has a few more routes that have “steep hill climbs”…are you only justifying a “steep hill climb” as something over 8%?

    The 8 bus is by far the best example (Jackson Park south of downtown) but many other routes have significant climbs to deal with – every bus that climbs from Barbur to Hillsdale; the 43 Taylors Ferry, 44 Capitol Highway and 45 Garden Home buses have many climbs to deal with as does the 38 Boones Ferry, the 58 Canyon Road (what, do you think there isn’t a big huge hill between Beaverton and Portland? Of course the problem is the routing on U.S. 26 is a problem for converting that line to ETB operation, it would need a separate busway lane), the 50 Cedar Mill, the 18 Hillside, the 63 Washington Park…

    ETBs do have the advantage in having greater torque for hill climbs, but that isn’t the only benefit. As mentioned, the reduced noise levels is a HUGE plus and in densely populated areas would be a huge benefit. Lower emissions ought to make ETB conversion a priority here in Portland but it seems being “eco-friendly” stops with TriMet’s bus operation where it’s OK to run 21 year old, non-EPA compliant diesel engines that crap out on a regular basis (who cared about the 50 or so riders on the 94 last night with a 1400 series bus…when it pulled out of Barbur TC I never saw so much smoke come out of a bus before; fortunately I caught the second bus which wasn’t a crush load.)

    Since TriMet has 200 buses that are already nine years overdue for replacement, NOW is the time to consider an ETB replacement program and get the inner-city routes that terminate west of I-205, north of Milwaukie, and east of Beaverton converted to electric operation. Put the hybrids and small shuttle buses (Sprinters) on the local routes outside that zone, and save the pure diesel buses for express routes, highway routes, and relief buses.

  50. I’m glad you share this view. Although you dismiss the current and under-construction circulator route as going “around in circles”, please note that the Streetcar System Concept Plan sponsored by the city does incorporate the Belmont and Hawthorne/50th/Foster corridors.

    Imagine if we didn’t waste the money on “Streetcar in a Circle” and instead used the money to actually improve service to the existing, dedicated bus riders on the 14 and 15 lines and just put the Streetcar tracks on the Hawthorne Bridge, as was intended when taxpayers spent millions rehabbing the bridge with the intent to put rail on it. Instead of blowing hundreds of millions on a new, unnecessary bridge, we’d be increasing and improving transit, allowing Portland to redeploy the newer low floor buses to other areas, thus retiring the 20 year old Gillig and Flxible relics that rightfully belong in a certain blue building in McMinnville being turned into rebar and angle iron.

    Meanwhile, we’d have money left over for more streetcar lines on the 4F, 4D, 6, 8F, 9B, 9P, 10, 12S, 17, 19G, 20, 24, 35G, 44M, 70, 71, and 75 lines…but we’re too busy building “developer oriented transit” downtown that goes around in circles instead of “people oriented transit” that upgrades and enhances the service we have – allowing current transit to deteroriate to third-world levels.

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