Digging Into TriMet’s Proposed Service Changes: NW Edition

It’s time once more to dive into TriMet’s proposed service changes. This time I will look at the areas where the vast majority of actual bus service cuts will be concentrated: NW Portland and St. Johns. First, here are the maps of current and proposed service:



First of all, the big service cut. TriMet is proposing to completely cut the NW portion of the 17.

Currently the 17 runs from the downtown transit mall through the NW on Everett/Glisan and 21st to Montgomery Park, with every other trip continuing to St. Johns, Linnton, and Sauvie Island. Service between Montgomery Park and downtown is pretty substantial on weekdays, with 53 trips per day in each direction and roughly 20-minute frequency all day. Weekend service is very weak, however, with only 20 trips on Saturdays and no service at all on Sundays.

The current proposal is to have the 17 from Holgate stay on the transit mall and turn around at Union Station, cutting the NW portion completely. Service from Montgomery Park via 21st and Everett/Glisan would be replaced by the 77, but that is a crosstown bus that heads east across the Steel Bridge rather than downtown, so current 17 riders headed downtown would be left with three main options: Take the 15 on NW 23rd, take the Streetcar on Lovejoy/Northrup, or take the 77 and transfer to buses or MAX at the transit mall.

None of these are completely terrible options, considering the frequencies involved. The Streetcar is very frequent (74 trips per day) and the 15 and 77 are close behind (60 and 53 trips per day, respectively). Transfers from the 77 to service on the transit mall should be pretty quick most of the time. All these would require additional walking and waiting time, however, and the frequency of remaining services does not make for the fact that the NW is losing a large amount of service with the loss of the 17.

TriMet makes the case that service was never adjusted in response to the Streetcar, which is true enough. They point out that the 17 and the Streetcar both link PSU to the NW, so they considered redundant service. This is a tricky case, because although they share those two points, they take two quite different paths between them, arguably serving different markets. For example, the 17 travels along 5th and 6th through the heart of downtown, while the Streetcar travels along 10th and 11th, a corridor still relatively devoid of major destinations or employment. Another problem is that the Streetcar is simply slower. A trip from PSU to NW 21st/Northrup on the 17 takes about 18 minutes. The same trip on Streetcar takes 25 minutes. Given all this, I can see why folks in the NW might not see the Streetcar as an adequate replacement.

While people living in the inner NW (or “Alphabet District” as it is called by absolutely no one) at least have other options, the greater impact of this cut will be felt by transit riders in St Johns, Linnton, and Sauvie Island. They will lose their all-day service to downtown through the NW, leaving them with peak-only weekday service via the 16, which runs along NW Front Ave. The section of the 16 out past St Johns in the N quadrant will be replaced by a vaguely-defined “shuttle service.”

I am somewhat sympathetic to TriMet here, because this among the most expensive types of service to run, with buses running between small, low-density neighborhoods with very little between them. NW St Helens may be the most direct route from St Johns to downtown, but with so much essentially empty space between them there is little chance for the kind of ridership that makes for efficient bus service. That said, it would be a shame to eliminate the all-day service that many people in these areas have come to rely on.

I’m going to try something new here, to bring some data into the discussion. I present below a ridership chart for route 17 (click to embiggen):


This is a chart of stop-level ridership data from Route 17 southbound on weekdays from Sauvie Island to Holgate &134th. Stops are on the horizontal axis, and average passenger load is on the vertical axis. The length of the white bars represent the average number of people getting on at each stop, the black bars show the average number getting off at each stop, and the point where they meet is the average passenger load at each stop. Basically, by reading the chart left to right, you can see roughly how full the buses are by looking at the height of the bars, and you can see the ons and offs by looking at the length of the bars. I hope that makes sense. (Full credit goes to Bruce Nourish at Seattle Transit Blog, who invented this type of chart)

So what does this chart tell us? Well, it’s a good one because it contains examples of what a well-performing route looks like and what a poorly-performing route looks like.

As you can see, from Sauvie Island to St Johns there is almost nobody riding, with about 3 people per bus on average and virtually nobody using the intermediate stops. Enough people get on at St Johns to boost average load to about 8, and virtually no one gets on or off until closer to Montgomery Park. These flat lines are a clear example of an expensive route that exists to take a small number of people from point A to point B.

The rest of the route, especially once we get to the Holgate segment, is a good example of a well-functioning route. Most stops see plenty of ons and offs. This kind of rider churn shows that the route is serving lots of origin-destination pairs rather than just one or two. Average load gets up to about 20 and only slowly drops down, which means there is substantial demand all the way to the end of the line. This pattern shows a productive route that exists to take a large number of people from point A to B and B to C and A to C and C to E and B to D, etc. etc.

What this chart tells me is that if we have to cut service, it makes sense to cut the Sauvie Island portion that is barely used. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be any service, but perhaps it would be better to run far fewer trips than currently. Service from Montgomery Park to downtown, however, is quite strong and should be served in some way.

Well, that covers the service cuts. Is there any good news to be found? Quite a bit, I would argue. Much like the changes proposed for the NE, TriMet is using the unfortunate need to cut service as an opportunity to also make long-overdue improvements to the structure of the system.

By moving the 77 from Lovejoy/Northrup to Everett/Glisan, TriMet will vastly simplify the transit system in the NW.

Currently we have a confusing tangle of overlapping routes in the area, with the 77 as the worst offender. After it gets off the Steel Bridge, rather than continuing west on Glisan it makes a series of turns past Union Station, parallels the Streetcar along Lovejoy/Northrup, and for no discernible reason runs northbound on 23rd and southbound on 25th (even though the 15 runs two-way on 23rd). The 17, meanwhile, has to make a difficult right-left-left turning maneuver to get from Broadway northbound to Glisan westbound. Montgomery Park, hardly a high-density transit market, finds itself served by three relatively frequent bus lines simply because it’s a convenient place to turn a bus around.

By removing the 17 and moving the 77, the structure is very straightforward, with fewer turns and overlaps. The 77 will get off the Steel Bridge and simply continue west on Glisan all the way to 21st. Lovejoy/Northrup will be the sole domain of Streetcar, 23rd will be sole domain of the 15, and the unnecessary service on 25th will go away. The only remaining overlapping service will be at Montgomery Park, but at least these will be two buses, the 15 and 77, that go to completely different places.

Overall this new structure will give the NW something closer to the clean grid typical of SE, NE, and N Portland. Such a grid does require more connections, but it also normally allows more frequency because buses are being used more efficiently. Ah, and there’s the rub. Because this is being done in the context of a service cut, many of the benefits of a grid may not be apparent. In an ideal restructuring, the 17 would still be cut, but the service hours would be reinvested in the remaining bus lines. If the 15, 77, and Streetcar could be dramatically boosted in frequency, most people would experience shorter travel times with less waiting, even people forced to transfer between the 77 and MAX or bus lines at the transit mall.

Here’s my pitch to TriMet and to anyone reading this. Let’s agree to go through with the smart restructuring components of the budget proposal regardless, but if any extra funds are found over the next year, reinvest it primarily in these NW bus lines where most of the proposed cuts are occurring. Only $2 million of the $17 million projected shortfall is coming from bus service cuts, and given the high amount of uncertainty in projected payroll tax revenue and federal transit grants, it is not impossible to imagine $2 million or more could be found.

If the shortfall ends not being as bad as expected, I advocate continuing with most of the proposed cuts and restructuring, and investing the extra money in several ways:

  • Increase frequency on remaining NW transit lines (15, 77, Streetcar)
  • Extend the 77 to St Johns and Sauvie Island to restore all-day service
  • Restore the Frequent Service Bus Network
  • Restore MAX off-peak frequency to every 15 minutes

I would also add that TriMet and the city should invest in the area from Everett to Glisan and 5th to Broadway to make that area a more safe and attractive place to transfer. Currently I wouldn’t blame people for being wary of having to transfer to and from the 77 given the state of that area, especially the constant open drug-dealing around the Greyhound station. I am all for relying more on connections in a grid-based transit system, but if we are to do so we must make sure those connections are easy and safe.


28 responses to “Digging Into TriMet’s Proposed Service Changes: NW Edition”

  1. … and for no discernible reason runs northbound on 23rd and southbound on 25th…

    Before Streetcar, the 77 ran in both directions on 25th and Lovejoy. When it was re-aligned to parallel the Streetcar (shifting westbound trips to Northrup), the residential blocks on Northrup between 23rd and 25th objected strenuously to the bus and 23rd was the compromise for that part of the leg.

  2. Thank you for the explanation, but that’s still no excuse for TriMet’s poor handling of route changes. The proper response to that residential objection should have been to shift the bus completely onto 23rd or 21st, which are commercial streets well-suited to bus service. 25th is a quieter residential street and is less than 1/4 mile from 23rd. It really just doesn’t make sense.

    In general TriMet seems too willing to change one bit of a route but not consider the route as a whole. For example, as I understand it, the 15 used to go all the way down to PSU and then back up to Salmon before heading north on 2nd and east on the Morrison Bridge. When they eliminated the PSU diversion, they could have taken the opportunity to streamline the route so it could run on a closer couplet. Instead it continues to run 5 blocks apart on Washington and Salmon. I know they did want to use Alder and the city said no (a decision they should revisit), but even so TriMet could have looked at other options like simply running it on Burnside, or Taylor/Salmon.

  3. At the open house, TriMet staff said that it is likely that they would keep at least midday service on St Helens road. It would be with Line 16 instead of 17. This makes a lot of sense because it eliminates duplication on St Helens road where there is little ridership (stuck between the river, railroad tracks and the hills/forest park. I never understood why that highway gets two lines while other streets with higher demand only get one. Linnton has a lot of bus service for a community of its size. Compare it to other neighborhoods that don’t even have all day service.
    The 16 is a better route than the 17 to go to Linnton and St Johns because it is like an express into downtown. There are very few people who get off in northwest from further out the highway. Zef makes good points about asking the city to step up and improve transfer locations. Maybe the neighborhoods can work with them and Trimet to get bus stops and sidewalks improved on the new service.
    Everyone wins if Trimet can run the 16 all day and even Saturday to Linnton. Trimet saves money, service is maintained and all the advantages Zef points out are accomplished. The city and community should work with Trimet to increase ridership if Trimet keeps service to Linnton because other neighborhoods are losing similar service with the service cut.
    I hope that the “don’t change anything” mentality of some of the neighborhood activists does not result in bad public policy decisions. Let’s be rational and balanced and constructive.

  4. Bus advocates are always saying its easy to change a busline. I beg to differ, and the 15/77 in NW is the exception that proves the rule. When I was NWDA Transportation Chair (1991), we did realign the 15 and 77 with ease, keeping the 15 on 23rd to the Thurman Street split. Its route for almost 100 years had been the old streetcar line that turned up Northrup to 25th. The 77 used to go left on 25th to Burnside & 23rd, which made no sense to us, so we more or less directed TriMet to run it north on 25th instead (taking the place of the 15). And everything ends up a Montgomery Park as its a good place to turn buses around, give Ops breaks (food & restrooms), etc. I was amazed had how easy that was, but it was the exception that proves the rule. Maybe I was just persuasive.
    Now when Streetcar came along, the w-bound 77 was moved to Northrup from Lovejoy as Chris noted, but the residents along Northrup (even though they there had been a streetcar, then bus on that section for 100 years) raised hell, so no deal, and it was turned on 23th instead of 25th. That is more typical…folks may want transit service, but not right up their street! Same thing happened about a dozen years ago when I was volunteering at Food Front which is served by only 1/2 of the 15s; why I wondered does the 17 run up Vaughn? Why not keep it on Thruman above 23rd, a growing retail district. TriMet agreed to keep the 17 on Thurman to 25th, but they caught hell from new rowhouse residents between 24th and 25th, and the 17 was back on Vaughn.
    I always wondered by the 16 ran downtown at all, and was not configured to be a more frequent Rivergate shuttle…St. Johns to MAX Yellow and Jubitz and back; it burns a lot of service hours to run a relative handful of St Johns residents to downtown. I would run the 77 up Everett/Glisan as proposed to 21st, but extend the 17 from Union Station to the Raleigh/Savior corridor, then out thru industrial NW to St Johns and Sauvie Island (maybe). Make the 16 the link to jobs in Rivergate that it should be.

  5. Great ideas, everyone! It seems like rather than running a bus from Sauvie Island to downtown at all in the off-peak, it would make more sense to run a crosstown from Sauvie Island through St Johns, then east to the Yellow Line, as Lenny just proposed. The 16 in the peak might get ok ridership. The chart I posted is an average of all the trips, so the peak ridership is somewhat hidden. I might try to isolate just the peak trips so we can see what it looks like. In any case, it’s not worth spending a lot of money to give just a few people a direct trip to downtown.

  6. Oh, and regarding the 17, rumor has it TriMet is thinking about running it up Broadway and connecting it with the 9’s route on Broadway and up 24th. That would be pretty interesting! The service levels match up pretty well, and it would allow the 9-Powell to stand alone, which will improve reliability and set it up nicely for eventual BRT treatment. In this scenario, obviously, the 70 would be merged with the 73 instead of the 9, which I am told will not necessarily result in any cuts to the 70.

    The only thing I dislike about keeping bus service on the Broadway Bridge is that the new streetcar will have center platforms in that segment. That means people will have to figure out whether to wait in the center of the road or on the side of the road to catch either the bus or streetcar that will take them to basically the same place. That is a common problem when streetcar and bus share one road. They should have either designed it for shared streetcar/bus platforms, or they should shift all buses to the Steel Bridge.

  7. I was just about to suggest a similar crosstown, though not just stopping at Sauvie Island. I’d like to see a bus from Delta Park (or some other place in NoPo with good transit connections), through St. Johns, across the bridge, to Sauvie Island…and then up and over Cornelius Pass to Germantown, NW 185th, and serving PCC Rock Creek, Tanasbourne, and ending at Willow Creek TC. (A more westerly routing in Washington County, to Orenco, might work as well, but the 185th routing strikes me as more useful, having more important destinations en route). If the route interconnected with the 72, or (better yet for the purposes of this sentence) went to PCC Cascade, TriMet might even be able to get PCC to discontinue the existing red line shuttle, which is already redundant with the 72 between Cascade and SE Center, and use the money to help fund the new crosstown line instead. (Under this proposal, it is assumed that PCC students would be permitted to ride the 72 and the new line for free).

    One question, of course, is whether or not Cornelius Pass is a safe route for TriMet busses to use. Lots of large trucks use that route, and it was regraded some years back to be passable by large vehicles. CC Rider busses use it for their route between Willow Creek TC and St. Helens/Scappoose. OTOH, they aren’t running 40′ busses. (I’m not sure if the PCC Red Line uses Cornelius Pass or US26 to downtown to get between Rock Creek and Cascade).

  8. But now I can ride my lovely orange fixie a half-mile to 62nd & Holgate and get off 1:10 later at Sauvie for a nifty excursion there, except on Sunday. And return!

    Last fall I loaded the practical yellow fixie on the 17 one Saturday and got off at Chris King to regard the conclusion of the Oregon Manifest. John Howe gave me a tour of the factory, beer-bike produced a free draft, and Amy Walker, visiting from B. C. via Amtrak an a rented trike from Clever Cycles, sold and signed a copy of her super-fantastic “On Bicycles, 50 Ways the New Bike Culture Can Change Your Life.”

    Do you people have no souls?

    However Bruce’s chart is brilliant, fully worthy of Edward R. Tufte.

    Read my review on Amazon and buy the book. You guys really need it!

  9. I walk on NW 21st all the time.

    A lot of people are gonna be DAZED AND CONFUSED!

    Hardly anybody rides that 77 from NW Portland, but TONS of folks ride that 17.


  10. I have thought about whether the 77 is even necessary in the NW, but it really is the best way for people in the NW to access the eastside MAX lines. I suspect the main reason it doesn’t do better is that it is so indirect that people shy away from it who may ride it once it’s on 21st and Everett/Glisan. I hope I’m right anyway, and it’s not a failure.

  11. It would be a shame to loose the 16 from St. John’s to Downtown at evening rush hour, as it’s a fast way to get back to town from my piano lessons. :P I wouldn’t mind making use of the 4 bus, if only it actually connected properly with the Yellow Line. I have noticed that connecting to individual MAX lines (just the Yellow or Green segments, not the shared sections) is often a pain as the buses seem to arrive a minute or two after the train has departed, thus incurring a lot of wasted time. From my experience, many trips could be shortened with proper connection timing. If only St. John wasn’t so relatively isolated from most of the city. Maybe a BRT down Lombard St? I know that would get a lot of riders, especially if it continued along the whole of the 75 route!

    As for circuitous routes like the 77, I agree that a more streamlined routing might attract more people. First off all, it’s simpler to understand the route, and speed is almost always improved by eliminating turns (and if new condo dwellers don’t like the noise, TS, they shouldn’t have moved onto a bus route).

    I also agree that time-savings on the 17 versus the streetcar are worthwhile. After one has ridden trains for several years, the novelty wears off, and one becomes more interested in travel time (and the ability to get a seat). I know this issue’s been debated much already, but I happen to agree that a streetcar upgrade from a bus route should be faster than the bus it replaced, not slower. No one wants a slower ride.

    I’m also curious why the city said no to the 15 bus using Alder to head east. That routing makes perfect sense, and having the eastern part of the couplet all the way down on Salmon is really quite baffling. Ever since I moved here, I thought that was odd. I hope they revisit that soon, as it would make the 15 and easier bus to use and understand. Now only if they’d finish the damned Morrison Bridge…

    Another amusing coincidence occurs to me here, though it is a bit selfish. The proposal to possibly eliminate the tail end of the 70 between the Lloyd Center and Rose Quarter, and the proposal of eliminating some of the 16 service, would both directly impact my commute to my music lessons. The whole thing could ameliorated by better Yellow Line connections, though…

  12. I was told my a TriMet planner that they wanted to run the eastbound 15 on Alder but the hotels and other businesses on Alder complained to the city, so the city did not designate it as a “transit street” in their classifications. That’s why no buses can use Alder. I think that is completely reprehensible.

  13. I was told my a TriMet planner that they wanted to run the eastbound 15 on Alder but the hotels and other businesses on Alder complained to the city, so the city did not designate it as a “transit street” in their classifications. That’s why no buses can use Alder. I think that is completely reprehensible.

    Use Street View to take a look at SW 6th & Alder and travel down to the bridge. Navigating that in a car is bad enough. That’s not rush hour, either.

    At the time the City might have been designating street functions, Meier & Frank was one of the most important downtown stores and messing with their loading zones would have been unthinkable. Much of what appears to be empty now was thriving not that long ago.

  14. I, too, heard that Trimet looked to put buses on Alder as recently as 2009 when the new mall opened. There was not interest in moving the bus from Salmon st. from either the city or downtown business interests. It would make for a faster trip and might even save Trimet some money.

  15. A trip from PSU to NW 21st/Northrup on the 17 takes about 18 minutes. The same trip on Streetcar takes 25 minutes.

    Now it depends exactly where you’re coming from and maybe when you’re traveling, but the TriMet trip planner shows Line 17 taking 21 minutes and the the streetcar taking 23 minutes.

    The 17, meanwhile, has to make a difficult right-left-left turning maneuver to get from Broadway northbound to Glisan westbound.

    This is temporary. It would head up 6th to Glisan, but TriMet doesn’t want buses going past Couch/Davis where they are building the new building.

    What about having Line 15 go out St. Helens Road?
    What about having the 17 (or 77) go up Thurman Street, eliminating the split destinations?

    Overall, being able to take a bike out to Sauvie Island is one of those things that make the transit system good.

  16. I’m sure it has been raised before, but on some of these bus lines with low ridership, couldn’t we replace the standard bus with a LIFT shuttle type of vehicle? I’m not sure how much this would save but I am intrigued.

  17. Generally, the biggest cost of a bus route is the driver. Some money could be saved by switching to smaller vehicles, but not much.

  18. And half the cost of the Op is their benefits, which is why the 17 and other bus lines are on the chopping block.

  19. Re: Sauvie Island to Downtown trips:
    Columbia county (St Helens and Scappoose) runs a 10 buses a day each way M-F all the way to central Portland, along Highway 30: http://www.columbiacountyrider.com/resources/aCol+Co+Rider+Portland+Brochure.pdf

    If their bus operations costs are lower (due to cheaper driver wages or benefits), perhaps Trimet could talk to them about increasing service, perhaps to 16 buses a day each way (once per hour from 6 am to 8 pm, plus a mid-hour bus at the peak hours). This would be the same as current service at rush hour, and much better than the confusing current schedule with a big, 2 and 3 hour mid-day service gaps.

  20. I don’t know what restrictions, if any, apply to CC Rider’s operations outside their coverage area. If CC Rider is non-union, however, TriMet probably is barred (by the existing contract) from any contractual arrangements with them.

  21. There is no transfers between CC Rider and TriMet.
    Of course, the real solution is for people to not live way out in Columbia county and work in Portland. Stretching tight transportation dollars to accommodate people’s desire to “eat their cake (live in the country) and have it too” (work in the city) is poor policy at best.

  22. Also, unless some kind of break could be worked out, CC Rider is relatively expensive. Their base fare is $5, and that’s one way. (And speaking about fares, note that they provide only minimal discounts to seniors/disabled/youth.)

    One other thing: C-TRAN was using Alder as their exit route from the new mall (though without stopping), and they’ve at least partially given it up, deciding to go out of the way to 405.

  23. Of course, the real solution is for people to not live way out in Columbia county and work in Portland.

    Clearly Lenny must be single. Often when someone lives that far out and commutes, it’s because the other spouse lives out there and works in town. It’s really tough for both spouses to find a job close to home.

  24. Dave, I’m not sure that’s a fair or effective rebuttal. I’m sure some people have spouses that could easily get a job in Seattle or perhaps the Bay Area. Does that mean better commuter air travel there should be a priority?

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