Making BRT faster

No, I’m not talking about travel speeds.  As Portland currently has no BRT, there’s nothing to make faster (other than existing local bus service, over which any decent BRT would be an improvement).

Instead, I’m talking about rolling out BRT faster.

Right now, Portland has two BRT (or potential BRT) projects that have advanced passed the line-on-a-map-in-a-planning-document phase:  The Southwest Corridor, and the Powell/Division project.  (There’s also the Fourth Plain BRT in Vancouver, being planned and built by C-TRAN).

A few other ideas have been discussed in significant detail; probably the most prominent of these a proposed BRT line along TV Highway between Beaverton and Forest Grove (or at least Hillsboro).  TV Highway has been the subject of a corridor study  which included BRT as a recommendation (and it’s been on numerous planning maps since), but there is no project to actually build out BRT in the 57 corridor.

Powell/Division’s project timeline calls for it to begin service in 2020.  A firm timeline for the SWC doesn’t exist yet–the start of the DEIS phase has been delayed–but given the scope of the project, we’re looking probably at a decade or more before service opens.  Major capital projects, particularly those that seek Federal funding, simply have long lead times.

But Portland transit riders can benefit from improved bus service today.  (Improved rail service as well, but this article is focused on the bus system).

There’s probably not much to be done about big capital projects–the politics and red tape involved is not likely to go away.  But are there ways to bring BRT on board without large capital outlays?

Some thoughts, after the jump.

  • Don’t focus on “BRT” as a separate product, just focus on bus service improvements.  In much of Europe, there is no “BRT”–the standard for basic bus service (at least on corridors) often involves things like greater stop-spacing, offboard fare payment, larger vehicles with all-door boarding, signal priority, and exclusive lanes (though not necessarily for the entire length of the route).
  • Use Small Starts or Very Small Starts for small-ticket projects that have a rather limited scope, but can fix a bottleneck here and there.  We do this with roads all the time–improving intersections, changing signal timings, and other such projects, rather than rebuilding or widening an entire road.  In some cases, an improvement for buses can aid cars and trucks as well.
  • Change fare enforcement policy on some routes–particularly the F/S routes–to proof of payment, and allow all-door boarding on these lines.
  • Start planning now (if not done already) for how to accommodate articulated buses on the Transit Mall, out on the streets, and in the garages.   Buy some and deploy them on the busiest routes.  Any line that routinely leaves passengers behind because the bus is full, is a candidate for a bigger bus.  And in some cases, it might be possible to actually reduce frequency if bigger vehicles are provided, allowing the drivers to be redeployed elsewhere.
  • BRT has one big advantage over rail (ignoring cost)–its vehicles are not limited to the right-of-way, and can venture out onto the surface streets.  This allows far more opportunity for piecemeal project development and/or phasing; without having to build the whole shebang in one swoop or forcing transfers on large numbers of passengers.
  • BAT (business-access/transit–a curbside bus lane which is open to right-turning cars, but not to through auto traffic) lanes do have a bit of a bad reputation–but they’re cheap to install, politically easier to pull off–and if successful, can be converted to median-running BRT later.
  • Once you have all-door boarding, particularly with large vehicles–close bus stops.  Riders hate this at first–nobody likes to see their stop close, even if they are the only one who uses it.  But if part of a trade-off (nicer amenities at the remaining stops, and fewer stops in exchange for more frequent service, with “locals” still running periodically for the mobility-impaired for whom a 400m walk to a bus stop is a difficulty), this can often be done.  During off-peak hours, there’s generally less reason to run limited-stop service like this.  (One conondrum about stop consolidation:  It has the most effect on busy lines, where the highest number of people will be affected; on non-busy lines, closing stops generally has little effect as many of the stops are skipped on a given run anyway.  Also, for stop consolidation to be effective, rapid boarding must be possible; if everyone still has to file past the driver and show their pass, the gains from stop consolidation are mostly erased).
  • In many cases, do these quietly, without much fanfare, and without a big splashy project.  Big splashy big-ticket projects are more likely to attract political opposition and political opportunism.  As Harry S Truman said, “it’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”
  • And keep in mind:  There are quite a few Portland streets with bus lanes, or signal priority installed.  (And a few more with signal priority plumbed in, but not necessarily working).  Seattle has installed many more bus lanes through its downtown and along certain corridors, without much fuss.

Other thoughts?  Suggestions for specific improvements?


31 responses to “Making BRT faster”

  1. First question that popped into my head: how would you communicate to riders that that all-door boarding was allowed on some buses and not others?

      • That aspect will be a bit easier once the electronic fare payment system is fully operational as all you would need are curbside readers. I am surprised however that the SW project isn’t light rail considering the success it has had in transforming Portland on so many levels.

        • It may be, but in the current political climate, LRT is a harder sell. If nothing else in the past ten years, the city of Portland itself has grown wealthier and the place has become a bit of a brand (even if “Portlandia” might not be the best brand, any press is good press); and there’s been an upsurge of anti-transit political activism in the suburbs that simply wasn’t there for the planning of the Blue, Red, Yellow, and Green lines, and reared its head at the tail end of the Orange Line.

          • No reason to force LRT on people that don’t want it. Let’s invest in projects that improve conditions for people that live in the City. Station consolidation, speed increases, tunnel downtown, etc. Portland is going to continue to add density near downtown, we need to make it fast and efficient to get around without a car.

          • But where did the anti rail upsurge as you said come from? Is it the sence that a large chunk of Portland’s suburbia is being left behind while the city continues to in not so many words thrive? To me there’s something to that since it leeds to feelings of resentment & the backlash you describe Scott

            • The city itself, which is doing much better than the suburbs in many ways (and not in a few others) will continue to move ahead of the suburbs. This however, isn’t something Portland can change as our border are what they are. Almost all of the opposition comes priimarily from outside of those borders. Some does come from east Portland – again for the reasons you’ve alluded to.

              My point however, is that the only area that has resentment about LRT and big projects right now that Portland can actually address is that of east Portland.

              Being that the case, the real question is how do we show or increase the value add that east Portland actually sees and gets instead of them feeling like they’ve been left out (which in many cases they have been, and also shorted million upon millions by the city, promised during annexation of the eastern area of the city).

              The core of the solutions, I feel, are rooted in this article and ones like this. Small incremental changes and fixes need put into place for bus lines. Sidewalks need built and the entire city needs to be brought up to a baseline standard of street quality, crossings, sidewalks, etc.

  2. A bunch of small projects would be great. If funding is a problem, I wonder if they could be bundled into some bigger grant.

    I have always wondered why big steps were always the ones we were going after. making a lot of folks’ lives better seems much easier than making a few folks trips way faster

  3. Is the BRT in Portland going to have a separate right of way? If no, then I don’t really think it is going to be much of an improvement. And if yes, then the same folks who freak out about light rail are going to freak out about taking a lane of car traffic.

    • Justin has a point & let me go a bit further. Most BRT projects do NOT have grade separation or enough of it to justify the enormous capital outlay. What you have then is a glorified bus service that may have issues if articulated busses are deployed since downtown Portland blocks are small. Now if you want to have double deckers instead, that might work despite the recent discussion of the so called slow boarding process of such busses.

      The other issue I have with the BRT project is timelines. Seriously how does it take upwards of a decade to install the nessessary components for BRT if building MAX with all it’s challenges literally takes half the time? And don’t get me started that BRT is cheaper – because over time it’s not once costs are projected out in decades.

      Now I’m not saying that BRT is a bad idea, rather I see this as… if it continues to work for Portland, why change it.

      • “The other issue I have with the BRT project is timelines. Seriously how does it take upwards of a decade to install the nessessary components for BRT if building MAX with all it’s challenges literally takes half the time? And don’t get me started that BRT is cheaper – because over time it’s not once costs are projected out in decades.”

        …bureaucracy. But also, it also takes decades to get the LRT projects off the ground. The initial efforts for the north, south, east and west LRT lines started decades ago. Well before the first Blue Line was even built in 86′. BRT falls into the same mess largely because of Government involvement and process. Not because it requires extra of X or anything. In all reality, the actual building of either of these things is dramatically less than the actual schedules that are in place for their construction.

        In the case of quality BRT (with solid road quality so it doesn’t need replaced every 2-5 years, i.e. NOT using cheap black top) and LRT we’re looking at a year or two for almost any city size project for a line of 10-15 miles. The current 5-10 year trend in getting support, planning and other timing is purely Governmental and modern day regulatory process.

  4. In my opinion, the SWC needs a Marquam Hill tunnel, so it should be rail. (Could BRT run in a tunnel without their being air quality issues? I don’t know.) BRT would probably be great for Powell/Division as long as it can have separate right of way for at least most of the run. I agree that it needs to be expedited. Let’s not wait for SWC to get Powell/Division going!

    • Dwayne,

      Hybrids run in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel and have done so for a decade. The buses automatically turn off the diesels at the stations and run in “quiet mode” rather slowly. But a LOT of them run through there in the rush hour; MANY more than would run through a BRT tunnel under Marquam Hill.

      • I know that a tunnel would be very expensive, but I wonder what the long term savings would be if they cut all (or most) of the current bus service that goes up the hill. Currently OHSU is served by seven bus lines:

        8- (OHSU – Transit Mall – Lloyd district – N. Portland)
        61- (OHSU – Hillsdale – Beaverton TC)
        64- (OHSU – Hillsdale – Multnomah – Barber TC – Tigard TC)
        65- (OHSU – Burlingame)
        66- (OHSU – Ross Island Bridge – Powell – Cesar Chavez – Hollywood TC)
        68- (OHSU – PSU – Goose Hollow)
        C-Tran also runs the 190 Express bus from Vancouver – OHSU

        The only line that runs all day is the 8, the rest are one-way rush hour buses (to OHSU in the AM and from OHSU in the PM) on weekdays.

        Lets say that the SWC is light rail and the initial segment runs from Portland (via the transit mall) then into a tunnel under OHSU then to Tigard via the Barbur TC and Tigard Triangle. Using that (and the Southwest SEP draft) as a starting point I would truncate the 8 to the Transit Mall, remove the 61, 64, 65, and 68. I’m not quite sure about the 66 and the C-Tran line. With the 4 lines removed, it would cut 56 total trips each day. Additionally, you could likely remove a few buses from the 8 if it ran a shorter route. I wonder how much could be saved each year from replacing those lines. And that’s before you look at the rest of the SWC.

        • You won’t be going to Tigard. The SWC, be it rail or BRT should terminate at PCC Cascade with a bus transfer facility at Capitol Highway and Barbur.

          The peak hour “9X” expresses would still run but base service riders from farther out the corridor would transfer to the BRT or LRT at the transfer facility.

          It’s what the voters of Tigard and Tualatin want, because they want to make it as inconvenient as possible to be carless in their cities. Let’s quit quarreling with them and let them have what they want.

          • I don’t think the SWC will be built without Tigard. It doesn’t matter if its LRT or BRT, the Barbur corridor on its own is not enough to justify HCT. It only makes sense if it can reach further into Washington County to give people a viable alternative to driving. If metro can create a good transit plan for the SWC, then why not have Tigard vote on it? We shouldn’t create a plan that excludes Tigard simply because a stupid law was passed by less than 200 votes in an election where less than 10,000 people voted.

          • “It’s what the voters of Tigard and Tualatin want, because they want to make it as inconvenient as possible to be carless in their cities. Let’s quit quarreling with them and let them have what they want.”

            It’s this attitude that stopped the CRC, and that is causing ALL of the neighboring cities to not want to deal with Metro, Trimet or Portland. The current proposed project is a joke and does little to solve the traffic issues in Tigard or Tualatin. The route looks like an intern drew it up and serves very few. Come up with a project that makes sense and the voters will support it. But this attitude that Portland can shove a poorly planned project down its neighbor’s throats needs to end.

            And PCC Cascades is in North Portland,

            • I’m curious–where instead do you think a rapid transit line should go? Down 99W to King City and possibly Sherwood? Across I-5 to Meridian Park? Further to the east, serving more of Lake Oswego instead of the Tigard Triangle?

              Or are you interested in a fundamentally different transit topology then a dedicated-ROW (hopefully) line running in only one corridor or two?

              Or are you interested in highway expansion rather than improvements to transit service?

              What would solve the traffic issues in Tualatin and Tigard?

            • Scotty – glad you asked since no one else in government is.

              I would propose one of two alternatives.

              Option 1: Red Line extension. Extend the Red Line down the WES tracks with a swing out to Washington Square and additional stations elsewhere where traffics warrants. This would connect Tigard AND Beaverton and provide quick access to Downtown Portland. I would run it along the WES tracks to Tualatin, probably ending it there. Or it could be extended to Wilsonville by running it down the center of I-5 from Tualatin.

              I realize this would do nothing for southwest Portland but this route would provide the best connectivity through the heart of the SW suburbs, connect them with the hubs of Beaverton and ending up in Downtown Portland.

              Option 2: Tunnel under OHSU all the way until Barbur & Terwilliger so that it can serve the university and avoid reducing capacity on Barbur. From there I would run it in the area between Barbur and I-5. Clear the area out and redevelop it with transit and mixed use developments. That’s the area of Barbur that needs the most amount of help. From Capital, I would run it in the dead area between I-5 and Barbur that’s on the other side of I-5 until the Tigard City limits. From there I would elevate it so that it runs behind the businesses on the north side of Pacific and then into the area of Pfaffle St, so that it can run on the east side of 217 in the undeveloped area between 217 and the Metzger area until Washington Square. From Washington Sq, I would run it on the WES tracks to Tigard and Tualatin.

              This would hit all the major areas of SW Portland, allow Barbur to continue function as a local alternative to I-5, serve Washington Square and provide for ample redevelopment opportunities.

              But hey, the transit developers would rather just ignore common sense.

            • We often discuss the prospect of upgrading the Beaverton-Washington Square-Tigard corridor with HCT (and no, WES doesn’t count).

              An interesting question regarding Barbur: You seem to view it as an important function of Barbur to act as a “backup” to I-5, if and when the freeway is slowed, whether due to ordinary traffic or due to an incident. And indeed, Barbur frequently “backs up” when this does occur; the road simply cannot handle the volume of traffic that I-5 can.

              This stretch of I-5 is probably the ONLY stretch of freeway in Portland that has a parallel “backup” street whose role is institutionally preserved. US 26 doesn’t. I-5 north doesn’t (and Interstate Ave intentionally saw a reduction of highway capacity when the Yellow Line was put in. I-84 doesn’t. OR217 doesn’t. Parallel streets like N. Interstate, NE MLK, NE Sandy, NE/SE 82nd Avenue, SW Borland Road, SW Hall Boulevard, and NW Cornell are designed to handle their own traffic nodes and serve the communities they pass through; not to handle overflow traffic from the nearby freeway; the suggestion that “we can’t put BRT on Hall north of Washington Square, because we need all four lanes in case OR217 shuts down” would NOT go over well.

              Why, other than the fact that ODOT still owns Barbur and still sees fit to hang a 99W banner upon it, should Barbur be treated any different?

            • When I-84 backs up, you have Burnside, Stark, Division, Sandy, Columbia, etc…

              When 26 backs up, you have Burnside, Beaverton-Hillsdale Hwy, I-5, Canyon Road. etc…

              When I-5 North backs up, you have Interstate, Willams/vancouver, MLK, Hwy 30/St. Johns Bridge, etc…

              When I-5 South backs up, you have maybe 26/217, an overloaded 47 and Barbur. Take Barbur out of the equation and you have nothing.

              The west side has far fewer options due to the geography than the east side does. The folks in Tigard know that removing lanes on Barbur will do far more far to them than just about any other option available.

            • You’re right of course. PCC Sylvania. My apologies.

              But I really don’t see why you say that facing political reality is what’s offending suburbanites and caused the cancellation of the CRC. That project was killed by the Washington State Senate dominated by rural Washington Republicans

              Many suburban voters feel that transit doesn’t fit their chosen lifestyles, so they don’t want to spend more money on it. That seems obvious to me.

              What is so wrong then with saying “OK, we’ll improve the system only where people want it improved and thereby hold the cost down. Your taxes will be smaller than if we extended improvements into your city or neighborhood, but the closer in parts of the city must have transit improvements in order to accommodate your visits.

              I agree that either of your proposals would be great ways to tie the Southwest Corridor together. But neither has a snowball’s chance in Hell of adoption in the current political climate. There’s a woman running for mayor of Tualatin on an explicit platform of seceding from Tri-Met. She’s a political novice, at least in terms of elected office, and who knows how well she’ll do tomorrow. But her vote total will be a very close proxy for how Tualatin will react to such a proposal.

  5. The Yellow and Orange MAX Lines got built largely due to intense local support, even demand. After the defeat of South/North in ’98, it took the effort of neighborhood activists to re-start the Interstate segment with a lower cost alignment. The Milwaukie corridor was studied at length by Metro after the defeat with every option EXCEPT light rail, until, again, neighborhood activists demanded it be put back into the mix. The comparison of comparably grade separated BRT and LRT was no contest…virtually the same capital costs and much lower operating costs for the latter.
    So what is SWC likely to get? Depends on what the residents and businesses down there want and how emphatically they let their desires be known. I would guess that OHSU would prefer LRT in a tunnel; not sure about PCC. I am pretty sure that the Multnomah community wants to be left out, but maybe Hillsdale is committed.
    The other issue in the BRT/LRT debate is how well each encourages denser development. MAX’s record is mixed, due in part to most alignments following freeways which are huge DIS-incentives to urban development. Streetcar has a much better record in this regard. A lot boils down to design.
    Maybe a look a Ottawa, Canada would be instructive…they are converting a successful BRT system to LRT largely due to need for greater capacity. Curitiba, Brazil went for BRT due to cost, but has made clear that as money is available they will upgrade to LRT. Tacking a BRT line onto our existing a extensive LRT system seems questionable from a riders and maintenance viewpoint. But upgrading the FS network with many BRT type features makes a whole lot of sense. Let’s do it!

    • Lenny,

      MAX has done very well reshaping the “Tech Corridor”. There are thousands of new units within its walkshed west of Beaverton TC.

  6. “I’m talking about rolling out BRT faster.”

    Simple. Start by banning the light rail and construction lobbyists from having any involvement in Metro and TriMet politics and operations. Let citizens reclaim those Boards.

    Then, we’ll see transit actually meet what people want, versus a corporate agenda that favors big businesses like Siemens over citizens.

    We could have had 10 different BRT lines in operation today, and be a true example of how to do transit right for the world. Instead, we have cut our bus system so much it’s an utter disgrace and a case study of how NOT to provide transit, while we have a light rail and streetcar system that is a corporate subsidy for developers along the lines that run from Portland making huge profits, while saddling Portlanders with high real estate costs and gridlock anywhere else.

    • “We could have had 10 different BRT lines in operation today, and be a true example of how to do transit right for the world.”

      Um, “No”. The only streets in Portland which might reasonably support BRT are MLK, Killingsworth east of about 28th, Powell, Division east of about 60th, 82nd, and Barbur. That’s five lines, because Powell and Division are so close together that it doesn’t make sense to have BRT on both of them.

      Now Interstate and McLaughlin Boulevard could have been used for BRT and in the case of Interstate the disruption to traffic would have been no greater than that for LRT.

      But for ALL of the other streets BRT will be or in the case of McLaughlin “would have been”, pilloried as part of the “War on Cars”!

      [Moderator: Personally-directed remarks removed–ES]

      “BRT”, it’s WONderful when Light Rail is on the agenda; other times, not so much.

      • Oh, I admit I forgot Burnside on the east side of town and Foster south of Powell. So there might conceivably be seven lines.


      • Scotty,

        You should have nuked the last sentence as well when you kicked the stuff about the never again to be named think tank of fair-weather BRT proponents. It doesn’t make much sense without the context of the previous set-up section.

  7. It is my view that LRT exists due to strong and steady public support over the last 30 years. BRT vs. LRT has been around from the beginning here in PDX. Originally, ODOT and TriMet proposed a “busway” in the Banfield alignment. Citizen advocates pushed for LRT and finally won that fight. Jim Howell, an occasional contributor here, knows the whole story. I only arrived back in my home town in mid ’86…it time to be one of a quarter million who turned out to ride the first LRT trains out to Gresham.
    In the late 80’s, voters in the TriMet district approved $200M in property tax bonds for the local match of the westside MAX line. As construction proceeded on that, planning was begun on a Vancouver-Clackamas line.
    In 1994 voters again approved a property tax bond, this time $400M for that line, but it was torpedoed by Clack county voters in ’95 and statewide, OR voters pulled state support.
    So TriMet went back to voters in ’98 for re-approval of the $400M tax increase, as the new proposal did not make it to Vancouver, and that lost by 2000 votes. “Yes” won in Portland by a 2 to 1 margin, however, giving leaders here a clear mandate. N. Portland community activists pushed for a lower cost version of the line to the north, demanding that it go at least to Expo Center. Local match came from the Interstate Urban Renewal District. And we got the Yellow Line up Interstate Avenue.
    Metro went back to the drawing board on the south corridor, studying all options except LRT. Neighborhood activists from SE Portland succeeded in getting LRT put back on the table and in the end it rose to the top…comparable construction costs, but lower operating costs, etc. The Green Line was built first at the insistence of Clackamas county commissioners, and now we are finally getting the Orange Line.
    So time and again, while planners and managers leaned toward the BRT option, decision makers were dissuaded by popular demand and/or voters approved bond measures, and Portland has an LRT network modeled on the very successful systems in medium sized German cities (except for the tunnel thru the city center.)
    What happens in the SW Corridor depends to a large extent on 1. comparable costs between the two options, both construction and operation; 2. community demands, and 3. willingness of TriMet voters to approve a bond measure for the local match. It will be interesting.
    All that said, I hope TriMet continues to improve the Frequent Service network with some of the same time savers used on full BRT systems.

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