Trackless in Portland: Where’s My Bus?

As an occasional transit rider, using the system isn’t completely intuitive for me. Any time I don’t know when the next bus is coming is a moment when I might get frustrated and give up.That’s why the new technologies TriMet has been implementing have made the system a lot easier to use, which makes me more likely to use (and enjoy) transit.


As an occasional transit rider, using the system isn’t completely intuitive for me. Any time I don’t know when the next bus is coming is a moment when I might get frustrated and give up and get back on my bike. That’s why the new technologies TriMet has been implementing have made the system a lot easier to use, which makes me more likely to use (and enjoy) transit.

Real-time displays at bus stops and on the web that let me know exactly when the next bus or train will arrive are fantastically useful tools that make the system work. (And, of course, there are those who are yet more cutting-edge, who want to unplug the system and be able to track real-time arrivals with wi-fi.)

Making the connection between between the schedule and the real live bus makes a real difference even when things are moving smoothly and basically according to schedule. But what happens to these systems when everything goes haywire?

Tonight was a good test of the system. Portland shuts down when it snows, and even the Commissioner of Transportation strongly recommends that citizens take transit instead of driving. It’s not impossible to ride a bike in the snow, but even in Portland biking drops a fair amount when the ground is white.

So, if transit is the best, if not only, way to get around today, how do you figure out if and how transit is going to work for you in the face of necessary delays and service changes?

I had the chance to test out how TriMet’s emergency information services were doing today. My sister was over for a visit, and while she was here it snowed. Biking back home was not an option, so we checked the TriMet web site to look for detours or delays. The closest bus line had delays, but there was no notice of anything out of the ordinary with the next route south.

We used Transit Tracker to find when the next bus should arrive, and it was coming in a half an hour, so I bundled her up against the cold, and sent her out in the cold world to walk a good long stretch to Hawthorne. She waited and waited at the stop, but even though multiple buses came in the other direction, no bus ever arrived. She had to walk home.

To my mind, this is a failure of the system. If we had known that our route was cancelled or severely delayed, she could have walked home from the get-go, stayed over, or taken a cab instead of waiting for an hours for a bus that never came. Even better would have been if we could have actually known when it made sense for her to leave the house and wait in the cold, because we could be sure a bus would arrive soon after. Luckily for my sister, she could walk a few miles home, but not everyone will be in that position.

I say all this with a great deal of sympathy and respect for TriMet’s engineers, operators, and administrators. I know they’re doing their best out there. But it seems to me that the real-time information and the reliability of the web site are more important in a crisis situation than ever. Take pity on those of us who will be waiting in the cold for that phantom bus this morning, and please just tell us if that bus will really arrive.

If not, I’m staying home.


11 responses to “Trackless in Portland: Where’s My Bus?”

  1. Our transit tool, the Transit Surfer was equally useless, because we rely on TriMet’s data. (In fact, we got the chance to debug trapping the exception conditions for storms last night.)

    My understanding is that the TriMet’s prediction algorithm becomes less accurate the further behind schedule the bus is.

    I can understand that, but it also seems reasonable to me that you could fall back to something less accurate. Even if you just reported the current position of the next vehicle, it would be more useful than having no information at all.

  2. I had a similar experience this AM, but via the Touch Tone “transit tracker” system.

    Thinking that I could go into a café and stay warm until the bus was a few minutes away, I called the number posted on my bus stop. The TriMet line told me that buses aren’t running on their normally-scheduled times,” and gave me NO information re. when the bus would actually arrive.

    My understanding of “Transit Tracker” was that the buses are GPS-equipped, so if I punched in the Transit Tracker number, it would tell me approximately when to expect the bus, even if it was running 20 minutes late (which, given the circumstances, wouldn’t have been surprising).

    But instead of telling me when to expect the bus, it told me that the busses aren’t running on their normal schedules. That left me no option but to wait in the slush — and the wait was very long.

  3. Greetings all- Great to read folks observations about weather impacted
    transit. Yep it gets pretty nasty and it will be great when
    up-to-the-minute information will be readily available at your stop or
    station. Cultural differences not withstanding, TriMet is trying to develop
    the ability to provide real time information (and without advertising or
    bikini images) throughout the whole system. The agency-wide effort is in
    the planning, and testing stages. But it will take some time before its
    in-place, and will most likely work its way from the most active
    stops/stations (or stops of special importance).
    Just so you know… real time arrival information is normally available (or
    will be soon) at all stops/stations via 238-ride’s transit tracker. In
    extreme weather when routes get shifted to ‘Snow Routes’ it throws the
    tracker system for a loop rendering it un-available. On ‘fixed routes’
    (such as light rail) this isn’t so much a problem (although ice can still
    mess things up).
    This is little comfort when we all need our transit system to provide
    reliable service in extreme weather conditions. But TriMet does listen, and
    does care deeply about improving its service. We’re working to improve.
    Bob Hastings

    Robert Hastings, AIA
    Project Architect
    710 NE Holladay Street
    Portland, OR 97232
    (503) 962-2128

  4. As a long time bus rider, I just know that everything is up for grabs with ice & snow!
    So I walked to a corner where two lines run, figuring either could do the trick. I just missed a 33, so I figured maybe a 9 would come; but no, another 33 showed up..Bingo!
    I hoped off at Albina/Mississippi just as an 85 to Swan Island was approaching; so I broke all the rules and scampered across two lanes of traffic and the MAX tracks and was on board.
    Now I read that the 85 is not running! But I rode it and saw its “mate” 8501. So what’s up? Did they take the 85s and put them into service as shuttles on the Eastside MAX? That’s my guess.
    What a mess.
    But the worst was yesterday afternoon. My brother arrived at PDX and rode in with our sister via MAX, then waited for bus southbound on the Mall. Nothing came, so they walked the mile to my Dad’s place, and were not passed by a single bus!
    What’s up?

  5. Fortunately, the Hawthorne line was running on-time this morning (or at least at 7:20 it was). I was still a block away from my stop on 27th when I saw a bus go by. The next one came along in about 5 minutes, so I was a happy bus rider.

    As an aside; it’s interesting to me how dependent we become on information tools as they become available and how frustrating it is when they aren’t available for some reason. My wife and I just moved last week and our DSL wasn’t set up properly, so we’ve been mooching off the neighbor’s wi-fi for a couple of days now. It’s a poor connection though and it’s been a bit of a hassle not to have a solid internet connection. Still, we somehow manage to survive! :)

    Of course, that’s not the same as freezing your buns off waiting for a bus that may be 2 minutes or 2 hours away and you have no way of knowing how long you’ll wait…

  6. I have been reading all day that the 85 Swan Island is not running! But I rode 8502 to the Island around 8am, and saw 8501 with my own eyes!
    Later I watched them both come by Anchor Street, and then rode 8502 to Rose Quarter.
    The TriMet website still indicates (1:25pm) that they are not running to Swan Island…where else would they go?
    I just got a call from the employer on Passport wondering where the 85 is…they were checking the website; all I could tell them is that they appear to running as normal.
    TriMet has got to get its winter weather act together!

  7. TriMet has announced that eastside MAX will run at about every 6 minutes overnight. Will they be taking passengers? That would be cool.

  8. Yes…I too used the snow and ice event to test the transit tracker system too…for the 72 and 6 routes on Sunday night. I was not impressed.

    I knew my paper schedules would be useless – other than for starting a fire while waiting…so I whipped out my new web phone and surfed the Trimet site. It was puzzeling that no information was provided…since I thought the system’s GPS technology would be a big help in providing on the fly estimates. (Perhaps I know too much but not enough about the system.)

    I lucked out on my bus from Alberta – a 5 minute wait vs. the 50 minute wait for the older lady who was also at our stop.

    I gave up on the the chance of the #6 not coming so I jumped on the Yellow line (2 minutes) and walked home to Vancouver from Expo – a very nice snowy walk for 3 miles (50 minutes) vs. the dread of waiting an hour for a bus.

  9. I too made the logical assumption that the storm would be an especially useful time to use transit tracker. In fact, my co-worker e-mailed me the transit tracker for his stop near Canyon Road to point out that there were no busses running in his neighborhood, therefore he would not be coming into the office.

    It is interesting that our dependence upon this tool has even caused a loss of production at some of our work places because we are so reliant on its accuracy.

    Me personally–? I didn’t want to deal with standing waiting for late buses and like Chris’ partner, jumped in my SUV to get to work on Monday… yes call it a sin, but it sure was a convenient and quick luxury that I enjoyed. I love getting to work in the 15 minutes instead of the 25 by bike and 35 by bus that it normally takes me. :)

    I suppose if I had those studded bicycle tires my friends used to talk about when I was growing up in Montana I would have been ok. …or the North Portland Willamette GREENWAY from the East Side Esplanade to St. Johns–then all I would have had to worry about was other cyclists or pedestrians sliding into me rather than out of control motorists… But both the studded bicycle tires and the North Portland GREENWAY will remain in my dreams until they become a reality on another day.

  10. So…. I was reminded of this old post when the MAX trains again stopped running due to cold weather yesterday. How does the LRT run all winter in Minneapolis? I don’t understand why our system so utterly fails everytime we get cold weather or snow. Is it just because it doesn’t happen enough? Anyone care to comment?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *