Our Think Tank

Yesterday’s Oregonian had a nice piece in the Science section about the ITS (Intelligent Transportation Systems) lab at PSU.

The head of planning at Metro once called the lab “our region’s transportation think tank.”

Another competitive advantage for our region! Keep thinking, folks.

12 responses to “Our Think Tank”

  1. I sat thinking about this and went home and did some math.

    It’s really amazing how stuff like that pans out, and even more amazing how a measly 15-45 second delay will blowback on the entire system. It’s VERY apparent when it occurs with the MAX. Of course the positive loopback has to be stopped at the 3 minute interval (or whatever the latest FRA mandate is). So then you have a MAX that appears to just putter along and wait for no reason at stops.

    …I’ve always found this interesting and thought up many ways to resolve the problem. I’ve also made the mistake of actually attempting to tell someone how it works. It seems all to simple to me, but to many it’s far to complicated for them to muster the thought to figure it out.

  2. This positive feedback loop is precisely why MAX will not be able to run on the surface through Downtown for much longer than a decade or two. Eventually, the delays are going to ridiculously long for what is supposed to be a regional rail system. I know, I know, there’s not enough money to put rail underground. There’s also no money for a new Columbia Crossing, a Willamette crossing for southbound MAX, eastside Streetcar or any other major project. But amazingly, the money will appear. Why? Because those in charge make it a priority. How soon before Trimet, Metro, Portland and the area business communities realize that putting MAX in a tunnel is absolutely essential for our future mobility? Initially, MAX served as both a regional connector and a Downtown circulator. Now the streetcar fills the need for a Downtown circulator, so having MAX do the same thing is redundant. And shortsighted.
    The current talking points used by Hansen, Metro council, even Blumenauer, is “we don’t want to take away the vitality that MAX brings to our Downtown streets”. That’s a red herring because streetcars on the existing surface MAX tracks would be just as vital, and a much better mix with pedestrians and automobiles. Why do you want to slow the regional trains to a crawl, literally? I can WALK Morrison or Yamhill faster than the trains go.
    Twenty years ago, Metro said a central subway wouldn’t be necessary for another 25 years. Now they’re saying it won’t be necessary for another FIFTY years. In 2056?! Are you kidding me? Aren’t we supposed to be a progressive city? Why is everyone dropping the ball on this one?

  3. Dr. Traffic (aka Robert Bertini) and the rest of the PSU ITS lab do some great work. Not only the studies like the one mentioned in the article, but they also run the excellent and free siminar series.

    However, I think the article missed a factor that causes near-side stops to be bad: long queues. If the street is congested, the bus will approach the back of the line and wait for it to get going. When it finally gets to the intersection, the signal is green but it must stop to (de)board riders. By the time everyone is off/on, the signal is red and it has to wait for the next one. I want to say Hawthorne at 39th is a good example of this.

    Oh, and did Metro really say that a MAX tunnel should be built in 5 years? My view is that the money used for a 2nd surface route should go towards a tunnel.

  4. When MAX opened in 1986, planners at the time said that it would probably be 25 years before ridership and the network grew enough to need a subway. They said we would need 3 or 4 MAX lines before a subway would be necessary. Well, by all accounts, ridership has surpassed all early projections and a 4th line is opening in 2009. The excuses for postponing a subway have now been reduced to “it’s too expensive, and besides it’ll just ruin the vitality of our Downtown if we put MAX underground”. Both invalid arguments. NOT putting MAX in a subway is causing huge inefficiencies which over time will add up to huge monetary losses.

    Transit planners here are quick to cite how traffic jams on freeways cause millions of wasted man-hours, millions of gallons of gas wasted, etc., etc. But the same applies to time wasted on a crowded train inching its way through downtown. 10 minutes or more per passenger times a hundred thousand passengers every day adds up very quickly.

    We all know this is going to be a billion dollar project, but how much is it going to cost twenty years from now? Fifty years from now? And how many billions of dollars in wasted productivity will it cost us if we don’t build the subway now? We absolutely should be using the 200 million that they’re spending for another surface alignment and applying it to the subway. But that’s not going to happen as long as Trimet and Metro continue to put off the inevitible. How much is the sewer work (big pipe) costing Water Bureau customers? 5 billion? 10 billion? Whatever it is, we’re paying for it because it has to be done. Same goes for the subway, it has to be done. We just need someone at the top who will take charge and get it done, instead of fabricating excuses why we can wait for future generations to deal with it.

  5. Very nicely said. I was actually sitting across from the TriMet’s head(?) of operations on the bus and wished that I had asked how much money could be saved by not making MAX operators wait for red traffic signals (if you watch the trains (un)load, they get done before the signal cycle allows them to go). Also, I know that one of their reasons for putting MAX on the mall is that it has been the plan for decades. As you note, things (ie ridership) has changed since then.

    However, you do have to remember that there will probably always be trains waiting for traffic signals, assuming that streetcars would take over the present tracks if MAX was put underground.

  6. I am a subway skeptic. I like being out on the street when waiting for or riding MAX, and happily give up a few minutes for this pleasure.
    And I’m not sure, but its really only a few minutes, when you take into account the dwell time at stations…fewer stations, longer dwell times…, between station speed…if 10 blocks or so, trains can’t get up that much more speed…, access to stations…fewer stations mean longer walks, and more crowding.
    Someone should dig up the data on the number of westside riders who go to Rose Quarter and beyond and eastside riders who travel beyond Goose Hollow. Is it that many? But regardless, I am happy to see MAX come to the Mall and in no rush for a subway.

  7. That’s true, streetcars will still have to wait for traffic signals. But they’re meant to function in mixed traffic environments, so that’s not problematic. Regional MAX rail having to wait for traffic lights (and crowds of pedestrians crossing the tracks) is very problematic.

  8. Lenny Anderson Says:

    “but its really only a few minutes”

    Which in turn makes the MAX less competitive with a car option, makes the entire system throughput less than what it could be (by a decent margin), and for those that travel east to west across downtown pretty much makes it a non-useable option.

    From Lloyd center to Goose Hollow should take no more than 15 minutes, now it takes 22. That is a horrendous schedule when one has to make timely transit from one side of town to the other.

    I’m not complaining as I’m fortunate enough to make pretty much my own schedules but for thousands it makes the MAX a non-option for east west commuting, and I personnally know many people that would take it, but don’t, solely because of the extra 10 minutes it takes each day…

    …and remember a few minutes here and there by the end of the year == a LOT less family time, me time, do other things time.

  9. Reading the comments made me think… make a cut off switch at old town and around PGE park for the subway (or two other points of similar spacing) make one subway stop around Pioneer Square, and on all the stops between those two cut of switch points run a streetcar. It shouldn’t take but 2-3 vehicles and you’d have an easy way to dump everyone at Pioneer, make the downtown crossing about 10 minutes for the MAX instead of 22 minutes, and a Streetcar running circulator around Pioneer up to PGE and down to Old Town would be much more attractive, and simpler to operate probably then the hulking MAX trains…

    Just another one of those 8,000,000,000 ideas. :)

  10. Lenny,

    I understand the appeal of wanting to be outside as much as possible while downtown, we’re very fortunate to have such an attractive, pedestrian-friendly core. But if you’re just circulating around downtown, the streetcar gives you the same opportunity and would operate on all of the same surface tracks that you’re riding now. Regional rail, which MAX is designed to be, should not take more than 20 minutes to get from LLoyd Center to Goose Hollow. It should take less than 10 minutes. While stations would still be less than 10 blocks apart, travel times between stations will definitely decrease significantly. The trains rarely get above 10 mph along the current alignment because of cross traffic and pedestrians, whereas they could easily reach 20-30 mph in a tunnel, depending on station spacing. The dwell time at stations that you mentioned probably will decrease also because trains currently must wait additional time for lights to change. That wouldn’t be necesary in the subway.

    It’s great that you find more value in lingering and enjoying the sights while you’re downtown, but most people are simply commuting to and from their jobs or running errands during the day, and those extra minutes add up to more time away from family, less time to enjoy other activities (not that commuting isn’t a joy, mind you).

    There are also operational savings when trains are grade-separated. And the ability to have three or four-car consists doubles the capacity of the trains going through downtown.

  11. adron,

    You’re exactly right. With streetcar operations on the surface, there is less need for closely spaced MAX stations downtown. I would propose subway stops where they can connect to streetcars, like PSU, Pioneer, West End, Union Station, etc. (assuming streetcars run on the existing MAX surface tracks).

  12. To make the case for a faster trip through downtown, you need the number of through trips vs. downtown trips. Many times I have noted that a Hillsboro BlueLine train will leave Rose Quarter not even 1/4 full; it will add riders at every station from Old Town/China Town on, so that when it enters the tunnel it is crammed.
    For most of those riders, a subway would be to little advantage as they travel only part way through downtown. Indeed with a subway, they would have to walk longer distances to stations, wait in more crowded below ground platforms, etc., all inorder to save a couple of minutes.
    But whatever we think, someday the subway in some form will come, and the Mall and CrossMall Streetcar lines will be a lot of fun.

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