The Tyranny of Absolutes

There’s been a lot of buzz online about TriMet’s decision to end service for the #15 on Thurman St., routing the bus to Montgomery Park instead. Steve Duin of the Oregonian has the best piece I’ve seen on the decision.

I’m saddened. Like almost everyone else who has held the position of chair of the Transportation Committee in NW Portland (the NWDA neighborhood) I was called on to defend the need for this service during my tenure. So let’s be clear, it’s no surprise that the turnaround required a movement that is not allowed by TriMet’s operations manual – this is and was well known. Nonetheless, each time this was evaluated, that fact was set aside because of the value of the service to the route’s riders and the neighborhood.

I certainly appreciate TriMet’s recently renewed and enhanced emphasis on safety. But even setting aside TriMet’s utter lack of notice to the neighborhood, I can’t support this decision.

This is fundamentally a risk/benefit analysis. What TriMet is essentially saying is “we’ve increased the standard for what kind of risks we’ll accept, and this doesn’t pass muster” (my words, not theirs).

But what’s missing in that approach are two factors:

1) We have ample history hereto measure the risks, and they appear to be very, very low, even if the movement is sensibly prohibited as standard procedure.

2) The benefit of the service, for which there are no reasonable alternatives.

I’m always leery of any decision process where one factor in the analysis swamps all other consideration.

In this case application of an absolute rule without analysis in context is not appropriate.

45 Comments

45 Responses to The Tyranny of Absolutes

  1. Dave H
    August 22, 2010 at 7:32 pm Link

    I live along a portion of the discontinued route, and saw bus 2614 take the turn down Thurman early today. I think even the drivers are confused by this.

    Really though, it makes sense. I’ve seen some near misses near the turnaround, and it makes trip planning from the NW neighborhood near Montgomery Park a lot easier. No more worrying that a bus would come to 26th and Thurman before 26th and Vaughn. I’d rather have all three lines in this area (15, 17, 77) using the same stops in this neighborhood.

  2. EngineerScotty
    August 23, 2010 at 8:44 am Link

    While nobody’s come out and said it, reading some of the criticism of the move “between the lines” seems to suggest that some think TriMet had motives other than safety for this decision. (i.e. it’s a money-saving service cut, using safety as political cover).

    Any though given to alternatives? My proposal would be to create a new line, which starts at PGE Park (where one can transfer to MAX or one of several other bus lines), takes 18th/19th to Thurman, and then heads up into the hills to the turnaround. And operate it with the paratransit vehicles. This line would be a short enough line that you don’t need a full 40′ bus, and the smaller vehicles, I would think, would alleviate the safety concerns. And add service to 18th/19th.

  3. Carter
    August 23, 2010 at 9:45 am Link

    Using a smaller bus would also put less strain on the Thurman Street bridge.

  4. billb
    August 23, 2010 at 11:11 am Link

    Carter , Amen , I always thought that bridge should not be under that kind of loading. If you ever happened to be on it while a bus went over , yikes!

  5. Chris Smith
    August 23, 2010 at 11:20 am Link

    The challenge of course is that the line runs from Gateway to NW, and in the center of the route, the larger bus is definitely necessary. Changing buses mid-route is a logistical impossibility.

    I think Scotty is correct, unless you create a new route that made sense for a smaller bus, I’m not sure how you arrange service with a smaller vehicle. And we haven’t seen TriMet adding new bus routes recently…

  6. Reza
    August 23, 2010 at 12:26 pm Link

    This may seem like a dumb question, but why can’t TriMet run the service here as a loop using Thurman, 34th Ave, Franklin Court, and 32nd Ave? That way they avoid doing the U-turn, only .2 miles of Thurman lose service, while the entire stretch between 23rd and 32nd isn’t shafted?

  7. Douglas K.
    August 23, 2010 at 12:45 pm Link

    For that matter, Tri-Met could run ALL #15 buses up the loop Reza suggested, then back down Thurman to 27th, then over to Montgomery Park. And then return along 27th to Thurman, and then back to 23rd. #15 would still serve the neighborhood, just not all the way to Forest Park.

    It’s not like they didn’t have options to wiping out service to an entire neighborhood.

  8. Dave H
    August 23, 2010 at 1:56 pm Link

    Reza, I like the idea, but the hills are so steep and narrow I don’t think a full size bus could handle it. In a large pickup it’s a close call driving up that way, especially on 34th. I don’t think they could use 34th at all, which somewhat eliminates that option.

    Douglas: 27th is not a two way street and I doubt the neighborhood would support changing it back to two way. The route would have to go back to 26th, make a left without a traffic light, then backtrack along Vaughn or go to 25th to get a traffic light.

    It’s really not effecting service for anyone east of 28th as it is, since all the buses that would have done the Thurman route now just go to Montgomery Park.

    Also as someone who uses the 15 a bit, it’s definitely been easier to know that the next bus will be on Vaughn than needing to remember two transit tracker stop ID’s, calling twice to check which one will be faster, etc.

  9. Jason McHuff
    August 23, 2010 at 3:27 pm Link

    Here’s a topographic map of the Thurman/32nd-34th area.

    Also, they were only 15 minutes late with their RSS (and e-mail) alert.

    As for making a separate Thurman St route, the entire Line 15 schedule would need to be redone so those trips turn around early and an operator(s) can be freed for the new route. Also, remember that NW 23rd might need full-size buses, though the streetcar (it appears) has taken away a lot of ridership.

    Lastly, given the range of operators that might end up on the 15, that the bus destination signs still say “Thurman St”, and the internal documents that need to be changed, it might a little bit until no buses go up Thurman.

  10. poncho
    August 23, 2010 at 10:55 pm Link

    what about signs at thurman and gordon that say ‘caution – stop when bus maneuvering’?

    theyve been doing this since 1950 when the WH streetcar closed.

    obviously one wouldnt work here but were there ever off-street bus terminus loops in portland? you know those places that some cities have designed for buses to layover and turnaround off the street?

  11. Lenny Anderson
    August 24, 2010 at 9:00 am Link

    Maybe we just need to extend Streetcar out NW 23rd and up NW Thurman like in the old days. No need to turn around, operators just walk to the other end of the car. Is NW Thurman and Willamette Heights ready for much higher density to support that?

  12. al m
    August 24, 2010 at 9:31 am Link

    The best part of that editorial was Steve McCarthy’s comments.

    That made the point crystal clear, “trashing” was the term he used I believe.

    There was no real danger in that 3 point turn, I did it a million times.

    The only danger was some idiot might come barreling down that hill by bike or car.

    If everybody was using common sense, (something that no longer applies to our societal standards) then there was absolutely no danger in the turn.

    Personally I think its a damn shame and the type of reaction we see around here constantly.

    {The blogger known as “Al M” does not now, nor has he ever, represented Trimet, Trimet bus drivers, or ATU 757.
    The thoughts, opinions, ideas, and body odor are of myself; they does not reflect the thoughts, opinions, ideas, and/or body odor of my company, my friends, my neighbors, my fish, my roses, my dog, or my trash. All rights reserved, all lefts reserved.}

  13. Jason Barbour
    August 24, 2010 at 10:46 am Link

    It’s not like they didn’t have options to wiping out service to an entire neighborhood.
    This happens all the time these days. For more information, see Route 157. Or Route 44-King City (No, that’s not a typo, the current 44-Capitol Highway/Mocks Crest is a totally different route).
    Except now the reason isn’t “low ridership and/or availability of service nearby.”

    Is NW Thurman and Willamette Heights ready for much higher density to support that? (A revival/rebuild of a streetcar route that hasn’t run since 1950?)
    I’ll take a wild guess that there was less density in that neighborhood in the 1940s when the streetcar ran than there is now. Portland had only about 374,000 people in 1950 according to that year’s U.S. Census figures.

  14. Reza
    August 24, 2010 at 10:51 am Link

    From TriMet:

    TriMet recently discontinued Line 15 bus service from NW 23rd Avenue along NW Thurman to the intersection of NW Thurman and Gordon. This abrupt change was made in response to the agency’s comprehensive safety review. On Friday, August 13, TriMet was informed by the Transit Police Division that by making operators reverse the bus in the intersection of N.W. Gordon and N.W. Thurman, we were requiring them to make a maneuver that is unsafe and illegal. Once this became clear, TriMet determined that the appropriate decision was to adjust the route to eliminate the illegal movement.

    TriMet deeply regrets the lack of notice given to the riders of the Line 15 when the service on Thurman was discontinued. Due to the heightened sensitivity about safety, our staff took immediate action to correct an unsafe situation. Our normal procedures call for public notice. In this case normal procedures were not followed and for this we are very sorry.

    TriMet is exploring options for alternatives that would mitigate the loss of service. This includes a review of the Thurman/Gordon intersection with the City of Portland traffic engineer and the Transit Police Division to see if there are safety mitigations which would allow the route to return. As an alternative, TriMet has mapped out other routing possibilities for this portion of Line 15.

    TriMet will host an Open House on Thursday, August 26th at Friendly House to talk to riders and neighbors about alternatives. Friendly House in located at 1737 NW 26th Avenue (corner of NW 26th & Thurman). The Open House will provide an opportunity to get information about why this decision was made and to provide feedback on the options being considered.

    http://trimet.org/meetings/line15-openhouse.htm

  15. Dave H
    August 24, 2010 at 11:12 am Link

    Is NW Thurman and Willamette Heights ready for much higher density to support that?

    I highly doubt it. The neighborhood was pretty opposed to the Conway site getting redeveloped, I can’t imagine they’d want that scale of development even closer to them.

    Did the streetcar go past the streetcar barn at 28th back then anyway?

  16. Tim Walsh
    August 24, 2010 at 12:27 pm Link

    Dave –

    The Willamette Heights streetcar, one of the last three in the city to be decommissioned (23rd Ave. and Council Crest were the other two) always went all the way up to Thurman and Gordon.

    Check out these maps from the great “Portland Vintage Trolleys” website:
    1912: http://mysite.ncnetwork.net/res130s1r/1912Map.html
    1933: http://mysite.ncnetwork.net/res130s1r/1933Map.html

    Also this street-by-street guide to every active line in 1937:
    http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~ormultno/Directories/1937pittmon/streetcar.htm

  17. AL M
    August 24, 2010 at 12:46 pm Link

    Also this street-by-street guide to every active line in 1937:
    http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~ormultno/Directories/1937pittmon/streetcar.htm

    Way cool!

  18. AL M
    August 24, 2010 at 12:54 pm Link

    I’ll tell ya this much, I can’t wait to see what comes out of all this hysteria about safety.

    I bet we get a bunch of rules and regs that have nothing to do with the actual accident that caused all this mess.

    This is a 9/11 event for us, one event has sparked a cataclysm of other non related events.

    They have people working six and seven days a week, 12 hours a day and yet have the nerve to talk safety?

    It’s freaking hilarious from my point of view.

    If you watch the first safety meeting you will see reference made to the HR department.

    Who are you hiring? How are they getting through the training? What is the work environment?

    Golly gee whiz, it seems so simple to me, why is it so complicated to all the big shots?

    (al m does not represent trimet blah blah blah etc etc etc)

  19. EngineerScotty
    August 24, 2010 at 1:38 pm Link

    Al,

    Is the overtime you allude to mandatory? Or are people volunteering to work >60 hour weeks?

  20. AL M
    August 24, 2010 at 2:19 pm Link

    Right now its voluntary, but on many routes it is required.

    Looks like things are gonna change in September however, not that many 12 hour runs left.

    Used to be the rule, not the exception Scotty.

  21. Lenny Anderson
    August 24, 2010 at 2:42 pm Link

    I would guess that there is less density than in the 1940s. When I grew up in a small 3 plus bedroom, 1 bath house in Multnomah…there were six of us. Now I live with my wife in a comparable house…at 1/3 the density. Not uncommon.
    Here’s a possible Streetcar route. from the east side across the Burnside Bridge (great views!), then up the new westside couplet to 18th/19th (keeping things calm); north on that couplet to Conway site (high density housing regardless of what NWDA wants) where it would jog over to Thurman, then up Thurman (past Food Front, Friendly House, etc.) and over the bridge to Willamette Heights. Sounds like fun!

  22. EngineerScotty
    August 24, 2010 at 4:00 pm Link

    Ignoring the cost of running a Streetcar there–can the bridge handle the weight?

  23. Reza
    August 24, 2010 at 11:14 pm Link

    @Lenny:

    That sounds just like the Burnside-Sandy “concept streetcar corridor” highlighted in the Streetcar System Plan: west on Sandy, west on Burnside across the river to 18th/19th and then north to the Conway site. A westerly extension to Montgomery Park via Thurman is listed as a future phase “comprehensive plan streetcar corridor”.

    http://www.portlandonline.com/transportation/index.cfm?c=49304&a=252726

  24. EngineerScotty
    August 25, 2010 at 2:38 pm Link

    It looks like Thurman service is coming back:

    http://trimet.org/news/releases/aug25-line15.htm

  25. poncho
    August 26, 2010 at 12:16 am Link

    i had a feeling they would do something like this.

    instead of expecting people to just use caution around a difficult maneuver or obey a sign, thanks to a concern of frivolous lawsuits and a lack of any expectation of personal responsibility, our society has to go to ridiculous extreme measures… in this case, going to the extent of an expensive labor intensive process of stationing flaggers at the intersection for a bus movement every 20 minutes.

  26. al m
    August 26, 2010 at 10:55 am Link

    $2100 a to have a flagger turn a bus around a few times a day?

    Well, at least its “privatized” right, so that actual flagger will get no benefits of course.

    That alone should make some of you happy.

  27. al m
    August 26, 2010 at 10:59 am Link

    It always amazes me how in the middle of the worst recession since the great depression
    Trimet always seems to be able to find money for whatever it finds important at the moment.

  28. EngineerScotty
    August 26, 2010 at 12:29 pm Link

    Here’s a question for y’all…

    If this were the 19 through Felony Flats and up Mt. Scott that got black-flagged…. would we be having such an about-face?

  29. Cora Potter
    August 26, 2010 at 12:50 pm Link

    Scotty –

    The answer is no.

  30. Dave H
    August 26, 2010 at 4:57 pm Link

    I completely agree with Cora. Oddly, of the two people in the neighborhood I’ve heard complain about it, neither one rides the bus. One even said “I won’t ride it, but it should serve us up here.”

  31. EngineerScotty
    August 26, 2010 at 5:03 pm Link

    Gotta make sure the maid gets to work on time…

  32. Dave Hogan
    August 26, 2010 at 5:32 pm Link

    A number of repetitive questions and answers, a few good ones, but the spotters have been explained as temp until a permanent solution can be designed and installed.

    I’m surprised by the turnout.

  33. Dave Hogan
    August 26, 2010 at 5:44 pm Link

    The turnaround issue was just explained as not having state law complient (500 feet each direction) view lines, meaning if an accident occurs there it’s automatic liability.

  34. Cameron Johnson
    August 26, 2010 at 7:40 pm Link

    Frankly, it doesn’t affect me. And to be honest, as an impressionably Autistic 14 year old who rode the route during the snow on a trip to get a bus pass, that 3-point turn scared the crap out of me. I don’t think that the bus should get too far up, maybe a loop at NW 32nd avenue onto Vaughn, down 31st and back to Thurman. Or Maybe going south on NW 34th, onto Franklin and NW 32nd and back to 27th to layover. That last one is a pretty steep uphill drive, so I’m not sure.

  35. Dave H
    August 26, 2010 at 8:20 pm Link

    Cameron, nothing west of NW 26th directly connects Vaughn to Thurman, so the 32nd routing you suggested isn’t possible.

    Things I learned tonight at the meeting (I had to duck out early so I hope I didn’t miss any) were that the community seems to care about the bus, even if we don’t use it much. (Neil even joked that he hopes everyone at the meeting will show up and ride the route once it’s fixed.)

    A commentator mentioned the Thurman bus needs to be replaced. He was long-winded, but basically said we should extend the current streetcar back up Thurman and replace the 15 altogether. (I believe he was a park ranger.)

    It sounds like what happened was TriMet realized they were liable if an accident happened, so they dropped the route to avoid that. It’ll be back with flaggers (or spotters, as Neil said he’s been told to call them), then a temp solution, then a hopefully permanent solution to the problem that is fully automated (think flashing lights that only are on when a bus is present.)

    Overall, I’d give Neil an A+ on the solution, and only a B on execution. There’s not much more TriMet could do to continue the route since they were in violation of state law about how U-turns have to operate.

  36. Cameron Johnson
    August 26, 2010 at 9:15 pm Link

    Actually, Thurman resumes between 31st and 32nd avenues after Wardway. Googlemaps said so, and I, for one trust anything Google has to offer.

    All in all, good commentary. I really hope they will do SOMETHING to the route.

  37. Dave H
    August 26, 2010 at 10:32 pm Link

    Cameron, you are correct. I mistook the loop you were describing.

  38. al m
    August 27, 2010 at 9:36 am Link

    If your interested in watching the actual meeting we have some of it on video HERE!

  39. Cameron Johnson
    August 27, 2010 at 3:58 pm Link

    If TriMet is even gonna consider making changes on the 15, they got a whole lot of bus routes to look at.

    Like line 9 Broadway. A good portion of that route is on NE 27th. This street is your typical suburban backstreet, only line 9 follows it between Skidmore and Dekum, about a mile and a half. And let’s not forget that snake turn on Killingsworth. It’s not safe.

    And Line 28. Sure, that route is less frequent, but it runs on SE 49th, Rockwood and Howe. These are the epitome of Suburban Streets. Look it up on Googlemaps on Street View. It should not host a bus!

    And line 152 is a boondoggle similar to this one. It runs to the Challenge Center International, a place needed for the disable to access. Problem is, there is no official stop, the bus goes up a steep driveway into a Plaid-Pantry-Size parking lot, and actually U-turns in that tiny parking lot, and goes back out the driveway.

  40. Cameron Johnson
    August 27, 2010 at 3:59 pm Link

    If TriMet is even gonna consider making changes on the 15, they got a whole lot of bus routes to look at.

    Like line 9 Broadway. A good portion of that route is on NE 27th. This street is your typical suburban backstreet, only line 9 follows it between Skidmore and Dekum, about a mile and a half. And let’s not forget that snake turn on Killingsworth. It’s not safe.

    And Line 28. Sure, that route is less frequent, but it runs on SE 49th, Rockwood and Howe. These are the epitome of Suburban Streets. Look it up on Googlemaps on Street View. It should not host a bus!

    And line 152 is a boondoggle similar to this one. It runs to the Challenge Center International, a place needed for the disable to access. Problem is, there is no official stop, the bus goes up a steep driveway into a Plaid-Pantry-Size parking lot, and actually U-turns in that tiny parking lot, and goes back out the driveway. There are plenty more, but too many to mention. There are some real unsafe routings in the system.

  41. Cameron Johnson
    August 27, 2010 at 4:00 pm Link

    Just would like to reitterate my hate for double posting and the fact that I do so by accident constantly. >_>

  42. Dave H
    August 28, 2010 at 10:29 pm Link

    If your interested in watching the actual meeting we have some of it on video HERE!

    That wasn’t you filming, was it? If that was you sorry I didn’t recognize you. I’m the guy in the green shirt in the background of the still frame. (I had to sneak out early.)

    Cameron, Neil did mention that they have other lines that they’re considering changes to, and that the review isn’t done. When they got to the 15 there was a fatal flaw that they could not manage to fix without a huge liability issue. It may help to bring these up to the TriMet comments email address so they can address them with less inconvenience to riders than happened this time.

  43. al m
    August 29, 2010 at 11:17 am Link

    That wasn’t you filming, was it?

    No Dave, that was Jason Mchuff.

  44. Jason McHuff
    August 30, 2010 at 12:20 am Link

    I was looking for people I knew but didn’t recognize any. I guess Chris can be forgiven since he was on vacation like Neil was (August seems to be vacation month).

    Also, I don’t know how much of it I missed, as I thought it would be an informal drop-in event like many “Open Houses” are. But I was surprised to see Neil there and leading it. Overall, I think that they are really trying to correct the problem.

    And at least for those who aren’t elderly, etc (which a lot of the meeting attendees did seem to be) its not like the next serviced bus stop is a mile away down a busy suburban road that may lack sidewalks.

  45. Jason McHuff
    August 30, 2010 at 12:26 am Link

    Lastly, I think TriMet is self-insured, but even if the police allowed the turn, word could get out and people could go crashing into the bus knowing that they could not be held accountable.

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