A discussion of ways to improve the speed of transit downtown–and a discussion as to whether that should be a priority.
A common subject which appears in the comments here at Portland Transport is along the lines of the following:
“Why don’t they build a subway downtown?”
Other questions and comments frequently get at the same point: Portland’s transit system, particularly MAX, moves slowly through the downtown area. While MAX is frequently time-competitive with driving for trips involving downtown, especially when the alternative involves having to pay to park, a common criticism is that it is far less for competitive for crosstown or suburb-to-suburb trips.
Hence today’s discussion.
Various solutions to this problem have been proposed and discussed, and the downtown subway is one that Metro has taken a good look at. The High Capacity Transit Plan (pdf here) is a long-range planning document for rapid transit, written in 2008 and incorprated into the Regioanl Transportaion Plan in 2010. The HCT plan focuses mainly on corridors within the Oregon side of the Portland metro area, but does take a look at two proposals for improving cross-town trip performance and/or system capacity. Starting from Page 44:
The public, jurisdictional staff and elected officials requested that the Regional HCT System Plan evaluate options for improving operating speed of MAX through downtown Portland. The plan conducted an analysis of two options for improving travel speeds through downtown:
- An east-west tunnel from Lloyd Center/Northeast 11th Avenue station to Goose Hollow/Southwest Jefferson station with a single station located in the vicinity of Pioneer Courthouse Square. The tunnel would save approximately 12 minutes of travel time for passengers traveling from the Lloyd Center to Goose Hollow or beyond and allow for longer train sets not constrained by downtown block widths.
- An eastside bypass from the future OMSI station to Interstate Rose Quarter station. This bypass would save approximately 10 minutes for approximately 4 percent of passengers traveling north-south past the central city.
The analysis concluded that construction of a downtown bypass or tunnel does improve travel speed but at the expense of superior access to employment and households in downtown provided by an at-grade, convenient alignment. This analysis also concluded that the operational need to meet projected demand can be met with the existing surface alignments on Southwest Morrison and Yamhill streets and on the Portland Mall. Downtown employment constitutes a high enough percentage of regional employment that diminished accessibility due to a single station is not outweighed by optimizing transit travel speed through the downtown. Direct service is measured by walk access of a half mile. The total estimated capital cost to construct the downtown tunnel as described is $2.2 billion in 2009 dollars. More stations could be built, but the travel time savings would be correspondingly less, diminishing returns for what would be one of the most expensive projects ever built in the region.
The section concludes:
Other surface running options for enhancing MAX travel speed through downtown will be considered by the City of Portland in the Central City Plan; these may prove to be the most cost-effective improvements and to best match regional land use and growth management goals. Simply eliminating one or two tightly spaced stations, providing bypass tracks for express trains on Southwest Morrison and Yamhill streets, or adding a separate express alignment on another couplet in downtown could all improve travel speed through the central city at a minimal cost when compared with tunneling.
In other words, the planning staff at Metro doesn’t view such a project as worth it, either in the near term. One of the stated justifications for a tunnel–the two-car limit on MAX trains imposed by downtown city blocks–is not currently a system bottleneck, and the vast majority of the trips taken on MAX begin or end downtown–and thus might be inconvenienced by such an arrangement. The report does neglect to discuss what becomes of the existing tracks–whether they continue to operate (either as Streetcar lines, with transfers at Goose Hollow and Lloyd center, or as MAX lines with express and local branches diverging at these stations).
The Metro report does mention a few other possibilities, and there have been additional proposals from elsewhere.
- Removing stations. As noted below, there is an average of 1500 feet between stations in the stretch between Rose Quarter and Goose Hollow–that’s a station every 6 blocks. There are several examples of adjacent stops even closer than that–the
PGE ParkJen-Weld Field and King Street stations are probably the most notorious examples; and station spacing is closer to 1000 feet between the stadium and Old Town. All stops, of course, have constituencies, and many of them were essentially political preconditions for getting the line built, but if the right arms could be twisted, there is opportunity for addition by subtraction.
- Limited grade separation. There’s a few stretches where a limited amount of grade-separation of the current alignment, say a cheap viaduct or a cut-and-cover tunnel, could offer significant operational improvements; a common area where this is often proposed is the Yamhill/Morrison couplet between 3rd and 12th. (The skybridges and tunnels crossing Yamhill for Pioneer Place would be problematic, however). Separation of the line from the street would eliminate cross traffic and pedestrian hazard, and permit faster speeds; particularly if a few stops were removed. A bigger advantage to such a project would be the ability to avoid the at-grade crossings of the transit mall and the Streetcar line, which are notorious bottlenecks in the system and a frequent source of delay (and as discussed in another thread, a common reason why busses and trains downtown often don’t wait for passengers).
- A separate express surface alignment. A good idea in theory; but one which founders on the rocks in practice when one asks the simple question “where”? I can’t think of any downtown surface alignments which would be appropriate for such a thing; and to be honest, were it politically viable to repurpose a downtown street for transit, I’d rather build something like an east/west transit mall. Perhaps an elevated route over I-405 might make sense; though connecting such a thing to the Steel Bridge (or finding another way to cross the river) are left as exercises for the reader.
- A bypass route elsewhere. One of the more interesting corridor proposals in the HCT plan is a connection between Clackamas Town Center and Washington Square; were such a thing extended to Beaverton TC and implemented with light rail, it would provide an alternate route for east-west trains that avoids downtown. This sort of thing is decades off, however.
The bigger picture
Right now, the Blue Line takes about an hour and 45 minutes to travel from end-to-end (from Government Center in Hillsboro to Cleveland Avenue in Gresham). It’s useful to break the line into segments–an arbitrary segmenting of the line (heading east) is the following:
- Hillsboro to Willow Creek/185th: 17 minutes by train, 16 minutes by car, ~6 miles, 8 station gaps, average .75 miles between stations
- Willow Creek to Beaverton TC: 11 minutes by train, 12 minutes by car, ~4 miles, 6 station gaps, average 0.67 miles between stations
- Beaverton TC to Goose Hollow: 14 minutes, 10 minutes by car, ~6.5 miles, 3 station gaps, average 2.1 miles between stations
- Rose Quarter to Gateway: 15 minutes by train, 9 minutes by car, ~6 miles, 7 station gaps, 0.84 miles between stations
- Gateway to Rockwood: 16 minutes by train, 13 minutes by car, 5 miles, 7 station gaps, 0.7 miles between stations
- Rockwood to Gresham: 9 minutes by train, 9 minutes by car, ~2.5 miles, 5 station gaps, 0.5 miles between stations.
Goose Hollow to Rose Quarter: 16-20 minutes by train, 15 minutes by car, 2.8 miles, 10 station gaps, avg 0.3 miles (1500 feet) between stations.
MAX times are taken from the Blue Line weekday timetable and averaging; driving times taken from Google Maps’ driving directions (which generally do not consider the effects of rush hour traffic). Distances are approximate, driving routes are chosen that most closely approximate MAX line (but which are reasonable).
The analysis shows a few interesting things:
- For short-to-medium length trips along much of the line, MAX offers similar times to driving–the exceptions being the freeway-running segments and downtown. It’s hard for trains to compete with (uncongested) freeways; MAX does better against the freeways in rush hour. And in the downtown segments, where MAX runs at the same speed as cars and is generally stuck at the same lights (but stops on average every 4 blocks), driving is faster–assuming you can find a place to park. MAX actually does well west of Beaverton TC and east of Gateway, where it isn’t having to compete directly with a freeway. (US26 and I-84 are parallel, but far enough away to be impractical for many trips).
- If you have to go the length of the line, however, it takes an hour to drive but 1:40 for the train. This is unsurprising, as longer trips can more easily leverage the freeway network. Likewise, it takes less than half the time to drive from Beaverton TC to Gateway than it takes the train–here, MAX is competing with a nearly-direct freeway route for the entire trip.
- Reducing the time for the downtown segment by half (about 12 minutes) would improve the crosstown trip times, but not enough to be competitive with driving except during rush hour. A further important factor to consider is the plethora of free parking available outside of downtown, a major factor in encouraging transit for downtown trips.
- Besides the downtown segment, the other “slow” segments of the line are at the ends, in downtown Hillsboro and Gresham. This is a common design practice, as it tends to reduce the number of empty seats at the ends of the line, while not inconveniencing as many passengers as a high stop density mid-line would.
Is it worth it?
Currently, planners answer this question in the negative–in the view of Metro, the region has far more important transit needs than speeding up trips through downtown. Were $2 billion to become available for capital transit projects, I can think of many things I’d rather spend it on than a downtown subway; some minor improvements might make sense.
But there are other barriers to transit being a popular mode for crosstown trips. Connecting transit is poor in many parts of the region, especially those places outside the city of Portland; driving is far more attractive when you do not have to pay to park, and for many trips there’s a more direct route not through downtown. Many source/destination pairs are very difficult to do on transit; and speeding up MAX downtown won’t solve this problem.
What do readers think about these questions? What are good ways to speed up transit through the city center, and should this be a priority? The floor is open.