Digging Into TriMet’s Proposed Service Changes: NE Edition

TriMet has finally released their budget proposal, and while they are mostly filling the gap by raising fares and ending the Free Rail Zone (more on that in a future post), what I find most intriguing are the bus reorganization proposals found here. After devastating rounds of across the board cuts to frequency in 2009 and 2010, even on the most successful high-ridership lines, this current effort appears to be a much smarter attempt to cut poorly performing and redundant route segments.

TriMet runs an enormous number of buses that are mostly empty most of the time because they aren’t going where people want to go, because they only perform one function rather than several, because they duplicate nearby superior service, because they run so rarely as to be useless, or because they run through very low-density areas. In such a system, it is entirely possible to cut total service hours while actually increasing and improving service to more people. Counter-intuitive, but nonetheless true.

The proposed changes, while they do represent real cuts to service, put in place what I feel is a superior structure that may actually increase ridership along certain corridors by using TriMet resources more efficiently. For those who say transit agencies shouldn’t focus on efficiency, I say that Efficiency is Ridership, and Ridership is People (full credit to Roger Valdez, who inspired me with his Density is People message). That should be the slogan of any transit advocate who really cares about providing car-free mobility to the most people possible given the limited financial resources available for transit operations. Even if the legislature eventually grants the badly needed authority to raise more transit funding (and I hope they do), efficiency will always allow us to get more people to more destinations with whatever budget we have.

With that lengthy preamble out of the way, after the jump I offer an analysis of TriMet’s proposed service changes, starting with the NE quadrant because it is nearest to my home and my heart. Future posts will look at the major changes proposed for the NW, SW, Beaverton, and other areas.

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The major changes have to do with the 6, 8, 9, and 70.

Currently, the 6 runs north on MLK, west on Lombard, then north on Denver Ave and I-5 to its terminus at Jantzen Beach. This alignment has always had some problems. First, it leads to major redundancies on Lombard and Denver. The 6, 4 and 75 all overlap for a segment of Lombard between Albina and Denver, and segments on either side have two overlapping bus routes. Second, the 6 runs parallel to the Yellow Line MAX from Kenton to Expo Center, providing unnecessary duplicate service. Meanwhile, the 8 runs north of Lombard to the largely industrial East Columbia area along NE MLK and N Vancouver Way, but turns around there.

TriMet proposes that the 6 basically take over the tail of the 8, but then continue north to Jantzen Beach. This eliminates many of the redundancies mentioned above, and simplifies the routes overall. The 6 already runs up MLK, and now it can simply continue north along the most direct path. The 8 will be able to turn around in the Dekum area rather than making a series of turns.

One concept inherent in this service change is the idea of having good anchors for bus routes. Having a high-demand node at the end of a bus route ensures helps prevent them from having long tail segments with relatively few riders going long distances. Jantzen Beach is a better anchor than East Columbia, so making the former the end of the route and the latter a segment along the route, the buses will be more full end to end.

This is an example of a route change that saves money but does not really result in any loss of service. The only slight impact will be on a 10-block stretch of Lombard that will lose direct downtown service, but on either end of that stretch are the 4 and the 6 to downtown, and the Yellow Line is also nearby.

The proposed merging of the 9 and 70 is very exciting, because it will finally help address the extreme lack of connections between the inner SE and NE quadrant neighborhoods. Many people living in Portland quickly notice the large gap between north-south bus routes in the SE. There is no crosstown service at all from SE 12th Ave to SE 39th Ave, and since the 70 currently only runs to Rose Quarter TC, there really isn’t any useful SE/NE bus service from the 6 on Grand/MLK to the 75 on 39th Ave. That’s about 35 blocks! It usually takes about an hour with two or three transfers to get from the heart of the SE to the Alberta Neighborhood, even though it should be a straight shot north.

While people living along Ne 24th Ave and NE 27th Ave would lose their direct link to downtown, they would benefit from a great crosstown service that would connect to other destinations and to numerous transfer opportunities. The most obvious transfer point is Lloyd Center, where the new route 70 will connect with the combined Red/Blue/Green MAX lines as well as route 8 to go downtown. Between all those services, transfers should be very short and travel times should be roughly equivalent. The 70 also has transfer points with the 12, 19, 20, 15, 14, 10, 4, 9, 17, and 19 (again!) on its way south to Sellwood. People living west of the current 9 also have option walking to the 8 directly.

The north tail of the 9 was never a good place for a core downtown-focused route anyway. It runs through low-density residential neighborhoods for its whole length from NE Dekum to NE Broadway, making a series of tight turns on narrow streets. Usually bus routes run on arterial roads, which allow higher speeds and access to far more destinations. The 9 ends up being much slower than the 8, and ridership has been fairly lackluster in comparison. My preference would actually be to cancel the tail of the 9 entirely, connect the 8 with the 70, and reinvest the 9’s service hours to make the resulting crosstown much more frequent. That would be a more radical change though, and would make far too much sense, so I’ll embrace this proposal wholeheartedly.

The final noteworthy change is the removal of evening and weekend service from the 73. Unlike the previous examples, this is just a straight-up cut to service, but at least it is cutting a largely pointless route with low ridership. The 73 is an example of a route designed to fail. It runs along NE 33rd, hitting a business area and lots of residential, but unlike other area crosstowns like the 72 and 75, it doesn’t run east or west to find a good anchor like a MAX station or a dense neighborhood. Anchors are especially important in crosstowns because they lack downtown as a natural draw. The 73 then runs west on streets that already have other bus service, before ending just short of downtown at the Rose Quarter TC. I would hazard a guess that very few people want to ride a bus almost to downtown, but not quite (actually i don’t have to guess, since ridership is pretty low).

It’s a funny thing about transfers–they’re fine if the service is frequent and the transfer point is somewhere in the middle of the trip, but they are incredibly aggravating if they come near the beginning or end of the trip. So for example, someone on NE 42nd & Killingsworth takes the 75 to Hollywood and transfers to MAX to get downtown, and that’s fine. But asking someone to take the 73 from NE 33rd and Killingsworth to Rose Quarter to transfer to MAX? That’s unlikely to draw much interest. Cutting this route to a barebones weekday daytime schedule means TriMet has pretty much given up on it, but isn’t willing to change very much. I think they should either make it work, or cancel it completely.

One rough idea would be to have the 73 turn east on Prescott or Lombard and hit Parkrose TC. It could even continue on and take over the current infrequent tail of the 12 (slated for amputation) running on outer Sandy. On the other end, I would love to see the 73 run down 20th through the SE. I’ve been told countless times that 20th is too narrow for bus service, but go look at the street and see if you’re convinced. All it would take is restriping and removal of parking on one side of the street. It could continue down 20th and eventually hit one of the future Orange Line stations. This would be a fabulous crosstown service with lots of connections.

That would all cost money of course, and right now it’s hard to blame TriMet for taking service hours from a poorly performing route, but this change will leave pretty big areas of the NE without evening or weekend service since the 24 is already in the same situation. Actually, the entirety of inner NE from 15th to I-205 will be left with the 12 as the only downtown transit service, although many people will still have easy MAX connections. Part of this has to do with the built environment, with areas like Cully sporting suburban-style superblocks and little in the way of transit-oriented land use, but on the other hand the demographics of the area point to a lot of potential for ridership if only the routes were well-designed and the land use were improved.

That’s it for now, hope you enjoyed this analysis. Next week I will discuss the changes in the NW. Until then, remember…Ridership is People!

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