One Idea for Efficient Bus Service: No More Feeders

Scotty has put out the call for ideas to improve the efficiency of bus service in the Portland region, and I encourage everyone to submit your ideas in the comment thread. I would like to take this opportunity to submit one idea for more efficient bus service: eliminate feeder routes wherever possible by combining them with more useful core bus lines.

The TriMet system has a lot of feeder services. These are generally very short, very indirect, and very infrequent routes that exist entirely to deliver people from their homes to the nearest MAX station or Transit Center. Unlike the major bus routes most people think of like the 14, the 9, or the 72, which serve dense residential areas and multiple destinations, feeder routes serve low-density residential areas and serve very few destinations if any. Instead, they mainly deliver people to a transfer point where they can then go to a destination. Because of this the market for such a route is very limited: people who work downtown 9-5 who can’t or won’t drive to work and who can deal with lengthy transfers and travel times. No wonder feeder buses get such low ridership: they just aren’t that useful!

It is important to note that I am not against relying on connections between transit lines. On the contrary, I wholeheartedly agree with the idea of an interconnected grid relying on connections. However, there is a difference between a route that only exists to force a transfer and a route that exists on its own merits but also allows a transfer. A good bus line should serve multiple markets and appeal to both people who hate to transfer and those who don’t mind it.

Many feeder routes were instituted in response to MAX service as a way to feed people into the new light rail system. While this is a laudable goal, I would argue it has largely been a failure. We are running nearly-empty buses every single day just to feed a small number of people onto the MAX trains. TriMet claims they need to get as many people as possible onto MAX because the operating costs are lower, but in the case of people transferring from feeder buses we have to include the extremely high operating costs to get them to MAX in the first place. This is beyond the scope of this post, but a similar issue exists for park-and-rides. Between the cost of building and maintaining the lots and the fact that TriMet inexplicably does not charge for parking, the cost per rider of MAX starts to look a lot higher than the stated numbers.

So what is the alternative? Whenever possible, link up feeder buses to other bus lines in order to create routes that serve multiple destinations rather than serving a single purpose. If this means a major deviation is needed to serve the nearest Transit Center, serious thought should be given to whether the deviation is actually worth it. In many cases, doing this could boost ridership on both lines by linking more destinations together. Where demand is still mismatched, short-route segments can be used effectively to match supply of service to demand.


While there are examples all over the TriMet district, one obvious place to start would be Gateway Transit Center, where several bus routes converge in East Portland to connect with abundant MAX service. To be precise, we have the 15, 19, and 24 coming in from SE and NE Portland, and we have the 22, 23, and 25 from the opposite direction in East Portland. These present clear opportunities to improve service. Here’s what I would propose:

Combine the 24 and 22

Here we have two routes that by themselves each perform poorly and don’t really serve many functions. By combining these routes, we can have a new route that serves more different kinds of trips and can run far more efficiently. Let’s just run through the basics:

  • The 24-Fremont runs east-west from Legacy Emanuel Hospital to Gateway Transit Center via Fremont Ave. It is a key part of the grid in the NE, but is not very useful since it was cut off from downtown several years ago and its span of service was reduced. It runs about 25 trips per day in each direction and only operates on weekdays until 7pm. Productivity (according to the TIP) is quite low at only 14.8 boardings/vehicle-hour, down in the bottom 20 of all TriMet bus routes.
  • The 22-Parkrose is a feeder bus connecting the area north of I-84 and east of I-205 to Gateway Transit Center. This one surprisingly has higher levels of service than the 24, with a few more trips on weekdays as well as limited service on the weekend. Productivity is higher than the 24 as well (though still low overall), at 21.6 boardings/vehicle-hour.

Combining the 24 and 22 would be fairly easy because their levels of service are about the same on weekdays. Hopefully higher efficiency could be used to extend weekend service to the whole line, but that may not be worth it when we are still waiting for the Frequent Network to be restored.

The new 24/22 would work well from a geometric standpoint, essentially acting as the Fremont-Shaver line in the grid despite the major deviation down to Gateway Transit Center. In this case the deviation is forced by the imposition of Rocky Butte and I-205, so it can be forgiven.

An interesting alternative would be to run the 24 east on Fremont but then cut north on Cully to Killingsworth and Parkrose Transit Center on the way to East Portland. This would be a quicker path and would give the Cully neighborhood’s main street its own bus line. With available funding long-term, the eastern end of this line could turn onto 148th and run north-south, fixing the large gap in the East Portland grid.

Finally, I would also recommend extending the 24 on the west end a small distance to at least reach the Rose Quarter Transit Center. It is strange that it ends at the hospital rather than continuing to such a nearby opportunity for connections. Ideally the line would be extended downtown once again or at least combined with a N Portland line for greater utility.

Connect the 19 with the 23 and 25

Basic info again:

  • The 19-Woodstock/Glisan runs from Woodstock through Sellwood to Downtown, then crosses back over the river to run on Glisan all the way to Gateway Transit Center. It is pretty frequent at about 60 trips per weekday (far fewer on weekends) and is fairly productive at 29.6 boardings/vehicle-hour.
  • The 23-San Rafael is a feeder bus that winds its way from Sandy & 148th to Gateway Transit Center through a mess of suburban-style residential areas just south of I-84. It has very low levels of service, running only 12 trips per day on weekdays only. Productivity is 13.7 boardings/vehicle-hour.
  • The 25-Glisan/Rockwood is another short feeder line that connects Rockwood MAX station with Gateway Transit Center via Glisan. This line is notable for running about 5 blocks parallel to the MAX Blue Line for its entire length. This appears to limit its attractiveness, as it only runs 12 trips per day on weekdays only and productivity is only 15.6 boardings/vehicle-hour. The 25 is deservedly brought up often by transit wonks as a poster child for inefficient and useless bus service.

These are trickier to combine due to such different levels of demand, but keep in mind that all the people who currently do not ride the 23 and 25 because they don’t want to transfer to get downtown will suddenly have a relatively fast one-seat ride. This should boost ridership quite a bit.

The 19 could do two short-routes, one on the current 23 and one on the 25. This would roughly mean 15-minute frequency on the core route in NE Portland and hourly frequency on each of the tails. I can’t tell if the math quite works out without knowing the details of TriMet layover policies, but it seems like something could be worked out.

There is also a lot of merit for simply eliminating the 23 (since the 77 arguably serves that area adequately) and concentrating on the 25 since it runs on Glisan and is the more natural extension. The 25 portion could also be made more useful by combining with the 82 down 182nd Ave, which runs the same number of trips per day.

Zef Wagner is pursuing a Master of Urban and Regional Planning degree at Portland State University with a specialization in transportation planning.


8 Responses to One Idea for Efficient Bus Service: No More Feeders

  1. Jason McHuff
    April 11, 2012 at 12:12 pm Link

    Would you still have the combined routes serve Gateway, or bypass it? If there was connection between the north end of Gateway and Halsey Street, the deviation wouldn’t be too bad.

    Also, for those who don’t know, the service on Halsey and Burnside/Stark used to also be divided at Gateway.

    Overall, it’s a choice between operating a grid with providing through service, or operating a hub-and-spoke model with providing connections.

  2. zefwagner
    April 11, 2012 at 12:24 pm Link

    In both of these cases I would lean slightly towards keeping the Gateway connection because it is only a slight deviation, but it’s not ideal. If Gateway ever develops into a Regional Center with any amount of residential or employment density, then it would be an obvious choice, but when the only point is to feed into MAX it’s more of a toss-up.

    My main point is that the hub-and-spoke system is not working. If they were able to use pulsing to precisely time transfers and could really pull a lot of people onto MAX, that would be one thing, but I suspect MAX is not attractive enough for such a scheme to work. We need to remember that MAX is barely faster than most bus service to downtown except at peak times. Since a transfer involves a time penalty, there has to be a speed improvement to compensate. I don’t blame anyone for preferring a one-seat ride in such a situation.

    The 77 and 20 are good examples of routes that go straight through from Inner Portland to East Portland without stopping at Gateway, and lo and behold they get very good ridership! This shows the value of extending the grid. I think there is a strong equity argument here too, that these feeders are contributing to East Portland being isolated from the rest of the city.

  3. Josh
    April 11, 2012 at 4:30 pm Link

    The 154-Willamette is a 15-minute feeder trip to Oregon City TC. That line would be more useful if it was combined with the 34-River Rd and continued on to Milwaukie.

    The 34’s weekday peak extension to Clackamas Heights could possibly be shifted to the 79 or to another Oregon City/Milwaukie/Clackamas route.

  4. EngineerScotty
    April 11, 2012 at 4:36 pm Link

    The 154-Willamette is a 15-minute feeder trip to Oregon City TC. That line would be more useful if it was combined with the 34-River Rd and continued on to Milwaukie.

    Even better yet would be if the 154 and the 79 were connected, and the whole thing extended to Tualatin.

    TriMet’s talked about a BRT line along I-205 from Tualatin to Clackamas Town Center; but it would be nice to have local bus service in this corridor.

  5. Josh
    April 11, 2012 at 5:34 pm Link

    All of the 150s could be combined with other routes, really.

    * The 152 and 156 could pair up pretty well themselves.
    * Geographically the 155 and 28 or 29 pair well, but the 28 and 29 don’t have the same level of service as the 155. The 155 and the 31 are a closer match, but the 31 and 30 already have a funky sort of interlining going on. Probably the 30/31 setup could be reconfigured and the 31 and 155 permanently joined as a single route. (This comes back to what I was saying in another thread about the Portland/Milkwaukie/beyond buses needing some work.)

  6. Tim Walsh
    April 11, 2012 at 6:01 pm Link

    I think the 154 and 79 are already interlined, at least at peak hours. At least, I’ve seen a few 40 foot buses with 79– numbers running the 154 recently.

  7. Peter Smith
    April 14, 2012 at 3:23 pm Link

    Build walk and bike infrastructure, then you can get rid of the feeders.

  8. Erik H.
    April 17, 2012 at 8:05 am Link

    Feeders are a great idea when instituted properly. Which, is something TriMet can’t understand in its “one-size-fits-all” mentality.

    Southwest Airlines, most famous for its “one-size-fits-all” fleet of 737s and nothing but 737s, knows its market. It isn’t going to serve a community where it can’t fly at least a half-dozen 737s in profitably. It doesn’t use smaller – or larger – planes. It’s successful.

    TriMet isn’t SWA. It can’t be – it has a public purpose mission to serve the region with service. That means some areas need more service. Others need less. But what does TriMet do? Has a fleet of nothing but 40′ buses and light rail trains (with the oddball 1600s and 1900s that should have been replaced a decade ago, the joke called WES, and the City of Portland Streetcar.)

    The 40′ bus doesn’t serve residential neighborhoods effectively. It’s too big. TriMet attempted to solve this problem back in the late 1990s by using cutaway buses (LIFT buses) on local routes, known as “The Local” which is what today’s feeder routes grew out from. At first the routes were popular and TriMet had a huge marketing push for the service, but they later became an easy target for the anti-bus Fred Hansen who cut most of them. (It also didn’t help that TriMet bought the 2400 series minibuses which suffered a number of catastrophic engine fires, sending them to the retirement parking lot many years too early – but TriMet didn’t seem to make any attempt to rectify that matter by pursuing legal action against the manufacturer of those buses in an attempt to obtain replacement vehicles, either.) The Freightliner Sprinter is an ideal vehicle for this line of work – it’s smaller, can seat 16 riders in transit configuration, and gets excellent fuel economy (15 MPH, versus the 3-5 MPG that a full-sized bus gets.)

    The other issue is the labor expense – TriMet was paying the same rate it paid a 12B driver that has to drive a bus on a 30 mile one-way route to a driver who drove the three mile loop 50s. TriMet and the Union never found a way to create a class of employees (probably entry-level) who would drive the shorter routes at lower pay as a training step towards the more difficult routes. In the day, drivers who operated the 700s (artics) got premium pay because the buses were larger and more complex to drive. Successful companies don’t throw their employees to the wolves…I wouldn’t put my employees on the most difficult task to start, I give them skills step by step and build them up. Airlines don’t put their newest employees on 747-400 intercontinental flights. A step approach to training drivers starting with drivers running the smaller routes at first would provide multiple benefits – including having the lowest cost drivers operate these shorter routes.

    Build walk and bike infrastructure, then you can get rid of the feeders.

    Unfortunately that is easier said than done; some people just can’t walk 1/2 mile or a mile. I’d rather send a public bus to pick up those riders at $5 a boarding ride, than have that person complete a LIFT application and get a $40/ride trip all to themselves. Frankly, more feeder routes would actually save money on LIFT service AND provide more service to the public, at a lower cost.

Leave a Reply

By posting a comment, you are granting a license to Portland Transport for your comment. Please refer to The Rules.