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.

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