How do we define “success”?

I’ve harped quite a bit on the importance of understanding TriMet’s mission, and so will now ask a related question:

How do we define “success”?

Cascade Policy Institute recently wrote an article claiming that only 7% of attendees at a recent performance of a Cirque du Soleil show at the Expo Center arrived via MAX. Ignoring the methodological issues with the survey that CPI conducted, the implication of the article is that MAX, at least in this case, is a failure in some sense, as it wasn’t used for “enough” trips to see the circus. The article doesn’t define what percentage of trips would be considered successful.

In the recent thread on the FY13 TriMet budget, two well-known commenters got into a mini-debate on the subject (other topics in the conversation, relevant to the union contract issue but not to this topic, have been excised from the excerpt given here). Lenny wrote:

It would seem to me that if you serve the 25th largest market or thereabouts in the nation, but your number of customers ranks 7th in the nation, you can apply the word “successful” to your enterprise.

To which Al responded:

And we shall see just how the ridership statistics per capita levels out when there is no more free ride square and no more unreadable transfers. No matter how you cut the cake Mr Anderson, only 12% of commuters use TRIMET, and that sir, is hardly my version of successful.

Thus, the questions are:

How do we define successful? Is it

  • Ridership statistics (percentage of commutes, percentage of other trips, percentage of commuters using transit)?
  • Mobility-related statistics (coverage, frequency, speed, reliability, trips-enabled)?
  • Financial statistics (farebox recovery ratio, percent subsidy)?
  • Environmental statistics (reduction of VMT, emissions measurements, propulsion systems used by transit vehicles)?
  • Congestion-related statistics (reductions in highway congestion)? At the risk of prejudicing the discussion; I’ll go on the record and state that making the highways more tolerable for motorists should not be a goal for transit, even though many transit dollars are justified on this basis.
  • Equity-related statistics (support for the poor and other disadvantaged communities)?
  • Economic development/stimulus effects? (Payrolls or jobs created by operations, jobs created by construction activities, ability to win federal funding and other grants, etc)?
  • Something else?

And if TriMet is presently not “successul”–how do we get there?

Note: I’m not so much interested in comparing TriMet and the Portland metro area to other cities; top ten lists for transit aren’t very useful. I’m interested only in comparing where Portland is today, to where it needs to be.



42 Responses to How do we define “success”?

  1. Lenny Anderson
    April 13, 2012 at 5:23 pm Link

    Build out the light rail system. When Milwaukie LR opens, that will account for half the system riders. Drop high cost, low ridership lines and let non-profits apply for grants to fill those gaps with contracted lower cost operation. Get Frequent Service and almost FS bus lines to 10 minute headways or better. Fund all this with a parking tax on all parking, public or private; half of those funds would go to reducing rates for water/sewer (most of the pollution going into the $1.5B Big Pipe comes from motor vehicles). As long as we have free parking everywhere but downtown and the Lloyd district, driving alone will dominate the commute mode split. And toll the local Interstate system while we are at it, and use some of that to finance light rail in those corridors (Barbur, Vancouver) as well as high speed rail.

  2. Andrew
    April 13, 2012 at 7:07 pm Link

    I would like to see speeds increased in the central part of Portland — not just Downtown, but also inner SE, NE, NW, and SW. It is astonishing how slow buses can be in those sections.

    For example, the 15 going out Belmont St. crawls through Downtown all the way to SE 12th avenue and then moves fairly quick afterward. Another awful example is E Burnside. What stupid twit thought it was a good idea to install traffic lights at every single intersection from the river to SE 14th avenue? I also wonder why buses that come up 6th avenue to turn east on Burnside make that triangular turn instead of just turning off the street itself. It is a small thing, but it would simply things.

    I suppose possible solutions would be EXCLUSIVE, reserved bus lanes on major streets. It would also be a good to fit buses with a device to hold lights green. Almost every time my buses get stopped at a red light it is because we had to stop for boarding/alighting and miss the light by a few seconds. Being able to hold a green just a few seconds longer could easily shave minutes off a commute. This would be most useful in inner neighborhoods and in Downtown. If MAX can do it while in motion (most of the time), why not the buses? It need not be deployed across a whole route (at least at first) but judiciously in areas with a high concentration of traffic signals.

    I also think the city needs to seriously consider disallowing parking on the right side of major streets with major bus lines running on them. Buses would no longer get held up by people getting in and out of cars or parallel parking. It would also widen the street a bit and allow fasting flow of vehicles.

    I would advocate pedestrian-only cycles at some of the busiest intersections. I can’t tell you how many times my bus has been stopped because a vehicle in front of it wants to make a right-turn, and there are people crossing the street slow as molasses on cold winter morning in Minneapolis. Most of the time these people are not handicapped or elderly. Sometimes only one vehicle gets through on a whole cycle, and a line just builds and builds, wanting to either turn as well or proceed forward.

    Obviously, restoring the High Frequency network is a top priority. As it is now, it is not high frequency in my book. I’m also tired of standing on buses all the time. I would like to see those 15 minute head-ways back seven days a week. There are also several routes that should be running more frequently still, perhaps every 10 minutes. A few additions to the High Frequency network would not hurt either. Trimet also needs to start vigorously advertising the existence of the High Frequency network instead of always going on about MAX and the damn Streetcar and WES lines.

    It also would help if frequencies did not drop off so precipitously after the evening rush-hour. They should taper off to, say, every 20 minutes until maybe 10 PM or so and then go to every 30 afterwards. There may not be as many people traveling after rush-hour, but a fair number of people are still running around doing things until things start closing.

    I would also like to see 24 hour service on some crucial lines, or at least it could be offered on Friday and Saturdays when people are out in force.

    Fixing up some bus and train stops would be nice. The MAX stops from the Lloyd Center all the way to 82nd Avenue are not particularly attractive at all. Also, why did they place so many benches on the platforms at the Lloyd Center? They’re in the way of the doors, so it’s a struggle sometimes to get on and off at that stop. If they got rid of the benches, it would open the platforms up and allow more orderly boarding and alighting. Besides, trains come very frequently anyway. One does not need to sit for long.

    There are also bus stops that are on dirty, narrow bits of sidewalks. For example, the eastbound stop on W Burnside & NW 20th Avenue is such a stop. It has a small shelter and one bench out in the elements (and thus useless for most of the year for sitting on or putting one’s grocery bags on). There isn’t much room to wait, and less room for sitting grocery bags (it’s across from a Fred Meyer’s, you know) down while one awaits a bus. It’s also garbage-strewn, drab, and perpetually in shadow even though sun breaks through ten feet down the block nearer to the intersection. There’s also more room there.

    Well, that’s all I can think of at the moment. These improvements would make this full-time rider happy. Perhaps it will also draw more people to actually use the system as well.

  3. Jason McHuff
    April 13, 2012 at 7:19 pm Link

    Fund all this with a parking tax on all parking, public or private

    At least stop encouraging parking. Why are the property taxes on this parcel or this parcel (which each contain one-story buildings) 60-80% higher than this one (which just contains a parking lot)?

  4. al m
    April 13, 2012 at 10:20 pm Link

    Actually Scott, what I said, in the post previous to the one that I am quoted here, was that Trimet is a success for some people and a failure for others.

    It depends on where you are situated within the system.

    Everything is like that however, you can’t be everything to everybody.

    Lenny and I have a pretty antagonistic point of view.

    And Lenny has some pretty harsh words for our union and its members and completely ignores the executive side of this equation.

    As far as I am concerned, having read Lenny for years now, he is completely aligned with Trimet management.

    I mean look at these ridiculous statement that he makes:

    When Milwaukie LR opens, that will account for half the system riders.

    That’s ridiculous and he knows its ridiculous.

    He makes these sort of statements intending to bate me.

    Obviously I am going to make similar statements back.

    For the record, Trimet is a great success if your a resident of Portland proper, for the most part.

    But Trimet is a failure for the west side, I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

    Is it better than nothing? Sure it is.

    But I grew up in Boston, and Trimet is no MBTA and when I hear things like “model for the world” and “jewel of transit systems” I just want to puke.

    It’s a ridiculous proposition!

  5. al m
    April 13, 2012 at 10:52 pm Link

    I suggest people read THIS essay from 2008 because it identifies some of the serious problems keeping this agency from reaching a truly world class distinction.

    The executive class, bloated, fat and wasteful have squandered millions, maybe billions of dollars into special interest projects at the expense of basic services.

    When you have people like Mcfarlene running the show, you know that things are bad.

    Trimet has turned into a corporation that functions for the enrichment of its executives on the backs of its employees and its public.

    The entire management needs to be removed and some new blood with real vision brought in here.

    Then maybe there will be a chance for this system to achieve some real standing in the transit world above the silly greenish, “oh its so lovely” propaganda that has been so successfully propagated by its ‘marketing’ department.

  6. dan w
    April 13, 2012 at 10:54 pm Link

    IMO, using ridership as the primary indicator of a system’s success is the way to go because it ties in with many of the other criteria on the list; e.g., the more people riding, the less congestion on the roads, the more money being collected from fares, the greater the likelihood a broad geographic/socioeconomic cross-section of the population is being served, etc.

    As for the “how”, I hope to address this in a later post, but there have been some intriguing ideas so far.

  7. AL M
    April 14, 2012 at 3:32 pm Link

    using ridership as the primary indicator of a system’s success is the way to go

    This is the only measure of effectiveness, what % of citizens are using the tax supported transit system.

    If most tax payers don’t use a service then it is useless to them, or ineffective, not successful.

    On THIS list Portland ranks in the bottom half of districts that made the top 50.

    As far as I am concerned, the facts do not support that assertion that we are successful in delivering transit to the people of the the transit district.

    How do we get there?
    I don’t have any idea I sincerely doubt that Trimet will ever be a big league player, its governed by a special interest agenda.

    If gas prices keep rising obviously more people will want to switch to transit, but the transit system is already full and still being cut.

    There are less and less places accessible via Trimet, that bodes very poorly for the future of this system insofar as actual transit is concerned.

    Actually I think its planned this way, the ‘planners’ are attempting to get people to buy along the rail lines and the best way to do that is to eliminate all the bus service in the outlying areas.

    It’s called social engineering and I’m against it.

  8. Douglas K.
    April 14, 2012 at 9:50 pm Link

    I think ridership statistics are probably the best measure of success, particularly choice ridership. How successful is Tri-Met when measured by competitive trips in a given area? The primary purpose of public transit is to get people where they want to go. If you get a lot of choice riders forgoing a drive to use buses and rail, that means the system is doing its job well.

    That’s ridiculous and he knows its ridiculous.

    He makes these sort of statements intending to bate me.

    Really, Al? You’re a mind reader now?

  9. EngineerScotty
    April 14, 2012 at 10:05 pm Link

    Lets keep things on the issues, please.

    At any rate, any attempt to influence the built environment can be considered “social engineering”, Al. It’s social engineering to build freeways everywhere. It’s social engineering to build bike paths or light rail or bus rapid transit. Or to decide to NOT build any of these things.

    I suspect I know what you are trying to argue–that a principle of stare decisis applies, and that attempts to change how the built environment works are more objectionable than building more of the same–it can be more disruptive. On the other hand, what we have now is probably not sustainable in the long term, for a variety of reasons.

    In general, I’m not a fan of the term “social engineering” in these sorts of arguments.

  10. Nick theoldurbanist
    April 14, 2012 at 10:21 pm Link

    It was also social engineering to give a tax deduction on mortgage interest, which is discriminatory against renters, and mainly benefits the relatively well-off.

  11. Nick theoldurbanist
    April 14, 2012 at 10:24 pm Link

    From what I understand, the percentage of trips to downtown in rush hours has not changed much from the 1980’s, remaining in the 40ish percentile. Not a success story to me.

    Also, Trimet now has more riders on weekend than on weekdays? Seems strange to me; wasn’t all this LRT built to reduce rush hour auto congestion?

  12. Bob R.
    April 14, 2012 at 10:45 pm Link

    Also, Trimet now has more riders on weekend than on weekdays?

    That’s an entire weekend (Saturday and Sunday) compared to an average weekday. Not comparing 1-day to 1-day.

    wasn’t all this LRT built to reduce rush hour auto congestion?

    No. That was one early justification but it was soon realized that people were attracted to this form of transit outside of commute hours and commute days. That’s part of the appeal and the utility.

  13. John Reinhold
    April 15, 2012 at 7:56 am Link

    As long as we have free parking everywhere but downtown and the Lloyd district, driving alone will dominate the commute mode split.


    If most tax payers don’t use a service then it is useless to them, or ineffective, not successful.


    There is almost nothing that is paid for by tax payers that “most” of them use.

    Roads for example. Just look at a map of the western USA – there are hundreds of thousands of miles of roads that are paid for with tax payers dollars that no where near 51% of the population will ever touch.

    Same with state and national parks and forests – even the most popular ones. The Great Smokey Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the entire system with around 10 million recreational visitors per year. That is just about 3% of the population per year. Look at Isle Royale national park in Michigan which gets less than 20,000 visitors per year (less people than attend the struggling Oregon Garden).

    What about NASA or other taxpayer funded agencies which do fairly specific scientific research. I never flew on a space shuttle yet I benefit from the science the program produced, and I benefit from the satellites that the shuttle and other space missions have put into place even though the closest I have come to directly touching anything NASA is the Evergreen Air and Space museum.

    There are TONS of things which benefit society as a whole that a large portion of the population will never touch.

    MAX ridership benefits the metro region in many ways – even if one never sets foot on MAX they still benefit. We benefit from added mobility for all citizens, cleaner air, and reduced traffic congestion. It improves quality of life and economic stability for all – even if only a portion of the population uses it.

    Ridership IMO is how to measure success. It can be broken down and presented in all sorts of ways for analysis. Per Capita, Choice, off-peak, etc etc etc…

  14. AL M
    April 15, 2012 at 5:57 pm Link

    Really, Al? You’re a mind reader now?
    ~~>I know that the man is not stupid.

    In general, I’m not a fan of the term “social engineering” in these sorts of arguments.
    ~~~>I suppose that everything is ‘social engineering’ but the money being spent on these rail projects is just not defend-able, especially since transit already exists in that area.
    The entire MAX build out was replacing already in place service. It just doesn’t make sense, but silly me, I keep forgetting that just about everything around me doesn’t make sense.

    Ya and I agree that almost everything that tax payers pay for is useless for tax payers.

    Oh well, it doesn’t matter what I or any of us think.

    We don’t make the decisions because we don’t know the right people or control huge bank accounts.

    The only thing that influences anything in this country is money, LOTS OF IT!

    The great ‘recession’ was in reality the great redistribution.

    The money was taken from the working classes and handed to the owners of the capital.

    But people, being unenlightened and distracted,actually believe the economy is bad.

    It’s only bad for some people.

  15. AL M
    April 15, 2012 at 6:25 pm Link

    There are TONS of things which benefit society as a whole that a large portion of the population will never touch.

    Ya I agreed with that statement but you obviously did not go to the link that I posted with the comment.

    We are talking about transit effectiveness Vis-à-vis
    the amount of people that can take advantage of it.

    When you look at the top 5 American cities:

    1. New York, New York – 55.66%
    2. Jersey City, New Jersey – 45.82%
    3. Washington, D.C. – 38.30%
    4. San Francisco, California – 34.05%
    5. Boston, Massachusetts – 32.82%

    Since there is a wider % of population that uses transit, this would indicate these transit districts success vs Portland’s which has less than 1/2 the amount of riders total.

    Forget the per capita, that’s some sort of imaginary idea.

    The raw data tells the story of success.

    12% of people ride Trimet , how can that be a ‘success’ when compared to the other American cities such as those listed?

    Portland is the model right? So why is such a puny amount of people riding if its a ‘model’?

  16. Aaron G
    April 15, 2012 at 7:07 pm Link

    Why not compare to similarly-sized cities?

  17. EngineerScotty
    April 15, 2012 at 9:35 pm Link

    Those cities all have subways, Al, and far more miles of rail than Portland. (note that Jersey City is part of the NYC metro area).

    Are you saying we should be more like them?

  18. ws
    April 15, 2012 at 10:25 pm Link

    At some point people will need to recognize that 12% commute to work %, relatively unchanged for quite some time, is not a glaring success for TriMet.

    I’d attribute it to a lack of employment density in downtown.

  19. EngineerScotty
    April 15, 2012 at 10:55 pm Link

    At some point people will need to recognize that 12% commute to work %, relatively unchanged for quite some time, is not a glaring success for TriMet.

    If 12% isn’t good enough–and I’m not saying it is or it isn’t, then the questions are:

    * What percentage would be “good enough”? 20%? 25%? 30% 50% 100%?

    * Is getting to this level within the capacity of TriMet itself–i.e. can they reconfigure their services in such a way to attract the requisite number of riders?

    * Or do “sticks” need to be applied instead of just carrots–actions that make it more expensive or inconvenient to drive, changes to land use, etc.

    My response to Al a bit earlier–noting that Boston, NY, DC, and SF all have subways–was a bit on the glib side. While it’s true; the real issue is these cities are all quite dense–far more so than Portland–and given the development patterns therein, subways are the only realistic option, particularly for NY. (Can you imagine surface light rail going down Broadway or Park Avenue? Even if it got it’s own lane, it would be slow as molasses).

  20. John Reinhold
    April 16, 2012 at 5:46 am Link

    How about comparing Portland to say, Memphis, or Albuquerque, or Denver, or Birmingham, or Milwaukee, or St. Louis, or Phoenix… How successful does Portland look then?

    Cherry-picking the best transit cities in the country to compare Portland too and then calling PDX a failure is no different than cherry-picking the worst transit cities in America and by comparison calling Portland a raging success.

    As for building rail in areas that “already had service” – Rail is and will always be more appealing for a broader portion of the population. There is a significant percentage of the population who will ride rail yet will never even consider a bus. It is not rational or fair – but it is a reality. There is a psychological barrier to riding the bus for too many people probably due to 50 years of ring told that busses are for homeless people and those too poor to have cars or those who have lost their licenses. Trains have larger more open spaces, big dedicated stops/stations, they run smoother and quieter, and for the most part don’t get stuck in traffic. Train routes are permanent and easy to identify. It all ads up to trains being more popular and more likely to be used by a larger percentage of the population.

    It’s sad, but true.

  21. John Reinhold
    April 16, 2012 at 8:03 am Link

    Without adjusting for population, Portland has nearly double the transit ridership as Phoenix. Adjusted for population Portland looks even better…

    Again, without adjusting for population, Portland has roughly ten times the transit usage as Memphis. Populations are similar in the metro areas so probably wouldn’t change much with adjustments.

  22. Jayson
    April 16, 2012 at 1:52 pm Link

    It’s ironic that Al is comparing Portland to cities 5x-10x it’s size and simultaneously lambasts TriMet for not providing more service to the suburbs where it requires even greater subsidies to operate. That’s a quick way to run the system into the ground.

    Service is provided most cost-efficiently where population densities are highest. That’s obvious from the top transit cities in the country and that’s true for City of Portland proper.

    There’s a need to balance regional equity, which I think TriMet does relatively well. Al just isn’t making sense though. Perhaps we can recommend some light reading to Al to pull him back down to earth on this topic? Suburban Nation? Death and Life of Great American Cities? The Power Broker?

  23. Allan
    April 16, 2012 at 1:52 pm Link

    I think the measure of ‘how many people are using the system’ could be good in an environment where really we were much more cost-constrained than we presently are.

    What I would like to see is what percentage of the population considers transit a reasonable alternative to driving. There are 2 challenges here: Perception and service.

    The ‘no one wants to ride a bus’ argument can be defeated.

    However, not all trips are remotely transit-competitive. I think instead of talking about what ridership is, we should be talking about what percentage of people consider taking transit for a trip each week. Perhaps they have good reasons for not using transit for that trip, but if its on their mind, I think that’s good enough for me.

    Our city is ultimately too rich and its too easy to drive to expect that we can get a mode split of even 30% with the present built environment.

    Luckily a number of trends are pushing in the same direction so that the future of transit may look better than the present

  24. Allan
    April 16, 2012 at 4:33 pm Link

    I think a good way of measuring this might be number of people pulled over for driving while suspended or something like that. People who know they shouldn’t be driving but do it anyhow.

    Some set of indicators could be constructed to approximate people who shouldn’t be driving but are anyhow because of XYZ reason

  25. Douglas K.
    April 16, 2012 at 11:29 pm Link

    “I’m not so much interested in comparing TriMet and the Portland metro area to other cities”

    As the more recent comments have pointed out, there’s actually a lot of value in doing that; determining where we are and what sort of goals are attainable. We need apples-to-apples comparisons; cities with comparable size/density/development patterns.

    I just checked Wikipedia, and if you ignore the surrounding metro area, the nearest comparator is Las Vegas: land area and population are nearly identical to Portland. Other comparators could be Fresno (a bit smaller and denser), Sacramento (even smaller and denser), San Diego (twice the land area, twice the population, slightly lower density), and maybe Cleveland (smaller footprint, much denser).

    But it would be fairer to look at metro areas. I couldn’t find a table that took density into account, and I’m too lazy to calculate it myself. But per wikipedia, the North American metro areas with roughly comparable (+/- 15%) populations to Portland-Vancouver are Pittsburgh, Denver, Sacramento, Orlando, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Kansas City, and Vancouver BC.

    Are any of those cities or metro areas doing public transit better than Tri-Met?

  26. John Reinhold
    April 17, 2012 at 7:36 am Link

    I would wager Vancouver BC has Portland beat – but I also know that like Portland there really is a central city vs. suburbs divide in transit access up there.

    As far as the other US cities, Orlando should probably not be used as comparison directly as the tourism industry there means that at any point in time (like Las Vegas a well) there are probably 5x as many non-residents in the city as there are residents, and travel patterns are completely different – as well as many large resorts and destinations provide free shuttles or other options too. Those comparisons between a place like Orlando and Portland MSAs would take longer than our quick “Internet forum expert” commentary.

    Based on my link above showing “unlinked passenger trips” in 2011 (adding together agencies in MSA to the best of my knowlege):

    Vancouver BC has 3 times as many as Portland.

    Pittsburgh has about 70% as many as Portland (although a MSA in that region is tricky as there are many more “large” cities close by which can feed into eachother. The mid-west “megalopolis” according to WikiPedia has over 50 million people, so comparisons to Portland travel patterns may be tricky).

    Denver has roughly 85% of Portland.

    Sacramento: don’t see it in the chart? What am I missing?

    Orlando: 30% of Portland (see above regarding tourism)

    Cincinnati: 20% of Portland

    Cleveland: 50% of Portland (see statement about Pittsburgh MSA and the megalopolis. Lots of cities close together there).

    Kansas City: 15% of Portland.

    Someone who knows those cities MSAs better could probably help me refine my numbers to match their transit agencies better, especially those which cross state lines.

    Also – this basic comparison does not take into consideration any demographics, and these varying cities have hugely different industries and populations. As an example – industrial jobs are difficult to serve with transit due to things like work shifts (swing and graveyard), low population density of industrial areas, etc. Portland is not an industrial city compared to some on this list.

    Finally – because Portland may do better than another MSA does not automatically prove “success”. Ridership should in some way be linked to expenditure for a good measurement.

  27. Erik H.
    April 17, 2012 at 7:47 am Link

    One factor I have not seen is “load factor”. It’s a commonly used metric used by nearly every other transportation industry, from Greyhound to Amtrak to the airlines.

    What good is having an expansive transit system, if the buses and trains run around empty? Heck, one of the most well known transit agencies in the western U.S. operates only a single route – CalTrain.

    Not only should it be systemwide, but posted for each and every single route. Any person should be able to pull up and see the “success” of each route, how often it’s full or not – if a route has a high load factor it’s clearly popular and well-used, while a route with a low load factor indicates too much capacity and a route that needs attention – either better service, smaller vehicles, or fewer trips.

  28. EngineerScotty
    April 17, 2012 at 11:34 am Link


    TriMet doesn’t provide that data in an easily accessible form, but it is available–and Michael Andersen has posted it here (for the bus system–MAX and WES information is easier to get directly from TriMet).

    There are a few routes on that list that seem like obvious cancellation targets (the 18, for instance).

    That said, having “busses and trains run around empty” isn’t always a bad thing–many of these mostly-empty routes serve a social-equity need. Perhaps the agency could be more up front about how much of its ops budget it decides to spend on low-performing routes that provide lifeline service to an at-risk population, but TriMet chooses to run a few mostly-empty routes for a reason.

  29. John Reinhold
    April 17, 2012 at 11:43 am Link

    An interesting thing I have come across. Looking at my two metro areas currently, Portland MSA and Memphis MSA.

    Portland has about a million more people (2.3 million in Portland MSA and 1.3 million in Memphis MSA).

    Both cross state lines, Memphis has three states, Portland two – although Tennessee/Mississippi is a land border so not the same barrier. Tennessee/Arkansas is across the Mississippi river like Oregon/Washington is across the Columbia. Both river crossings only have two bridges, although West Memphis, Arkansas is significantly smaller and less populated than Clark County, Washington.

    Memphis MSA has half the square miles, and as such has a higher population density (about 430 verses Portland’s 330).

    Now, comparing transit “success”. Memphis doesn’t have true rail – they do have a touristy “historic trolley” which is counted as “light rail” but it really just runs through a tiny part of downtown Memphis. The rest of Memphis MSA is served by bus.

    Portland MSA, with a lower population density – 30% more people spread out over 200% the square miles – gets ten times as much transit use compared to Memphis MSA.

    If one were to look at “choice” ridership, Portland would be even more dominant, as Memphis’ ridership is almost completely riders of necessity (and as a note, almost none of the suburbs in Memphis MSA have transit coverage, and none into Mississippi or Arkansas).

    The Tri-Met and C-Tran systems also connect to other smaller transit systems for the outlying towns – like Sandy and Wilsonville, something that doesn’t even exist in the Memphis MSA.

    I know that this is an off-the-cuff comparison, but since I am splitting time in the two MSAs I have a very good direct experience with both.

    When compared to Memphis, Portland’s system (Tri-Met in particular, but including C-Tran and the smaller systems) look like OUTSTANDING SUCCESSES.

    If I were to cherry pick only Memphis for comparison, then Portland transit looks amazing – just like Portland transit looks weak when compared to New York City… It’s all in how one chooses to present the numbers.

  30. EngineerScotty
    April 17, 2012 at 2:26 pm Link

    John… good work, but one quibble:

    MSAs (Metropolitan Statistical Areas) are defined by county boundaries, so both the Memphis and Portland MSAs contain lots of rural land. I can’t comment on Memphis, but the Portland MSA contains “all of the following counties: Clackamas County, Oregon; Columbia County, Oregon; Multnomah County, Oregon; Washington County, Oregon; Yamhill County, Oregon; Clark County, Washington; and Skamania County, Washington”. In other words, the summit of Mt. Hood is in the Portland MSA, as are places such as Clatskanie, Willamina, Molalla, and Skamania Lodge.

    Obviously, this area isn’t useful for evaluating urban services such as transit. The Census Bureau does define “urbanized areas” which only include urban (and suburban) parts of a metro area, which may be a more useful item of comparison.

  31. John Reinhold
    April 17, 2012 at 3:52 pm Link

    In other words, the summit of Mt. Hood is in the Portland MSA, as are places such as Clatskanie, Willamina, Molalla, and Skamania Lodge

    True, yet the Memphis area suffers the same problem then – with places in the middle of nowhere being in the MSA.

    Since Memphis is flat it should be easier to serve with Transit than Portland which would be hard to run a train to the summit of Mt. Hood.


    I agree though, urbanized areas may be a better criteria. Although even people in non urban areas my drive to transit (not likely, but the option is there)

    I was doing it all from my iPhone while riding MAX so I was not being the greatest researcher. :)

  32. EngineerScotty
    April 17, 2012 at 3:55 pm Link

    No problem. Coming up with good statistics for geographical units that aren’t consistent with political boundaries is hard; there’s a reason that MSAs are county-aligned.

  33. John Reinhold
    April 17, 2012 at 4:01 pm Link

    Looking at the urbanized area data, Memphis has 60% of the population density of Portland yet only 10% the transit use.

    There are so many ways to measure and define success. I doubt there could ever be consensus just among us let alone in the industry.

  34. EngineerScotty
    April 17, 2012 at 4:06 pm Link

    The interesting thing about Memphis (and many southern cities other than Atlanta and Miami) is how much investment in transit is provided?

    If the transit stinks, nobody with a choice will use it. If the transit is good, it will be used more often. If it becomes more inexpensive/convenient than driving, it can acquire a majority share.

  35. al m
    April 18, 2012 at 11:48 am Link

    If the transit stinks, nobody with a choice will use it. If the transit is good, it will be used more often. If it becomes more inexpensive/convenient than driving, it can acquire a majority share.

    BINGO! give that man a ceeeegar!

    That’s the bottom line.

  36. Aaron G
    April 18, 2012 at 7:06 pm Link

    The thing is Al, you seem to be on one hand arguing that the transit is not good enough because not a big enough portion of the population are using it, yet resistent to anything that would encourage more to use it, and/or focusing the investment on the areas with people. The things you advocate, I think, would lead to an even lower percentage of taxpayers using transit.

  37. al m
    April 18, 2012 at 8:57 pm Link

    I advocate one thing-BEEFING UP THE SERVICE WE HAVE NOW!

    I advocate the complete dismemberment of the sprawling inefficient bureaucracy that has become Trimet, with its army of middle managers and overpaid executives.

    I advocate sensible management which simply means if your broke you become thrifty. We have a management that does everything contrary to prudent fiscal restraints.

    I advocate turning Trimet back into a transit agency and leaving the land use planning to somebody else.

    Not enough people are using it because its widely inefficient, uncomfortable, and not that reliable, especially if you travel off commute hours.

    Everything the planners have done have destroyed ridership, they are lucky only that they have a captive ridership with the transit dependent and downtown Portland which requires huge parking fees to park.

    The only reason ridership is increasing is because of economics,as in gas is expensive.

    It’s like saying “everyone is moving to Portland because its so cool”


    The reason people are moving to Portland is because its cheap compared to the other West Coast cities.

    Everything that happens around us is the result of money, everything that happens in the world now is the result of money.

    Big money interests have stolen Trimet away from transit riders and turned it into some sort of property development agency.

    It’s sickening.

  38. John Reinhold
    April 18, 2012 at 10:44 pm Link


    I disagree. :)

    I am currently splitting time between two metro areas in vastly different regions and traveling all over North America.

    I think Portland is pretty cool, and I have spent a lot of time in a lot of cities. It has nothing to do with cost on the west coast.

    We have real numbers that show Portland is successful with Tri-Met, in lots of different aspects and comparisons. I am not sure why you feel it is such a failure…

    Heck, I’m on MAX right now. It’s not failing me. ;)

  39. AL M
    April 18, 2012 at 11:53 pm Link

    12% ridership is success?
    Not in my book. I don’t buy it.

    And I’ll say it again,
    If you live in Portland proper, you really have nothing to complain about.

    I’ve spent the last 10 years working on the west side, and I can tell first hand just how much of a disappointment Trimet has been to lots of people. Decrepit buses, unreliable service, over crowding etc. Is it better than some cities, of course. It’s minor league transit however. Cities like SF, NY, Boston, Chicago have major league transit systems that make this one look puny.

    And of course by world wide standards Portland is a joke. American transit is pretty much a joke compared to some of the foreign cities

    The blue line is the big success story of Trimet rail. The red line is loved by the people that use the airport. The rest of Trimet rail is pretty much about economic development and not about transit.

    I’m just sayin, Trimet could be world class, not just pretend world class built on hype and propaganda.

  40. AL M
    April 19, 2012 at 12:23 am Link

    think Portland is pretty cool, and I have spent a lot of time in a lot of cities. It has nothing to do with cost on the west coast.

    ~~~>I think you are absolutely wrong about this.

    I know quite a few people who moved here because property prices were fairly low and this was the best place to buy real estate.

    When I moved here it was between Seattle and Portland, we chose Portland because it was not so big and rents were cheaper.

    And yes, Portland has an ‘image’. But all that is basically marketing. Portlandia comes to mind.

    Image is in the mind of the person creating the image, there is no universal image, of anywhere.

    Because no matter where you go, there you are

  41. John Reinhold
    April 19, 2012 at 9:34 am Link

    “I know quite a few people who moved here because property prices were fairly low and this was the best place to buy real estate.”

    Property prices are much much lower in Memphis, so why are there not hordes of people moving there?

    Property prices are lower in Albuquerque, yet I only know people who have moved from Albuquerque *to* Portland, not the other way around.

    Why don’t more people move to Mississippi where prices are incredibly low?

    Portland *is* cool. It is not an image. I have direct experience and I can list 100 reasons why Portland is attractive to live vs. many other cities, and none will have to do with cost.

    We are getting off topic.

  42. EngineerScotty
    April 19, 2012 at 10:55 am Link

    Cool is, of course, in the eye of the beholder.

    That which makes Portland “cool” today, particularly to millenials (a great local food and music scene, a strong environmental ethic, etc.) is different than what made Oregon “cool” during the Tom McCall era. Certainly, many outsiders are attracted to the whole “Portlandia” vibe, but many long-time residents are turned off by it.

    That said, Portland still continues to see net in-migration, from various quarters–despite pricier-than-average (even if cheaper than SF, LA, or Seattle) housing and a still-somewhat-depressed job market.

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