For nearly a year, the Morrison Bridge has been closed to westbound traffic so contractors could replace its hazardous steel-grate surface. The project, which was meant to end last November but was plagued by delays, not only disrupted life for auto commuters but also forced the westbound 15 bus to detour south to the Hawthorne Bridge. This awkward detour disrupted one of the busiest bus lines in Portland, so it is very welcome news that with work on the bridge finally completed the 15 is once again crossing the Morrison Bridge. According to TriMet’s press release, this should save about 5 minutes on each westbound trip.
To me, this detour served to highlight the importance of running bus lines on the most direct path possible, with a minimum of turns and deviations. This idea is intuitive, but the routing of the 15 during this last year really makes clear how absurdly convoluted bus routes can become. As you can see on the map below, the combination of the detour and the existing eastbound Salmon alignment meant the 15 essentially performed a figure-eight maneuver. The westbound bus went south to the Hawthorne Bridge before going north on 2nd up to Washington, while the eastbound bus went (and will continue to go) south to Salmon before going north on 2nd up to the Morrison Bridge. Not only was this clearly an insane route, it caused delays from extra turns and was very confusing for anyone along 2nd Ave forced to watch buses pass them by.
Because of the detour the westbound 15 lost the benefit of SE Morrison’s peak-hour bus lane, had to make four extra turns, and had to endure interminable congestion- and lift-related delays on the Hawthorne. All that is thankfully now over, but what about the 15 going eastbound? It will continue to run on Salmon, continue to force riders to deal with a five-block wide couplet, and continue to make extra turns that cause delay. The new map, while an improvement, doesn’t really look much better than the old one. As TriMet promises to make their system more efficient to help deal with a budget crisis, perhaps now is time to finally deal with this problem.
So how did the 15 end up like this, anyway? Well, I asked TriMet and here is their response:
Line 15-Belmont/NW 23rd Ave. was called Line 21-Mt. Tabor in the 1970’s and 1980’s. It used to travel up Washington, south on 11th, circulate through PSU, then east on Salmon, north on 2nd Ave., and east over the Morrison Bridge. Once MAX opened, Line 21-Mt. Tabor was renamed Line 15 and it started serving NW Portland. On its return from NW Portland, Line 15 traveled east on Yamhill, south on 11th, and east on Salmon to 2nd and then to the Morrison Bridge. The current route is a slight modification, but still maintains the historical service on Salmon and 2nd Ave. TriMet does not use Alder St. because it is not classified as a Transit Street by the City of Portland.
It seems clear that the Washington-Salmon routing the 15 still uses is an artifact from the old 21, which was intended to be a meandering shuttle bus focusing on geographic coverage rather than efficiency. Not only does this not fit with the 15’s role today, it is actually a fallacious concept. As Jarrett Walker of Human Transit recently noted, a wide transit couplet does not really increase coverage at all. Since everyone needs to access both directions of a transit line, any benefit from being closer to one direction is cancelled out by the longer walk to access the other direction.
So how do we fix the 15? The obvious solution is to run it eastbound on Alder from W Burnside & 18th all the way to the Morrison Bridge. This would be a simple straight shot and would never be more than one block from the westbound 15. This solution has been suggested many times over the years but never seems to happen. Here’s what General Manager Neil McFarlane had to say on the issue in our recent interview:
Well, that’s a really excellent question, and it probably goes to more history than I have, about why these routes are on these particular streets they have. I do know that the 15 that we’re talking about here, the number 15 line, also serves the Goose Hollow station (sic). Well, there’s a lot of transferring that goes on between the 15 bus line and the MAX line, and so then… once you get that far, where you’re really providing a close transfer connection to the westside portion of the MAX line, then Salmon is about the first street you get to that heads east, so that’s one notion. And, you know the other consideration I think we’ve got is that Alder is a pretty busy street, a lot of businesses, a lot of parking, it’s kind of an onramp to the bridge, at one end, so I think there’d have to be a little bit of research and study as to whether or not it’s worthy of really looking at. I’ll ask Service Planning the question again, if they’ll actually look at that.
The first point, that the current routing is needed to allow a transfer to MAX, is not persuasive. Alder & 17th is only one block from westbound MAX and two blocks from eastbound MAX, and people would also no longer have to cross 18th to transfer.
The second point, that Alder is a busy street with a lot of businesses and parking, is probably the real reason this idea has never taken off. After all, remember that TriMet can’t even use Alder if they want to because it is not been designated a Transit Street by the City of Portland. Presumably the city has its reasons, but that doesn’t mean they are good reasons. Yes, Alder does have a lot of businesses, but then so do most downtown streets. Yes, Alder does have a block of loading bays for Macy’s, but would that really stop a bus from using the street? Yes, Alder has parking, but so does Washington a block away, where parking and bus stops are both accommodated just fine. Alder would only have to lose a few spaces for shelters.
His final point, that Alder connects with the Morrison Bridge and experiences congestion, has the most merit. Because cars queue up to cross the Morrison and access I-5, it is possible that travel times would be longer with an Alder routing given current conditions. However, this problem could be solved or mitigated using the same treatment found on the other side of the river: a peak-only bus lane (with queue jump) that reverts back to parking in the off-peak. This would obviously require political courage on the part of the City of Portland to implement, but I think it would be worth it, and a powerful statement that transit should receive priority.
One other reason I have heard people give for keeping the bus on Salmon is simply that there are already shelters on that street and people in the area are accustomed to having a bus available, albeit in only one direction. To that I respond that any number of other buses could use Salmon if necessary. I would propose running the 14 westbound on Main all the way to 12th, where it would turn around and take Salmon eastbound before cutting over to Madison. Another option would be to use Taylor and Salmon as a couplet all the way to 18th. Either way, this would have the effect of also fixing the 14, which currently turns around halfway through downtown, preventing transfers with the streetcar and limiting its coverage.
Zef Wagner is pursuing a Master of Urban and Regional Planning degree at Portland State University with a specialization in transportation planning.