The 15 finally returns to the Morrison Bridge! Great news, but more needs to be done.

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.

17 responses to “The 15 finally returns to the Morrison Bridge! Great news, but more needs to be done.”

  1. Believe me, I was absolutely jubilant when this bus went off the detour! It’s my bus after all. I don’t think I ever got to Downtown so fast as I did taking it on April the 1st, 2012. Of course, we got to 5th Avenue and had a three minute lay-over, getting rid of some of the time savings. As for saving five minutes in general, I would go as far to say that it will save more time than that on average. That stupid detour over the Hawthorne bridge could make a trip from 12th & Morrison to Washington & 5th as long as 20 – 30 minutes depending on traffic. That was fairly consistent from what my watch told me, and I take that bus all the time.

    I also agree about the ridiculousness of the five block couplet. They say Alder is full of businesses and parking. Yeah, well, so is Washington. Big deal? It’s not a really convincing argument in my eyes.

    Regarding the MAX connections, I have found it far simpler to do that from the Yamhill District stations. It’s safer and easier than connecting near Jeld-Wen field. That area is strange, and it isn’t exactly clear where to catch the 15 in both directions from the train stations.

    I would also like to add my support to the idea of running the 14 all the way through Downtown to 12th to facilitate connections with the streetcar (as well as making it easier to go to the public library). I have always thought the 14 ending where it does rather silly and not entirely useful (especially since I often need to get further west than 6th). As for it coming back on Salmon, I can live with that. I’d probably have it use Broadway to cut back to Madison on the way eastbound.

  2. I remember this discussion previously. At the time, I suggested using Street View from about 6th & Alder east. That’s a very typical daytime view, and dismissing the Macy’s loading zones is a mistake.

    By contrast, look at the equivalent stretch on Washington. There really is no comparison.

  3. lost the benefit of SE Morrison’s peak-hour bus lane

    There is one also on Madison approaching the Hawthorne Bridge.

    Overall, now it may have been because of the bridge construction, but I’ve seen Alder backed up all to Broadway. As I mentioned before, even C-TRAN prefers to go out of the way up Glisan and over to I-405 than use Alder. And I’m not sure there would be enough room for a bus lane as well as the two traffic lanes and parking on the other side considering the width of the buses and the need for clearance.

    But if you really don’t like the wide couplet, the idea of running the 15 on Morrison and Yamhill was considered with the new mall configuration. The downside there is that there’s only one lane for traffic and buses could get delayed waiting for left turners who have to wait for MAX to pass and then what can be a lot of pedestrians. (Ideally, MAX would only run on the mall so that wouldn’t be a problem)

    And one (other) thing I would like to see considered (and I think has been on the table in the past) is having the 15 continue on Morrison west of 18th. This would be a much more direct route and avoid the sharp, awkward turn from 17th onto Burnside. Ideally install a bus-actuated traffic signal at 20th Place and have a stop right after turning onto Burnside, combining the stops at 18th, 20th, 20th Place and 21st. But even just using the existing 20th Ave signal would be better.

  4. I still don’t see how the loading zones are a problem. If cars can get around them, so can a bus, right? You just don’t put a stop there. In any case, one business, even Macy’s, shouldn’t determine everything about how a street functions. If Alder is such a major arterial, it shouldn’t really have trucks blocking the road.

    I checked Street View and it appears there is enough room for a bus lane from 4th to the bridge. Right now from 4th to 3rd there is a right-turn lane. This could be eliminated, or turned into a right-turn-only-except-buses lane. From 3rd to 2nd there is parking, and it looks wide enough for a bus lane. If space really is an issue, just eliminate parking on both sides for those two blocks. If you check, there are so many curb cuts that you really don’t lose much parking. There is also a massive amount of cheap private parking in that immediate area.

    That is an interesting idea to just use Morrison and Yamhill instead. It would require a little extra turning, but they would be easier turns given the lack of traffic on those streets. I don’t see any problem with making cars wait for the buses on Morrison/Yamhill. They’re lucky they get to drive on the same road as MAX at all.

  5. One disadvantage of Morrison/Yamhill as a bus couplet is that it isn’t inverted. Not a problem for MAX, as MAX simply boards runs on the left on these streets and boards on the left as well, but busses running down Morrison/Yamhill can’t do that.

  6. Another way to reduce traffic on Alder would be to reconfigure the freeway interchange at Morrison and I-5. That interchange is one of the biggest embarrassments to the city–a huge tangle of ramps right in the heart of the eastside. That interchange should be rebuilt so it provides access to freight in the central eastside industrial district, but does not make for easy connections for cars in all directions. Regular commuters should be pushed to access downtown from the north or south where we have better roads to deal with the traffic.

  7. Actually only one ramp would have to be removed, the one that flys over from the Morrison bridge and connects to I-5 and I-85. Roads like Alder just can’t handle that much freeway demand. Freeways only work when they are “limited access” in the sense that they take some effort to get on and off. That way short hops are discouraged and the freeways are reserved for longer journeys. Right now the perception is that one can get from the middle of downtown to the freeway really easily, so everyone goes at once and you get the huge backups. That is the result of poor planning.

  8. Zef:

    It is not possible to run the 14 (or the 10) farther west than Broadway, because Main can be blocked by gates whenever the Performing Arts Center chooses.

    Do not blame me! Thirty years ago I was the sole opponent of building a performing arts complex centered on the then-Paramount Theater.

    Also note that Michael Powell has a “star” in the sidewalk there. He has not demonstrated any knowledge about the acoustics of concert halls, whereas I have at least presented papers to the Acoustical Society of America on the subject.

    Cross-ruff, but just saying.

  9. Thanks for clarifying, Jim, I always wondered about that. Taylor/Salmon would still be an option. I’ve also thought running the 14 on Jefferson/Columbia would be a great idea, as it would allow for a connection to MAX at Goose Hollow and give more people access to Hawthorne. I’m hoping the 6 is eventually rerouted to Broadway or Burnside when the eastside streetcar closes the loop, so that would be a good time for another bus to take over Jefferson/Columbia.

  10. I concur on all points about the 15 bus line. The wide couplet spacing can lead to long walks during either a destination or return trip and the meanders (especially westbound from Washington St to Morrison St to Burnside St) are annoying and lead to longer travel times.

    The easiest straight shot while maintaining a narrow couplet in my opinion is to use Taylor and Salmon the entire length to 18th. You may lose coverage north of Pioneer Square but you also lose the meandering that’s caused by Washington Street not connecting across I-405 (I assume that it doesn’t turn right on 14th, left on Burnside because of the difficult maneuvering? Or maybe because transfers to MAX at Jeld-Wen are compromised). Is Taylor Street designated for transit service?

    Jim Lee is correct, as Main and Madison are both unavailable for the 15 due to various barriers.

  11. You’re right that the jog over to Morrison is also annoying. I think the 14th/Burnside turn could work if they put in a bus-only turn signal there. You would lose the MAX connection though, and it adds to redundancy with the 20 on that part of Burnside.

    Using Salmon/Taylor the whole time would work too, but it would mean a big swath of downtown north of Morrison would not have east-west transit service. I’m not sure if Taylor is a designated transit street.

  12. Here is a bit of a correction on the history. The 21-Mt. Tabor bus used Yamhill and Morrison until 1982, as did the 20-East Burnside, the 51-Council Crest, and the 53-23rd Ave. line, among others.

    The westbound bus, after crossing the Morrison bridge, used the right-hand ramp to loop around underneath, using Naito Parkway (Front Ave. at the time) to get to Morrison.

    Going east, the bus turned left from Yamhill to N.B. 2nd, then right across the bridge. This routing dated from the 1958 opening of the current Morrison Bridge.

    With the 1982 Central Eastside Transit Improvement Plan (CETIP), buses were moved off of Yamhill/Morrison in anticipation of MAX. At the time, the City of Portland had decided, as part of the Arterial Streets Classification Policy, that no diesel buses would be allowed on Yamhill and Morrison along with MAX. It was City policy that resulted in the wide separation of service on Salmon and Washington, not TriMet planning.

    In 1984, the 21 was proposed to be interlined with the 53, as part of the service reductions incident to the Reagan recession of the early 1980’s, but due to opposition by line 53 passengers, this did not take place. However, with the opening of MAX in 1986, the combination was accomplished, along with renumbering both routes as line 15.

    This route has a long history, including many years as the Sunnyside/Mt. Tabor streetcar line, which crossed the old Morrison bridge. It ran both directions on SW Morrison and SW 11th, before the downtown one-way grid was established. The subsequent motor bus followed the same route, starting in 1948, but in 1950, the one-way grid separated service onto Yamhill eastbound. It also separated service onto SW 10th, between Clay and Yamhill.

    The new Morrison Bridge added an additional jog in 1958, since it now lined up on the west end with Alder and Washington, not Morrison.

    History shows that the line 15 routing was not “intended to be a meandering shuttle bus focusing on geographic coverage rather than efficiency.” Instead, it was the result of discrete external events to which Portland Traction Company, Rose City Transit, and TriMet have reacted.

    Fortunately, the actual history doesn’t invalidate any of your points about the current routing of line 15.

  13. I’ve always wondered about the following:

    * Making SW Main a bike/pedestrian-only street between the Park Blocks and SW 1st.

    * Making Main a 2-way street between the Park Blocks and SW 13th.

    * Making SW Madison 2-way between the bridge and the Park Blocks.

    * Extending the 14 to Kings Hill via Salmon and Taylor.

    * Getting rid of the approach ramp from the Hawthorne Bridge to SW Main.

    * Extend Main to Naito Parkway; the stretch between these two will permit cars.

    * have a single northbound lane on 1st between Madison and Main, which permits bridge traffic to connect to Naito by turning right on 1st and then right again on Main.

    * Also demolish the stub ramp just south of the bridge in the same block as VQ.

    * Develop the blocks between Naito/Main/Madison/First and Naito/Madison Jefferson/First.

  14. This is getting off-topic (off-route?) but what I would like to see is having Line 14 shift over to Columbia/Jefferson (using 4th and Broadway) and go to Goose Hollow. With the eastside streetcar opening, this could replace Line 6 which could stay on the eastside and be combined with the 70. SE riders would have a direct connection to westside MAX.

  15. Running bus 15 on Alder would also let it better serve the new downtown Target store. I know, it’s a minor point.

  16. “Running bus 15 on Alder would also let it better serve the new downtown Target store.”

    >>>> Won’t that store also have a loading dock on Alder?

  17. Yes, but the trucks won’t be blocking the street. Target has agreed to serve this store with smaller trucks than they usually use.

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