Author Archive | Zef Wagner

Will Portland Finally Grant New Taxi Permits?

This Wednesday at 2pm the Portland City Council will hold a public hearing and take a vote on the contentious issue of whether or not to grant 132 78 new taxi permits, the first increase from the current 382 permits in a decade (I have learned since first publishing this post that the Revenue Bureau scaled back the number of new permits recommended to 78, with plans to reassess after the first year). As many have pointed out, Portland has one of the most restrictive taxi policies in the country. We have fewer taxis per person and pay more for them than most other cities.

50 of the new permits would go to a new company, Union Cab, an employee-owned company headed up by Kedir Wako and mostly composed of immigrants who used to drive for Broadway Cab. Several years ago they considered unionizing in response to poor working conditions, but that would have been very difficult because taxi drivers are considered “independent contractors.” Instead they decided to form their own company along the lines of the employee-owned cooperative Radio Cab. A study by the city back in February confirmed the generally poor working conditions found at all the Portland taxi companies with the notable exception of Radio Cab, where drivers worked fewer hours and got better wages. We covered this issue here.

In more recent developments, the Portland Private for Hire Transportation Board voted for a recommendation to the city council to issue the 132 new permits, allow the formation of Union Cab with 50 of those permits, and institute a package of regulatory reforms meant to improve driver working conditions and customer experience. This recommendation was strongly opposed by a group of existing taxi drivers and companies led by Red Diamond, the elected taxi driver member of the Transportation Board. Diamond argues that the new permits will hurt existing drivers by increasing competition and that Union Cab owners will give jobs to out-of-town family members. Diamond has also made a number of comments about Union Cab that are hard to interpret as anything other than xenophobic and racist. From a Portland Mercury article last month:

Diamond has also repeatedly–and publicly–made the claim that Union Cab is made up of Ethiopian immigrants like Wako who want to take jobs from Portland drivers. He also mentions “persistent rumors” that Union Cab drivers have promised permits to relatives in other states.

Not true, says Wako–who accuses Diamond of racism.

“Our members are current city cab drivers and are licensed in Portland or Vancouver,” says Wako. As to Union Cab’s ethnic makeup, he says, “We have Russian drivers, we have people from Iran, and we have Asian drivers.”

“I don’t think it’s a racist comment,” says Diamond. “It’s an observation. I don’t think there are any American-born people in that union. I don’t think there are any European-born people in that union. I don’t think there are any white people in that union.”

Now Diamond is organizing protests in advance of this Wednesday’s City Council vote, accusing Mayor Adams (who supports the taxi permit increase) of “back door dealings” with Union Cab, and possibly pursuing legal action against the city. All of this is meant to intimidate the rest of the City Council enough to sway the vote, as has happened again and again for the last 10 years. It is clear that the incumbent taxi drivers and companies will do whatever they can to keep their oligopoly intact.

As I argued in my previous article, taxis should not receive special protection from competition by the city. We don’t limit the number of coffee shops, or restaurants, or hair stylists, or breweries, and if employees in those industries want to quit and form their own company, we let them do it. Competition is generally seen as a positive force that not only produces innovation but also can increase the market for a product. Even in the realm of transportation, we generally allow competition, with the exception of fixed-route public transit (which is ill-suited to competition for fairly obvious reasons). We now have three car-share companies in Portland, with more to come in the future. Bike rentals can be found all over the city. Even in the realm of public transportation, we have employer shuttles and school shuttles that supplement TriMet. Why should taxis be exempt from the need to compete and innovate?

Some people like to claim that taxis are special because there is not real competition anyway. They argue that taxi customers don’t care which company they use, but instead take whichever taxi they find. This may be true in the case of taxi stands at hotels and the airport–people generally just take the first one available. It would also be true of hailing a cab on the street, but let’s be honest–that doesn’t really happen in Portland. It is so difficult to hail a cab in Portland that many people think it is illegal! In any case, taxi stands only have so much space available, so increasing the total number of permits should not have an effect on driver wages. Basically, the city should regulate the number of taxis that can mob one spot at once, rather than restricting the total number in the city.

In the telephone dispatch market, which is how most people get cabs anyway, competition can absolutely exist, and that’s a good thing. Most people have one or two favorite companies programmed in their phones. If they have a bad experience, they can switch companies, and if they have a good experience they can tell others about it. In an open taxi market, there would be a strong incentive for companies to market themselves and innovate in the areas of comfort, speed of response, and other amenities. We could see companies specialize in certain areas. I could imagine a company focusing on the young urban market by including bike racks and allowing control over the music selection, while another company focuses on longer distances by charging a flat fee rather than per-mile and making the seats more comfortable. I would also expect more creative use of phone apps than we see now. The current system, with only a few companies and only 382 cars, does not encourage such creativity.

As I see it, there are several distinct issues that lead me to support the legislation in front of the City Council on Wednesday:

  • Multi-Modal Transportation: Taxis are an essential component of the multi-modal transportation system that Portland been a leader in creating over the last few decades. We are trying to transition from a system in which most people are dependent on car ownership and daily car use to a system in which people can choose a mode of transportation day-by-day based on their wants, needs, and willingness to pay. To do this, we need sidewalks, bicycle facilities, public transit, car-sharing, and taxis. Many people dismiss taxis as unimportant given new car-sharing options like Car2go, but Car2go has its limitations: it requires a sober driver; it requires a membership; cars are not always available nearby; the “home area” only covers inner neighborhoods; and the cars are very small.
  • Safety: Let’s admit it, drunk driving and drunk bicycling are major safety problems in our city. Taxis are one of the only ways to safely travel late at night when people are intoxicated, but anyone who has tried to call a taxi late on a Friday or Saturday night knows that we don’t have enough to meet demand. When it takes forever to wait for a taxi, many people will choose to take their chances behind the wheel of a car or on a bike, with possibly deadly consequences. If more taxis are available, human lives will undoubtedly be saved.
  • Economic Competition: I’ve already made this point, but we should not be preventing competition in order to protect existing businesses. I’m sure most businesses would love it if the government kept out competition, but that is not what government is supposed to be about. Regulations are meant to establish a level playing field and ensure safety, not support monopolies or oligopolies.
  • Equity: The idea of equity has become central to what Portland aspires to be. We now have an Office of Equity, and the concept is woven throughout the Portland Plan. The city can not make a commitment to equity, even while denying a group of immigrants the chance to form their own taxi company. This is supposed to be a land of opportunity, and Portland in particular is supposed to be a place that encourages small business creation by anyone who has a skill or a product people want. We long ago realized that by making food carts legal, we would give people with few resources the chance to build a business from the ground up. We need to take the same approach with the taxi business and any other industry we regulate.

I have made my case, and now I urge anyone who is interested in this issue to email or call Mayor Adams and Commissioners Fish, Fritz, Leonard, and Saltzman to communicate your views. You can also attend the public hearing, scheduled 2pm-4:30pm this Wednesday, November 7th at City Hall. With enough public support, Portland may take the first steps toward a sane taxi policy.

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

A Tale of Two Streetcars

Disclaimer: Zef Wagner is currently a Service Planning and Scheduling Intern at TriMet. The views expressed on this website are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views, plans, or policies of TriMet.

On this opening week of the new Portland Streetcar Central Loop comes news from Seattle, where their South Lake Union Streetcar just announced an agreement with Amazon worth an astonishing $5.5 million over 10 years in capital and operating assistance.

Amazon, already a major employer occupying several buildings in the newly-developed South Lake Union neighborhood north of downtown Seattle, is planning to build 3 new skyscraper office buildings in the area to expand their operations. This massive investment in land use (on lots occupied by surface parking lots for the last several decades) is matched by a massive investment in transportation. In addition to sidewalk and bike improvements in the area, Amazon has agreed to buy an additional streetcar vehicle and pay for operating expenses to allow for 10-minute all-day frequency, up from a paltry 15-minute frequency today.

For those unfamiliar, Seattle Streetcar is very similar to Portland Streetcar, which makes sense since they used our line as a model. They use the same vehicles, both run mostly in mixed traffic, both go very slowly over short distances, and both have been controversial due to concerns about bike safety and cost efficiency. More importantly, both have been used as an explicit way to encourage development. In the case of Portland, the streetcar is often touted as being the main investment that brought about the Pearl District. In Seattle, the streetcar was sold as a way to stimulate development in South Lake Union.

While I am skeptical that the Pearl would not have developed without the streetcar (considering the whole area is within easy walking distance of downtown and the transit mall), in the case of Seattle I am more convinced that it had a role. Most of the development in South Lake Union has taken the form of major employment like the Amazon campus, the Fred Hutch cancer center, and a plethora of biotech companies. There has been some mixed-use development as well, but the cluster of large employers is what really may have depended on a high-quality and high-capacity transit link with downtown to get their employees to work. There was already a bus line to South Lake Union, but streetcars are able to hold more people (mostly because they have fewer seats) and I’m willing to buy that Amazon and biotech employees might have a touch of rail bias.

It seems to me that South Lake Union may be a more compelling guide for what the Central Loop could accomplish in the Central Eastside, as opposed to looking at the Pearl District. The Central Loop and Seattle Streetcar have many similarities, after all. When Seattle Streetcar started, it was derided as a streetcar to nowhere, and lack of operational funding has led to disappointing frequency for such a short transit line. The Central Loop is somewhat similar–while it doesn’t really go “nowhere,” it does spend much of its time in the Central Eastside along sparsely developed parcels and running on a high-speed, traffic-heavy highway. Not only that, but it takes the most circuitous possible route between downtown and Central Eastside, duplicates a couple bus lines (the 6 and 17) for some segments, and there are many more direct bus alternatives across the river. Frequency is especially disappointing–due to a lack of funding and delays in new vehicle production, we will be stuck with 18-minute frequency for awhile, and probably can only hope for 15-minute frequency in the near future.

However, with all these similarities, Seattle Streetcar may represent a glimmer of hope for the Central Loop. If Portland can put its energy into attracting some major employers to develop new headquarters and operations on the Central Eastside along Grand and MLK, we can probably expect higher ridership on the streetcar and eventually, hopefully, we will get our own Amazon that is willing to pay for better service that we can all benefit from.

My worry with the Central Eastside is that the city will just assume the streetcar will do all the work, without doing all the other things needed to create a new commercial district. This effort will require more upzoning (we should be allowing skyscrapers, not the piddly 5 to 8 story buildings allowed under current zoning), an expansion of developable area (currently limited to the blocks immediately adjacent to MLK and Grand), major parking reform (metered parking, parking management, parking limits, etc), more signals and better pedestrian crossings, and more development incentives. We should also work toward getting an exclusive lane for the streetcar in the future. Most highways in Portland are 4 or 6 lanes wide, so why does 99E through the Central Eastside need 8 lanes?

In general, the point is that this should be an aggressive effort to expand downtown across the river, not a modest attempt to get a few mixed-use apartment buildings built right along the streetcar. We need to focus on major employment right along the line, perhaps with some mix of affordable housing and smaller businesses on the outlying parcels. If we don’t get this right, we are going to be stuck with a shiny new streetcar line (the most expensive ever built, in fact) that runs infrequently and carries few passengers.

Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic recently wrote an article on this very subject. I agree with the general sentiment of the article, although I think he is off the mark in assuming that the current zoning here is adequate, or that Portland is making enough of an effort to really attract development to the Central Eastside. He even acknowledges that our streetcar is “absurdly slow,” yet still assumes it will have some kind of dramatic impact on development. If we see major redevelopment in the area, it will be because of an increase in zoned FAR, development incentives, major investments in streetscape and traffic improvements beyond just a mixed-traffic streetcar, and increased bus service across the river.

One response to my call for major employment to be the focus may be that we need to nurture the small, artisan industries sprouting up on the Central Eastside. That is entirely appropriate, and it makes sense to keep certain areas protected for light industrial use. Everything west of 3rd Ave, for example, makes sense as light industrial since it has the UP rail line and is stuck underneath viaducts and the freeway. The area south of Hawthorne also makes sense, since it is outside the core of the area. However, we should recognize that much of the Central Eastside is underutilized and car-oriented, filled with empty buildings, vacant lots, drive-through fast food restaurants, auto shops, and parking. We should also recognize that if we spent $100 million to build a streetcar line to promote redevelopment, we can’t also say that existing uses have to be wholly protected.

There is a larger question here of what we think the highest and best use of prime central city land should be. The area from 6th to 12th contains many fine businesses, but preserving it as low-density industrial when there is so much redevelopment potential in that area is a waste. Keeping it industrial condemns the Grand/MLK corridor to feeling like a small, isolated swath of urbanity rather than a cohesive part of the rest of inner SE. Take a walk from Stark &12th to Stark & Grand and you will see how disconnected the neighborhoods feel and how unpleasant it is to travel by foot. We should seize this opportunity to connect our residential neighborhoods to the river.

There is also a question of balance between small and large businesses. Many Portlanders I talk to are very proud of how we nurture and support small businesses and start-ups, but it seems like few people in this city recognize the value that large companies can bring. They obviously help to form a solid economic foundation in terms of jobs and income (after all, those small businesses need customers with disposable income), but what people often forget about are the direct public benefits like the Amazon deal. Large employers have a major stake in the city and can actually see direct financial benefit to making investments in the city in terms of attracting a quality workforce. They not only make transportation and land use investments and pay taxes, they also tend to be philanthropic, sponsoring city events and projects. I for one hope that Portland can use the Central Loop as an opportunity to attract some similarly deep-pocketed company that can be a partner in making this city a better place.

The New TriMet Day Pass: It’s Kind of a Big Deal

Disclaimer: Zef Wagner is currently a Service Planning and Scheduling Intern at TriMet. The views expressed on this website are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views, plans, or policies of TriMet.

Since TriMet’s decision to overhaul its fare system, most attention has understandably focused on the elimination of zones (including the Free Rail Zone) and the sizable increase in adult fares. Former 2-zone transit riders will be especially hard hit, as they will now pay $2.50 per trip or $100 for a monthly pass. While the overall fare hike deserves to be at the center of the discussion, one aspect of the fare overhaul that has not received much attention or analysis is TriMet’s decision to offer a day pass at twice the normal fare–something virtually unheard of in the public transit world. I think the new day pass is a very interesting experiment that could have substantial benefits, assuming enough people realize it exists.

So how is the new day pass an improvement from the old day pass? The old day pass was $5 for all riders, even youth and honored citizens. This means that for adults paying the 2-zone fare of $2.10, a $5 day pass only made sense for someone taking at least 3 separate trips in a single day. For youth and honored citizens, the $5 day pass made no sense whatsoever.

Another problem is that people rarely know at the beginning of the day whether or not they will make more than 2 trips. For a commuter, the first 2 trips are simply part of the commute, and are therefore predictable. Trips after that, like trips to the store or to an event, are less likely to be planned out ahead of time. This put riders in the tough position of predicting the likelihood that a day pass would be worth it ahead of time. Suffice to say, the old day pass never sold very well.

The new day pass is just twice the normal fare, for all fare groups. The adult day pass is $5, the youth day pass is $3.35, and the honored citizen day pass is $2. This is a huge change that makes the day pass much more attractive. Essentially, there is no reason for a regular 2-way transit commuter to not buy a day pass. There is no need to predict whether or not you are likely to take transit on your lunch break or in the evening, since all those extra trips will be free with the day pass. Youth and honored citizens will finally have a day pass that also makes sense for them, and will especially benefit for a couple reasons: they are more likely to be casual users of transit (so a monthly pass might not make sense), and they are more likely to use transit for multiple purposes besides just getting to and from work.

I am not aware of any other major transit agency that offers a day pass for twice the normal fare, so this qualifies as a major experiment that other agencies should watch closely. Many agencies don’t even offer a day pass at all. Of those who do, standard practice is to do what TriMet did previously and offer a day pass at slightly less than 3 times the normal fare. The thinking here is that anything less would undercut the sale of monthly passes and lead to a loss of potential fare revenue from those extra trips. There are a couple problems with this line of thinking:

  • Many people do not buy monthly passes for perfectly good reasons. Maybe they only work or go to school part-time, or maybe they are living paycheck to paycheck. TriMet has responded to the latter situation by offering 7-day and 14-day passes, but for the former there is really no substitute for the flexibility of a day pass. There are also a growing number of people who are multi-modal travelers–in other words, they want to have the flexibility to take transit or ride a bike or walk or use a car-share depending on the day. Again, day passes make more sense for this growing group of people.
  • There is a whole lot of excess capacity (meaning empty seats) on transit vehicles during off-peak hours, especially in the evening. This means the marginal cost of serving an additional rider during those hours is generally zero. In a situation like that, it makes sense to offer a product that essentially encourages people to use that excess capacity. TriMet may not see extra revenue from those trips, but it will most likely see a ridership increase during typically low-ridership hours.

TriMet is basically betting that the new day pass will not lead to a substantial loss in revenue, and that it will lead to greater use of the system for purposes other than a simple 2-way commute. It will be interesting to see how it works out when enough time has passed for a proper evaluation.

The day pass also offers another potential benefit in the form of faster passenger loading at stops. Who among us hasn’t sat in a bus and cursed the people paying cash as they get on? Anything that encourages the use of tickets and passes over cash can substantially decrease dwell times and speed up the bus system. If enough people choose to buy the new day passes it could speed up boarding by quite a bit, especially in the afternoon hours. Unvalidated day passes are available to buy in stores (although not from the ticket machines at MAX stations for some reason), but most people will probably just pay $5 in the morning to get a day pass from the driver. Even paying with a $5 bill should take less time than the current scrounging for change, and then in the afternoon and evening people will just have to show their pass.

A final point I think is worth mentioning is that with the new day pass, TriMet is virtually offering a pay-as-you-go alternative to the 30-day pass. The 30-day pass costs $100, which means that it pays for itself after 20 days of round-trip travel. Any extra days of travel are free. In a span of 30 days, there are 20-22 workdays. This means that buying day passes for each day is pretty much equivalent to buying a 30-day pass, as long as you don’t plan on traveling extra days (like weekends or holidays). This brings an unprecedented level of flexibility to a system that has long made life easier for heavy users as opposed to more casual users.

Let’s say you work or go to school part-time, but think you might want to use transit on some other days as well for other purposes. Or maybe you work full-time, and commute by bike in good weather, but want to have that transit option when the weather is nasty. Normally, you would have to go through an internal debate over whether a monthly pass is worth the cost, and you would probably end up choosing to pay with cash or tickets on a per-trip basis. Now, there is no need for that debate because the day pass is practically designed for you.

Now, the big question is whether anyone will actually use the thing. The day pass has been irrelevant (except for tourism) for so long that people may not realize it exists or that it may actually make sense now to use on a regular basis. I hope the day pass gets enough of a marketing push that people really know what it is and what it means. If enough people adopt the day pass, it could become a model system that no longer relies nearly so much on monthly passes, but instead allows the flexibility we need in an unpredictable world.

I have noticed a couple things I would change based on observing the new system over the last couple weeks. First, I’ve noticed that drivers end up pulling out a hole puncher and punching the transfer every time someone buys a day pass. Why not punch a whole bunch of them ahead of time? Then they could be handed out a lot more quickly. The cost of those tiny slips of paper has to be miniscule, so it’s not a big deal if some go unsold.

Second, it really doesn’t make sense to not sell unvalidated day passes from the ticket machines at MAX stations. If someone visits for a weekend, they should be able to buy all their day passes at once, not buy each one separately each day. Given that there is no 3-day or weekend pass offered, this would be the next best thing. This point is actually personal, since a friend of mine last weekend actually ended up wasting $5 by buying two day passes in this way. The machines do not make clear at all that the day passes are only good for the current day–this should be fixed.

What would really improve the day pass would be the long-awaited electronic fare system that TriMet still plans to implement one day. With an electronic fare card pre-loaded with money, TriMet could simply charge $2.50 for the first trip, another $2.50 for the second trip, then $0 for each trip thereafter in a single day. There would be no need to even predict ahead of time whether you need the day pass. This could even extend to monthly passes, so that you pay as you go until you reach the monthly limit, then the rest of the trips are free. The ORCA system in Seattle unfortunately still does not do this, although with their expensive day pass it hardly matters. Such a true pay-as-you-go system would be a true game-changer, and I hope TriMet would consider it in the future. The new day pass is an encouraging step in that direction, and I hope people take advantage of it.

The Past, Present, and Future of the Portland Transit Grid

Disclaimer: Zef Wagner is currently a Service Planning and Scheduling Intern at TriMet. The views expressed on this website are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views, plans, or policies of TriMet.

As Jarrett Walker notes in a recent post, this weekend marks the 30th birthday of the Portland transit grid system that enables crosstown travel without always having to go through downtown. This occasion seems like a great opportunity to discuss the past, present, and future of this incredibly important aspect of our transit network.

The Past

I don’t really have a whole lot to add about the formation and impact of the grid beyond what you will find over at Human Transit, so go read it now if you haven’t already. While MAX seems to get all the attention when people think of Portland’s transit innovations, the grid is arguably a much bigger deal. After all, most North American transit agencies are still stuck with radial networks that don’t make a lot of sense in today’s multi-centered or completely decentralized cities. The Portland eastside grid, established in 1982, has since inspired many other transit agencies (especially those in cities blessed with a grid street layout) to follow suit, among them Translink in Vancouver, BC, and Metro in Los Angeles.

1970map.jpg

1970 TriMet bus network

I really enjoy some of Walker’s examples of how difficult the TriMet system used to be for crosstown travel. It’s incredible that there was only one real north-south line in the entire SE quadrant (along SE 39th Ave), and even that was split into two lines at Hollywood. There was no continuous bus line at all along SE 82nd Ave, now home to one of the most consistently high-ridership lines (the 72) in the whole system. In any case, we should all be thankful that the grid system was established in the face of much opposition, and I echo Walker’s call for people to take the time to thank the planners who made it happen. (Full disclosure: one of them is my supervisor at TriMet, Ken Zatarain).

The Present

It is fitting that this Labor Day weekend marks the anniversary of the grid, because it is also when we will see a few new additions and enhancements to the grid. Even though the current restructures were implemented in the context of overall service cuts, they also show that even after 30 years there are still opportunities to make the grid work better.

Starting this Sunday, we will have a couple new crosstown connections that continue the work of building the grid:

The new Line 70 (click for map) will combine the current 70 and 73 into a new north-south crosstown running from Milwaukie all the way to the NE 33rd Ave/NE Columbia Blvd area. There has also always been a very wide gap in SE-to-NE service stretching from SE Grand Ave to SE 39th Ave. This won’t fill the gap completely, but it will be a big improvement and will create a nice connection between the inner SE and the Alberta neighborhoods. Frequency on NE 33rd will see a boost from current levels as well.

The new Line 87 (click for map) will also combine two previously short and disconnected lines, the 82 and 87. The new line will provide a complete north-south crosstown on 182nd Ave for the first time, with east-west segments to Gresham and along Airport Way, and another north-south segment down 102nd Ave to Gateway. The result is a rather strange-looking zig-zag route, but if you think of it as a few crosstowns stitched together, it makes sense as part of the grid.

The challenge of creating pure north-south crosstowns in East Portland and the eastside suburbs is that there just isn’t much space between Sandy and Powell for a viable stand-alone bus line. The 87 manages to be a long and useful route while also filling in a gap in continuous north-south service. The Airport Way employment district will have midday service for the first time and will be much better connected to the larger system. The bad news is it will run infrequently and only on weekdays, limiting its usefulness as part of the overall grid network, but over time this will hopefully improve if it performs well.

Even in the western suburbs and SW Portland, where a grid is challenging due to geography and land use patterns, we have seen elements of a grid slowly taking shape. This weekend’s service changes include some improvements to this grid as well. One very successful example is the 76 and 78, which have a combined segment from Tigard to Beaverton that acts as one of the few north-south crosstowns in the area. The 76/78 together are about as frequent as any of the “Frequent Service” branded lines, and weekend trips are being added this weekend to boost frequency even more.

Another change is combining the 47/48 with the 89 to create a pair of east-west lines from Hillsboro to Sunset Transit Center via Tanasbourne. The segments of the 47 and 48 that currently run to Willow Creek Transit Center will be deleted, but the 52 will remain to provide that north-south service. This is exactly the kind of change called for in designing a grid system: eliminating redundant service, simplifying routes, and encouraging connections.

Finally, while it is not a new part of the grid, we should celebrate the extension of frequent service on the 9-Powell out to East Portland and Gresham. Previously, every other trip ended at 92nd & Powell, but now East County residents will have access to more frequent service, which means much easier connections to other lines in the grid.

So it’s all good news, right? Not really. While this weekend’s service change does a great deal to strengthen the grid in terms of network design and even adds trips in a few places, we still lack the overall network frequency needed to make the grid function well. The whole foundation of putting in the 1982 grid system was to replace a lot infrequent radial service with frequent crosstown service, encouraging people to connect from one frequent transit line to another rather than always expecting a one-seat ride. This is only possible with frequent service (at least every 15 minutes, preferably every 10 minutes), because otherwise people end up waiting so long to connect that it is no longer worth it. Right now only a handful of bus lines get better than 15-minute headways, and usually even that is only during peak rush-hour times.

We need a return to real frequent service (at least every 15 minutes all day, 7 days a week) for our core grid system to really work for everyone and for multiple purposes. Transit needs to be useful not only for M-F 9-5 workers, but also people working in the service industry on weekends or in the evenings. It needs to be useful for work and shopping and leisure activities. All of this requires high frequency during more than just rush hour for our high-demand transit lines.

Another problem is the lack of coordination between the more-frequent service in the more dense parts of the region and the less-frequent service out in sparsely-settled suburbia. Some elements of the grid, like the 87 or the new 21 on outer Sandy, might never warrant truly frequent service, so ideally they would be timed to connect riders easily to the frequent grid.

TriMet used to have a timed-transfer “pulse” system at suburban MAX stations, but the system was phased out because it was expensive to operate and because frequencies were increased on many of those lines. Pulsing is very expensive because it depends on very high reliability, which in turn requires a great deal of layover and recovery time in the schedule. An alternative to the pulse would be to try to match up frequencies so that, for example, a 30-minute-headway line connecting to a 15-minute-headway line would be scheduled to arrive a few minutes before every other connecting trip.

The Future

So where do we go from here? Besides the need to restore and expand the frequent service network, where do we still have gaps in the grid that need to be filled? Here are some ideas (since I don’t have Adobe Illustrator handy, please refer to this handy interactive TriMet System Map to follow along):

One clear candidate is that pesky gap in inner SE Portland. Even after this weekend we will still have well over a mile (from 12th to 39th) between north-south lines in one of the most dense and transit-friendly parts of the city. Part of the reason this gap exists is that there is also a gap in the arterial street grid. There is an odd discontinuity there, with 33rd, 28th, 30th, and 26th all acting as the main arterial at various points. For this reason, it is probably impossible to design a good bus line through that area.

SE 20th Ave, however, could work as a north-south line. What might such a line look like? One idea would be to have the 10 run on SE 20th Ave after going through Clinton, rather than going to downtown via Ladd’s Addition. This would undoubtedly anger Ladd’s residents, but they all live within 5 minutes of at least one frequent line to downtown anyway (the 4 and 14). I fail to see why they need extra buses cutting through the neighborhood, and cyclists might appreciate getting buses off such a popular bike route. The line would then run up 20th all the way to Sullivan’s Gulch. 20th might have to lose some parking for bus stops, but it wouldn’t really require major changes to accommodate bus service.

After Sullivan’s Gulch, where would it go? From a network design perspective, it should connect with the 8 going up NE 15th Ave, but the problem is that this new line would have no MAX connection. One solution would be to cut over to Lloyd Center MAX, then back to 15th, but that is quite a deviation. It is also unlikely that current riders of the 8 would be willing to lose their downtown service.

Another idea is to connect this new Line 10 with the northern part of the 44. It would cut over on Multnomah to connect with MAX, then go up Williams to serve the current path of the 44. That part of the 44 currently gets pretty infrequent service anyway, with decent peak service dropping down to once-an-hour service in the mid-day and evening hours. It is also very redundant with nearby Lines 4 and 6. Everyone on that stretch of Vancouver/Williams from Rosa Parks to Fremont lives within a 5-minute walk of the 4 or 6, which both provide frequent service to downtown. Therefore the 44 would be an excellent candidate for being turned into a crosstown.

The new 10/44 hybrid would be another odd-shaped line, but would provide a brand new connection from SE to N Portland and would be much more useful than what are now two redundant and infrequent radials to downtown. This is exactly the situation planners successfully challenged 30 years ago, but these lines show there is still work to be done.

Another clearly needed crosstown would be a line up and down 148th Ave in East Portland. This is needed to fill an extremely large gap in north-south coverage that leaves residents with a series of disconnected east-west lines. As more and more low-income people move out to East Portland, the need for car-free mobility is more urgent than ever, and north-south service will be key to meeting that need. The 71 along 122nd Ave has been pretty successful, showing there is demand for such a line.

The northern end of 148th Ave, up near Sandy Blvd, does have hourly bus service on the 23, but that line quickly leaves the arterial to meander about neighborhoods on its way to Gateway Transit Center. The 23 gets pretty poor ridership and is very unnecessary given that those neighborhoods are pretty close to the 77-Halsey. Whether or not the 23 was eliminated (preferable in order to get some service hours to invest in a new line), there could be a new line running all the way down 148th to Powell. That line by itself would be too short, so it could go southwest a bit and connect with another line like the 17 or 19.

My final example of how we could continue to build the grid is made possible by the long-overdue construction of the new Sellwood Bridge. Bus service can finally be restored! Rather than running yet another bus from Sellwood to downtown (which would duplicate the 35, 19, and Orange Line), why not use it for an east-west crosstown? The 43 is a very low-performing line that runs through SW Portland on Taylor’s Ferry Rd before going downtown via an extremely slow and frustrating route on Corbett Ave through Lair Hill. This line runs very slowly on narrow roads through neighborhoods surrounded on all sides by superior transit service on Barbur and Macadam. The numbers show that very few people ride the 43 on the Corbett, and it also means that few riders get on the Taylor’s Ferry segment knowing they are in for a long slog to get downtown.

If the Corbett segment were removed, the 43 could instead make a sharp turn from Taylor’s Ferry to Macadam, then cross the Sellwood Bridge. It could run on Tacoma St through Sellwood, connect with the Orange Line at the Tacoma station, then continue east on Johnson Creek Blvd, which currently has no transit service. The line could cut south to Clackamas Town Center, making a great new east-west crosstown from Washington Square to Clackamas Town Center. We often talk about the need for good, high-demand anchors for transit lines. This line would have two very good anchors, with lots of neighborhoods in between.

Once again, I would like to make clear that these are my own ideas, and do not necessarily reflect any actual plans, policies, or opinions of TriMet.

In conclusion, I think we need to take this time to celebrate the implementation of the grid 30 years ago, but we also need to start having a public conversation about how we can restore the frequency needed for the grid to work and how to fill in the gaps in the grid that still remain. These are not just questions for TriMet, but also for our candidates and elected officials at all levels of local government. Please chime in with your thoughts on these ideas and submit your own in the comments!

Pros and Cons of Center- vs. Curb-Running Bus Rapid Transit

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The City of Boston has created a pretty nice one-sheeter laying out the advantages, disadvantages, and design principles of running exclusive bus lanes in the center of a road vs. along the curb. As the Portland region considers BRT for future rapid transit lines (Powell/Division, Clackamas to Washington Square, and the SW Corridor are all under consideration for BRT), it is worth thinking about these principles and trade-offs, so take a look!

Center-running bus lanes in The Hague

In general, a center-running alignment is preferable if we want a high level of service. It eliminates conflicts with right-turning vehicles and bicycles, generally gives exclusive signal phasing for transit vehicles, and it breaks up wide streets in a way that can dramatically improve pedestrian crossings. There is a reason why virtually all transit (both trams and buses) in the Netherlands runs in the center of the street, and I can report from experience that it works very well and breaks up wide streets very nicely. Of course, we don’t have to look that far for examples. Our very own Yellow Line on Interstate and Blue Line on E Burnside follow the same principle, although I would argue they could be retro-fitted to be a lot more attractive.

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Center-running transit can be quite attractive

Unfortunately, because Bus Rapid Transit is often chosen over Light Rail Transit as a way to save the most money possible on a project, it is all too often relegated to the outside lanes where performance is not as high. Both RapidRide in Seattle and Swift north of Seattle are examples of BRT lines that run in the curbside lanes, either in mixed traffic or in semi-exclusive Business Access Transit (BAT) lanes that are shared with right-turning and parking vehicles. While BAT lanes are better than nothing, they can often be just as clogged with cars as regular lanes, are difficult to enforce, and are often compromised (as we see through Interbay in Seattle) by making them peak-only.

As far as I can tell, there are two main reasons to choose curb-running over center-running lanes. First, if there is not enough right-of-way to fit in the center platforms. Second, if there is a political unwillingness to completely take away car travel lanes. The first reason doesn’t really apply to the roads being considered for BRT in Portland. Powell Blvd, even in inner SE Portland, has plenty of room to make the center lanes bus-only and still install median platforms. All we have to do is remove the center turn lane and the planted median. Same goes for Barbur Blvd in SW Portland, which has 3 car lanes in each direction and a small painted median.

The second reason is what will determine whether Portland ends up with high-quality BRT or not. People will object to removing any car capacity on Powell or Barbur, insisting they are critical auto corridors that should not be significantly altered. Curbside BAT lanes (probably peak-only) will be proposed as a way to “balance” the needs of cars and transit. ODOT continues to insist that Barbur needs its current capacity to act as an “overflow valve” for I-5 in case of accidents or congestion. These arguments fail to convince after the experience with N Interstate Ave. That was a road that was considered an important auto corridor and an overflow valve for the northern section of I-5, and yet we reduced its car capacity in favor of building MAX and life goes on. People have adjusted to the new reality and I am unaware of any major problems with the new configuration.

In the case of Powell, a reduction of lanes and a corresponding reduction in speeds would do wonders to improve the street’s safety, walkability, and livability. We should also remember that any BRT would be able to get off Powell somewhere around SE 17th to head up to the new Willamette transit bridge, so extra capacity would be available to deal with the Ross Island Bridge bottleneck. In the case of Barbur, that road is over-capacity anyway and should not be kept that way simply to absorb the occasional spillover from the freeway. Why do we have a 6-lane freeway and a 6-lane highway running parallel anyway? Rather than treating it as if it were one 12-lane superhighway in two parts, perhaps we should design them to perform distinct functions.

Zef Wagner is an analyst at Fregonese Associates and is pursuing a Master of Urban and Regional Planning degree at Portland State University, specializing in transportation planning. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fregonese or PSU.