Author Archive | Zef Wagner

The Electric Trolleybus: a Sustainable Choice for Portland

One thing I noticed my years living in Seattle was how much that city loves to copy Portland’s innovations. Government officials were constantly taking tours of Portland and bringing back ideas, many of which have borne fruit. Seattle now has a streetcar line, for example, and has just recently decided to start working on Neighborhood Greenways. I always wondered if there was anything Portland could learn from Seattle, and now I think I have found one. I refer to the electric trolleybus, which is not an innovation but rather an old idea that deserves new life.

The venerable electric trolleybus, once ubiquitous before the era of cheap oil, is now rare in North America. Cities across the continent traded overhead wires for diesel fumes during the decades after World War II. A few notable cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver, BC, chose instead to keep a core network of these vehicles, recognizing the benefits of quiet operation, zero tailpipe emissions, and the ability to easily climb hills. Anyone who has ridden a trolleybus knows they are far more pleasant to ride than diesel bus, and a modern trolleybus can approach streetcar levels of comfort.

In addition to these advantages, the electric trolleybus is inherently more environmentally sustainable than the diesel bus. Most electricity generation is only partly generated from fossil fuels, and in many cities like Seattle it is made up entirely of renewable energy like hydroelectric and wind power. The electric grid is also a much more efficient way to deliver energy than an internal combustion engine, so less energy is being wasted overall. A transit system that uses more electric vehicles can reduce its carbon footprint significantly. King County Metro in Seattle recently did an evaluation comparing the impacts of trolleybuses and diesel buses, and found that on virtually all measures the trolleybuses performed better.

What does this all mean for public transit in Portland? TriMet touts the sustainability of its light rail lines, but its bus fleet is almost entirely made up of aging diesel buses. Given that buses will always be an essential component of our transit network, it is essential that they be targeted for improvement. I would argue that the best way to make the bus system better and more sustainable would be to start building out a trolleybus network, starting with the Frequent Service Network.

Installing the wire costs about $3 million per mile, and the buses cost somewhat more than diesel buses, but given the many advantages it seems worth it. In addition, here’s an important and little-known fact: the federally-funded New Starts grants can be used for electric trolleybuses, not just streetcars and light rail. Rather than immediately build yet another light rail line after the Milwaukie project, TriMet could use federal funds to instead embark on a transformative modernization of its bus system that would have a positive effect all over the region.

It is worth noting that $3 million per mile is also a small fraction of the cost of building a streetcar line. I like streetcars as much as the next transit nut, but I think they should be specifically targeted towards focusing development in “urban renewal” areas, not built along areas where zoning is unlikely to change much in the future. The development impact is really the only thing streetcars seem to do better than a good bus, and even then the results are mixed. I’ve seen many fine developments tout their location on a major bus line.

It might make sense extend the streetcar to Hollywood, since it’s a designated growth center and could use the help, but perhaps we should build out some other corridors with a high-quality, modern, electric trolleybus network as seen in many European cities and a few American ones. Then we just need to wean Oregon off coal and TriMet could eventually reach carbon neutrality. This would make our transit system more sustainable, more comfortable, and cheaper to operate in the long run as oil prices rise.

Monomodal Fixation Disorder

All of us who have an interest in promoting transportation alternatives have encountered people afflicted with what I like to call “Monomodal Fixation Disorder.” Let’s just call it MFD for short. These poor souls not only prefer to use a single mode for all travel, but more importantly seek to impose their preferences on everyone else. They simply can’t understand why anyone would want to travel any other way!

The classic MFD case we usually encounter is that of the Motorist. Rather than simply being a person who sometimes drives, a Motorist drives absolutely everywhere and thinks that is a superior way to live, a lifestyle for everyone to replicate. They are most often found in suburban environments where the cul-de-sac street network and strip malls make any other mode naturally inconvenient. Motorists despise any attempt by government agencies to paint bike lanes, slow down traffic for pedestrian safety, or spend money on public transit. Not only does the Motorist not benefit from these improvements personally, he or she does not see how anyone else would benefit, since driving is the most superior form of transportation.

In a growing number of cities, but most notably Portland, we find another MFD type that is remarkably similar to the Motorist in attitude if not in appearance: the Cyclist! Usually young, fit, childless, and affluent, the Cyclist is willing to ride a bike for long distances all over the city, in any kind of weather, to any kind of destination, up hills and along dangerous roads. The Cyclist can’t conceive of why anyone in Portland would ever use another form of transportation. After all, cycling is faster than transit, bikes are easy to park, and you get exercise. Given the clear superiority of cycling, the Cyclist starts to wonder why government ever spends money on improving travel for cars or freight. Many Cyclists even wonder why the region is spending money on buses and streetcars, which often conflict with bikes on major roads and move so slowly. Since the Cyclist would never ride the bus, why should anybody else? Let Them Ride Bikes, they cry!

As a new student in the Portland State urban planning program, I encounter the Cyclist version of MFD all the time. When I say I generally prefer to take the bus to campus, many of my peers scoff at the idea of ever riding the bus. One student even wondered aloud whether TriMet’s inconvenient and infrequent bus system might be a good thing, since it could push more people onto bikes. This bizarre statement fails to recognize that for most people, cycling and transit are mutually supportive modes that work best in combination.

When I have brought up the idea that the $190-per-quarter student TriMet pass should be made universal to bring costs down and boost transit use, my fellow students assure me that the Cyclists (and the Motorists, of course) would never support that idea. Why should they subsidize such a clearly inferior mode of travel? It is strange to go to a school with a campus at the center of public transit access in Portland, only to find that they are unwilling to make any serious effort to make transit more affordable to students (for the record, the universal U-Pass at the University of Washington is only $76 per quarter).

I would argue that Monomodal Fixation Disorder is the main reason for the pernicious and destructive tone of transportation debates in Portland, and ultimately keeps us from achieving a just and equitable transportation system. The essence of MFD is the attitude that “what works for me should work for everyone.” It sees transportation as a zero-sum game, in which any investment in one mode automatically reduces the value of another. It is essentially an egotistical position, with no sense of civic-mindedness or recognition that everyone has different needs and preferences. Transportation debates often end up as arguments between Motorists and Cyclists, using nasty rhetoric and ignoring the rest of us who might want a balanced system.

The opposite approach, and a key to a transportation system that is useful and equitable, is to focus on a multimodal network that gives everyone reasonable access to a variety of ways to travel. This is a system that recognizes the inherent differences between people and respects those differences. I personally find it very easy to ride my bike around the SE and NE, but when going to downtown or beyond, the distance and geographic barriers make me prefer transit. However, my neighbor on one side might prefer to take transit for all her trips beyond walking distance, while my neighbor on the other might ride his bike everywhere for casual trips within town but prefers to drive to work so he’s not sweaty and tired. We all have different levels of income, fitness, willingness to endure weather events, and ability to live close to our destinations. Our transportation system has to reflect that.

One important caveat is that the balance of modes certainly needs to change in response to each neighborhood. In a suburban built environment where transit is harder to access and cycling is inherently more dangerous, cars will probably always be the dominant way to get around and policy should recognize that. However, we need to resist Monomodal Fixation and ensure that even in the suburbs people have access to long-distance transit service, bike lanes and bike boulevards, and a better pedestrian environment.

In denser, urban environments like inner Portland, it makes sense to prioritize somewhat more on pedestrian, bicycle, and transit improvements since this is where those improvements will be most effective. Huge swaths of the Portland region fall in the gray area between these two environments. East Portland, for example, is currently an area where driving is often the only reasonable choice for getting to a destination in a reasonable amount of time. Some targeted improvements could give residents many more modes to choose from when planning different kinds of trips.

In my ideal world, everyone would have a set of choices for each trip. If I am going across town, I can ride my bike if it is nice out and I have the energy, but I would also like to be able to take transit if I want to relax and read a book, and I would also like to have a carshare service like Zipcar in case I need the storage capacity or plan on going out of town later that day. Currently many people in the Portland region lack these choices. Transit runs too infrequently or doesn’t run late enough or on weekends. Cycling is unsafe and the bike paths don’t link up to one another. Sidewalks are missing or the street grid doesn’t provide direct paths. Zipcar might not have cars nearby or is too expensive to use. These are the problems that need to be fixed, and to do that the Motorists and the Cyclists need to cure themselves of Monomodal Fixation Disorder and focus on Multimodal Choices instead.

Governance Reform at TriMet: A Path to Democracy and Accountability

As a recent transplant from Seattle, I have been fascinated by all the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between the Portland and Seattle regions’ transit agencies. Most of these differences have their pros and cons. One agency vs several agencies, tickets vs smartcards, payroll tax vs sales tax, these are all issues that can be vigorously debated one way or the other.

The one issue with TriMet that I find both shocking and indefensible is that its Board of Directors is an unelected body appointed by the Governor of Oregon. It is obviously undemocratic, as the Board has no accountability whatsoever to the people living in the TriMet district. This leads to a huge amount of distrust and animosity towards TriMet, since residents and communities have no clear way to lobby for policy changes. If the Board was appointed by a local elected official or elected body, then at least there would be someone who can be held accountable. Instead, the Governor of Oregon has direct control over who runs our local transit agency and has little incentive to consider local concerns.

My experience has been with the transit agencies in the Puget Sound region, which have very different governance structures. King Country Metro, which runs transit in Seattle and the rest of King County, is governed by the directly-elected district-based County Council. This very simple structure means that every resident in King County has one direct representative on the transit board. The other three transit agencies (Pierce Transit, Community Transit, and regional agency Sound Transit) have boards made up of elected officials from throughout their transit service areas. In this model, the board is not directly elected, but rather is made up of various elected officials from local governments in rough proportion to population.

Sound Transit is a regional transit agency covering multiple counties, so it could serve as an appropriate model for better governance at TriMet. The 18-member Sound Transit Board consists of 10 elected officials from King County, 4 from Pierce County, 3 from Snohomish County, and also includes the Secretary of the Washington DOT to provide a measure of state involvement. As you might guess, the numbers from each county are proportional to their population. The elected officials include 3 county executives, 5 mayors or deputy mayors, 5 city councilmembers, and 4 county councilmembers. Even though the board is not directly elected, the public does have broad representation and pretty much anyone in the Sound Transit service area is likely to have a representative on the board.

While living in Seattle I was an active member of the Capitol Hill Community Council. When folks in the Capitol Hill neighborhood came up with innovative plans for transit-oriented development around the light rail station currently under construction, it was easy to determine which Sound Transit board members to work with on these ideas. We identified 5 members of the board who represented Seattle in some way, and proceeded to meet with those members and their staff. This turned out to be a very productive system. It’s hard to imagine anything comparable happening in the Portland region. Residents and neighborhoods can certainly push for changes at TriMet, but without elected officials being involved there is not much incentive for them to listen.

It would probably not be a good idea to have a directly elected TriMet Board, as this could inject too much politics into service policies that shouldn’t be based on election promises. The indirectly elected Sound Transit model, however, would ensure that people have representation and accountability while insulating the Board from direct electoral pressures. Each member during elections would be judged by their entire performance as mayor or councilmember, rather than only by their work on the transit board. I believe this is the model that TriMet should move towards.

How can this happen? One option is for the directly-elected Metro regional government simply take over TriMet, which is allowed by state law. This would make a certain amount of sense, since Metro is already in charge of long-range land use and transportation planning. Why not also run the transit agency? On the other hand, having a directly elected board might politicize transit service decisions too much, and there may be issues with the fact that Metro borders and TriMet borders do not line up. Of course, rather than the Metro Council acting as the TriMet Board, they could appoint elected officials for the purpose along the Sound Transit model.

If Metro continues to decline that opportunity, the other option would be for the state legislature or a citizen initiative to enact governance reform directly. Either option would require a major campaign by voters to push for this change. Groups like OPAL that are understandably frustrated with the direction of TriMet policy in recent years would do well to focus on governance as a major barrier to change. Rather than simply asking for longer transfer times or more bus service, it may ultimately be more productive to push for a more democratic agency that will be much more likely to listen to our concerns.

The Case for Stop Consolidation

Zef Wagner is recently relocated from Seattle to Portland and will be contributing occasionally and sharing his fresh-eyed perspective of Portland – Chris

The Problem

Most people take it as a given that local bus service is slow and often unreliable, while light rail is fast and very reliable. This is great news for those who have easy access to the MAX system, but for those who depend on a bus for their daily commute it results in frustration and resentment. While a bus in mixed traffic can never approach the performance of grade-separated rail, there many ways to improve the quality of bus service in order to narrow that gap. The most obvious answer is to increase bus frequency, but the economic downturn has forced TriMet to reduce frequency across the board, and it will most likely take many years before the funding is available to restore this lost service. Therefore any improvements in the short term will have to involve getting more and better service from existing resources.

The Solution

So what is the number one way we can improve frequency, speed, and reliability in our bus system? The answer is…wider stop spacing! In most of the world the standard for stop spacing for local bus service is closer to a quarter-mile, or around 1300 feet, while most North American bus routes stop about every 2 blocks, or around 600 feet. Why is there such a disparity? Human Transit has done a great job examining this issue, but the short answer is that American transit agencies tend to value coverage over speed and reliability. Another factor may be the legacy of the streetcar system, which was mainly built to compete with walking rather than with driving.

The accepted standard for walking distance is that most people are willing to walk a quarter-mile to get to a local bus service. If you wanted to give everyone access to only one bus stop, you would space stops every half-mile, but this would result in large coverage gaps at the halfway point between stops. Quarter-mile spacing is generally ideal because the entire corridor gets complete coverage, but overlap is kept at a minimum. Closer spacing might make sense in very dense areas like downtown, but most areas of Portland concentrate housing and employment density in narrow strips along corridors like Hawthorne, Division, or Alberta. This “corridor” density means that buses with wider stop spacing would still reach most of the people and destinations, while providing a dramatically better service.

What’s so great about wide stop spacing?

First, it increases the speed of the bus line, making it more competitive with driving for more trips. Second, it improves reliability, since every stop is an opportunity for unexpected delays that may cause the bus to get off schedule. Third, it improves frequency by allowing each vehicle and operator to make more runs in the same time period. As a simple example, if a bus route normally takes 60 minutes but stop consolidation brings it down to 50 minutes, then in 6 hours each bus can make 7 trips instead of 6. This is great way for us to get more frequency now without having to wait for additional funding.

What about the issue of access? While it is true that any stop consolidation will result in some people having to walk farther to reach the nearest stop, people are generally willing to walk farther to access high-quality transit. For example, the standard for grade-separated rail or Bus Rapid Transit is for stations to be spaced between a half-mile and a mile from each other. The additional speed, reliability, and frequency gives riders confidence that a long walk will not be followed by a long wait and a slow trip. This same principle should apply to local bus service with quarter-mile stop spacing. Most people in the supposedly “lost” coverage area will be willing to walk farther for superior service.

Have other transit agencies done this?

Other transit agencies on the west coast are leading the way on this issue. King County Metro in Seattle has been engaged in stop consolidation on their busiest routes for quite some time. They have been slowly moving toward a quarter-mile average stop spacing and have seen little local opposition. In fact, a survey of 60,000 residents of Seattle’s Rainier Valley showed that 93% approved of spacing bus stops 3 or 4 blocks apart rather than 1 or 2. San Francisco’s Muni has an ambitious plan for stop consolidation which they estimated could save or reinvest $5 million per year (or 2% of service) by eliminating 1 in 10 stops systemwide. Unfortunately that plan has been delayed due to lack of staff time and loud opposition from bus stop constituencies. It is notable that King County Metro chose to focus on surveys of entire transit-dependent communities and found widespread support, while Muni listened to a vocal minority that was not necessarily representative.

What now?

So what can TriMet do right now? First, they can revise their stop guidelines from the current range of 780-1000 feet to a range of 1000-1300 feet. Second, they should change their current practice of having closer stop spacing in all dense areas and focus instead on the shape of the density. It makes sense to have closer stops in areas with broad swathes of density, like the Pearl District, but on arterials like Hawthorne where the density is only concentrated along the corridor itself, wider stop spacing is more effective. Third, TriMet should follow the lead of Metro in Seattle and engage in a route-by-route stop consolidation program, making sure to work with neighborhoods to identify the most productive and useful stops to keep in service.

With massive service cuts behind us and higher fares ahead of us, bus riders are feeling shut out by TriMet and are starting to organize through groups like OPAL to advocate for more bus service. Stop consolidation would be an easy way for TriMet to immediately deliver better service with existing dollars and would send a powerful signal to bus riders that they have not been forgotten. Bus advocates would do well to push TriMet towards short-term, practical improvements such as stop consolidation while also working toward a long-term funding solution for regional transit.