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Open Thread for week of 9/29/2013

A few hot items:

 

Taxi Reform Update

As regular readers may recall, I have argued before that we should liberalize the onerous and anti-competitive regulations surrounding taxi service in Portland. Last year, the city took an important first step in revising those regulations and expanding service when it undertook a series of reforms aimed at improving worker conditions and approved new permits, mostly for a new cab company called Union Cab.

The Portland Mercury reported last week on the progress of these reforms. They characterize it as “slow going,” but of course instituting new performance measures and enforcing them is bound to take time. In a year from now we should have a better idea of the effects of the reforms. As far as Union Cab goes, it sounds like they are ready to hit the streets in the next month or so. It will be good to see more competition and more cabs on the street!

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

Video – TriMet Hybrid Bus Debut Event

Back in July of 2010, we covered TriMet’s announcement of the purchase of hybrid buses to be evaluated on the Line #72 route.

TriMet has now received those four buses and held an event today to launch them into service. Here’s our video providing an overview of TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane’s remarks at today’s press conference, a look inside and around the bus, and a bit of direct Q&A.

Line #72 riders will be able to catch these buses officially starting tomorrow, January 31st.

Hybrid bus facts from TriMet’s flyer handed out today, after the break:

TriMet: State-of-the-art Hybrids

What’s new

  • Four new-generation hybrid buses
  • More economical and environmentally friendly to run
  • Less emissions, quieter and lower fuel consumption than standard diesel buses
  • Tires powered by electric motor with no mechanical link between the diesel engine and the vehicles movement
  • Features electrically powered components – requiring less maintenance and longer life-cycles than mechanically powered components, which lowers maintenance costs and improves vehicle uptime and availability

By the numbers

  • Estimated to be 20 to 50 percent more fuel efficient than standard diesel buses
  • Estimated 6 miles per gallon (standard diesel buses get about 4.4 mpg)
  • Estimated fuel savings a year: 2,200 gallons per bus
  • Estimated reduction in nitrogen oxides (NOx) emission: 95.5 percent a year
  • Estimated reduction in particulate emissions: 95 to 98 percent a year

Technical details

  • “Series” hybrid
  • Has both a diesel engine and an electric motor but the diesel engine has no mechanical link to vehicular locomotion (making the tires spin)
  • Diesel engine feeds a generator, which in turn provides power to batteries that supply the electric motor; electric motor provides locomotion, making the bus move
  • Similar in architect technology to Chevy Volt or Fisker Karma
  • Smaller diesel engine; operates at its most optimum RPM (revolutions per minute)

Additional attributes:

  • Same capacity for load (39 seats), drivability and range as TriMet’s new 3000 series buses
  • Feature electronic cooling system – originally developed for the military, used in NASCAR and pioneered by TriMet in the transit industry. Reduces the load of auxiliary systems on the engine, improving fuel efficiency by five to 10 percent
  • Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) technology further scrubs the nitrogen oxides (NOx) emission from the exhaust
  • Regenerative braking sends energy to the batteries as bus slows while braking
  • Completely assembled in the US (Gillig facilities in Hayward, CA)
  • Roughly 60 percent of parts are US made (remainder produced in Europe)

Funding

  • $3,125,000: Total project cost
  • $2.5 million: Clean Fuels Grant from the Federal Transit Administration
  • $625,000: TriMet 20% match (required)
  • $664,096: cost per hybrid bus (standard diesel bus: $407,768)
  • Balance of funds – replacement parts, inspections, training, warranties
  • Clean Fuels Grants support emerging clean fuel and advanced propulsion technologies for transit buses and markets for those technologies

Rider features

  • Low floor, vinyl seats, larger windows, brighter LED lighting, lighter interior color scheme, air conditioning
  • Longer, more gradual sloped boarding ramp for riders using mobility devices; counterbalanced for easier deployment and retraction

Specs

  • 42 ft. long; 8.5 ft. wide, minus the mirrors; 11.5 ft. tall (majority of standard TriMet buses are 40.8 ft. long, 8.5 ft. wide and 10.5 ft. tall)
  • 31,080 pounds (15 tons) empty (majority of standard TriMet buses weigh 28,320 pounds (14 tons))

“Orange Line” Name for Portland-Milwaukie MAX: A Triumph of Marketing Over Rider Benefit

Pop Quiz: What makes more sense?

This?:
Orange Line.PNG
Or this?:
Yellow Line.PNG

In the recent barrage of emails and press releases from TriMet regarding construction activities for Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail, I have noticed a shift in marketing for the line. The project, officially still called the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Transit Project, has long been unofficially known as the Orange Line, but that always seemed like a placeholder in lieu of an actual study of what would be best for the line. However, in the last month or two the Orange Line designation has been actually used by the agency and appears to be official. At a recent tour I attended of construction activities, the tour guide confirmed that the current plan is to run the Orange Line as a stand-alone line, terminating and turning around at Union Station (see the first map above). This is a disturbing development for reasons I will outline below.

Giving the new light rail line a new color is a serious mistake clearly driven by marketing concerns rather than any consideration of operational efficiency or rider benefit. It appears that TriMet (and perhaps the city of Milwaukie) want the line to have a new color because it increases the visibility of the project compared to simply extending an existing line. The problem is that this seemingly innocuous naming scheme will have negative implications for the high-capacity transit network the public relies on.

The most beneficial and efficient way to operate the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail line would be to treat it as an extension of the Yellow Line (see the second map above). Southbound Yellow trains would run from Expo Center to downtown, continue past Portland State University, and head down to Milwaukie. Northbound trains would run all the way from Milwaukie to Expo Center. There are three main benefits to this form of operation. First, it allows riders to go straight through downtown without having to transfer. Second, it reduces the need for layover space in downtown where it is most scarce.

A good transit network will, whenever possible, allow transit riders to ride through downtown if they live on one side of downtown and work (or have other destinations) on the other side. We have precedence for this through-downtown model in the form of the Red and Blue Lines. Sure, the majority of riders get and on and off downtown, but there are also plenty of people who ride from one side to the other without having to transfer. TriMet also does this with most of the bus lines through downtown, and many people take advantage of this feature. In any case, extending the Yellow Line would create a very strong north-south transit spine to complement the east-west Blue/Red transit spine, whereas an isolated Orange Line would not. We need a network that expands riders’ freedom to go to more places, and that means making them as long as is practical and not forcing downtown transfers for no reason.

One reason that most bus lines go through downtown besides rider benefit is the fact that layover space is very limited downtown. Some lines do a “live-loop” downtown and don’t have a layover at all, and some other lines layover at Union Station, but there is simply not much space for buses to sit around. For light rail trains, there are a couple turnaround/layover spots: one for the Blue/Red Lines on SW 11th Ave between Yamhill and Morrison (rarely used nowadays), and one at the south end of PSU where the Yellow and Green Lines currently terminate. Other than that, there are a few pullout tracks around Union Station, but these are not as good because they require drivers to switch from one end of the train to the other rather than just turning around.

So one problem with running the Orange Line only as far as Union Station before turning around is that it is not a good place for a layover. TriMet could have trains use the pullout tracks, but it will be more time-consuming and awkward than using a full turnaround space like the ones mentioned above. The other option would be to always live-loop and only do layovers at the other end of the line in Oak Grove. That could work in general, but it leaves less operational flexibility for dealing with inevitable service disruptions or getting trains back on schedule.

Another issue, perhaps minor but still something to think about, is that we have a limited color palette to choose from for transit lines. Why waste Orange frivolously when we don’t have to? What if we decide to give Bus Rapid Transit lines colors as well, following the lead of Los Angeles, where they wisely decided to treat light rail and BRT as one integrated network? There really aren’t that many colors that are acceptable for transit lines, unless we are excited about the prospect of a Fuchsia Line or Periwinkle Line in our future.

The only possible advantage I can see from running the Orange Line separately is that it would effectively boost frequency on the downtown transit mall by 50%, assuming 15-minute headways on Yellow, Green, and Orange Lines. This would have been a bigger benefit back in the days of the Free Rail Zone, when light rail served double-duty as a downtown circulator. It also isn’t much of a boost, going from average 7.5 minute headways to 5 minute headways.

Overall, the benefits of running the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail line as an extension of the Yellow Line seem so obvious that I can only conclude that some combination of marketing and politics has managed to dominate any rational discussion of what is best for the public. I hope this article can jump-start that discussion, because it is not too late to change course and do the right thing. Let’s extend the Yellow Line, and save the color Orange for a future line when we really need it.

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.