Archive | Bus Rapid Transit

TriMet considers Bus Rapid Transit

The latest update of TriMet’s Transit Improvement Plan contains an interesting development: TriMet is considering Bus Rapid Transit on two corridors:

• A corridor from downtown Portland to Gresham, generally following Powell Blvd from downtown to around SE 82nd or I-205 and Division St east of SE 82nd or I-205
• A corridor generally following I-205 between Clackamas Town Center possibly stretching as far as Beaverton, with service to Oregon City, Tualatin and Tigard.

For those unfamiliar with the term, BRT originally referred to the grade-separated rail-like bus systems found in cities like Curitiba and Bogota. This “full BRT” is often used in developing countries that need the speed and capacity of a rail line but have difficulty raising the high amounts of capital required. In the US, the availability of federal funds for major rail projects has made full BRT less common. The cost of acquiring the necessary right-of-way is also a major part of the cost of a light rail line, so full BRT may not save as much capital funding as one might expect.

TriMet is considering a more limited form of BRT they call “On-Street BRT.” This is the form of BRT recently established in the Seattle region in the form of King County Metro’s “RapidRide” and Community Transit’s “Swift.” These systems generally run buses in mixed traffic with only limited exclusive segments, and instead rely on a variety of other mechanisms to make the buses run with more speed and reliability. These tools include: high frequency; off-board payment; real-time arrival signs at stations; wider stop spacing; signal priority; queue jumps and bus-only signals; and many others depending on the project. The rise of On-Street BRT is driven primarily by a new category of federal transportation funding called “Very Small Starts.” This funding source provides relatively small grants to transit agencies that create such a BRT line, and comes with several requirements. For example, this type of BRT must have its own brand (like RapidRide) with distinctive vehicles, and must have widely spaced “stations” with off-board payment rather than just normal stops.

TriMet has identified two major corridors that will be studied for possible On-Street BRT investment. The first would run from downtown Portland east to Gresham via Powell Boulevard and Division Street. This corridor was identified in the recent Metro High Capacity Transit (HCT) Plan as a first-tier priority for the region. This BRT line would replace portions of the busy number 9 bus and would provide an excellent parallel route to the existing MAX Blue Line to Gresham farther north. Powell Boulevard is currently very car-focused, so a major transit investment like this could make a huge difference in this corridor.

So why not light rail? One problem is a lack of available right-of-way. While it would be technically possible to put light rail in the center of the roadway like the Yellow Line on Interstate, the reduction in car capacity would be unacceptable on these major arterials. Another related problem is that Powell is an ODOT facility, so TriMet would be severely constrained in any efforts to remove or change automobile capacity. TriMet could build an elevated rail line, but that would be much more expensive and most likely heavily opposed by the neighborhoods and businesses along the line. It is also worth pointing out that this BRT line would be able to bypass the Ross Island Bridge by using the new transit-only bridge currently under construction.

The other BRT line being considered as a longer-term project would run on I-205, connecting Clackamas Town Center (terminus of the MAX Green Line), Oregon City, Tualatin, and Tigard. This corridor is in the second-priority tier of projects in the HCT Plan. The I-205 BRT line would be a useful crosstown service connecting several suburban employment centers without going through downtown. It would also provide an east-west link between the WES Commuter Rail, the future Southwest Corridor light rail line, and the MAX Green Line. It could even connect with the Milwaukie Line if it is ever extended to Oregon City.

One advantage of BRT is its quick turnaround time. While light rail in the SW Corridor may take a decade to become a reality, these BRT lines could be completed in just a few years. TriMet is smart to consider a cheaper, faster form of high-capacity transit, especially given the recent decline in federal and state transportation funding. This is the kind of flexibility that many have hoped to see from TriMet. Time will tell if these lines are built and how they function, but I for one am excited by the possibilities.

ODOT to close 82nd Avenue bus lane for safety reasons?

ODOT is considering getting rid of the bus lane on SE 82nd Avenue, between Monterey and King, for safety reasons.
Outside the transit mall, the Portland metro area has very little bus-specific traffic infrastructure. Virtually all busses run in mixed traffic, with little or no signal priority or other enhancements designed to improve their reliability. There are a few exceptions to this, and one of the most notable is the bus lane on northbound 82nd Avenue north of Clackamas Town Center.

Unfortunately, ODOT considers the bus lane a safety hazard (for motorists), and is considering its closure.
The 82nd Avenue bus lane runs in the outside (curb) lane of 82nd from SE Monterey Avenue (the street used to access the CTC Transit Center from 82nd) to SE King Road. It is located between the curb and the northbound bike lane (and separated from general traffic by bikes); two general travel lanes in each direction, a turning refuge, and a southbound bike lane make up the remainder of the street’s configuration. Three bus lines–the 31, the 71, and the 72 (the busiest line in the system), which combine for up to 10 busses per hour, use this stretch of 82nd (at King the 31 and the 71 head west where the 72 continues north). Traffic in the area is frequently a parking lot, so the bus lane gives TriMet and its riders an important efficiency and reliability advantage.

Safety concerns

However, this particular stretch of ODOT has been identified as a safety hazard, and a project to improve traffic safety in the area is potentially part of the 2014-2015 STIP (State Transportation Improvement Program). Unfortunately, the proposed project calls for the removal of the bus lane, on the grounds that sideswipe collisions between busses and cars were a frequent danger. The project proposal is unclear as to whether or not the bus lane would be replaced with nothing (leaving 82nd with four traffic lanes, two bike lanes, and a turn refuge), a third northbound lane, parking, or whatnot. The project description goes to great lengths to emphasize that bus service in the corridor would continue, just without a dedicated lane.

I consider safety to be an important concern, and outside bus lanes such as this are frequently a less-than-ideal solution. Outside bus lanes (meaning those on the right in North America) frequently come into conflict with turning traffic; and right-turners have a tendency to be less cautious about their business than those turning left. In addition, the lane isn’t as exclusive as one would like–cars may enter it to turn right, and autos doing so may find themselves blocked by pedestrians in the crosswalk. (Jarrett Walker goes into more detail on these and other issues). Simply eliminating the bus lane is a low-cost solution to the problem (the project has a fairly limited budget, and might not be done at all), though one that will–in this case–have severe impacts on the speed and reliability of a key piece of the TriMet system.

However, this does sound like a case of an auto-focused agency dealing with a motorist problem by short-changing transit. In the collisions that occur, it’s invariably inattentive motorists colliding with busses in the bus lane, not inattentive bus drivers running over automobiles. Were autos instead side-swiping bicycles, the powers that be probably wouldn’t be considering elimination of the bike lane–at least not in Oregon. (In other parts of the country, such incidents would be blamed on cyclists gettin’ in the way). A better solution to the problem, one that took transit concerns seriously, would involve improvements such as access consolidation, traffic control devices to mediate conflicts between busses and motorists, and a more substantial barrier between the different modes than a line painted on the street.

But there’s a bigger opportunity potentially being missed here.

Doing it right

Another part of the project attempts to deal with left-turn conflicts, and there are plenty. An excellent way to deal with left turn conflicts is to limit left turns–replacement of turn lanes with medians and limited left turns to signalized crossings (with U-turns being permitted as well) is a time-honored way of improving safety on high-volume arterials like 82nd. And indeed, there are such design elements in the project (and two others in the STIP which are centered around King and Sunnyside) with numerous turning movements being restricted by the installation of physical barriers and left turns being limited to major intersections.

But think for a moment–if traffic engineers decide to replace a turning refuge with a no-turning barrier, and are simultaneously considering getting rid of a curbside bus lane because of right-turn conflicts–what is an obvious solution that not only kills two birds with one stone, but improves transit outcomes rather than making them worse?

How about—a bus lane in the median?

Or, since there’s both a turning refuge and an existing bus lane being replaced, upping the ante and building two bus lanes–one per direction–in the median?

Median bus lanes, as opposed to the curbside variety, have several advantages, including:

  • no turning conflicts at other than signalized intersections
  • Less intimidating to pedestrians, bikes, and other smaller road users near the curb or on the sidewalk.
  • The bus service is more prominent and seems more reliable when located in the median. Whether or not such psychological cues ought to matter, they do.
  • Assuming stops are placed near intersections, easier pedestrian access to the bus (two half-crossings of the street rather than one full crossing on a given round trip).

Of course, median busways don’t really make sense with local-stop service; they work best when the bus can travel some distance between stops, and when given other BRT treatments. A busway with stops at King, Causey, and Monterey–and improved pedestrian access to make up for the longer stopping distances–would provide the same safety advantages and make transit through the area even more reliable than it is now.

This proposal would no doubt cost more than the limited-scope restripe-and-erect project being proposed by ODOT (which is priced at less than $200k), and a good argument can be made that it isn’t really worth it for a half-mile stretch of road. However, for transit outcomes, even doing nothing is better than the proposal which is on the table. (And were this extended north to Johnson Creek, or even further, so much the better).

Public comments on the proposal may be submitted to ODOT here. If you comment, make sure you select the radio button for “82nd Avenue at SE Causey Road” under Safety Projects… and be polite.

Is the Yellow Line the best rapid transit connection to Vancouver?

While the CRC and its design remain a topic of hot controversy, one of the key design elements is the extension of light rail, specifically the Yellow Line, into Vancouver. Many in Portland insist on it. Many in Vancouver are just as opposed, considering light rail an expensive boondoggle.

Currently, the only through services between Portland and Vancouver are C-TRAN’s 105 and 199 express lines. And Clark County (specifically the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council, the Metropolitan Planning Organization for Clark County, albeit one far less powerful than Metro) is making its own rapid transit plans based on Bus Rapid Transit, with the first proposed line along Fourth Plain Boulevard, in the planning phases.

Might a BRT connection between Portland and Vancouver, assuming suitable design modifications on the CRC (or whatever gets built), be a possibility (including in addition to the proposed MAX extension)?
Whither the Yellow?

Right now, the Yellow Line is tabbed to be the primary connector between the two downtowns; and many Vancouver-Portland travelers use it to Delta Park before transferring to one of the C-TRAN services that cross the river. The 105 and 199 also provide express service between Portland and Vancouver; whether or not these services will be maintained in a post-CRC future is an interesting question. (Anecdotally, there is a significant contingent of express riders who have reservations about using MAX, in some cases for rather retrograde social reasons; that said similar objections are commonly voiced whenever a rapid-transit line replaces an express service).

The Yellow Line has one problem, though: It’s slow.

Unlike the east-west trunk line, and the soon-to-break-ground Milwaukie line, which operate in their own rights-of-way soon after leaving the downtown core, the Interstate line runs in the median of Interstate Avenue for over four miles, and is speed-limited to 35MPH. It takes 20 minutes to travel the less than six miles between the Rose Quarter and the Expo Center; while that’s faster than a well-used local bus (and more reliable, given the exclusive right-of-way), it’s not all that good either. The Steel Bridge bottleneck makes things worse; it takes about six minutes on average for trains to travel from the Rose Quarter to Union Station, and another five to reach Pioneer Square. If we tack another 3-5 minutes to cross the river, including a stop at Hayden Island, we’re looking at a 35 minute trip between the two downtowns. It’s better than the current arrangement, but it is far from ideal. And for a line which is intended to be a regional trunk, it’s rather….annoying.

Interstate MAX has other issues as well, many of which commenter Jason McHuff outlines here. Some of these issues, such as I-5 acting as a barrier to the Yellow Line’s catchment area, don’t directly affect the issue of Portland/Vancouver trips, but many of Jason’s observations point to opportunities, which we will discuss later.

Meanwhile, across the river…

..planners in Clark County are busily making plans to build bus rapid transit. Four corridors have been identified, the first of which is in the early planning phases (the other three do not yet have projects associated with them). They are:

  • Fourth Plain Boulevard, between downtown Vancouver and Vancouver Mall, with a possible extension east along SR500. This is the busiest corridor in the C-TRAN system; with the 4 and 44 lines providing headways that TriMet would label frequent service (and being rather crowded to boot).
  • The Highway 99 corridor north from downtown Vancouver to Salmon Creek
  • A “BRT-lite” alignment along Mill Plain from downtown Vancouver to Fischer’s Landing
  • A “freeway bus” route along I-205 from Fischers Landing, to Gateway TC in Portland.

All of these proposed corridors, other than the I-205 one, would intersect the proposed MAX extension downtown. (The I-205 corridor running to Gateway is an improvement over the existing eastside busses which only connect to Parkrose TC; thus missing connection opportunities with the Blue and Green Lines).

I will not waste any (digital) ink condemning Clark County’s preference for BRT over LRT. I’m generally mode-agnostic, density north of the Columbia is much lower than in Portland, and the political support for rail simply is not there–so a BRT solution makes a lot of sense for Vancouver. Of course, the necessity to transfer to MAX in Vancouver to reach Portland bothers me.

One interesting thing that caught my eye in the FAQ for the Fourth Plain line is this little tidbit:

How is this related to the Columbia River Crossing Project?

The Fourth Plain BRT Project is independent of the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) project and is not funded from the CRC project’s funds. However, C-TRAN is currently working with the CRC’s transit design team to determine if it is possible to run BRT buses along the same transit guideway as light rail trains (LRT) that the CRC project is planning to extend into downtown Vancouver at some point in the future. [emphasis added] C-TRAN is also working with CRC staff to ensure that both the CRC LRT and BRT projects can be accommodated in downtown Vancouver. Additionally, there is a proposed August or November 2012 ballot measure which would increase the sales tax slightly to pay for construction and operating/maintenance costs of the BRT project as well as just operating/maintenance costs for the LRT extension.

It is unclear if they simply mean dual LRT/BRT operation on the surface MAX alignment in downtown Vancouver… or if they mean dual LRT/bus operation on the CRC as well.

The latter idea has possibilities.

What if BRT were extended into Portland?

What if one (or all) of the proposed BRT lines, rather than ending in downtown The Couv, all crossed the river and provided fast, friendly service to downtown Portland? We’ve got a bit of BRT ourselves in the Rose City (the transit mall), even if we don’t call it that; and a Salmon Creek BRT would obsolete the 199 and 105 express lines. Assuming that the transit lanes on the CRC could be configured to support busses as well as trains (there are good reasons to extend MAX into Vancouver, even in this scenario), there are several possible routes that a BRT corridor could take to reach Portland. In order to avoid duplication of service (and due to the fact that rebuilding the Yellow Line is considered out of scope in this discussion), a few possible BRT corridors come to mind:

  • Portsmouth to UP to Swan Island. One option would send busses west from Delta Park up Columbia Boulevard (preferably in an exclusive-ROW, and then south along the Portsmouth Trench (or whatever its called) to UP, then along the shore to Swan Island, and then downtown. This would be the longest route, but provide good opportunities for an exclusive right of way without needing to tear down much in the way of existing urban fabric. This route could include a short “green bridge” connecting Willamette Drive south of UP to Basin Avenue, crossing over the railroad tracks, permitting other useful service reorganizations in North Portland.
  • Along I-5. This routing would closely parallel MAX, but help to rectify a major sin of the Yellow Line by providing service to the east side of I-5. In many places along I-5, there’s room for a busway; an I-5 routing would provide direct service to PCC-Cascade and Legacy Emanuel, two important transit destinations in North Portland which are presently not directly served by mass transit. (Also as part of a BRT line in this corridor, it would be a useful project to tear down the bulk of the obnoxious Kerby Street ramps off of the Fremont Bridge, bringing it down to surface grade at the Kerby bend–and then reconnecting Kerby Street south of the ramps to Kerby Street north. The land currently occupied by the ramps could be converted to something more useful than redundant pavement. This is probably a good idea apart from any BRT…
  • Along MLK. MLK is a four-lane highway (or better) all the way from Delta Park to Broadway; which is probably two more lanes than it needs to be. Median busway (or hybrid busway-streetcar, as it’s on the Streetcar System Plan) makes a lot of sense. Of course, it’s still a state highway, so ODOT will probably put the kibosh on this idea, and a higher-speed surface line might not work with the neighborhood.

One other outstanding item is the bus connection from the Rose Quarter to downtown. Right now, existing busses use surface streets and the Steel Bridge (curiously, no TriMet busses use the Broadway, which I find intriguing), the outer lanes of which are shared with cars. It’s tempting to want to close the Steel to through traffic altogether, but doing so probably would be disruptive (though it would be nice to do something about the horrible bottleneck on the east end where the MAX lines all come together–right in the middle of an intersection with Interstate Avenue and Multnomah Street). A better idea might be to shift many of the bus services that currently use the Steel to the Broadway, and make the outer lanes of that (where the Streetcar tracks are doing) transit-only; with autos limited to the inner two lanes, with exclusive-transit lanes continuing to Irving Street and the north end of the mall. (Another possibility would be to make the rightmost eastbound lane on the Broadway, and the rightmost westbound lane on the Steel, transit-only; and provide both with direct connections to the transit mall).


I should conclude that much of this post is probably wishful thinking. Building a rapid transit corridor in close proximity to the Yellow Line is probably not happening any time soon; and one which would be significantly for the benefit of an out-of-state transit agency is doubly problematic–especially if it doesn’t have a larger multi-state project like the CRC to piggyback on. And the inter-agency cooperation issues discussed previously would be magnified (though MAX into Vancouver will likely bring these issues further into the forefront). But still–C-TRAN’s forays into BRT might be useful to TriMet in the future.

Thinking about solutions for the Beaverton-Wilsonville corridor

A discussion of possible solutions to the Beaverton/Wilsonville corridor.
Back in February, we took a look at the future of commuter rail in the Portland area. One corridor which was examined in detail is the Beaverton-Wilsonville corridor, which has been identified by Metro as a “near term priority corridor” for high capacity transit. The corridor is presently served by the WES line, as well as by TriMet’s 76, 78, and 96 busses, and the 2X line of SMART. However, none of these lines provides adequate rapid transit service. Only the 76 and 78, both local bus lines, run seven days a week. The portion of the system where 76 and 78 overlap, between Beaverton and Tigard, has near-frequent service on weekdays, but the quality of the service offering drops off considerably south of Tigard. Clearly, the current service in the corridor isn’t where planners would like it to be.

But how to improve it?
The current thinking

The Regional Transportation Plan has called for WES service to be expanded to 15-minute all-day service, but given the steep operating cost of WES, and the need for the Portland and Western to move freight on the tracks, this may have difficulties as well.

How difficult?

The detailed analysis contained in the evaluation report (see pp 157-159 for the summary) included the following comments:

Given the recent opening of the WES commuter rail line, this corridor is unique to all other corridors considered in this analysis. Upgrading WES to 15/15 headway in 2035, consistent with the existing RTP financially constrained system plan, would require significant capital investment. There are significant physical challenges to upgrading WES to light rail or all-day, high frequency service. Freight rail will continue to operate in this corridor for the foreseeable future, requiring any significant update (to 15 minute or better all day service) to be constructed on a separate two-track line. Modeling of this corridor shows that travel demand is high and that an HCT investment on the corridor segments between Washington Square and Bonita are among the highest segments of any corridor modeled in this HCT System Plan. Other options for serving these segments should be explored in planning and design phases of the two Regional Priority corridors identified in this Plan – Corridor 11 (Portland to Sherwood via Barber) and Corridor 29 (Clackamas Town Center to Washington Square via RR ROW [Lake Oswego]).

Commuter rail is assumed to be the primary mode for this corridor. The highest demand
segments of the corridor could be developed as part of the regional light rail system using light rail as discussed in the Corridor 11 and Corridor 29 summaries.

The first obvious question: If you are going to building two additional dedicated tracks for transit service; tracks which will be separate from freight operations–why would you choose commuter rail over light rail? Even if you were to maintain long stop spacing, similar to what WES offers today, I have a hard time thinking of any technical reasons why operation of WES-style commuter trains over dedicated tracks would pose any advantages over light rail vehicles. The whole point of WES-style vehicles is they can run on existing active freight lines; but the downside is that they are subject to FRA regulations, which are demonstrably unfriendly to transit operations. And the Beaverton/Wilsonville corridor would benefit from additional stops along the way, particularly at places like Bridgeport and Washington Square, where the current tracks don’t go but a new light rail line could.

Light rail lines along this corridor could also through-run to Portland or Hillsboro along the existing Westside tracks, or switch to the Southwest Corridor, if the latter is built as LRT.

But the downside of doing this is the cost: Right now, adding two additional tracks in the corridor is pegged to cost about $1.9 billion–and given that this is a planning estimate, I suspect it’s on the low side. The corridor is nearly twice as long as Milwaukie-Portland, and while such a project wouldn’t include any bridges on the scale of the OMSI-SoWa crossing, one crossing of the Tualatin would be needed.

But the presence of existing rail service on the corridor may make another option–bus rapid transit of some sort–a (politically) viable alternative.

The bus/rail gap
Much has been written about the so-called bus/rail debate, in which the merits of busses vs trains in transit applications are widely discussed. As an abstract debate, it easily tends to devolve into an argument of platitudes, and strong pro-bus or pro-rail positions are frequently proxies for arguments about other values not having much to do with transit performance. That said, there are some applications where one technology may be better suited than the other.

For a cost-constrained system, especially where capital funds are limited, BRT has definite advantages. BRT systems generally cost less than equivalent rail systems, and at the lower end, can cost a lot less. The cost savings come from several areas:

  • “Difficult” parts of a corridor can often be dealt with by limited stretches of mixed-traffic running and bus lanes/busways can often be utilized by local bus services as well as by rapid services. Trains, on the other hand, require dedicated infrastructure wherever they go.
  • If the political will exists to convert general purpose auto lanes to exclusive bus use, significant increases in transit performance can be had at little cost; and the improved running times will help the operational bottom line, while making the service more attractive. However, if such conversions are not politically possible (which is often the case), then BRT will either require construction of a dedicated right of way (and thus be more expensive to build, with costs approaching rail), or require significant running in mixed traffic (and thus be slower and less reliable).
  • Roadbeds are cheaper to install then rail lines. A railbed capable of supporting LRT vehicles must be built to far stronger standards than one that needs to support busses (or streetcars, for that matter), and frequently requires relocation of utilities under the right-of-way. Train traffic can damage long runs of pipes underneath, and repairs to utilities located under rails may require taking the rails out of service. Busses do not pose a threat to utilities and can more easily detour should maintenance be required. On the downside, busses are notoriously hard on pavement.
  • It’s far easier to mix express and local services with busses–all are needed are passing lanes at platforms. Rail generally requires additional lines, or complex networks of pullouts and switches, to support an express service on the same corridor as a local.

BRT has several issues, however, which work against it.

  • Higher operating cost per passenger on high capacity lines. Trains can simply haul more people per driver than can busses; the individual vehicles are larger, and they can be entrained. This is only an advantage when you need the capacity. A MAX train costs about twice as much to operate per hour than a 40′ bus does; but can hold 4-5 times the passengers. A full MAX train is far more efficient from an operational point of view than the equivalent number of busses; but an 1/4 full MAX train is not.
  • Bus is frequently seen as less prestigious than rail by politicians–this consideration is perhaps more important than it ought to be, but it is real. After the North-South MAX line was defeated in the 1990s, BRT was examined for the Milwaukie corridor–only to have the city of Milwaukie insist that rail be put back on the table. (A discussion on the merits of BRT in the Milwaukie corridor is here, and many old Metro documents can be found here). The annals of transit development are filled with stories of activists and officials whining about how a neighboring community got “better” transit infrastructure. (When the Gold Line light rail opened in East LA last year, many locals complained bitterly that they didn’t get a subway like the west side got).
  • One of the most difficult objections, however, is the some-people-just-won’t-ride-a-bus argument. It’s a difficult topic, as it generally lies within the realm of psychology and culture (and can hit on some politically sensitive subjects such as race and class, that we won’t get into in this article); not within science or engineering. But there is some evidence that–regardless of the merits of this position–this gap is real; and that rail projects can expect higher ridership than equivalent bus lines. This is an important factor for an agency which sees improving ridership as a goal, whether for environmental reasons (getting more people out of cars) or for reasons of funding or prestige. Rail critics often argue that agencies shouldn’t worry about attracting finicky patrons, and should focus instead on those patrons who don’t mind the bus. For better or worse, though, TriMet cares about ridership, and the South Metro SDEIS claimed that light rail would attract 33% more riders than the top-grade BRT solution considered (with an exclusive right-of-way for busses). That said, the SDEIS projections for both modes far exceed the current FEIS ridership projections for Milwaukie MAX, so the figures might be taken with a grain of salt.
  • Rail also seems to be more attractive to developers. Whether or not this should be a consideration for rapid transit service is also a major question–a good argument can be made that if the developers aren’t contributing to a project’s funding, through a Local Improvement District, urban renewal, or provision of land (such as Bechtel’s involvement on the Red Line), etc.–that their concerns ought to be irrelevant. Like it or not, real estate interests have significant influence on policymakers, however.

TriMet has considered BRT for several projects in its history–the original MAX line was originally visioned as a busway, and the history of MLR is indicated above. However, it has never built any. Some allege an institutional bias against bus for rapid transit applications; some go further than that in their criticism.

But the Beaverton/Wilsonville corridor provides some unique opportunities.
The westside opportunity
Given these issues, BRT projects–particularly to the suburbs, where municipal governments compete for prestige and residents are more likely to be adverse to riding the bus (and developers leery of projects where proximity to bus service is a feature)–often come with several strikes against them. However, the WES corridor may be a promising one for the technology for several reasons.

  • Existing rail service in the corridor–WES. The presence of WES helps to address both the political prestige problem and the folks-won’t-ride-the-bus problem. Those who won’t ride the bus can ride the train (patrons who are bus-averse are more likely to only consider using transit for their daily commute, which is when WES runs); and the local governments involved already have a “prestigious” rail project running their jurisdictions, and thus far less room to complain about not getting another.
  • Likewise, a BRT line is more easily positioned as a complement to WES–a project widely viewed as a failure–allowing regional leaders to save face more than they would were a MAX line built instead.
  • Improved bus service would make WES more attractive for another reason–it would give those who work late (and might miss the last train) a more attractive fallback position.
  • BRT could continue to run on the 76 corridor, albeit with somewhat greater stop spacing, but still serving many important destinations that WES does not stop at.
  • With WES taking care of the peak loads on the corridor, the residual capacity needs might well be in the operational “sweet spot” of bus service rather than rail service.

In many ways, a BRT service in the corridor would be an excellent complement to the existing WES service, without the need to engage in a costly and difficult expansion thereof. And anything would likely be a competitive offering given the terrible traffic situation in the corridor–a while back, ODOT actually considered closing all the ramps on OR217 during rush hour so traffic could move more swiftly between US26 and I-5. Widening of 217 has been discussed–but the numerous closely-spaced interchanges make any improvements of the freeway an expensive proposition.

BRT wasn’t really considered as an option by the HCT plan, however. The evaluation process used in the HCT plan treated all proposed corridors as MAX lines (this was done to have apples-to-apples comparisons; several corridors are not recommended for light rail by the report, but may be suitable for other modes). The Beaverton/Wilsonville corridor was identified as suitable for rail; the possibility of a combination of commuter rail and BRT was not addressed.

What should it look like?

We’ll ignore the choice of bus or rail (and what flavor) for now, and look instead at service parameters, such as “how fast should it go”? and “where should it go?” (Another important question is “how often should it run”; however, I’ll ignore this question for now as I suspect any solution will be constrained by operating costs and not by line capacity).

The two questions, unfortunately, are not independent–a line that serves dense neighborhoods (particularly existing ones) is likely to be slower than a greenfield line, unless the community is willing to spend the money for things like grade separation. A line that is designed for speed will (by necessity) stop less often and be less-well integrated into neighborhoods–surface rail down city streets, even in medians, simply can’t run at 55MPH.

This is demonstrated by this table. While bus and rail are capable of similar speeds, all else being equal, high-speed transit (of any mode) requires that vehicles stop less often–and reliability requires that the number and duration of stops be predictable. The fastest services will only stop at platforms (class A); slower services may need to stop at a fixed number of crossings as well (class B); and services that run in mixed traffic may have to stop arbitrarily often, making them slow and unreliable.

How fast?

The first question, then, is “how fast”? For now, we’ll limit our discussion to the Beaverton/Tualatin segment, as that segment is entirely urbanized, and all within TriMet’s service territory. The existing service, WES, is fast–covering the ~9 mile rail distance from Beaverton to Tualatin in 17 minutes, and the full 14.7 mile route to Wilsonville in 27. Over the length of the run, it averages over 30MPH, which is very fast for transit. However, the average distance between stops is about 3.7 miles. On the other end of the service spectrum, the existing #76 bus (which only runs to Tualatin) offers travel times between Beaverton and Tualatin that range from 35 minutes during off-peak hours, to up to 45 minutes during rush hour. The distance of the route the bus takes is closer to 10.5 miles It takes about 32 minutes to drive the route taken by the bus, and 15 minutes (assuming no congestion) to use the freeway.

Doing faster than WES, while remaining useful, is not likely to happen. Marginal improvements could be had by vehicles not subject to FRA regulations, but the amount of savings are somewhat minimal, so we’ll consider 17 minutes a lower bound. Likewise, anything desiring to be “rapid transit” ought to be able to easily beat peak local bus service, and be comparable to off-peak service (empty busses that don’t have to stop can go faster, however)–I’ll arbitrarily set 37 minutes as an upper bound.

With 17 minutes offering a lower bound on the possible travel time, and ~35 minutes offering a reasonable offer bound


The route from Tualatin to Beaverton is somewhat diagonal, and the street network generally offers poor northwest-southeast connectivity in the region–with most major streets not headed to Portland being disjointed. The Tualatin River provides a barrier as well, as does the freight line, the freeway, and Fanno Creek. The main corridors where one could put a transit line are the freight line, I-5 and OR217, and Boones Ferry/Hall Boulevard. Grade-separated light rail (or BRT) would be most at home on the first two, though the 217 corridor in particular is narrow and might be problematic to expand.

The present 76 bus runs on the Hall/Boones Ferry corridor, other than a diversion to Greenburg Road between Tigard TC and Washington Square. This corridor hits all the major transit destinations, as well as serving numerous concentrations of apartments. Putting grade separation along Hall or Boones Ferry probably would be problematic, and disruptive to existing uses, but these roads could accommodate a surface line, particularly the stretch of Hall north/west of Washington Square.

The alternatives.

With all that in mind, here are five alternatives to consider, each offering different tradeoffs between cost and reliability, speed, and accessibility.

The 17-minute solution. Build a Class A (grade-separated; possibly with grade crossings guarded by gates) light rail line on a 2-track ROW from Tualatin TC, serving Durham/Bridgeport, Tigard TC, Washington Square, Denney/Allen, and Beaverton TC. (Actually, this line might follow the freeway across Canyon, and intersect with the existing MAX line near the big curve east of Beaverton TC and south of Sunset TC, with trains serving Sunset instead of Beaverton and continuing to Portland). This idea has two more stops than WES, but I’m making the assumption that the smaller and faster LRT vehicles can make up for it with better acceleration characteristics than the heavy DMUs used for WES.

The 22-minute solution. The same as the 17, but with more stops. To the list I would add a 72nd Avenue stop (near Carmen Drive), a Bonita Road stop, a Greenburg/Tiedeman stop, and either put back the Hall/Nimbus stop or add a Griffith Park/Farmington Road stop. Average stop distance would be right about a mile–similar to the Green Line south of Gateway.

The 30-minute solution. This would look a lot like the first two solutions south of Washington Square, with perhaps an additional stop or two (South Durham, just north of the river, is one possibility; a stop serving the Tigard Library might be another). But rather than following the WES line/freeway route into Beaverton, it would then run at grade in the median of Hall Boulevard, likely with a dedicated structure for crossing OR217 and Scholls Ferry Road (and the existing rail line), descending into the Hall Boulevard median near Nimbus–with stops at Nimbus, Greenway, Denney, Allen, and 5th. The tricky part is the routing through downtown Beaverton–Hall splits into a couplet north of Allen, and runs for half a mile through a residential neighborhood–there’s no place to put train tracks without blocking somebody’s driveway. There’s also limited space to widen Hall or Watson (and likely to be lots of resistance to converting existing traffic or parking lanes to rail, and a need for a grade-separated crossing of the freight line along Farmington.

The 35-minute solutionThe thirty-five minute solution is a good quality class B+ BRT line, largely running in the same route as the existing #76. But it has to be good-quality BRT (class B+), with an exclusive right-of-way and signal priority throughout. Exceptions might be made for downtown Beaverton, due to similar issues with the existing street grid. At Beaverton TC, a bus-only extension of Millikan Way could connect Hall/Watson to the existing BTC bus entrance, and special care would also be needed for bottlenecks around Washington Square and the crossing of 99W in Tigard. Hall and Durham south of Tigard TC might be tricky as well–these are three lane roads at present, and technically a state highway. (Given that Hall Boulevard no longer serves a significant regional purpose, a jurisdiction swap may be in order). Stop spacings could be a little closer than the light rail line, but not much.

The 40 minute solution. This is outside of the range specified above, but an EmX-style solution, with some exclusive lanes and some signal priority, could probably do the journey reliably in under 40 minutes or so–perhaps faster is some capital is spent to get around the worst bottlenecks. This may not seem like a big gain over the 45 minutes the local bus takes (and the greater stop spacing may annoy existing patrons who get a longer walk), but the reliability increase if it is done right is probably just as important as the speed. Stop spacings can be shorter, increasing the chances stops can be skipped. Reliability is one factor that so far has been glossed over, but it’s very important–if riders have to plan for the worst-case likely delay, that is often little better than a longer (but reliable) trip. And reliable services can have shorter turnaround times, permitting higher frequencies (another important issue not considered in this article).

For both BRT solutions, it is assumed that vehicles optimized for faster boarding (offboard/POP fare collection, multiple doors) are used.
Beyond the corridor

The above ignores extension of the line into Wilsonville, as well as service within Tualatin. The 76, after serving Tualatin Station, acts like a local circulator, serving the transit-friendly part of the city (roughly the square between the river, Boones Ferry, Mohawk, and SW 65th), with Meridian Park Hospital, an important transit destination, lying on the eastern edge of the square. But service to Wilsonville is also desirable. Right now, there is no transit service between Tualatin and Wilsonville on Sundays, and only the SMART 2X running on Saturdays. WES and the 96 provide service on weekdays. Seven-day service into Wilsonville would be beneficial, assuming a deal could be worked out with the city (it would permit the city to discontinue the 2X line). There are four reasonable corridors for such a line: The existing WES line (which passes on the edge of urbanized Tualatin, and may have growth potential), SW Boones Ferry (which passes through existing sprawl), I-5 (which has all the issues with freeway-running transit), and 65th, which partially lies outside the UGB (and is presently rural).

There’s also the question of some of the other corridors considered by the HCT plan, including the proposed Clackamas/Washington Square line and the Southwest Corridor. It may be possible that a partial solution is done involving one of these two (i.e. MAX from Beaverton to Washington Square/Tigard and then east to Lake Oswego and Milwaukie; or MAX from Portland to Tigard to Tualatin). Both of these projects are in the long term planning horizon, though.

Finally, there’s the possibility of extending service on the corridor north from Beaverton. The Sunset/Cornell Corridor is flagged as an important HCT corridor, and if a BRT solution is done, further upgrades north to Bethany or Cedar Hills might make sense. (I’m sure Al wouldn’t mind seeing the 67, for instance, getting a service upgrade, connecting BTC to PCC Rock Creek–even though this doesn’t appear to be on planning radar. And adding BRT infrastructure to SW Jenkins would have the additional benefit of speeding up the journeys of busses deadheading to Merlo Garage–right now, Jenkins is frequently a parking lot between the Nike campus and 158th; in both directions).


Disclosure: I should note, in the interests of full disclosure, that my wife and I own a house near Hall Boulevard in Beaverton–some of the routings discussed do pass within several blocks.

A performance-based comparison of different transit technologies

A table summarizing the performance of several different bus and rail transit services around the world.
Over the past few days, I’ve been working on a new post on the Beaverton/Wilsonville Corridor, currently served by WES, and wondering what options might work to provide service for it in the future. One of the efforts of that column was a table comparing the performance of several different types of transit technologies, to help inform debates on the subject. The table appears to be sufficiently useful to merit a standalone post.

The table lists quite a few transit lines (or segments thereof), along with key attributes. Many of the examples are from Portland or elsewhere in the Northwest, but a few are taken from other parts of the world. The attributes focused on are those which most directly affect transit speed–the characteristics of the right of way (how exclusive is it), and the stop spacing. Some rather interesting systems are included on the list. The list is sorted by average speed, without regard to technology.

Comparison of performance of different vehicle types
Line/service ROW type Distance (mi) Time (min) Speed (mi/h) Stops en route Distance/stop (mi) Payment Comments
Shanghai TransRapid Class A rail 19 (30.5 km) 8.16 139 1 19 Maglev train
Sounder North (Everett-Seattle) Class A rail 51 59 51.9 3 17 Commuter rail
Adelaide O-Bahn Busway Class A guided bus 7.5 (12km) 13 35 2 3.75 Onboard Interesting concept–a busway (used by regular busses) that “guides” busses along route
Munich S1, Airport-Hauptbahnhof Class A rail 25.3 (40.3 km) 45 33.7 13 1.9 Platform S-Bahn
LACMTA Red Line Class A Rail 16.4 30 32.8 13 1.26 Platform
WES Class A commuter rail 14.7 27 32.7 4 3.7 Onboard
Sounder South (Tacoma-Seattle) Class A rail 31 59 31.8 6 5.1 Commuter rail
Seattle Monorail Class A rail 1 2 30 1 1 Platform
Brisbane South East Busway Class A bus 10 (16.5km) 23 26 9 1.1 Onboard Fully grade-separated BRT system
Bay Area Rapid Transit (Richmond-Daly City) Class A rail 23 53 26 18 1.27 Platform
Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway, Pittsburgh PA Class A bus 9.1 22 24.8 8 1.1 Onboard
MAX (CTC-Gateway) Class A light rail 6.5 16 24.4 8 0.8 POP
Swift BRT (Community Transit) Everett, WA-Shoreline, WA Class B/C+ bus 16.7 42 23.9 11 1.5 Platform
C-Tran Route 105 Class C express bus 15.4 40 23.1 4 3.85 Onboard
Canada Line Class A rail 9 (15km) 25 21.6 12 0.75 POP Driverless metro
LA Metro Orange Line Class B bus 14 42 20 13 1.1 POP BRT with exclusive ROW, signallized grade crossings
TriMet Line 12, Sherwood-downtown Class C bus 15.2 49 18.6 Many ~0.15 Onboard
Las Vegas Monorail Class A rail 3.9 13 18 6 0.65 Platform
MAX (Rose Quarter-Denver Ave Class B+ light rail 4.2 15 16.8 7 0.6 POP
UTA MAX, Magna-Salt Lake Class B/C+ bus 11.5 41 16.8 13 0.9 POP Need to include at least one of the BRT systems in the US called “MAX”. Being upgraded to class B throughout.
EmX Green Line (Eugene-Springfield Class B/C bus 4 15 16 10 0.4 POP Some exclusive ROW, some mixed traffic
TransLink (Vancouver) 99B Line Class C 8.1 (13km) 33 14.7 12 0.65 POP Mixed traffic BRT
San Francisco Cable Cars Powell/Hyde Line Class C rail 4.3 18 14.3 28 0.15 Onboard
Bus 76 (Beaverton-Tualatin) Class C bus 10.5 45 peak 14 (peak) Many ~0.15 (750′) Onboard
Strasbourg Tram line A Class B rail 7.5 (12.5km) 32 14 21 0.35 POP
TriMet Line 9, Powell TC-Downtown Class C bus 7 33 12.7 Many ~0.15 Onboard
Los Angeles Metro Rapid Class C+ Bus 18.4 90 12.3 22 0.84 POP Mixed-traffic bus w/signal priority
Portland Aerial Tram Class A aerial tram 0.6 3 12 1 0.6 Onboard Payment only collected going uphill
Greater Cleveland RTA Healthline Class B+/C+ bus 6.8 40 10.2 33 0.2 POP
MAX (Rose Quarter-Goose Hollow) Class B- light rail 2.8 18 9.3 10 0.3 (1500′) POP
Muni F Market & Wharves Streetcar Class B Rail 5 35 8.6 32 0.15 POP
Portland Streetcar, SoWa-23rd Class C rail 3.9 35 6.9 25 0.16 POP 1/2 of current loop

A few notes:

  • Generally, peak-hour times are used for services where that matters.
  • Service classes are defined as follows, inspired by this Human Transit post. In general:

    • Class A services are those that only need stop at stations. This can refer to grade-separated lines (els or subways) or lines where the transit vehicle has absolute priority at grade crossings, and other vehicles (and pedestrians) are kept away from the route other than at well-marked, well-guarded points. An example of the latter is MAX in Beaverton.
    • Class B services are those where transit may need to stop at crossings, but has an exclusive lane otherwise. A + is added for signal priority (which is different from the absolute priority above), a – if the line is in close proximity to parallel auto traffic or pedestrian environments.
    • Class C services run in mixed traffic; a + is earned for those with signal priority or other enhancements

    Rather than say anything more, I instead simply present the above table as is, and ask readers to draw their own conclusions below.