Archive | Powell/Division

Powell/Division project to (officially) start in July

For quite some time, BRT (of various sorts) has been talked about in the TriMet system. It was considered for the original MAX line (at a time in which both BRT and LRT were virtually unheard of in the US); and it was given some serious consideration for PMLR. It remains a leading contender for the Southwest Corridor, though rail is on the table–and it has long been discussed in the abstract.

But starting this July, the Powell/Division Transit Project officially kicks off. Right now, there isn’t much outreach material at the site other than the usual kick-off boilerplate, and a corridor map:


A bigger version of the map can be downloaded here.

The project, as discussed at its new Metro homepage, assiduously avoids discussing mode. But as noted in the Open Thread, the draft Capital Asset Management and Investment Program for 2014-2018 seems to tip the hand somewhat–and makes it clear that regional planners foresee this being a BRT project:

The strawman

On page 165 of the CAMIP, one finds the following item:

BRT First Corridor – Powell – Division

BRT service with new, dedicated buses implemented under Very Small Starts federal program. This will be a limited stop, all day service, with distinctive branding and customer information, providing faster service along an existing Frequent Service Bus corridor. Project includes shelters, stop improvements, new buses
dedicated to the service, and targeted transit priority treatments. Corridor Study to determine alignment and treatment details begins July, 2013.

In addition, Metro planners essentially stated that they expect it to be BRT when the project was authorized last year. Despite the scepticism of some that BRT is only considered for political reasons (or to meet federal-funding requirements), I have every reason to believe that the region is serious about this. Why? Well…

  • TriMet, and the region generally (but especially TriMet, which is the public face of transit planning) has gotten a lot of flak (some of it deserved) for expanding rail but letting the bus system wither. Actually building BRT, rather than merely talking about doing so, might quite some of those critics.
  • The cities involved (Portland and Greshem) already have MAX lines serving them, and the Powell/Division corridor in runs parallel to the MAX Blue Line. The dynamic of “Beaverton got a MAX line, we want one too!!!!” simply doesn’t apply.
  • The Blue Line also already provides higher-speed transit service in the Portland-Gresham market, so a class A or B transit solution isn’t really necessary.
  • The corridor in question is already an established bus corridor, but one where installing light rail (or any dedicated-ROW transit) would be expensive. As both streets have high traffic volumes, mixed-traffic streetcar is probably not an appropriate choice either (Streetcar works better on streets without many cars).
  • Money. LRT or high-end BRT is expensive; but class C+ BRT is relatively cheap. The CAMIP contains a budgetary estimate of about $40M–a figure I expect to change (likely in the positive direction) as plans are refinded, but nonetheless a useful estimate of what resources the region is willing to deploy.

Classifications of BRT

A quick review of some terminology. A longstanding criticism of BRT is that the term is used to variously refer to different levels of service, ranging from full busways like in Curitiba or in Brisbane, to limited-stop services with a distinct paint job. A particular objection is that BRT projects are often sold (sometimes by anti-transit interests looking to block a rail project) by promising Curitiba-quality, but what is delivered is far less. To avoid such confusion and or subterfuge, I’ll refer to a couple different ways of grading transit projects.

A common classification I like to use–one that works for back-of-the-envelope estimates, is the A/B/C classification described here. Briefly, class A (when applied to BRT) is a fully grade-separated busway (like Brisbane), where the bus neither has to stop at crossings nor get stuck in (auto) traffic. Class B refers to dedicated lanes, but with cross traffic (B+ might be a dedicates surface busway like the LA Orange line, B might be a median-running busway, and B- a so-called “business access/transit” lane), and class C refers to ordinary mixed-traffic operation. Class C+, generally the minimum level of operation for a service to be “rapid”, involves mostly mixed-traffic operation, but with some level of signal priority and/or queue jump lanes.

Another more robust classification is the Institute for Transit Development and Policy‘s BRT Standard, which evaluates BRT systems on many criteria (not just right-of-way). Bronze BRT is nothing to sneeze at (Eugene’s EmX was recently rated as bronze). And of course, other criteria such as fare collection and boarding methods, stop spacing, and vehicle choice will affect performance as much as characteristics of the right of way.

What Powell/Division might look like

As noted above, it appears that Powell/Division will be a “class C+” BRT, at least for the crucial stretch between the east end of the Ross Island bridge out to I-205. (The service will likely use the new PMLR transit bridge, which will be open and operational by the time the project is completed, and thus have exclusive transit lanes from OMSI all the way up the transit mall). As noted, the budget is in the tens of millions of dollars, as opposed to hundreds of millions or even billions, and there is simply no room on Powell Boulevard to widen the right of way, not without knocking down many of the buildings that make Powell such an excellent transit corridor (and existing neighborhood) in the first place. The budge simply won’t allow for either significant ROW acquisition or major new structures, and given that Powell is a state highway (and an important one), it’s probably safe to assume that converting auto lanes to bus through lanes is out of the question.

That doesn’t mean that performance can’t be improved.

Right now, the 9-Powell takes between 40 minutes and an hour, according to schedule to travel from Powell/Milwaukie to Gresham TC, a distance of 11.7 miles (and about 70 stops, or about 270m between stops). (The 4-Division/Fessenden takes similar time to cover a similar distance). According to Google, driving the route of the 9 takes 26 minutes, assuming normal traffic. Were a BRT along Powell to have an average stopping distance of, say, 450m (0.28 miles), that would correspond to 42 stops. That alone won’t necessarily improve things by itself–few runs of the 9 ever stop at every single stop along the way, but a more limited-stop service is likely to service every stop; and with local service, individual stops will take longer. But reducing the number of stops can make other optimizations possible.

A bigger lever to pull with BRT is reducing dwell time. It can take forever to board a high-floor bus, especially if the ramps need to be used. Low-floor busses are a bit better, but there is still the bottleneck that boarding passengers need to file past the driver and present fare. By contrast, precision-platform bus systems with articulated-buses, all-door boarding (and wide doors), and off-board fare collection (whether secure-platform or proof of payment) can achieve dwell times of 20 seconds or better, even with lots of passengers getting on and off. Doing this has a dramatic impact on end-to-end travel times, but obviously requires that stations be actual “stations”, rather than just poles in the ground, and a shelter and bench if you are lucky.

And while it’s likely that a fully-segregated busway is out of the question–if the bus can bypass some of the worst bottlenecks in the route, this can have a significant impact on performance. Where are the worst bottlenecks? Powell/Milwaukie. Powell/39th. Powell/50th/52nd/Foster. Powell/82nd, particularly. 92nd and the ramps at I-205. 122nd. 181st/182nd. Essentially, the major cross streets, where the light will be red more often than it is green. It is in these places that signal priority and/or queue jump lanes can pay a big benefit.

A few interesting links for those interested in comparing BRT performance: This study, and PT article. The study is (of course) far more scholarly and thorough, but is rather heavyweight reading.

What about the route?

A couple other interesting questions: What route will the BRT take? It’s generally assumed that the BRT will run on Powell between downtown and 82nd, jump to Division using either 82nd, 92nd, or the I-205 ramps, and the run on Division out to Gresham. An argument can be made for shifting over to Division at or about 62nd, (or even 52nd) to better serve Franklin High and/or Warner Pacific College, and avoid the nasty and crowded 82nd/Powell intersection. A second question is–terminate at Gresham TC, or extend the BRT to Mount Hood Medical Center and Mount Hood Community College? The corridor planning area includes both of these.

How will this affect the 4 and 9? Right now, these two routes run the length of Powell and Division, and are parallel corridors. But a BRT line that is half-Powell and half-Division might upset that apple cart. Would a single local bus line serve the other halves of these streets? Would the BRT overlay the 4 and the 9 (which might operate at reduced frequencies), with the latter proving local-stop service for those who may have trouble covering longer distances to BRT platforms that are spaced more widely.

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


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

Center-running bus lanes in The Hague

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


Center-running transit can be quite attractive

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

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

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

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

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

Metro green-lights study of Powell/Division corridor, hints at broader BRT future.

At it’s recent Thursday meeting, the Metro board voted 7-0 to move forward with a study of the Powell/Division Transit Corridor. The corridor in question stretches from Portland State University out to Gresham, centered on SE Powell Boulevard and SE Division Street, ending around Mount Hood Community College. Screenshot from 2012-05-18 23:48:54.png

(A full-size pdf of the above map is here).

As widely expected, Metro planners envision the corridor to be some sort of Bus Rapid Transit, not light rail. In a bit of a surprise, Metro planner Elissa Gertler suggested that this might be a way of doing business that the region embraces more in the future. In an interview with Metro staff reporter Nick Christensen, she said “”We are focusing on lean and mean solutions. Whether it’s the Southwest Corridor or any other corridor, we have a different definition of success. Every corridor plan does not necessarily have to end in a giant EIS (environmental study) for light rail. Most corridor plans are not going to end that way for a long time.”

While I would be surprised if the Southwest Corridor wasn’t another light rail line–there are many reasons it too could work as BRT, especially if the money (or political stomach) isn’t there for future light rail expansion. Much political capital has been spent on Milwaukie MAX, as well as financial capital; given the uncertainty of funding for large capital projects going forward, BRT can be an excellent way to improve transit service without breaking the bank.