Tag Archives | connections

The interfaces between different transit agencies

Travelling between transit agencies, especially for trips located within a metro area, can be an inconvenient experience for many reasons. Timetables may not be aligned, fare policies may be hostile (requiring additional tickets as one crosses the agency boundary), different agencies often run vastly different equipment, and interchange points are often on the periphery of a service area.

Is it possible, even given tight budgets, to do better for the transit rider.

Presently, TriMet interchanges directly with the following other transit agencies (Portland Streetcar is considered to be part of the TriMet system for purposes of this dicsussion):

  • C-TRAN (serving Clark County)
  • SAM (Sandy Area Metro)
  • CAT (Columbia Area Transit) serving Hood River and The Dalles
  • SCTD (South Clackamas Transportation District), serving Molalla
  • CAT (Canby Area Transit), serving Canby–yes, that’s two transit agencies with the same acronym
  • SMART (South Metro Area Rapid Transit), serving Wilsonville
  • YCTA (Yamhill County Transit Area), serving Oregon’s wine county
  • TCTD (Tillamook County Transportation District, aka “The Wave”), serving the north-central Oregon Coast
  • Ride Connection, serving rural Washington County
  • CC Rider, serving Columbia County

TriMet also has a direct connection during the weekday commute hours with Cherriots (serving the Salem area) via WES; though neither agency’s services reach the territory of the other (one can transfer between them at Wilsonville Station, in SMART territory). In addition, the following agencies allow transfer to C-TRAN; but don’t interchange directly with TriMet.

Frequent commenter Jason McHuff prepared the following graphic, which illustrates the connections between TriMet and its neighboring agencies (including a few distant neighbors not mentioned in this article). Click on the picture for a larger version of the map.


While all these connections are useful, in many ways, they could be better.

Arms-length agreements

One thing that is evident from the chart, is that in some cases, transit agencies do the minimum to reach another’s service. TriMet presently sends zero busses north of the Columbia (more on that in a moment). TriMet sends only one peak-hour bus (the 96) and WES, a peak-hour commuter train, into SMART territory; and only the latter reaches a primary transfer point in Wilsonville. C-TRAN sends express busses into downtown Portland, and local service to connect with MAX at Delta Park and Parkrose. SMART sends a bus as far north as Capitol TC. Some of the rural transit agencies reach downtown; but others only interface to the TriMet system in places like Gresham, or Oregon City, or Hillsboro.

This state of affairs is probably the best we can hope for as far as the rural services are concerned. Many of these agencies provide only bare-bones social service transit on very tight budgets, and expecting them to provide service into downtown Portland isn’t realistic. But for the neighboring urban agencies–chiefly C-TRAN, SMART, and (to a lesser extent) Cherriots, we should strive for better inter-agency linkage.

Many trips between Portland and Vancouver points, for instance, may require 3 or 4 hops. If you want to get from Beaverton to SW Washington Medical Center, for instance, and the 199 or 105 services aren’t running, then you have to take MAX or the 20 from Beaverton downtown, the Yellow to Delta Park, a C-TRAN local (such as the 4 or 44) to downtown Vancouver, and the C-TRAN 37 to the medical center. Ugh. While it’s too much to ask for an arbitrary trip across service boundaries to be a one-seat ride, or even 2…four different vehicles is a bit much. And the big problem is the Portland-Vancouver segment–a ten-mile trip between two major cities downtowns ought to be served by a one-seat ride, but the trip today requires a transfer (again ignoring C-TRAN’s express routes, which require a more expensive fare than the rest of the system).

There is a good technical reason in this case, along with hope that the state of affairs is only temporary: MAX only extends to the Expo Center, thus any trip involving MAX will require a transfer. Running redundant frequent bus service parallel to MAX would be a bit of a waste (though more on that later). If and when the CRC opens, however, MAX will provide a one-seat ride between the downtowns, and direct transfers to far more C-TRAN services then the handful of lines which presently descend into Oregon and call at Delta Park

But a good principle that ought to be followed for adjacent transit agencies (those sharing a common border and serving the same urban agglomeration) is the following: There should be a continual, transfer-free service between key transfer points in the two systems. It’s harder to do, both politically and technically, than decoupling service at a border transfer station (most of which aren’t key transfer points, though some may become so), but it’s far more beneficial to riders.

There are many ways to accomplish this:

  • One agency can contract with the other to provide the service. This works best if it is a smaller agency interfacing with a larger one; then the often makes sense for the larger agency to operate the connecting service. In practice, however, it seems that the opposite occurs–larger agencies have larger overheads (and in some cases, attitude problems towards their neighbors), and routinely are reluctant to send busses outside of their service boundaries–or demand on levels of compensation that the smaller agency can’t afford.
  • Two agencies can jointly operate the service in some fashion–either both running their own branded services on the same route (offering up to double the frequency), or otherwise agree to share in the operations. (The 1X line between Wilsonville and Salem is an example of this; both SMART and Cherriots operate the service under a coordinated timetable).

Removing the arbitrary transfer at the service boundary isn’t the only important consideration, though. Fare equity is another. Often times, crossing service boundaries requires paying an additional fare; those who want to cross system boundaries on a regular basis may find themselves having to purchase passes on both systems. Ideally, one system will honor the other’s passes and transfers (and better yet if they share fare infrastructure); but many pretend the other does not exist. One compromise is for fare media of either system to be valid on boundary routes, even if not valid throughout the remainder of the system. Switching to distance-based fares also helps deal with the equity issue, though it may still be present if the system(s) have minimum fares that must be paid to both agencies on a cross-agency journey.

Political roadblocks

One helpful thing is that C-TRAN and TriMet are reasonably good terms with each other. Their boundary is dictated by the river and the state line; thus there’s no grounds for a turf war. The same can’t be said for the relationship between TriMet and SMART; the latter seceded from the former back in the 1980s, and while relations have improved, there is still a some bad blood between the agencies to this day. And while service connections have improved, particularly since WES opened, there still is a lot to be desired:

  • TriMet sends no full-time services into Wilsonville; the only services which enter SMART territory are the peak-hour express 96, stopping at Commerce Circle, and WES–both of which only operate during weekday rush hour. Were the former to travel about three miles further south, it could serve Wilsonville Station, including supporting transfers to the aforementioned 1X line to Salem.
  • The SMART 2X goes as far north as Capitol TC; like all of the SMART system, it does not run on Sundays.

Of course, it’s probably premature to talk about improved service to Wilsonville when decent service to Tualatin, a city wholly within its service footprint, seems to be a difficult proposition for TriMet. No frequent-service lines come anywhere near Tualatin’s downtown core (12 skirts the NW corner of the Tualatin city limits between Sherwood and King City, but this isn’t useful for the vast majority of Tualatin residents). The 76 is often talked about as an upgrade for frequent service, and Beaverton-Tualatin is a priority corridor for future rapid transit service, but at the present time, TriMet’s service south of the Tualatin River is abysmal. And east-west connections are an even bigger issue; with no direct lines connecting Tualatin with either Sherwood to the west, or West Linn to the east.

What about Cherriots?

Besides SMART and C-TRAN, Cherriots is the other urban transit agency located within 50 miles of TriMet. However, getting from downtown Salem to downtown Portland (or vice versa) is an presently an inconvenient 3-seat ride. The fastest trip between Wilsonville Town Center and downtown is often WES to Beaverton and then the Red or Blue Line downtown; this trip avoids having to pay a separate fare for WES (the journey from downtown to Wilsonville or vice versa still takes about an hour, however). As noted above, having the 96 meet the 1X in Wilsonville would make this trip more convenient, assuming coordinated schedules–but given the distance between the town centers (45 miles), Salem-Portland isn’t really an appropriate trip for local transit. The distance involved is more appropriate for commuter services–and given the size and importance of the two cities, probably calls for commuter rail rather than express busses that get stuck in freeway traffic. Planners recognize the need, but at this point any such project is a long way from becoming reality.


Again, I would like to offer tremendous thanks to Jason McHuff, who not only prepared the graphics, but also previewed and proofread the article. Any errors are my responsibility, of course; not his.