Tag Archives | river transport

Rethinking River Transport in Portland

A discussion of possibilities for river transport in Portland, beyond those ideas already studied.

Many of you read the excellent transit blog Human Transit, hosted by Australia-based transit planner (and native Portlander) Jarrett Walker. If you don’t read it, I encourage all of you to check it out–it’s a very well-written blog, written from the perspective of a professional in the field, and one that attracts knowledgeable commenters from all over the world.

This past week, Human Transit has been covering the severe flooding in Australia, in particular the impact in Brisbane. Today’s post, written as the floodwaters start to recede, looks at the damage to the city’s transit system. While the busses and trains are back in service (and the tunnels under the Brisbane River appear to have survived the flood), the city’s extensive ferry system (a series of ferries crossing the river) has been severely damaged. While the boats were moved out to sea prior to the floodwaters arriving and thus are unharmed; the riverside terminals were all destroyed; authorities suspect that it will be weeks or months before the system is back online.

In his post, Jarrett noted many similarities between Brisbane and Portland–both are similar-sized cities bisected by a major waterway. But one difference, which I noted at Jarrett’s blog–is that Portland has utterly no river transport, whereas as riverboats are a key part of urban transit in the capital of Queensland.
The lack of river transport in Portland

Many boats ply the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, which are navigable throughout the region (though many larger craft have issues going south of Ross Island). Yet other than dinner cruises like the Portland Spirit, none of them offer passenger service–and the cruises generally only provide round trips up and down the river. The closest thing to river transit in the region is the Canby Ferry, a low-capacity cable ferry which hauls a cars across the river south of Stafford. There are many historic ferries–Stark Street, Boones, Taylors, Scholls, which once served the region. All of them suffered the same fate: construction of a bridge which made them obsolete. Many of these long-vanished ferries still have streets named after them; but that’s one of the few signs of what once was.

The lack of river transit is not for a lack of trying, however. The City of Portland and Metro have both studied the issue (the former study as part of the River Renaissance project, the latter as part of the South Corridor project), and the operators of the Portland Spirit and several other riverboat cruises have also promoted the issue. Both Metro and the city came up with the same conclusion, however–it’s not cost effective. The city presently considers river transit a low priority compared to other potential improvements.

Why is Brisbane different?

What, then, is the difference? One thing that both cities have in common is a heavy concentration of bridges in the downtown area, and few other crossings besides, either upstream or downstream. Some differences might include geography (the Willamette lies in a narrow gorge between the West Hills on one side, and various other landforms such as the Oatfield Ridge on the other; and on the resulting land-use patterns–much of the uses along the river are either industrial, or high-end residential. The communities along the river outside of downtown (St. Johns, Milwaukie, Lake Oswego, Gladstone, West Linn, and Oregon City) provide surprisingly little access to it–many of the populated areas are located on bluffs at some distance from the shore, rather than right on the river. Concerns about flooding (ironically) may play a part in this–one historic settlement that was built along the river was Linn City, which only lasted for two decades before being destroyed by flood. (The modern city of West Linn lies west of historic Linn City, up the hill and out of the river’s reach). Portland experienced a 100-year flood back in 1996, and while it did a great deal of damage, the severity of the catastrophe was nothing compared to what Brisbane (and many other places in Australia) have faced this week.

Greater Brisbane simply has more people living in proximity to the river.

But there are a few other key differences as well. Look at the following map of Brisbane’s transit system (shamelessly cribbed from Jarrett, who in turn swiped it from the local transit authority–click on the picture to make it bigger).


A few things jump out. There are two lines running “vertically” along the river–a downtown ferry that snakes through the city center, a distance of about 4km (2.5 miles) between its endpoints, and a longer line (the “CityCat”) that runs about 16km (10 miles), and several “horizontal” routes which provide crossings of the river–connecting two ports on the opposite shore. The ferries used are high-speed (25 knots) catamarans.

The services considered by the Portland study–a line running from Oregon City to Portland, and a “circulator” connecting various destinations in downtown Portland (service to St. Johns and Vancouver was eliminated as impractical), are all “vertical” services, essentially. Performance was adequate–a line running from Oregon City to Salmon Street, stopping in Milwaukie, would take about 48 minutes for the trip; similar to the parallel bus routes. However, cost was a significant issue.

My suspicion, though, is that Portland-focused service is the wrong service to provide.

When do ferries work best?

Ferries work best, when they can outperform overland routes (including bridge crossing). The best chance of this occurs when a ferry crosses a waterway a short distance, in a location where there is no bridge nearby. Many of the Brisbane routes meet this criteria; as do other ferry services closer to home (such as the SeaBus in Vancouver, BC; and the Washington State Ferries connecting Seattle with Vashon Island and the Olympic Peninsula). Ferry services which run lengthwise along a river generally get outperformed by land-based transportation. And the routes which were considered by the City of Portland either are “vertical” services, for which competing local bus service offers similar performance while serving more useful destinations, or the downtown circulator–which has tons of competition from the city’s plethora of bridges and excellent downtown transit.

What of horizontal routes that don’t have competition from bridges (or at least bridges useful for a given mode?)

There are several places for that which come to mind.

  • Between Milwaukie and Lake Oswego. Ignoring the UPRR rail bridge, the nearest river crossings are the Sellwood Bridge to the north, and the Abernathy (I-205) Bridge to the south. A Lake Oswego/Oak Grove connection might work as well. A good question exists as to whether or not there would be sufficient usage to make this worthwhile, obviously, but I’ll get to that.
  • Depending on what happens with the CRC; between Hayden Island and Vancouver. Obviously, there is an existing bridge here (the Interstate Bridge), but this bridge is frequently congested–and more importantly, is nearly useless for pedestrians and bikes. (There is a sidewalk, but it’s reported to be a terrifying experience). If the Yellow Line were extended across the south channel to Hayden Island, a ferry connection could take passengers across the rest of the river into downtown Vancouver. Were the CRC built, a ferry in this location would no longer be viable, but as an alternative, there might be potential.

  • Washougal to Fairview. The closest drive is west to I-205, across the Glenn Jackson Bridge, and back east. This is probably the least likely idea discussed here, given the small sizes of the communities involved, but there it is.

A good objection to all of these proposed routes is a lack of “critical mass” involved. The City of Portland plan attempts to build a more comprehensive system, necessary for increased ridership. But what if the routes, rather than being viewed as shore-to-shore connections, were built to bridge (heh) the gaps in the existing transit systems? I’ve assumed that transit service would be provided to the terminals; but what if it were taken a step further? What if ferry service and connecting bus/MAX service were integrated together? What if riders could travel from Tigard to Lake Oswego, transfer to a waiting ferry, cross to Milwaukie and then transfer again to a waiting bus, all on the same ticket? (And what if the service was presented as a contiguous line, that just happens to have a ferry section in the middle?) Could such a thing work?

Offhand, I don’t know. It may well be that the City and surrounding areas simply lacks the needed critical mass of people along the rivers to make any such projects worthwhile; and it may be that crosstown bus riders might object to a ferry hop (and the need for essentially two transfers), even if the services were timed so that there was no waiting.

But still–as the waters recede in Brisbane, and the city prepares to rebuild its waterborne transit system, it’s useful to explore the possibilities of transit on the river here in Portland. There are significant gaps in the region’s bridge network, and in some cases, boats might be a good way to fill them.