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Bending Reality to my Will - Portland Mass Transit: Is it really that good?

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July 10th, 2013

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08:13 pm - Portland Mass Transit: Is it really that good?
A friend of mine from Portland was recently complaining about the Seattle mass transit system. There are a bunch of different ones here in Seattle, and you have to pay for each segment! Pierce, Community Transit, Metro, Sound; what a mess. In Portland, it's all tied together. You can just pay once and not worry about transfers.

Yea, whatever. It's not the first time I've had somebody extol the virtues of the Portland transit system. I can't say I'm in love with Seattle's mass transit system, but I'm not very impressed with Portland's, either. But this time I was near my computer, so I decided to rustle up some facts to see how they compare, because I rather suspected the reason Portland's seems so much easier to use is because there just isn't very much of it.


First of all, I'm just going to compare the Seattle city transit system, "Metro," to the Portland system, "TriMet." They both handled about 110 million passenger trips last year. With TriMet, 54 million of those were bus trips, the rest were commuter rail. Metro only has busses. In fact, Metro has 220 bus routes and 1600 vehicles. TriMet has 79 routes and approximately 600 busses, plus the 4 rail lines.

The "greater Portland metropolitan area" (Hillsboro, Portland, Vancouver WA, and the like) is actually bigger than the "greater Seattle metropolitan area" (Seattle, Tacoma, Bellevue, Woodinvile, Issaquah), 6,600 sq. miles vs 5,400 sq. miles, but I can't easily figure out how much of the Portland area actually has usable mass transit service. With about 1/3rd the routes but more area, it seems improbable that the coverage is as good, but maybe they're long routes that cover a lot of territory. {shrug}

Now, keep in mind my friend was whining about how complicated it is to get to Tacoma or Everett, where you start on a Metro bus, then transfer to a Sound Transit bus, and the go to a Pierce Transit or Community Transit bus. Quite frankly, I'm too lazy to hit the Pierce, Sound, Community, and state ferry web sites to add in their route count and resources. It seems rather unnecessary. For Portland, TriMet is the *only* transit system. The intra-Metro fare transfer system is just as good as the TriMet one. But TriMet doesn't have any other major systems to interface with, so no wonder that it seems easier.

Particularly annoying is that my unhappy friend even used to have an ORCA card, but seemed to think bitching that it was going to cost $7.75 to get to Tacoma via cash fares was better than coughing up the $5 to buy a card (available at dozens of locations, including vending machines in the bus tunnel stations, and many local retailers). The ORCA card provides toll-free transfers between the different transit systems.

Portland's system does have remarkably high usage rates, and I am happy that there is a transit system that's really being used. According to TriMet, 26% of evening commuters are using mass transit. Wow. They also point out that "More people ride TriMet than transit systems in larger cities, such as Dallas, Denver and San Diego." Seattle's not on that list because Metro had about 10 million more, I believe. On the other hand, the Seattle area has 80% more people, and is almost twice as dense, so you'd think they could do better than that. Maybe when the light rail line is extended north, they will. {shrug}

If you want to tell me that you like Portland's transit system, go right ahead. Just don't follow it up with a complaint about Seattle's. Could Seattle have had a system as well-liked as Portland's, had they done things differently? Beats me. *Could* they have done things differently, which is to say, was it ever politically possible to get the right amount of money spent on the right things to have made something else? There's no way to know. But it's still clear that the Portland system is just a heck of a lot smaller than the Seattle one, and that makes the job a lot easier. Walla Walla has 9 routes, and the standard fare is 50 cents. I'm sure it's much easier to figure out routes there, and what a bargain! Is it better?

Apples and oranges. Apples and oranges.

(3 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:July 11th, 2013 03:29 am (UTC)
I don't have enough experience with Seattle mass transit to have an informed opinion. it worked fine for me getting around downtown and out to Fremont as a tourist.
There are too very different experiences so mass transit in the Portland metro region:
I live in an area in Portland that was built as suburbs in the streetcar era, and I work downtown. This is transit nirvana.
When I lived out past Beaverton, in an area built up after WWII, for people with cars, in a topography of twisty turny cul de sacs, I never took the bus. Too long a walk to one, and I would have had to transfer to get where I was going.
[User Picture]
Date:July 11th, 2013 04:09 am (UTC)
Portland native here: I do like TriMet (and, as a lifestyle non-driver, rely on it), but a couple of amplifications should be made.

First, the metro-area transit hierarchy is not quite as unified as one might think. While TriMet operates the Portland Streetcar (central-city, two routes to date), that system was built and planned by an entirely different sector of government; likewise, while it operates the WES commuter rail system in Washington County, that line was also built and planned separately. This is mostly transparent to riders, but a complicated management boondoggle for TriMet (and something of a barrier to optimal regional system planning).

Also, a handful of perimeter communities -- most notably Wilsonville, at the south end of the WES line -- have withdrawn from TriMet and operate their own local bus systems. (We won't even start on the tangle that was the attempt to integrate light rail into the now-defunct Columbia River Crossing plan -- thereby forcing TriMet and C-Tran into direct partnership....) So there *is* a certain amount of inter-system finagling required on the outer fringes of the network.

Thirdly, TriMet has been suffering from a combination of economic stresses in recent years. Its primary operational funding comes from a payroll tax, which was hit hard by the economic downturn, and its labor costs -- most particularly for drivers' health and retirement benefits -- have been rising very sharply (a subject of much controversy locally). That's led to service cuts, which have gone from surgically precise to increasingly painful; especially outside Portland's urban core, frequency, range, and duration of service have all suffered.

Make no mistake, it's still an excellent system, but it is stressed at the moment.
[User Picture]
Date:July 14th, 2013 09:08 pm (UTC)
Portland Trimet is great if you live in the downtown core area. Lots of choices from. Short rides are not cheap however, minimum fare is $2.50.
Trimet becomes a problem when you leave Portland however, many places on the Trimet system get minimal service.
Having grown up in Boston myself, I was always amused at the status that Trimet seems to get.Compared to the MBTA Portland is Mickey Mouse all the way.
It's a nice 'little system' as you say.
It's got a long way to go to achieve the status of 'world class'
Most of the Portland mystique is nothing but a good Public relations campaign that has been bought hook line and sinker.

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