The Transit Tourist: Portland, Ore.

A Portland band plays a tune on the sidewalk as a MAX light rail train passes behind. Photo by Carter Rubin/Metro.

The Transit Tourist takes a look at other transit systems across the globe from the first person perspective of a visitor. What can Metro learn from how these other systems treat the uninitiated – and often bumbling – tourist?

Last year, Fred Camino inaugurated The Transit Tourist series with an excellent post about his trip to London. To refresh, here are his thoughts on why the tourist perspective of another city’s transit system can be a valuable one for readers of The Source:

The tourist experience on transit is a unique but important one. Tourists generally have different needs than the daily commuter, but my feeling is that when a tourist’s needs are met a transit system is doing a good job at two things: providing an easy to use system that also serves many destinations. In other words, if a system works for an outsider, it’s probably going to work for local residents as well.

The next stop on our Transit Tourist adventures: Portland, Oregon! During my week-long visit to Portland, my primary agenda was to explore a city that is often held as a model of good public transportation and urban design.

I got very lucky on the weather front: six consecutive sunny days. That made touring the city on transit and foot even easier, though perhaps I didn’t quite get a representative experience of a city known for its seemingly perpetual drizzle and rain.

The good weather made Portland even more comfortable to explore on foot. Especially in downtown and its environs, the sidewalks tend to be very generous, the streets pretty narrow, and the blocks very short — all of which make the city feel more intimate and accessible. And those are all features that make it pleasant being out in public and taking transit…weather permitting.

Next stop for The Transit Tourist – Portland, Ore.

Portland, Ore.
City Population: 580,000 Transit Agency: TriMet Miles of Rail Track: 52.4
Density: 4,000 people/sq. mi. Light Rail Lines: 4 Bus Routes: 80
Area: 145 sq. mi. Rail Stations: 85 Budget: $434
Source: US Census and trimet.org.

Airport Connection

Simply put, this has to be one of the the most seamless airport-to-transit connections in the country: There are ticket vending machines in the baggage claim area and the Portland MAX Red Line light rail line departs about 100 feet from the terminal’s exit. The system connects Portland’s main airport, PDX, to the city center in one transfer- and hassle-free trip.

The Red Line takes a bit of a circuitous route to cover the eight-mile distance between airport and city center as the crow flies, and so it takes a bit over 40 minutes to complete the trip. However, lack of blazing speed is somewhat made up for given that you don’t have to make any transfers to get into town — like you would to get to JFK airport in New York, for example.

Fares

Transit ticket vending machines, right in the airport baggage claim! Very convenient. Photo by Carter Rubin/Metro.

I couldn’t have been in the city for more than 10 minutes before I was able to purchase a transit pass. I opted for a seven-day transit pass for the pretty reasonable price of $24. It was the perfect fit for my travels, which spanned about 6 days. I probably boarded a transit vehicle close to 20 times, so I definitely saved money compared to if I had bought a series of $2.10 individual fares. Those individual fares, by the way, are good for two hours of unlimited travel, so you can usually get to your destination by just buying one ticket.

Other fare options include 14-day passes, calendar month passes and year passes.

On buses you just pay into the fare box or flash your pass, while on the light rail and streetcar lines it’s a proof-of-payment system with fare-checkers coming by to make sure you paid correctly (though I never saw one).

One other notable is that TriMet operates a free rail zone in downtown Portland. As long as you’re traveling within that zone, you can ride the MAX and Portland Streetcar at no charge, though you do need correct fare if the train you’re on leaves the zone. Seattle operates a similar system and I find that both give commuters an extra sense of freedom to travel around the city center — and a reason not to get in their cars.

Rail System

The four lines of MAX light rail system converge in downtown Portland. Graphic from TriMet.org.

The light rail system’s four lines connect a number of outlying suburban areas to the city center. The four branches converge into two trunks that run through the city center providing frequent all day service.

I rode the MAX primarily between the city and the airport, so my exposure is considerably limited. My impression, though, is that the trains integrate very well into the urban fabric of the downtown area, but that comes at the expense of speed.

A large part of that has to do Portland’s geography. Its downtown blocks are only about 250 feet long, so trains and buses end up hitting a lot of red lights. For reference, downtown L.A. blocks are more like 500 to 750 feet long.

In sum, it’s very easy to access MAX stations on foot in downtown Portland, but don’t expect to get into or out of the city center particularly fast — even with abundant transit-only lanes in downtown. It’s an understandable trade-off: the trains run somewhat slower, but you get a transit system that fits into and supports the way the city already exists — as a pedestrian-friendly, tightly-knit grid of vibrant streets.

Two lanes of this three-lane street are reserved for transit: a delightfully common sight in downtown Portland. Photo by Carter Rubin/Metro.

Bus System

I did most of my transit traveling on buses during my stay. TriMet operates a fleet of 660 30-foot and 40-foot buses. The fleet appeared to be about a half-and-half mixture of modern low-floor buses and slightly more dated high-floor buses — the kind you have to climb stairs to enter.

The buses were mostly clean, comfortable and inviting, although some of them were painted in a drab combination of white, orange, brown and black.

What powers these buses? TriMet’s “Bus Vehicle and Fleet Facts” page notes that their buses consume 5.9 million gallons of diesel fuel each year. So I gather they haven’t yet transitioned — unlike Metro — to cleaner-burning hybrid or natural gas buses.

Somewhat similar to Los Angeles, the bus system is organized largely on a grid with many of the lines converging on downtown. That said, geographic barriers like bodies of water and mountains force TriMet to get creative in their routing. Which brings me to a new section I’m adding for this Transit Tourist piece.

Wayfinding

A crop of the TriMet system map showing the most transit intensive area around downtown. Click image for the full map in glorious HD detail.

To navigate my way around the city, I relied almost exclusively on two things: Google Maps on my phone to find the right route, and when I got to the bus stop, the TriMet service that allows you to text your bus stop number to find out real-time arrival information. Busier bus stops in downtown Portland also featured TV displays with real-time arrival info for the buses that stop there.

The map above? I think I glanced at it once and thought, first, “ooohhh pretty colors,” and second, “I’m never going to be able to figure that out in a few days.” TriMet does have a “Frequent Service Lines” map, although the agency could do a better job of making it prominent on their website: it’s not mentioned on the front page or under the Maps & Schedules tab.

Customer Service

Customer service was good on the whole, though I didn’t have too many interactions. When I was purchasing my transit pass at the airport, a TriMet agent was there to ask me if I needed any help; and bus drivers were friendly and willing to provide directions to Portland transit newbies like me.

That said, I suppose the real measure of customer service is how the agency handles things when everything is not going smoothly — i.e. during a service disruption. Fortunately, I never ran into any of those during my trip.

Report Card

The Good:

  • The central part of Portland is well-covered in transit service that has solid levels of frequency and span (how much of the day the transit runs).
  • Though I didn’t have a bike on my trip, it was apparent that Portland’s extensive bike network goes a long way towards facilitating those bike-to-transit connections and making it easy to live car-free or car-light in Portland.
  • Downtown was practically blanketed with transit-only lanes, which helped buses and MAX trains skirt around traffic. It was also a clear sign of the regional commitment to making transit work as efficiently and effectively as it can — even if that comes at the expense of private autos.
  • Public spaces were comfortable and vibrant, which makes it that much more inviting to use transit. After all, every trip begins and ends on foot (or bike). For example, at many busy intersections in downtown, the sidewalks were bumped out into the street to make pedestrian crossings shorter and safer.

The sidewalk paving stones extend into the street, signalling to drivers that they are passing through a pedestrian area. Photo by Carter Rubin/Metro.

The Bad:

  • In part because of Portland’s very short blocks, transit trips through downtown are slowed considerably.
  • If it had been rainier while I was there, I might have felt differently about how great it was to spend so much time exploring the city on foot and transit.
  • The branding on the transit system was relatively weak and inconsistent. Buses and trains seemed to come in a variety of colors schemes, and it wasn’t clear what each represented. Consistent use of bright colors — like those used by Metro, Culver City Bus and Big Blue Bus — would go a long way towards making the system feel more unified.

What Metro can learn:

  • Portland does a top notch job of seamlessly blending transit lines into neighborhoods — transit agencies across the U.S. should take note.
  • Transit works best when the neighborhoods it serves are designed to maximize the safety and comfort of pedestrians once they’re out of the vehicle. Metro could work with localities to make sure that we’re widening sidewalks — not thoroughfares — when transit lines are built.
  • Transit-only lanes are your friend! Of course, this isn’t really Metro’s jurisdiction — L.A. County cities have to be on board too.
  • Having ticket-vending machines in the airport was a definitely plus. That’s something Metro could look into today. How about a partnership with L.A. World Airports so that you can buy your FlyAway ticket on a TAP card that you can then later load up with cash value or Metro passes?

17 replies

  1. Great wrap up! i visited Portland in 2010 with my wife and 6 month old son and we did the same as you. Used the red line from the airport. The low floor trams are very nice, and the ticketing is seemless. Contrasting that with a recent trip to Denver, I expected the ticketing to be my credit card (its done using cash-only) and the trains are not low floor.

    For me, Portland set the bar high in terms of light rail experience. While slow in the city, it was very user friendly and as you pointed out, the pedestrian interface was seemless and inviting.

  2. Note transit through downtown isn’t slow simply because of the short blocks- much of the slowness is from the lack of grade separation. For instance, Seattle and LA both use tunnels for transit traffic through the downtown areas. That will be Portlands’ Achilles Heel going foward- tunneling in wet mud is expensive and difficult, and elevated systems are incredibly unpopular for many reasons.

  3. Curt: the ticketing isn’t seamless if you use the Streetcar much. And the Free Rail Zone used to be the Free Ride Zone (extending to buses also). Seattle does the Free Ride thing too; Portland’s may be going away very soon.

    The busways in downtown were just sorted out in recent years. It was a mess in 2006-2009!

  4. For me, I bought the one week pass and simply used it for the bus, MAX & streetcar. It was easy to use a credit card at the airport and purchase the pass and not have to worry about digging for a fare every time I needed a ride. So to me, it was very seemless.

    I imagine if I lived there that I would use a monthly pass, and it would be the same thing.

  5. “How about a partnership with L.A. World Airports so that you can buy your FlyAway ticket on a TAP card that you can then later load up with cash value or Metro passes?”
    You can’t buy the FlyAway ticket at LAX anyway. It is not so easy there. A little machine at each stop location (painted the same color as the FlyAway) would be nice. It could be just like one of those new parking devices that serve a whole block. The receipt printer would print the tickets.

  6. So the word “SEAMLESS” comes right out of Trimet’s marketing department.
    How did you happen to come up with that word?
    Just wonderin……..

    • al m,

      I’m not sure what marketing materials you’re referring to; I called it seamless because it was. I have nothing to gain personally from pumping TriMet’s tires.

      Carter Rubin
      Contributor, The Source

  7. I’m looking forward to a trip to Portland in the fall, so enjoyed this report. Is far as I know, both the Portland Rail Free zone and the Seattle Ride Free Area are disappearing, probably by the end of the summer, as a cost-saving measure. I’ve been a tourist in Seattle and found the ride free area really useful for short jaunts throughout Downtown (and a god send in the rain), but the budget cuts were just too severe.

    I really like the two hour transfer idea – we used to have a 90 minute any direction transfer here in Victoria, which was great as I mostly took short jaunts that could be completed in an hour – sadly, it’s now one way only, so it’s generally cheaper for me to drive. I find the LA system of paying at every boarding truly weird – somehow paying a premium because you have to make a connection doesn’t make sense.

  8. Carter Rubin ok, I was just wonderen….I guess its an industry wide buzz word and not specific to Trimet.

    The reason I asked is because I hear that so often out of Trimet marketing that I get skeptical when ever I hear it referring to Trimet itself.

  9. 1) Alas, Seattle’s nearly 40 year old Ride Free Area ends its life on September 28th, later this year:

    http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2018321597_ridefreezone31m.html

    2) Those blocks in Portland are 200 feet long, not 250 feet.:

    http://www.portlandonline.com/transportation/index.cfm?a=167703&c=45195

    3) The Red Line from PDX into the city follows roughly the same route as a car would. This is due to the layout and roadway approach to the Portland Airport. And trust me, it beats the old 42 bus to (Portland’s) Hollywood Transit Center.

    4)The “drab combination of white, orange, brown and black.” is Tri-met’s old livery. You know, like the orangy-yellow stripe on the light rail cars at Metro? You should have found them mostly on the older hi-floor buses that are surely on their way to the scrapper soon.
    Otherwise, the only other (non Tri-Met)bus livery you should have seen was that of C-tran, the Vancouver, Washington State (bus) transit agency that via I-5 and/or the old Highway 99 across the Columbia River. As soon as MAX is extended over a new I-5 bridge, these should disappear from downtown, for the most part.

    5) It doesn’t rain the PNW. It mists.

    6) Portland uses the same TVM maker as Metrolink, and they haven’t jumped on the RFID-fetish bandwagon yet. Also, no turnstiles, even at stations that could have them. I hope you noticed that the Portland Streetcar have their own kind of TVMs…
    http://flic.kr/p/7kpLFP
    …and not having faregating allows for these different-looking tickets to be accepted on Tri-Met MAX and Bus.
    http://ktransit.com/farecards/US/us-portland.htm
    That’s real seamlessness right there LACMTA!

    Something you may not have seen, but has operated on the MAX trackage even before Portland Streetcar was on the drawing board, is the Vintage Streetcar:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portland_Vintage_Trolley

    (For a time these cars ran on the Portland Streetcar network too. Not sure if ever anything like this would be possible on high-platform Metro, but it sure is neat.

    Finally here too is something you may have missed, the Aerial Tram at the south end of Portland Streetcar:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portland_Aerial_Tram#Operational_information

    It accepts monthly Tri-Met passes as fare too!

  10. The Portland transit system does do a good job of serving key tourist destinations. My major complaints are the poor service in the suburbs (true of all transit agencies, but somewhat exacerbated in Portland because of their urban growth boundary, which leads to large apartment complexes on streets where the only bus is once an hour), lack of owl service (some areas, like Northwest and the Hawthorne District, could use them), and the “blazing lack of speed” for cross-downtown trips, and lack of alternative routes that don’t go downtown. The Steel Bridge is also a major chokepoint for the system, especially during Fleet Week when trains are backed up to let the big Navy ships pass through. A Downtown Subway (from Washington Park to Lloyd Center) would help, or even a second bridge on the south side (currently proposed with the next MAX extension), with tracks connecting both routes on the eastside (not proposed).

  11. Portland MAX has also has very strong signal priority downtown and full signal preemption in all other street-running areas. LA Metro has neither strong signal priority or full preemption on any street-running sections (Marmion Way excluded). That’s one of the things that should be added to the list of “What Metro can learn” list.

  12. Connor, Portland is also composed of precisely one metro government. LA is crazy-fragmented, as you know. Look at how long the Wilshire bus lane has taken, and how different municipalities (and other groups of rich people) have blocked it.