Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Portland’s Inferior Public Transportation

If you read the news in Portland, Oregon, just a couple years ago local city government and local media outlets were promoting U.S. News ranking Portland as 5th in the nation of the 10 Best Cities for Public Transit. The thing is, U.S. News does not have appeared to have visited each of the cities it placed in the top ten to evaluate the systems in real life versus just relying on government data which is sometimes not accurate.

Portland does have good public transit, surely better than a majority of U.S. cities, but I do not think I would rank it in 5th place or even the top ten. In fact, Business Insider in 2014 did its own list, and Portland came in last place, in my experience the Business Insider is closer to reality.

Here is why I do not consider Portland to be one of the top ten cities for public transit:

Infrastructure & Reliability

Trimet’s light rail system, MAX, is one of the oldest light rails in the nation which means the infrastructure and way its built, plus some of the trains, use very early systems versus newer technology which benefits from innovation and advancements made over time. Whether the season be summer or winter, MAX consistently has reliability issues caused by weather. In the summer, it gets too hot and trains have to travel slower and in the winter switches and other infrastructure malfunction causing delays.

Couple these reliability issues with the fact that the infrastructure was built at surface level through the core of a major city versus being a subway or above surface like other major cities,and you have a bottleneck that slows down trains and increases the time it takes to get to your destination and also means a car accident, protest, or any event at the surface level can decrease the reliability of you getting to where you need to go.

Transit Speed

Trimet’s MAX anecdotally appears to travel at much slower speeds on much of its systems tracks, than other major cities light rail (BART, MUNI, NYC Subway etc.) and also appears to spend more dwell time at each transit center than other major cities. This adds up and appears to increase the time it takes to get places. In writing this post, I did reach out to Trimet to ask for the average dwell time spent at transit centers and average speeds of MAX but they would not provide this information.

Security & Sanitation

Generally speaking, most cities subways and light rail stations are not the cleanest places and while I’m sure some cities are especially worse than Portland, there is still much to be desired in terms of safety and sanitation both at transit centers and the areas adjacent to them. Gateway Transit Center is probably the best example of the problem with MAX Transit Centers in that anytime you go there, you will find lots of trash on the platforms, individuals selling drugs in plain sight of paid security, fights and fare evasion. Trimet’s Driver Union has for years been complaining about the security of its own drivers and MAX operators and they are not complaining without reason. The buses and MAX do not get the love of transit police and inspectors that they should, at least not at the level of other cities.
If you go down to Gateway Transit Center you can see supervisors, fare inspectors, private security, and transit police often hanging out chatting by the staff office while fights, smoking on platforms, alcohol use and drug dealing goes on in their line of sight. (The activity seems to radiate from the transit center)It appears that Trimet has little oversight into the performance of all these professionals it pays to keep Trimet safe.

Fare Evasion

Fare evasion is a problem on Trimet because despite having transit police and private security, it seems there is not performance oversight to ensure these personnel spend a majority of their paid hours actually enforcing fares. Not to mention, the transit centers have no barriers to prevent people who have not paid from hopping on a train for free. The system is honor based with little enforcement, and even if you do get banned from the system, the chances of Trimet keeping you off is slim.


Based on all of these items, some anecdotal and some fact, I cannot conclude that Portland, Oregon is in the top 10 best cities for Public Transportation but it absolutely could be if Trimet, City of Portland, and Metro make changes and make smarter investments. I would suggest first that Trimet begin looking at a subway for all lines that pass through downtown or to route them around the downtown core. Additionally, they should look at reducing dwell time and increasing travel speeds and also replacing the wood railroad ties with plastic. Perhaps they should also look into a way to protect the overhead lines from getting overheated in the summer and stretching so the MAX trains can run at normal speeds in high temps without risking damage to the lines. I would suggest, in regards to security and sanitation, that Trimet do audits of the company that cleans bus stops and transit centers to make sure they are cleaning to some standard. I would have Trimet perform audits and performance reviews on transit police and private paid security firm G4S to ensure that they are spending their entire shifts performing the duties paid for versus having social hours at transit centers or chatting on their phones in their vehicles.
Trimet should begin making these investments now and should look at trying to overall reduce the travel time between each stop and have more regular intervals of trains. Additionally, Trimet should ensure newer buses and trains have things like power and wifi onboard as other cities like San Francisco have cell service along most of their lines for major carriers and have wifi at bus stops etc.

Benjamin Kerensa — Medium

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