All About the Portland MAX (and associated Transit)

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Matthew H Fish

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Radical innovation: bus stop sign.

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When I went to Waldport, the bus stopped outside of Ray's Market. No sign, no shelter, not even a bench. On one hand, I can understand if a small town or county doesn't have a lot of money, but also I think it is often assumed that the people who are using the bus are locals and that they just know this stuff.
 

Willbridge

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When I went to Waldport, the bus stopped outside of Ray's Market. No sign, no shelter, not even a bench. On one hand, I can understand if a small town or county doesn't have a lot of money, but also I think it is often assumed that the people who ar e using the bus are locals and that they just know this stuff.
That's an example of the fluctuating interest in the Thruway lines. The photo was on the Bend<>Ontario route, which I think was set up before the coast route that you rode, with a different staff person. When I was at ODOT, the idea of bus stop signs was new. Prior to that it was the bus company's problem. The dividing line in the early-70's was when Greyhound economized by deleting the field representative in their Portland office. Agency stations then became fewer and a bus stop sign only was issued if it was requested.

You are right about locals. What I found, though, was that as time passed that generation of customers faded away. I kept finding Oregon towns where people thought they needed a ride to a bigger city because they did not know that there was a stop nearby.
 

Matthew H Fish

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Yesterday, I walked across the Columbia River bridge, between Portland and Oregon:


One mistake I made in this video: I didn't specifically talk about how the light rail bridge would most likely be a separate, parallel span next to the replacement bridge. But hopefully this video demonstrates a few things, including how wide the Columbia River is at this point, how cramped Jantzen Beach would be, how much traffic is going over the bridge, and how many different transportation methods are all packed in one space. Hopefully seeing it makes it more clear what the debate is all about.
 

daybeers

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No sign, no shelter, not even a bench
I think you'd be rudely awakened by the state of most bus services in this country. Here in CT it's rare to find a stop without a sign, but also rare for it to have the route number. If you find a shelter or bench, that's a gold mine.
 

Matthew H Fish

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I think you'd be rudely awakened by the state of most bus services in this country. Here in CT it's rare to find a stop without a sign, but also rare for it to have the route number. If you find a shelter or bench, that's a gold mine.

Well, in this case, I was referring to an intermediate distance line, a county line that goes between cities, so it wouldn't have a route number. And it having a sign, and a shelter, would be much more important, because it only runs about five times a day.
But in general, you are right--- in Portland, where buses are considered part of transportation infrastructure, shelters and transit centers are kept clean and comfortable with up-to-date schedules. In other cities, where transit is considered a social service, making it efficient isn't always as important, because they seem to think "beggars can't be choosers", and since it is all being dispensed as a favor, there is no reason to have reliable schedules or clear route marking.
 

Matthew H Fish

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I tend to snap lots of photos on my travels, but feel motivated to try video in future... May I ask what camera you used to create yours?
Sorry, I forgot to answer this question. I actually have four cameras --- my Android (which I used for videos before May, mostly), a flip phone (which is good for when my other cameras have run out of battery), a Nikon camera (which is water and shock proof, and which I use to take mostly stills where I might drop it---it is so sturdy, I accidentally had it in my pocket when it went through the wash, and 30 minutes in a washer didn't damage it at all), but, most of my recent videos were taken on a relatively entry-level Sony Handycam. It cost 250 dollars, but it was worth it. Last summer, I bought a generic video camera for like 80 dollars, but it just didn't work right, and it eventually stopped working at all. The Sony is relatively easy to operate, and it came with everything. I would recommend it.
 

Matthew H Fish

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This is a video I made of myself in downtown and central Portland:

Not all of it is transit-related, but significant parts of it are. (And even the parts that aren't, are related indirectly)
There are two things that are probably the most important. The first is the Portland Streetcar, which opened in 2001. When I lived in Portland, up until 2009, it wasn't a very useful thing, because it mostly just went around the core downtown area, and it mostly carried shoppers. It was mostly a convenience, and not even that, because usually the time to wait for it was longer than just walking, at least for me. (I was in my 20s and had a lot of energy :) ). So, like a lot of Streetcar systems, it seemed to be a cute way to attract suburbanites to a downtown area. But over the years, it expanded, and it now is long enough that it makes visiting certain places a lot faster. And I just checked---in 2019, it carried 5 million people a year, which makes it about half as busy as, say, Sacramento's "Real" Light Rail system. (Even compared to Portland's MAX system, it is considerable, carrying about 1/8th as many passengers). So I was pleasantly surprised to see how useful the Streetcar could be.
Towards the end of the video, I show the Steel Bridge, which is the double-lift bridge that carries both the MAX Light Rail on the top deck, and heavy rail (including the Coast Starlight and Cascades) on the bottom deck. When the MAX was first built, there was only one line. Now, all of those lines go over this bridge. So this bridge is one of the limiting factors for how many trains they can run through downtown.
Both of these points are related, because it shows how transportation infrastructure can sometimes scale in ways that are not expected. When the MAX opened in 1986, and even when the Streetcar opened in 2001, Portland was quite a different place than it is now, and so sometimes transportation plans have had to adapt to the city changing.
 

Matthew H Fish

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TriMet is about to open a new BRT line, along Division, between downtown Portland and Gresham. This will replace the #2 Division bus, which is one of TriMets most frequently ridden routes. The line roughly parallels the main East/West MAX Blue line, about a mile or two to the north.
To me, this project signifies how TriMet has used a "kitchen sink" approach, in a good way. TriMet has built many light rail lines, but it wouldn't have been economically/practicable to build a second light rail line so close to the main line, so they built a BRT line that supplements service.
Also, the link I shared talks about how this is happening at the same time as service cutbacks---but hopefully the service cutbacks are caused by temporary economic conditions.
 
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I think you'd be rudely awakened by the state of most bus services in this country. Here in CT it's rare to find a stop without a sign, but also rare for it to have the route number. If you find a shelter or bench, that's a gold mine.
One thing that amazed me when I lived in Israel in 1971-2 was that every dinky rural bus stop in the middle of nowhere not only had a sign with the route number and destination of the bus, it also had the bus schedule. And nearly all the stops had a paved pull-out with a proper platform. And back then, I think Israel was still considered a "developing country." I'm not sure what it's like today, as a larger percentage of the population drives cars.

I guess they still do. Here's an example:

bus-stop-in-kibbutz-urim-north-negev-d7b8eb.jpg
For those who don't know Hebrew, this says

Kibbutz Orim

030 Be'er Sheva
376 Tel Aviv

Which suggests that the 030 bus goes to Be'er Sheva and the 376 bus goes to Tel Aviv. No schedule shown here, I'll have to look around some more.
 

Willbridge

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TriMet is about to open a new BRT line, along Division, between downtown Portland and Gresham. This will replace the #2 Division bus, which is one of TriMets most frequently ridden routes. The line roughly parallels the main East/West MAX Blue line, about a mile or two to the north.
To me, this project signifies how TriMet has used a "kitchen sink" approach, in a good way. TriMet has built many light rail lines, but it wouldn't have been economically/practicable to build a second light rail line so close to the main line, so they built a BRT line that supplements service.
Also, the link I shared talks about how this is happening at the same time as service cutbacks---but hopefully the service cutbacks are caused by temporary economic conditions.
An interesting note: the Division line on the East Side was never a rail line. Most of Portland's frequent service lines include former streetcar or interurban routes.

The main hazard of opening a new line during service cuts is that some forecasted connecting traffic will be lost, Then the new line does not meet projections and the critics pounce. That happened with the original Portland MAX line and happened with RTD's West Line.
 

Matthew H Fish

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This is a video I took yesterday of the MAX Yellow Line in North Portland. This is an at-grade stretch of the MAX, with my video showing the main 2 mile stretch of it, with stops every half mile.
I talk about this in the video, but one of the things I wanted to show was that while many portrayals of the MAX service in Portland focus on how it works in the downtown core and high-density neighborhoods, it also travels through lower density neighborhoods. Basically, this is the less glamorous side of Portland transit.
When we look at the system regionally, this could also be a shortcoming. If the Yellow Line is extended to Vancouver (as I talked about in previous posts), the speed will be limited because of this "streetcar" like stretch of At-Grade rail. Many of the problems with the MAX system come from its dual use as both a regional and neighborhood transit system.
 

Willbridge

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Glad you mentioned that N. Interstate Avenue was US99W. It explains the motor hotels, several of which were stops on the Seattle Times delivery route because so many customers were traveling to or from Puget Sound. What helps to explain the single family homes is that Interstate Avenue was a creation of the auto age, cut through streetcar-vintage neighborhoods. The avenues in that area were named for states. The newer I-5 alignment was called the Minnesota Freeway as compared to other alternatives named for other states.

A bit of film shows the "anchor" of Interstate Avenue, its intersection with Broadway. This was the transfer point for our family trips from the Broadway streetcar (and then bus) to the St. Johns trolley coach. In addition to that line, the Interstate Avenue and the Mississippi Avenue trolley coaches came through the intersection. Vancouver-Portland Bus Co. diesels also stopped at the intersection shown in the film. When US99W was created the highway was extended south from Broadway onto the Steel Bridge and Harbor Drive.



One of the reasons for the stop spacing is the grid bus network transfers. As this rail line depends on lower community auto ownership levels it needs the bus feeders. It does not have major parking except for the shared lot at the Exhibition Grounds.

The Yellow Line neighborhoods were redlined in the 1940's and 1950's due to having had Scandinavian and Eastern European populations attracted by waterfront industries and the packing plants. The Black population came as a consequence of the Vanport flood in 1948 which destroyed housing built for war industry workers. Due to the postwar housing shortage my family lived there for a year before its destruction. Prior to that, most of Portland's Black churches, businesses and residents had migrated from Northwest Portland to the Albina neighborhood, served by the Mississippi Avenue, Williams Avenue, Russell-Shaver, and Union Avenue streetcars.
 
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Matthew H Fish

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What helps to explain the single family homes is that Interstate Avenue was a creation of the auto age, cut through streetcar-vintage neighborhoods. The avenues in that area were named for states.
I mentioned the amount of single family homes and low density retail (and also, I don't mention it, but there is a dental clinic visible), because I want to show what the light rail is like outside of downtown. Much of the coverage of the MAX focuses on downtown Portland and tourist spots, so this video shows what it looks like in a mostly residential area.
A lot of transit advocates talk a lot about "density", and there is a big subset of people that believe that the only way to have transit is to have dense apartment buildings. Someone on reddit told me that single family homes represented a "disturbing ideology". So the reason I made this video was to show that transit occurs in traditional residential neighborhoods.
 
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A lot of transit advocates talk a lot about "density", and there is a big subset of people that believe that the only way to have transit is to have dense apartment buildings. Someone on reddit told me that single family homes represented a "disturbing ideology". So the reason I made this video was to show that transit occurs in traditional residential neighborhoods.
They obviously haven't been on co-op or condo boards - the most conflict and strive ridden organization ever (I say this as a board member).
 

Matthew H Fish

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They obviously haven't been on co-op or condo boards - the most conflict and strive ridden organization ever (I say this as a board member).
There are transit advocates who believe that transit is the solution to all social problems. I am a transit advocate myself, of course. But there are people who blame car culture and suburban living for all problems, and think that all social problems will be solved if we all just lived in row houses along rail lines.
 

Matthew H Fish

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This is a video showing Vancouver, Washington, and Fourth Plain Boulevard. This is the site of Vancouver's first BRT line (they recently opened another one), and would be the most probable route if the Yellow Line was extended into Vancouver eastward. (which, at this point, would probably open at 2035 at the earliest). This video shows that something is already happening in this area that also happened in North Portland, along another low-medium density transit corridor: the addition of higher density housing. But at the same time, the area has low-enough land values that there is still some abandoned retail in the area.
From a transit point of view, it isn't quite clear that this corridor would be a likely place to put light rail, but it could be that once light rail was built, or in the process of being built, that more high-density housing would go up. Or, at the very least, the empty retail lots would be used.
The video also shows the current state of the BRT stops. The viewer can decide if this is a real BRT line, or if this is just an articulated bus running on a city street.
 

Willbridge

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Portland Railway, Light & Power photograph from 1918 in downtown Vancouver.

1918 VC Limited.jpg

The guy with the leather gloves is the motorman, the man in the middle is the conductor, and the young fellow at left is the fare collector. They could schedule a Limited in the days before streets were jammed with automobiles.
 

Matthew H Fish

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I mentioned the Vancouver Amtrak and how poorly positioned it was to be part of the city's transportation infrastructure, but here is a video that might demonstrate the case better than words could! This video shows the warehouse district and triple railroad tracks you have to cross out of downtown before getting to the station.
Maybe it looks worse than it is because I took it in a wet snowstorm in December, but it really is on the fringes. The station itself is a nice, historic old building, but its location is very difficult.
(I just realized I made a big mistake in that video: I called the Columbia River the Willamette)
 

Matthew H Fish

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I haven't been in the Portland area for about two months, but I visited today.
This is a short video I made showing the construction of the second BRT line:


It looks like they have most of it in place, and are still putting in the finishing touches. They also apparently have the buses! So this really leads us to the question of what is the difference between a BRT line and an articulated bus. Ease of boarding is one obvious difference. My experience with the current BRT Vine system is that it offers a slight improvement in some ways, but has not been a game changer.
But on the whole, I think it does make sense---it looks like the current plan, assuming the Yellow Line is built, is to have three BRT lines all meeting at the Yellow Line terminal, which would be very close to where I took this video.
There are some purists who think that BRT is a half measure---I can certainly understand that, especially when its just treated as an articulated bus. But I can also see why it could be appropriate for a smaller city.
 
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There are some purists who think that BRT is a half measure---I can certainly understand that, especially when its just treated as an articulated bus. But I can also see why it could be appropriate for a smaller city.
One problem with BRT is that it looks good financially for an initial investment, being cheaper than an equivalent Light Rail system but will cost more in the long run since buses do not last as long as LRVs and don't carry as many passengers so you need more buses and especially drivers so labor cost is higher.
 

Matthew H Fish

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wOne problem with BRT is that it looks good financially for an initial investment, being cheaper than an equivalent Light Rail system but will cost more in the long run since buses do not last as long as LRVs and don't carry as many passengers so you need more buses and especially drivers so labor cost is higher.
A lot of transit systems are stuck in the position of having to settle for a solution that is less than ideal because they lack financial and political capital to do the long-term solution. But that is kind of a general problem with life for everyone!
On a more technical level, certain things like multiple boarding doors make BRT more rapid than buses. But without its own lanes (or at least some form of signal priority), it isn't going to go faster than prevailing traffic. When I took the BRT in Vancouver, in the small section between the mall and Fourth Plain, a distance of about a mile, it took ten minutes. This is a snarl of highway interchanges with red lights, and the bus moved very slowly through it---at the speed of prevailing traffic. Once it got onto its main route, it took about the same 10 minutes to travel down all of 4th Plain, reaching close to downtown (where it once again slowed down due to making turns and the like).
So this is the difference between BRT and a light rail (or a BRT with a right-of-way). BRT could work to reduce travel times---but only if it gets enough riders that traffic thins out and prevailing traffic is easier to move through. But for the individual rider, there is no benefit to trying to take a BRT line. But with light rail, or a BRT with separate ROW, there is an automatic benefit, because it is probably going to go faster than prevailing traffic. So this actually gets into a question of Kantian ethics, which is pretty complicated for transit planning! In order for BRT to work, riders have to make a decision that will only be beneficial if a sufficient number of people make the same decision.
Which is why, right now, in Vancouver, the BRT system seems to be for the social benefit of giving a few people more access to jobs and shopping---but isn't really designed to address traffic congestion, which can get quite bad. Although there is a chance, as there often is, that by adding more lines, it might reach a tipping point where the entire network will be more attractive to possible riders.
 

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So this is the difference between BRT and a light rail (or a BRT with a right-of-way). BRT could work to reduce travel times---but only if it gets enough riders that traffic thins out and prevailing traffic is easier to move through.

The sad reality is that there is essentially no form of public transit that will “thin out” traffic. For the same reason that adding roadway capacity doesn’t reduce congestion, public transit won’t, either. Anybody that decides to switch from driving represents “new” capacity on the road that will get filled up in relatively short time.

You can’t build your way out of congestion, no matter what it is that you are building. The best we can (and should) do is provide better alternatives to it, and stop incentivizing driving. And those alternatives shouldn’t be subjected to the same congestion we’re (futilely) trying to fix.
 

Matthew H Fish

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The sad reality is that there is essentially no form of public transit that will “thin out” traffic. For the same reason that adding roadway capacity doesn’t reduce congestion, public transit won’t, either. Anybody that decides to switch from driving represents “new” capacity on the road that will get filled up in relatively short time.

You can’t build your way out of congestion, no matter what it is that you are building. The best we can (and should) do is provide better alternatives to it, and stop incentivizing driving. And those alternatives shouldn’t be subjected to the same congestion we’re (futilely) trying to fix.
I can understand your point, but I would have to think about that in theory and practice.
 
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You can’t build your way out of congestion, no matter what it is that you are building. The best we can (and should) do is provide better alternatives to it, and stop incentivizing driving. And those alternatives shouldn’t be subjected to the same congestion we’re (futilely) trying to fix.
That's true. What we need to do is rebuild our cities and towns to have neighborhoods where people don't need to drive to engage in their daily activities. That includes incentivizing or even regulating developers to build using New Urbanist principles and actively working to rebuild the older and denser parts of existing cities and towns. And even if you do that and somehow magically reduce traffic on the roads, there will be more congestion and crowds on mass transit. New York subways anyone?
 
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