Portland’s Transit Experiment Has Failed

As in most other cities, Portland transit ridership is declining, and TriMet, Portland’s transit agency, promised to tell its board of directors why in last Wednesday night’s meeting. Before the meeting, one TriMet rider tweeted, “because it’s unreliable and unsafe. It’s not a mystery.” The “unsafe” part partly referred to last May’s murder of two people who were trying to defend a teenage girl from a bigot on a light-rail train.

The report to the board ignored the safety issue but listed all the other usual suspects: low gas prices; competition from Uber and Lyft; late buses due to traffic congestion. But then it added a new one: rising housing prices. Graphics on pages 21 and 22 of the board report (actually a PowerPoint show, so there’s no explanatory text) show a correlation between neighborhoods with the fastest rising housing prices and the biggest declines in transit ridership. TriMet staff apparently suspect that housing costs are forcing transit riders to move to lower-cost neighborhoods that are less accessible to transit.

It is interesting to note that two of the region’s policies for boosting transit — densification (which makes housing expensive) and congestification (which makes buses late) — are now suspected of hurting transit. Of course, no one at TriMet would ever suggest that these policies be reconsidered.

Instead, TriMet is proposing the universal solution to all transit issues: raising taxes. The agency wants to put a measure on the ballot that will increase property taxes and vehicle registration fees enough to generate $1.7 billion. Almost half of that will go toward construction of a new light-rail line and the rest will go for “congestion relief” (which, knowing Portland, means increasing congestion). Voters have rejected TriMet tax increases the last several times they have been on the ballot, but the agency probably hopes that adding the congestion-relief language will increase the chances of the measure passing.

Building a new light-rail line will make contractors happy, but will not solve the agency’s ridership problems. Portland’s most recent light-rail line opened just over two years ago, yet page 4 of the board report indicates total light-rail ridership remains nearly flat. The new line’s first-year ridership was only two-thirds of projections and second-year ridership grew just 6 percent, which still leaves it 31 percent short of first-year projections.

Plus there’s always the problem that TriMet deals with high rail costs by cutting back bus service and raising fares. Page 11 of the board report shows that fares have increased 67 percent since 2001. Page 18 of the report notes that, while streetcar ridership has grown by 12,000 trips a day since that year, bus ridership has fallen by 21,000 trips a day.

A new light-rail line will in fact be counterproductive. Increasing property taxes will make housing even more expensive. Increased congestion from trains running in and crossing streets will delay buses even more. Rail’s high operating costs will probably mean higher bus fares. But this is typical of Portland’s light-rail mafia, which cares more about inputs than results.

Portland is so blinded by the urban planning vision of what a transit mecca should look like that it fails to see that cities no longer fit that vision. A map on page 24 of the board report shows that east Portlanders work in dozens of job centers located all over the Portland area, only a few of which are served by light rail. While most are served by buses, the region’s hub-and-spoke transit system centered on downtown means that many east Portland residents who also work in east Portland would have to take a bus or light-rail vehicle west to downtown, then transfer to another to go back east to their job site. This can turn a ten-minute auto trip into a two-hour transit trip.

To fix this problem, in 2015 transit expert Jarrett Walker helped Houston redesign its bus system from a hub-and-spoke model to a grid pattern. Bucking the national trend, Houston transit ridership since then has increased by 3.6 percent, though–despite huge increases in population and jobs–it is still nearly 14 percent below its 2006 peak.

Walker may be the nation’s most thoughtful and creative transit advocate, and his Houston plan is a noble effort. Yet it is a short-term solution that doesn’t solve transit’s real problem: most American urban areas simply aren’t designed for mass transit. Portland has done more than any other region to try to reshape itself for transit, but the map on page 24 of TriMet’s board report shows that, not only are many jobs located in numerous centers outside of downtown, many other jobs aren’t in centers at all. Most of these are practically inaccessible by transit.

Back in 1980, Portland transit carried 10 percent of the region’s commuters to work. Since then, the region has increased its population density by 20 percent, spent $5 billion building nearly 80 miles of rail transit lines, and subsidized scores of high-density, mixed-use housing projects in light-rail and other transit corridors. The result is that, in 2016, just 8.0 percent of commuters took transit to work.

It is time to admit that Portland’s great experiment in urban design has failed and to shift to a more realistic policy that recognizes that the automobile plays a fundamental role in the lives of virtually all of the region’s residents. That means deemphasizing transit and reemphasizing mobility. Sadly, the region’s light-rail mafia is too biased by the profits earned from building rail lines for this to happen any time soon.


14 thoughts on “Portland’s Transit Experiment Has Failed

  1. metrosucks

    Yesterday, my brother was listening to local Seattle NPR and they had two of the idiots running for Seattle mayor on some program (the previous gay mayor is resigning and not running again due to his sexual escapades with numerous underage victims). They spent most of the their allotted time fighting each other over who could bring more of the glorious light rail to Seattle faster, costs and other impediments be damned! Light rail mafia member David Evans has opened a nice office close to where I live, in order to coordinate the consumption of the ST3 boodle stolen from ignorant taxpayers.

    Speaking of boodle, they not only raised property taxes DRAMATICALLY to funnel to worthless toy trains, but also car tabs. My next door neighbor said his tabs on a ~2011-2012 Grand Cherokee Jeep went from around 100 bucks to almost 400. I have a new Tacoma and am not looking forward to what the ST3 scum surcharge will cost me next year. Probably 500-600 for their worthless, stupid, utterly useless toy train.

    Hope Republicans in the state Senate maintain their majority and derail the toy train boondoggle permanently. They are working on getting rid of the car tab surcharge but the local lying media is pounding on them and calling them every name in the book. We need to last a few more years until autonomous cars permanently euthanize any more toy train dreams.

  2. prk166

    most American urban areas simply aren’t designed for mass transit
    ” ~ Anti-planner

    The real problem is that a modern economy is not consonant with transit. Transit means large numbers of people coming and going from the same spot. It’s antiquated, designed for the industrial age.

    It shouldn’t be surprising that the self proclaimed progressives ( a totally misnomer; they’ll fully invested in old paradigms; quite conservative ) fight tooth and nail for a school system that is clearly failing most students and everyone agrees was outdated for the industrial age, for industrial jobs.

    Likewise, transit is suited the same old paradigm that died 50 years ago. It shouldn’t be surprising since it emerged during it’s golden times. But like anything, pricing is signalling and those transit companies going out of business was a signal that it no longer offered something worth society doing.

  3. Frank

    Thanks for the update, metro. I’ve been out of Seattle for a year and certainly don’t miss the politics or the shakedown for transit that I never used. The car tag fees are ridiculous. Only thing I miss about Seattle is good seafood.

  4. JOHN1000

    The missing part of their report (which is implied) is: “If we were allowed to force people to live where we want and to go to jobs where we want, we could make it work. Otherwise, people mess up all our plans by living and working in inconvenient locations. That has got to stop.”

  5. metrosucks

    Yeah, I can imagine there’s not that much seafood in Central Oregon. Certainly not fresh crab, unless you want to pay an arm and a leg. Hope things have been going well after the eclipse mania died down. I did go, to a little area called Long Creek on 395, south of Ukiah. 2 and a half minutes is a surprisingly short time, but I, and the friends I had along, thought it was well worth it. Driving back did take quite a bit longer than going there; we stayed in Pasco the night before and woke up at 5am to drive to the viewing area.

    Kind of looks like we might be in for a early winter, doesn’t it?

  6. transitboy

    If jobs are now located willy-nilly across Portland, it demonstrates that they either do not have the land use plan they claim to have or are not enforcing it. Even if I agree that it is the right of every American to have a single family residence in an area of their choosing and at an affordable price, the average white collar business can operate just as well in a dense central business district as they can in an ugly nondescript suburban office park with no sidewalks.

    Ignored in the discussion about Seattle is that transit ridership is increasing in Seattle, and the Sound Transit (and other packages) include a significant increase in bus service.

  7. metrosucks

    gnored in the discussion about Seattle is that transit ridership is increasing in Seattle,

    At what cost? The latest crazed $54 billion (roughly double that figure when you figure debt servicing) for a cute little toy train that everyone knows will not affect traffic at all, except perhaps to further slow it down? When does it stop? There are a lot of buses all over the Seattle area. Ridership increases aren’t due to building toy trains at a quarter billion a mile. The toy trains just funnel a lot of bus transfers to itself to make trains look like they are generating a lot of rides.

  8. Frank

    “Ignored in the discussion about Seattle is that transit ridership is increasing in Seattle, and the Sound Transit (and other packages) include a significant increase in bus service.”

    As shown in today’s article, Seattle transit ridership is down nearly 3%, so not sure what you’re talking about.

  9. metrosucks


    was just about to point that out. Turns out that getting rid of express commuter bus service (everyone I know loves those) in favor of putting everyone on a train car like cattle and running them thru the ghetto, to boot, is not the best way to attract ridership to your transit empire.

  10. prk166

    Is there data available that would show us the number of households in a zip code? HOw about the number of vehicles in that zip code registered with the state? In 1970? in 2010? Both?

  11. the highwayman

    prk166; Public transit via fixed guideways isn’t for the future; it’s from and for the past industrial age.

    THWM; Roads have been around for millennia, also I don’t see you complaining about highway guard rails not being profitable.

    Rail isn’t obsolete, it’s just politically oppressed.

    The thing about the future is humans losing jobs to Artificial Intelligence and having no source of income :$

  12. prk166

    Rail technology is largely obsolete. It requires ginormous amounts of capital ( aka resources ) up front to build. And that’s just up front, let alone to operate and maintain. Because of it’s nature rail is only efficient if it can attract ginormous volumes of use.

    That is to say, it’s build for the industrial age, a time of huge factories with thousands if not tens of thousands of workers and train car after train car slowly loaded and unloaded.

    In a world of driver less semi trucks, drone deliveries, the creative class, call centers staffed by people working out of their home, the gig economy, et al, those volumes are going to be found few and far between. That’s exactly why most public transit dropped rail in the 1920s – 1950s. Thats why most public transit went belly up by the 1970s.

    Sure, things like subsidies make some difference at the margins. But at best they’re just makeup. They don’t change the overwhelming fundamentals driving things, it’s a vastly different world that we live in today than in 1880. Things like mass transit had it’s day. It’s time to put it away in a museum for good and move on to better and brighter things.

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