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.