Favorite Transit Cities – Portland, Oregon

Portland, Oregon.


(c) 2012 C. Walton

Where should I start?

Let’s start with who runs public transit in Portland?  An agency called TriMet (Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District), which serves three counties (Multinomah, Washington, and Clackamas) with local buses, the MAX light rail (Metropolitan Area Express), and the Westside Express commuter rail (WES).  TriMet operates the Portland Streetcar system, but it’s owned by the City of Portland and partially subsidized by several businesses and establishments along the streetcar routes.

Fares are $2.50 per ride, with Day Passes at $5 for unlimited rides on all transit modes.  Buses run generally from 5AM until around midnight, streetcar and light rail trains run until about 1AM.  MAX trains are mostly low-floor Siemens-built SD660 light rail cars, with some 1986 Bombardier high-floor cars and some brand new Siemens S70 Avanto low-floor cars with a sleek look.  Portland’s streetcars are a mix of Czech-built Skoda and Inekon cars and Oregon-built United Streetcar vehicles, very similar in design.  WES trains are a mix of Colorado Railcar-built diesel multiple-unit (DMU) cars and a few 1960s-era Budd Rail Diesel Cars (RDCs) originally built for the Alaska Railroad.

If you wanted to see all of what Portland has to offer, MAX and the streetcar are the way to go.  The nexus of the transit system is at Pioneer Square, where the Red and Blue lines on Morrison and Yamhill Streets (east-west one-way street pairs) meet the Green and Yellow Lines on 5th and 6th Avenues (north-south one-way pairs.  5th and 6th Avenue are what they call the Transit Malls, mainly because buses and light rail vehicles basically own the right side of the street, with MAX stations every third block and TriMet and C-TRAN (Vancouver, Washington’s transit system) bus stops on the remaining blocks.  At the MAX stops, the tracks occupy the far right lane and the bus lane is next to it on the left, while at the bus stops, it is reversed.  This ensures that the preferred mode is closest to the curb on its designated blocks. So what you see is the tracks and the bus lane criss-cross each other every third block so that at the MAX station the MAX is at the curb while at the bus stops the bus lane is at the curb.  Visually, it’s astonishing, but practically, it works wonders even during the peak hours.

Outside of downtown Portland, the MAX serves the Portland Convention Center, the Rose Garden Arena, Portland State University, the Lloyd Center (Portland’s largest mall), Portland International Airport, and one of the most architecturally intriguing Union Stations in the country serving Amtrak’s Cascades, Empire Builder, and Coast Starlight services.  Most of the right of way (track and surrounding bushes, rocks, or concrete structure) is along the highways, with some surface level running and a few tunnels underneath the West Side of the city.  Most trip from downtown take up to a half hour to 45 minutes, though trips on MAX’s longest line, the Blue Line, can take up to an hour due to the distance to either Gresham or Hillsboro.

Portland Streetcar runs along the western edge of Downtown Portland, the northwest corner of Downtown Portland, Portland State University, the Southeast Waterfront, East Portland, and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI).  Fares are paid at ticket machines at certain high-profile stations and on any streetcar vehicle.  Near the wheelchair accessible area of the cars is a onboard ticket machine which dispenses all fare media, all of which can be used on TriMet and Streetcar Lines.  Cars run every 10-15 minutes during most of the day, with service ending around 11PM.  There are two lines, the North-South line and the Central Loop line.  My favorite is the Central Loop for a number of reasons:

  1. Access to East Portland and the Convention Center area with its numerous hotels and motels
  2. access to museums and activities (such as the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation and Oregon Museum of Science and Industry)
  3. Goes across the Broadway Bridge with amazing views of the city up and down the Willamette River

The North-South Line has its nice qualities to it as well, including meandering through trendy and quiet parts of downtown Portland, which reminded me of Greenwich Village in New York or Powell Street in San Francisco, or even Washington Street in Hoboken, NJ.  There is a charm about these neighborhoods with its older row houses and small businesses blended in with a few chain stores and many different species of trees.  The streetcar adds to the charm by allowing for a sense of urbanity yet not taking away from the scenery.

The bus system is not as exciting to me as the rail system, mainly due the the homogeneity of the fleet, mainly 1998-2006 New Flyer-built (Canada) low-floor diesel buses and some brand-new Gillig-built (USA) low-floor diesel and hybrids.  There is a fleet of early 1990s Gillig-built (California) and Flxible-built (Ohio) buses which are on their way out due to age (roughly 15-18 years old) which gave the fleet its only variety in an otherwise uniform fleet.  The routes vary in length and travel through areas which start to look like other areas of the city, with the exception of routes in West Portland and Beaverton due to its steep hills.    The system once carried enough riders on certain lines (like #9 Powell, #12 Sandy, and #20 Burnside) to run longer buses (which they did back in the 1980s until about 1999), but no major enhancements were made due primarily to allocating money towards the expansion of the MAX system.  Nonetheless, bus system is still as much a part of the transit network as the MAX, in fact, most buses are feeders to the MAX lines in areas where MAX service is not feasible.

I do realize that not much was said about the WES line.  It runs from Beaverton to Wilsonville as a peak-hour commuter rail line with no weekend service which runs diesel-propelled cars instead of electric like MAX or the streetcar.  For what it’s worth, it is a very nice line to ride, but for the purposes of taking a ride out and coming back in, unless you coordinate transit back into Portland or ride WES at the beginning of either rush hour, you risk getting stranded out in Wilsonville unless, that is, you bail out at Tigard (pronounced Tiger’d).  With that being the exception, Portland is a transit-oriented (and bicycle-oriented) city with numerous ways to see the sights, take in a museum or two, or to be wowed by the scenery along the river.  With so much available transit around, spend the $5 for a day’s worth of rides and take it all in.  For the transit lover and the urban lover, I would recommend a visit here, or two, especially during the autumn months.

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