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Bikes, cars, trains: What’s the best value for taxpayers?

Posted by on April 11th, 2011 at 1:13 pm

This guest post is by Michael Andersen of Portland Afoot, a “10-minute newsmagazine” and wiki about low-car life in Portland.

How much do various types of transportation projects cost taxpayers? Here’s an imperfect, but startling, hint:

capital spending per new commuter (Portland metro area)

From 1995 to 2010, our state and federal government spent $5,538 per new bike or foot commuter in the Portland metro area; $18,072 per new auto commuter; and $84,790 per new transit commuter.

(We don’t have 1995 commuting data, so this chart is based on new commuters from 1990 to 2009. If you’d rather compare 2000 and 2009, see my spreadsheet — story’s the same.)

“Is it worth spending money on transit? Yes, absolutely. Should we be spending money on bikes? Well, I think the data support it being a good investment.”
— Roger Geller, City of Portland

You’ve heard variations on this theme before, including my post last week about the arguments for and against a political bike-transit alliance. But you probably haven’t seen this particular comparison — it’s a variation on data first gathered by Portland Bicycle Coordinator Roger Geller. While working on last week’s post, I noticed that Geller had compared regional spending to City of Portland commuting trends, so I thought I’d see how things came out if you compared apples to apples: regional spending to regional commuting trends.

As you can see, things don’t come out well for public transit.

What’s more, the commuting data (from the 1990 Census long form and the Census’s 2009 American Community Survey) probably understates bike and pedestrian movement, because the Census asks people who use both bike and transit to list only the vehicle that carried them furthest, and only the one they used most frequently.

“If you only bike to work on days when it’s not raining in Portland … those trips aren’t even captured,” said Kelly Clifton, a researcher at the Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium (OTREC) and professor at PSU who keeps a close eye on local travel trends.

For its part, TriMet argues that commute statistics aren’t the best way to measure a transit system’s success. Unlike other transit agencies, TriMet’s philosophy is to transform the city into a place where cars are less necessary. This means no express buses or commuter rail lines, which are designed for once-a-day commutes from the suburbs to downtown, but lots of frequent service bus and MAX lines, which are designed for getting people to bars, ballgames and church services.

“The objective is not to fill trains with commuters (which represent only a fraction of all trips), but to provide alternatives to the automobile,” TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch wrote Monday.

She’s got a point — when you look at overall transit ridership for a city of our size, TriMet is a top-of-the-chart success.

Still, as our country deals with a long-term decline in public services, it’s clear that TriMet’s successes have been very, very expensive.

Geller, who gathered the spending data, added that transit is, among other things, an important complement to bike transportation.

“If you don’t spend money on transit, then the bicycle is not a legitimate alternative for a lot of trips,” Geller said. “Is it worth spending money on transit? Yes, absolutely. Should we be spending money on bikes? Well, I think the data support it being a good investment.”

— The cover story of Portland Afoot’s April issue is about Portland employers with the best low-car commuting benefits. BikePortland readers in the metro area can subscribe for $10 a year with coupon code “bikeportland.” Email Michael at michael@portlandafoot.org.

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  • AL M April 11, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    Michael, if your gonna compare expense to tax payers, you gotta put in war funding so we can get a real comparison about “our tax dollars at work”.

    Maybe in the little picture, the one you have illustrated, transit looks huge, but in the BIG PICTURE, transit is barely a blip.

    (I’m not sure if I buy the car data, what about gas taxes, registration taxes, license taxes, etc)

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  • 9watts April 11, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    I highly recommend (again) the book The Greening of Urban Transport to anyone interested in these issues. Or any others by Rodney Tolley, for that matter. The books’ gone through several editions, and a newer tome has come along since the 1997 title above. The take away message I got from the book is that biking and walking are far closer substitutes for the spontaneous mobility promised by the car than is mass transit, notwithstanding the fact that for decades many of us have championed mass transit. My one sentence summary does not do justice to the great book(s).

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  • 9watts April 11, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    The more recent (2003) book by Tolley et al. on this subject is Sustainable Transport: Planning for Walking and Cycling in Urban Environments
    The price, alas, puts it out of reach of most of us, but maybe Jonathan can persuade the local library, or Roger Geller, to buy some copies?

    Here’s a link to the table of contents:

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  • AL M April 11, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    When gas hits $5 you can count your bottom dollar that more people will be walking, biking and on transit.

    Transit of course can’t handle any increases cause everything has been cut so your best bet is to get a bike,if possible, with a rain suit to go with it!

    Praise the lord and pass the ammunition!


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    • middle of the road guy April 11, 2011 at 2:32 pm

      Transit can easily handle the increases. The capital investment has already been made – one just needs to add more rail cars or run them more frequently.

      Adding road capacity and bike capacity is a little more fluid and possibly more difficult.

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      • 9watts April 11, 2011 at 2:52 pm

        Unfortunately this is where many of us went off track (so to speak). Transit cannot–let me repeat–cannot pick where cars leave off. They serve completely different purposes, work in different ways, are subject to different limitations of scheduling, peak usage, etc. The point of those expensive books I so like and mentioned above is that if we want to be practical about it we should NOT look to mass transit as a way to coax folks out of cars, as many of us (myself included) have for ever, but rather to bicycles and feet.

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  • middle of the road guy April 11, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    This data is per NEW commuter. transit has likely had the slowest growth in users percentage-wise and therefor has the highest “Per commuter” average.

    Transit, I would argue has the least number of miles of infrastructure as well, driving that average even higher.

    Anytime costs are discussed, the benefits should also be listed to provide context. What have the benefits been from the capital investments of each?

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  • Kyle April 11, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    The cost of automobiles vs. mass transit seems a little disingenuous. Taxpayers end up paying for all infrastructure equally, whereas INDIVIDUALS must pay for their own automobile, gas, rent, and maintenance, compared with simply paying a fare.

    Who cares what the cost to taxpayers is? Public policymakers need to take a more utilitarian approach that considers all costs.

    Of course, bicycling still comes out on top even with individual costs taken into account.

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  • Robert April 11, 2011 at 3:30 pm

    Is this time frame for a spending comparison (1990-2009) really apples to apples? During this time TriMet built transit largely from the ground up, right? Including the additional expense per-mile from building in an already-developed community. In contrast, wouldn’t a fairly high percentage of the auto spending in that period be maintenance and adding a few lanes here and there? Shouldn’t we be comparing historic costs?

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  • 9watts April 11, 2011 at 3:34 pm

    Is this time frame for a spending comparison (1990-2009) really apples to apples? During this time TriMet built transit largely from the ground up, right?

    Um, you’re kidding, right? I’ve been taking Trimet since 1978. For more see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TriMet

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    • Robert April 11, 2011 at 4:26 pm

      Cost-effectiveness of bike/walk aside for the moment, I’m just asking whether the transit-auto comparison deserves a bit more explanation… What percentage of transit capital spending in TriMet’s history occurred in 1990-2009? And didn’t much of that have to do with all-new infrastructure, which also had to be built in an already-urban milieu where new projects are costly? In other words, doesn’t that time frame reflect a relatively high percentage of the total system cost?

      In contrast, does the auto spending in 1990-2009 reflect a smaller percentage of total system cost? If our auto infrastructure had had a majority of its infrastructure built between 1990 and 2009, then wouldn’t that time frame be closer to a fair comparison, and it might look closer to the transit figure?

      I don’t have the answers to these questions, but they would seem to be helpful.

      Also, it bears repeating that comparing capital spending per new commuter is informative but introduces variables such as competition between modes, and the influence of low, subsidized cost of auto travel.

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      • Michael Andersen (Contributor)
        Michael Andersen (Contributor) April 11, 2011 at 5:00 pm

        Robert, I agree that those figures would be helpful. You’re quite right that TriMet spent a ton of money during the 1995-2010 period: Yellow Line, airport line, Green Line, new transit mall. Maybe even parts of the Hillsboro extension and even the unbuilt Orange Line, depending on how Geller’s data was counted.

        Auto improvements, meanwhile, were incremental and heavily supported by local property taxes (not reflected above). And many of the bike improvements were just restriping projects — the perfect study would calculate their real estate value and debit that against the auto infrastructure.

        My main point (the one that prompted Jonathan to suggest this post) is that Geller’s figures, which suggest that transit gives a better return on investment than cars, don’t hold true at the regional level. Out in the burbs, bikes remain cheap, but transit probably doesn’t.

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      • 9watts April 11, 2011 at 5:30 pm

        all points well taken. I guess where we differ is that I think of Trimet as (chiefly) about buses, where the infrastructure is the same roads, pretty much, as for everyone else, and you are focused more on the rail side of Trimet. Insofar as the numbers bear out your questions, I’m with you. Thanks for those great questions.

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    • davemess April 11, 2011 at 5:10 pm

      The link you posted, just furthers Robert’s argument. The majority of MAX infrastructure has been built during the 90-09 timeframe. Just because there was a bus line in 1978 doesn’t mean trimet built a majority of their infrastructure then.
      How much money did Trimet spend on the Tram. And is the street car money included in those figures.

      There have been a TON of transit infrastructure expenses in this city in the last 20 years. Of course the per rider expense is going to be high, but over a long period of time, it should drop, as less has to be built.

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      • Michael Andersen (Contributor)
        Michael Andersen (Contributor) April 11, 2011 at 5:57 pm

        To answer your questions, Dave, TriMet didn’t spend anything on the aerial tram — that was all the city, OHSU and other nearby property owners.

        And yes, these figures include the entire west-side streetcar loop from NW 23rd to the South Waterfront. I should have included that in my list of major projects.

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  • Bjorn April 11, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    It is kind of amazing to me that Tri-Met is continuing to grow even with the fairly drastic cuts to service that have been happening lately…

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  • Atbman April 11, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    AL M
    When gas hits $5 you can count your bottom dollar that more people will be walking, biking and on transit.

    Current UK price is $8/US gal. Some reports say that people are driving more slowly and making fewer trips

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  • kww April 11, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    per new commuter? How about total cost per passenger per mile?

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    • Michael Andersen (Contributor)
      Michael Andersen (Contributor) April 11, 2011 at 5:53 pm

      Good question, kww, but I’d argue that per-commuter figures are better in some ways: passenger-mile data, after all, assumes that longer trips are more valuable. And of course they aren’t — personally, I’d rather have a short commute to my awesome urban home than a long one to my cheap-ass suburban one.

      Also, local, up-to-date passenger-mile data for all travel modes is much harder to come across.

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  • JR April 11, 2011 at 7:55 pm

    I don’t feel like this analysis gives me the full picture. Basically, it suggests that bikes are the best bang for the buck, autos are a close second, and transit is ridiculously overpriced. Let’s think about it.. almost all the auto investments were made prior to 1995 (ie. interstate highway system which was 90% funded by federal dollars and adhered to basically zero environmental mitigation); there was virtually no transit capital investment in the region prior to 1995 other than half the Blue Line; and most of the bike investments have been striping bike lanes on existing roads or adding “bike boulevard” type markings on neighborhood streets.

    While it would be nice to see a true comparison of costs, I think this analysis fails miserably. This analysis raises more questions (about the analysis) than answers (about the policies).

    Let’s consider, just for a moment, that capital investment is not the only factor in transportation policy. What about the allocation of public right-of-way. Bike infrastructure has, for the most part, squeezed (uncomfortably in many cases) within the existing street system. We no longer have enough room to just keep adding transportation facilities to every street, so unless we make some tough decisions, the cost of every “new” commuter accommodated is going to break this simple graph.

    Transit definitely gets the shaft in this analysis undeservedly. Transit capital funding has been put not just in the development of its own right-of-way, but in ped, bike, and auto facilities as well. Even with Interstate MAX, TriMet basically repaved 5 miles of boulevard for autos and bikes, added pedestrians crosswalks, and installed at least 5 miles of new sidewalks. Another example, the new Portland-Milwaukie light rail bridge.. about half of the bridge space is allocated for bikes and pedestrians. Transit, bike, and pedestrian investments have gone hand in hand, mostly at the expense of transit.

    If you’re not going to do an analysis right, don’t do it at all.

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    • Michael Andersen (Contributor)
      Michael Andersen (Contributor) April 11, 2011 at 8:17 pm

      JR, I appreciate the criticism and agree with all the holes you poke in this data.

      First, please keep in mind that this would not be a story if the City of Portland were not already putting out an even less precise version of these numbers and using them as supporting evidence for their preferred narrative.

      I tend to disagree with the assumption in your final point, though: I think incomplete analysis is sometimes worth sharing. Some numbers are so dramatic that broad brushstrokes can be useful — as long as you take them with the right grains of salt.

      (Mixed metaphor penalty flag!)

      Have mass transit improvements been a lot more expensive, on a return-on-investment basis, than bike transit improvements? I think the above figures are too dramatic for any other conclusion.

      For the reasons you point out and others, auto ROI is probably harder to calculate.

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      • JR April 11, 2011 at 10:09 pm

        I still find this quick and (very) dirty analysis grossly misleading on multiple fronts and unfortunately, will probably live a life of its own. This is why researchers are so careful in getting proper peer reviews before going public. You may think that the dramatic difference shown here indicates an inescapable truth, but you’d be surprised how quickly these “cost per unit” numbers change with a thorough, in-depth analysis. This isn’t even a “back-of-the-envelope”.. it’s as if half the envelope got recycled, and the part with the stuff you wanted to report on magically got saved.

        I’m in favor of fully funding the City’s Bike Master Plan, but throwing garbage like this out isn’t the way to do it. Did the City even attempt to get some level of peer review before releasing this?

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        • Michael Andersen (Contributor)
          Michael Andersen (Contributor) April 12, 2011 at 4:53 pm

          JR, I think we disagree that this analysis is worth sharing — I think it is. But I may be wrong, and I respect your criticism. Thanks for sharing your position and for being skeptical about half-baked statistics (even though I’m one of the bakers).

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      • Roger Geller April 12, 2011 at 11:21 am

        Keep in mind that the city did not do a cost per user analysis. The author of this post did. The only infromation provided by the city were the regional expenditures (which were developed for a different purpose) and the American Community Survey data on commute behavior by mode.

        I’ve drawn three conclusions: 1. regionally we are spending very little on bicycle transportation and significantly more on both freight and roadway projects as well as on transit; that is consistent with the nature of each mode. 2. Bicycle transportaiton in the City of Porltand is a significant means of transporation and has made advances in the past 20 years that are similar to other major modes of transportation. 3. If we want to increase the use of the bicycle then we should be investing in more and better bicycle facilities and supporting programs; our experience shows that we can dramatically increase bicycle use with–in transportation terms–small investments.

        Is bicycling a good bargain for the investment? Absolutely, and for many more reasons than just straight mobility.

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        • Michael Andersen (Contributor)
          Michael Andersen (Contributor) April 12, 2011 at 2:17 pm

          Thanks very much for this additional information, Roger. I welcome any skepticism of my post, but I disagree with your saying the city didn’t do a cost per user analysis — it seems to me that this “approximate cost per user” was the clear implication of the data you gathered and presented. Am I missing something?

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    • Roger Geller April 12, 2011 at 11:32 am

      Regarding the source of the $153 million in funding for Active Transportation: that includes both bicycle and pedestrian improvements. At best, we can assume that no more than half of that figure went toward bicycle-specific projects.

      Funding form the following sources contributed to that $153 million total:
      ODOT bicycle and pedestrian enhancement funding
      ODOT ARRA funding
      Westside LRT
      Interstate LRT
      I-2095/mall LRT
      Eastside streetcar
      TriMet ARRA funding
      Metro Regional Flexible Funds
      Metro ARRA
      State trust fund/local bridges fund
      Portland ARRA
      TEA-21 earmarks
      SAFETEA-LU earmarks

      So, incluced in the analysis were any dollars transit or ODOT spent on bicycle and pedestrian improvements as part of larger projects.

      The overall ODOT funding spent regionally on bicycle and pedestrian improvements totaled $47.5 million, TriMet spent $29.8 million, Metro spent $81.4 million (federal dollars), Local agencies spent $18 million and earmarks in the region totaled $6.5 million.

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  • was carless April 11, 2011 at 10:18 pm

    Yeah, I’ve got a problem with the transit numbers.

    Currently, Trimet’s MAX system has 121,000 average weekday riders. The full MAX system, to-date, has cost Oregon taxpayers $600 million (~$3 billion total), for a total of:
    $4,958/rider ($24,793)

    So, in actuality, the MAX system is getting a great bang for its buck. On the flip side, its too bad that we’ve been neglecting our bus system – as the # of transit riders hasn’t really increased over the past decade (while the MAX ridership boomed).

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    • ralph April 12, 2011 at 6:33 am

      Except you are ignoring operating costs.

      And the subsidies to riders.

      And the focus on infrastructure, rail, a fixed mode in terms of where it can go, at the expense of other modes that can be fluid and provide service in new areas as demographics change.

      How many bus lines have had service reduced or been cut altogether because of the focus on rail?

      I’ve got 12 years of non-auto commuting under my belt, in 4 different cities and Portland for all the expenditure, makes it the most difficult.

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      • Jayson April 12, 2011 at 8:58 am

        The analysis doesn’t go into operating costs at all, which I guarantee you would support trimet’s investment in MAX.. Overall, this analysis doesn’t seem to answer anything..

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    • Michael Andersen (Contributor)
      Michael Andersen (Contributor) April 12, 2011 at 2:13 pm

      The problem with this figure is that those aren’t individuals — those are boardings. An Adidas accountant who lives near Gateway, rides the Blue Line to Rose Quarter, changes to Yellow northbound, and rides home that night counts four times toward that 121,000.

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  • k. April 12, 2011 at 8:49 am

    Don’t forget, the real costs of driving; i.e. the car itself, gas, maintenance, parking, etc. aren’t shown here.

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  • cycler April 12, 2011 at 9:02 am

    While I think this is an interesting idea (what the cost of an incremental commuter is is an intriguing concept) I think that there are limits.
    There are a few people who will not realistically get on a bike no matter what the infrastructure looks like people with extreme mobility issues, vision problems, the frail elderly. (I know there are specialized bikes, and many non-frail elderly who ride).
    These people might be much better served by transit- it might even be their only option.

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  • Loren April 12, 2011 at 9:46 am

    I’d like to see our investment protected better. There are police on the freeways but not on the max. Let’s get people acting right and paying up on the max, it only makes sense. When people see the max as a safe and respectable form of transportation, people will use it, and we’ll see a much better return on our investment.

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  • Lenny Anderson April 12, 2011 at 10:34 am

    Its worth noting that the construction of the freeway network in Portland between 1950 and 1980 destroyed or compromised a half dozen neighborhoods and removed thousands of acres from property tax rolls.
    Rail transit construction began around 1980 with the Gresham line and has had a significant role in the redevelopment/restoration of Portland and its many neighborhoods. One might argue that the creation of a trail/bikeway network…Willamette Greenway Trail, Sullivan’s Gulch Trail, etc. has barely begun.

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  • 9watts April 12, 2011 at 10:47 am

    “Rail transit construction began around 1980”
    Let’s not forget that Portland had rail based transit from 1872 to 1958. The infrastructure wasn’t of much use to efforts to revive rail lines in our lifetimes, but for all kinds of reasons it would be good to not lose track of that period.

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  • Barbara April 12, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    What I am missing in this context is the environmental costs of various transit modes. It all seems to come down to ROI for each mode of transportation, or which is cheapest. I’m currently in Germany and they have a totally different discussion: how do we reduce CO2-emissions from the government point-of-view. They have to achieve the Kyoto-protocol limits in a certain time-frame and to get there, transportation infrastructure needs to be changed, so people are willing to change their mode of transportation. People are not better or greener here, they just follow what is easier and cheaper for them. When parking is scarce and expensive and gas costs 8$/gallon the bike or bus looks suddenly really good in comparison.

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  • Paul Johnson April 12, 2011 at 7:28 pm

    I really wish TriMet would back off on it’s “no express service” policies. The 91X Forest Grove Express really complimented the 57 Forest Grove nicely. Both ran the same route using 1981 Crown-Ikarus Model 286 articulated buses, the 91X ran weekday rush-hour peak-direction only and served Forest Grove Transit Center, Portland Mall, and just six stops that were also 57 stops in between. The great thing about this is when the 91X was running, you could hop off it at the last express stop before your destination, wait about 5 minutes or less, and catch the 57 running the local service to the closest stop to your destination. Stops like the 160th Avenue Park & Ride (lot is now closed) served both routes and were extremely popular transfer points for switching to the faster 91X, since you could often pass several 57s if you were lucky enough to grab the 91. The 58 Sunset Highway Express was interesting for two reasons: It had no stops between Goose Hollow in Portland and Evergreen & Shute Parkway in Hillsboro, and was the only express route that didn’t end in X. It also used the articulated buses.

    The worst part about this is TriMet promised they wouldn’t make bus service worse after Westside MAX opened…and then promptly threw away all the articulated buses, gutted express services, split the 57 line into two routes (57 and 58), eliminated Sunset Highway Express, eliminated the TV Highway Express, and reduced frequency to the point where it’s standing-room-only even on the last bus on a Sunday night…and worse during the week: They truly hosed Washington County.

    Briefly the MAX ran limiteds (which would turn around and return at a station well before the end of the line, and ran with red and black ” LIMITED” signs, and every once in a blue moon you’d get a train with a green and black ” EXPRESS” train that served fewer stations, which would pass local trains by having the locals shunted to wait on a pocket track. Not sure what happened to that system, but it was great: If I caught a westbound express at the Zoo, the first stop for that that train would be Beaverton Creek, which was where my bike locker was…

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    • Paul Johnson April 12, 2011 at 7:29 pm

      The vast majority of Portlanders, though, only ever saw the limited and express signs on the rollboards when the train was changing from HILLSBORO to GRESHAM or vice versa, as the red/black and green/black signs rolled past.

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  • Lenny Anderson April 13, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    Running Express buses parallel to MAX lines is a waste of public funds. Suburbs need more density to support more frequent feeder bus lines to MAX.
    Most suburban bus lines cost way more per ride than urban lines; MAX is the lowest cost per ride by far.
    Riding a bike costs the public and the rider virtually nothing…hence its explosive growth.

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    • Paul Johnson April 13, 2011 at 2:32 pm

      I’m not suggesting they run parallel to the MAX that closely. TV Highway and Sunset Highway are the two big corridors out west and are woefully inadequately served by existing services that were barely adequately served by 60 foot buses running 7 minutes 12 hours a day. If you expect the MAX to pick up the slack, add one MAX line down TV Highway and another down Sunset Highway, since that’s where the people are and where the employers are.

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  • Lenny Anderson April 14, 2011 at 8:53 am

    Better to wait for jobs and residents to relocate closer to existing MAX line as fuel prices hit $5/gal., though there has been talk of a Red Line extension to Tanasborne area.
    re the explosion of bikes for transportation, it occurs to me that the real model for this is a “mass movement,” which public policy is chasing and trying to corral.

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