“Reshape the fareless zone to put a greater emphasis on carbon-free circulation; and the best free circulation in the Central City probably ought to be on bikes.”
— Rick Gustafson, former TriMet planner and Director of Operations for Portland Streetcar Inc.
A few weeks back, we shared how momentum is building for the City of Portland to implement their Central City Bike Share plan. Today, I’ll share more from an interview I did with Rick Gustafson for that story.
Gustafson, Director of Operations for the Portland Streetcar Loop project and a well known figure in local politics and transportation for over four decades, is “noodling” (along with transit guru and City Planning Commissioner Chris Smith) on an interesting idea that would revamp transit fares and transportation in the Central City.
Gustafson — who stresses that his ideas about this are his own and are not endorsed by Portland Streetcar Inc. — sees the bike-share plan as a path to revamping transit fares in Portland.
The current Central City Bike Share plan would place kiosks and rental bikes across an area that’s the same as the new streetcar loop, which is being extended to the east side from the Lloyd District south to OMSI. In many ways, bike-sharing is similar to public transit. Successful systems are inexpensive (free if used less than 30 minutes), widely available to everyone, and in most cases at least partly subsidized by the government.
As a senior planner for TriMet back in the 1970s, Gustafson wrote their policy for “Fareless Square” (now known as “Free Rail Zone”). Currently TriMet’s Free Rail Zone only covers downtown Portland and a spur of four stops on the inner east side. When the new Eastside Streetcar Loop opens, the line will be outside of the existing free fare zone. Gustafson feels the current transit fare structure, “doesn’t work effectively for the loop that we’re building.” That’s in part because Portland Streetcar and TriMet have a commitment to have a seamless fare structure.
Why, Gustafson wonders, should people have to pay a fare just because they’re on the east side?
“It’s really just unfair and needs to be changed, and so that starts a domino of other things. You get down to the fact that the fareless square system is really downtown oriented and has not really made a transition to be integrated into the system of how we deal with Central City circulation.”
So, how exactly should the fare system make the transition to the east side? Gustafson points out that expanding Free Rail Zone to an even larger section of the system (to cover the new streetcar loop) wouldn’t make sense in today’s fiscal environment. “It’s not a time for TriMet to reduce revenue,” he says.
Instead, Gustafson thinks perhaps it’s time to scrap Free Rail Zone entirely and replace it with a free bike zone (a.k.a. a bike-share system).
“One of the things you could do is get rid of Free Rail Zone, but replace it with a readily available bike [share] program so people could still circulate for 30 minutes at no cost.” Or, put another way, “Reshape the fareless zone to put a greater emphasis on carbon-free circulation; and the best free circulation in the Central City probably ought to be on bikes.”
For Gustafson, the goal is to seamlessly connect the Central Eastside with downtown Portland and create what he envisions as, “A more equitable Central City loop.”
It would be exciting if bicycles remained central to that vision.
UPDATE, 2:50pm: For some context on Gustafson, commenter Jessica Roberts writes below,
“I’d say this is a long shot except that it’s coming from Rick Gustafson – and if any of you don’t know him, he’s a former GM economist, TriMet planner, Oregon House rep, Metro executive officer, and current president of Portland Streetcar. He’s incredibly smart and well-connected. I’d say this is an idea to watch.”